Fdd's overnight brief

August 16, 2019

In The News


Gibraltar released an Iranian tanker that the British overseas territory impounded in July, opening the way for Tehran to free a British-flagged vessel it subsequently seized and help ease tensions in the Persian Gulf. – Wall Street Journal

Iran’s top diplomat said a US attempt at “piracy” had failed after a Gibraltar court on Thursday ordered the release of a tanker carrying Iranian oil despite a US detention request. – Agence FrancePresse

Fourteen workers of the Haft Tapeh Sugarcane Industrial complex in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan, southwest Iran, stood trial on Wednesday, August 14, reports say. – Radio Farda

The United States says the crew of an Iranian supertanker whose departure from Gibraltar Washington apparently was unable to block could be subject to a U.S. visa ban. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

US Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer recently sailed through the Strait of Hormuz with an armored vehicle strapped to the flight deck, ready to fight off drones and Iranian gunboats. – Business Insider

Julian Lee writes: So the race is on. Can the crew of the Grace 1 get back to the ship, haul up the anchors, and leave Gibraltar’s shores quickly enough to avoid being arrested again, for something other than sailing to Syria? Or will the government of Gibraltar, backed up by the U.K., allow them to do so at their leisure by standing firm to uphold European, rather than U.S., sanctions policies? – Bloomberg


Syrian forces gained more ground from insurgents in the country’s northwest on Thursday, edging closer to a major rebel-held town a day after militants shot down a government warplane in the area. – Associated Press

Syrian air defences identified a missile that was fired towards the city of Masyaf near Hama late on Thursday and destroyed it before it hit its target, a Syrian military source said. – Reuters

Josh Rogin writes: In addition to repatriating family members, the international community must address how to keep the hardcore fighters locked up and come up with a prison system that doesn’t depend on the SDF alone. The United States must immediately increase security at the prisons and the camps. There must be some effort to deradicalize the children who can be saved. If all this isn’t done soon, the entire U.S. strategy to ensure the enduring defeat of the Islamic State will be rendered meaningless. – Washington Post


Israel on Thursday barred U.S. congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from entering the country amid pressure from President Trump, who said allowing them in “would show great weakness.” – Wall Street Journal

Hamas official Basem Naim attacked Israel as an apartheid state after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Democratic Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib were banned from the country. – Washington Examiner

Two Palestinian youths attacked Israeli police with knives in Jerusalem’s Old City on Thursday before being shot by officers, leaving one of the assailants dead, officials said. – Agence FrancePresse

President Donald Trump is defending Israel’s decision to bar two Democratic members of Congress from visiting the country, even as he claims he didn’t “encourage or discourage” the move. – Associated Press

US Representative Rashida Tlaib has sent a letter to Israel Interior Minister Aryeh Deri requesting permission for a visit to Israel on humanitarian grounds. – Jerusalem Post

One of the architects of the IDF’s Operation Northern Shield which located and destroyed Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels was reprimanded by IDF Chief Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi after he crossed into Lebanon via one of the tunnels without informing his superiors. – Jerusalem Post

The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard said Wednesday that the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group had sharpened its military capabilities fighting in Syria and was now strong enough to “wipe the Zionist regime off the map” on its own. – Times of Israel

Democratic and Republican House members are pushing back against Israeli criticism of a recent bipartisan resolution that included support for a two-state solution. – Jewish Insider

Eli Lake writes: Yet Trump’s message — that it showed strength for Israel to ban Omar and Tlaib — is contradicted by the events it set in motion. By reversing its decision following the protests of a powerful friend, Israel looks weak.- Bloomberg

Zev Chafets writes: That big Likud banner portraying Netanyahu with Trump is the prime minister’s most compelling argument for re-election. Resistance to Trump’s diktat could put Netanyahu one tweet away from losing his job. The two leaders are still on good terms, but, from now on, nobody is likely to mistake Netanyahu for the senior partner. – Bloomberg

Shimrit Meir writes: Abbas is hemorrhaging Palestinian national assets: The Gaza Strip, which means half the population; U.S. political and financial support; international media attention; and finally, the unconditional support of Arab nations, which is now in a thing of the past. […]Abbas has been left with just a leadership role and his principles. At least for now. – Ynet

Michael Rubin writes: Better than a ban would have been a debate. If Omar and Tlaib sought to transform an unofficial visit into something more, perhaps someone like Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. should have challenged them to air and debate their grievances to a broad audience and on television. If Omar and Tlaib are true guardians of a cause, they should not be afraid to wage intellectual battle rather than Twitter wars. – Washington Examiner

Arabian Peninsula

Israel and the United Arab Emirates held secret meetings arranged by the U.S. in recent months to share information and coordinate efforts to counter what they see as the increasing threat posed by Iran, according to U.S. officials familiar with the clandestine diplomacy. – Wall Street Journal

A joint Saudi-Emirati military delegation travelled to Aden on Thursday to discuss demands for a pullout of UAE-backed southern separatists from positions they captured in Yemen’s interim capital, government and separatist sources said. – Agence FrancePresse

Thousands of Yemenis rallied Thursday in the port city of Aden in support of southern separatists who seized the city from the country’s internationally recognized government amid diplomatic efforts aimed at reinstating forces loyal to the Saudi-backed president. – Associated Press


Incessant attacks on health facilities and medical workers in a brutal battle for control of Tripoli could amount to war crimes, the United Nation’s top envoy to Libya said Thursday in a strong condemnation. – Washington Post

More than 37 attacks have been reported against health workers, health facilities and ambulances in Libya since the self-styled Libyan National Army led by Khalifa Hifter launched an offensive in early April to capture the capital of Tripoli, the United Nations said Thursday. – Associated Press

Missiles hit the only functioning airport in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Thursday, killing one worker, the airport said. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

Iraq on Thursday banned unauthorized flights and ordered all military camps and munitions warehouses to be moved outside Iraqi cities following a massive explosion at a munitions depot southwest of Baghdad that killed one civilian and wounded 13 earlier this week. – Associated Press

Saad Hariri was cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a maritime deal with Israel and said that Lebanon is ready “to move from cessation of hostilities to a ceasefire” with the Israelis under a UN mechanism. – The National

Jeffrey W. Hornung writes: Against a backdrop of rising tensions between the United States and Iran, the U.S. began signaling its desire to create a coalition to ensure freedom of navigation in the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab al-Mandab. […]Abe will need to balance Japan’s relations with its U.S. ally and Iran while considering the demands of his electorate. – The HIll

Steven A. Cook writes: In the ensuing tizzy, U.S. policymakers looked for ways to prevent the Turks from doing something that they likely were not going to anyway. That came in the form of a three-point agreement that calls for the United States “to address Turkey’s security concerns,” stand up a joint operations center in Turkey’s southeast, and establish a safe zone in northern Syria. The likely effect of this agreement will be to draw the United States further into Syria and in the process render Washington responsible for Turkey’s security. These are commitments that the Turks have been seeking for some time. – Foreign Policy

Korean Peninsula

North Korea launched two projectiles yet again off its east coast on Friday, as South Korean analysts said President Trump’s repeated downplaying of the North’s weapons tests had given it a free hand to conduct them. – New York Times

Chinese and Russian warplanes have increasingly nosed around and veered into South Korea’s airspace, conducting close patrols that allow Beijing and Moscow to test the air defenses of the U.S. and its allies in the region. – Wall Street Journal

North Korea fired two unidentified projectiles into the sea on Friday and launched a scathing attack on “foolish” calls for dialogue from South Korean President Moon Jae-in, rejecting further peace talks with the South. – Agence FrancePresse

North Korea on Friday bluntly criticized South Korean President Moon Jae-in for continuing to hold military exercises with the U.S. and over his rosy comments on inter-Korean diplomacy, and said Pyongyang has no current plans to talk with Seoul. – Associated Press

South Korea’s government held an emergency national security meeting Thursday after North Korea conducted another apparent round of weapons tests. – USA Today


The Trump administration is moving ahead with for an $8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan despite strong objections from China, a U.S. official and others familiar with the deal said Thursday. – Washington Post

China renewed its vow to retaliate against U.S. tariffs set to be imposed in coming weeks, despite President Trump’s decision to delay implementing some of the levies, but expressed hope the two countries would reach a resolution to the trade war. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday that U.S. and Chinese negotiators were holding “productive” trade talks and expected them to meet in September despite U.S. tariffs on over $125 billion (£103.2 billion) worth of Chinese imports taking effect Sept 1. – Reuters

Beijing hit back at the U.S. for adding China’s largest state-owned nuclear company to a blacklist, which essentially bars all American firms from selling products to the firm. – CNBC

The World Trade Organisation (WTO) on Thursday adopted final findings against U.S. duties imposed on a range of Chinese imports, effectively giving Beijing a green light to seek compensatory sanctions. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: China claims that Huawei is a private entity that would never act in fulfillment of the Chinese intelligence services. But while this is a lie proven by investigations into Huawei software, the Global Times video proves the broader point: you cannot trust a major Chinese entity to act separate from the Chinese state. While this synergy is ultimately a function of the Chinese Communist Party’s essence, it has been reinforced by Xi Jinping’s centralizing authoritarianism. – Washington Examiner


The top American commander in Afghanistan sought to reassure Afghan forces on Thursday that they still had the full backing of the United States, after a report that the support was being dialed back in preparation for an imminent peace deal with the Taliban. – New York Times

With Taliban-U.S. peace talks failing to reach a hoped-for breakthrough this week, and the insurgents threatening to attack Afghan presidential elections next month, Afghans fear that one or both efforts will fail, leaving the country in political limbo. – Washington Post

The United States ambassador to Afghanistan on Thursday openly questioned the Afghan government’s commitment to fighting corruption after reports that a key figure in a massive banking scandal received an early prison release in return for a large campaign donation. – Associated Press

A deal between the Taliban and the United States for U.S. forces to withdraw from their longest-ever war in Afghanistan could drive some diehard Taliban fighters into the arms of the Islamic State militant group, Afghan officials and militants say. – Reuters

South Asia

Myanmar and Bangladesh are making a second attempt to start repatriating Rohingya Muslims after more than 700,000 of them fled a security crackdown in Myanmar almost two years ago, the U.N. refugee agency said Friday. – Associated Press

The U.N. Security Council is due to meet behind closed-doors on Friday at the request of China and Pakistan to discuss India’s decision to revoke the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, diplomats said. – Reuters

Pakistan said on Thursday three of its soldiers were killed in a cross-border exchange of fire in the contested Kashmir region, but India denied that five of its troops died too. – Reuters


President Trump urged Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday to meet with Hong Kong protesters, arguing such a move would help end the crisis roiling the region. – Wall Street Journal

In recent days, thousands of young paramilitary police have moved into a sports stadium in a residential district of this southern Chinese border city—a show of force to a restive Hong Kong less than five miles away. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese border officers have begun routinely searching the phones of people who enter mainland China from Hong Kong, raising concerns that Beijing is trying to identify travelers sympathetic to the territory’s protest movement and further control what its people see about the unrest. – New York Times

The Philippines have begun to push back against the strong and sustained presence of Beijing’s paramilitary ships in the South China Sea, calling the deployment of Chinese militia ships in huge numbers a threat. – USNI News

Marc A. Thiessen writes: Trump should make clear that the cost of military intervention will be capital flight, brain drain and the end of Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, as well as any hopes of a trade deal. China would face massive tariffs and international sanctions that could send its economy into full contraction — which could cause instability and protests on the mainland. A military operation, even if it succeeded, would be Pyrrhic victory. – Washington Post

Joseph C. Sternberg writes: Hong Kong’s protests could yet turn tragic if Mr. Xi sends in China’s tanks despite all the warnings that doing so would hurt both his own global standing and China’s economy. But even if they don’t ultimately succeed, Hong Kongers have reminded the world of two important facts. One is that freedom still tugs at the hearts of millions of ordinary people. The other is that despite the convictions of bien-pensant business leaders, China-infatuated authors and populist-fearing politicians, sometimes the crowd really does know better what’s in its own economic interest. – Wall Street Journal

David Ignatius writes: The State Department seemed to get it about right in its statement this week: “We condemn violence and urge all sides to exercise restraint, but remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong.” Keeping faith with people who nobly aspire to freedom isn’t a spasm of support but a long game that plays out over decades. This is the restrained but steadfast approach that ultimately won the Cold War, and it’s a commitment China will test at its peril. – Washington Post


In the release, which was put out in response to a report that Mr. Byrne had been involved in the federal inquiry into the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Byrne said that he had been helping law enforcement agents, whom he referred to as “Men in Black,” with their “Clinton Investigation” and “Russia Investigation.” – New York Times

An asset management firm in Russia removed a billboard featuring a depiction of a haredi Jew extending one hand and the words: “Goodbye rent!” In St. Petersburg, the boards installed earlier this month by the Novoselye firm, which offers mortgage plans and housing packages, had prompted allegations of antisemitism. – Jerusalem Post

Plans for construction of a pipeline across the Caspian have been on the drawing board for about a quarter of a century and, for most of that time, Moscow and Tehran have demonstrated they were not going to support the project. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

U.S. intelligence and some independent experts have attributed a deadly radioactive explosion in Russia’s Far North on August 8 to a failed test of a nuclear-propelled cruise missile capable of flying at hypersonic speeds. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Gregg Herken writes: Of course, flying nuclear reactors and giant nuclear-armed undersea drones could do a lot of damage to U.S. cities if they really existed and were ever used. But the real danger of Putin’s Potemkin arsenal is that it will — as Khrushchev’s boast did decades ago — spark a U.S. overreaction and lead to pressure to revive ideas like Livermore’s Pluto and Sakharov’s Poseidon: forgotten relics of Cold War 1.0 that are best left dead and buried. – Washington Post

Adam Minter writes: Worse, deploying floating reactors in a disputed zone such as the South China Sea will make them a target in the event of conflict. Such concerns won’t stop China or Russia from sending mobile reactors to waters that they claim as their own. […]There’s no reason the treaty, which applies only to land-based reactors, couldn’t be amended to include offshore facilities, too. At a minimum, that would create a safety baseline for this new technology and ensure that the community of nuclear nations has some oversight over how it’s deployed. – Bloomberg

Stephen Blank writes: These and other enduring pathologies of Russian governance ensure that Russia will long see itself at war with the West if not the world, and that its paranoia about outsiders derives from its awareness of the regime’s own domestic illegitimacy. Given the growing domestic unrest in Putin’s Russia, this witches brew could, over time, revive another Russian tradition — mass popular unrest.  – The Hill


President Trump made his name on the world’s most famous island. Now he wants to buy the world’s biggest. The idea of the U.S. purchasing Greenland has captured the former real-estate developer’s imagination, according to people familiar with the discussions, who said Mr. Trump has, with varying degrees of seriousness, repeatedly expressed interest in buying the ice-covered autonomous Danish territory between the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans. – Wall Street Journal

A second police officer has been confirmed as a victim of the nerve-agent attack that nearly killed a Russian former spy and his daughter in England last year, the police said on Thursday, bringing the number of those known to have been sickened in the episode to six. – New York Times

Berlin police are investigating an attack on a rabbi, the second in as many weeks in the German capital. – Associated Press

Germany’s government expects Britain to crash out of the European Union on Oct. 31 without a deal in place on their future relations, the Handelsblatt business daily reported on Thursday, citing a finance ministry document. – Reuters

President Donald Trump said on Thursday the United States and Britain were moving rapidly towards a deal on trade that would be “fantastic and big.” – Reuters

Yson Barker and Daniel P. Vajdich write: The U.S. and UK together have the leverage to hit back at the Kremlin for its increasingly dangerous behavior. And given the concentration of Russian oligarchic families in London and their attachment to that city, the UK in particular possesses the power to undercut the critical relationship between Putin and his cronies.  – The Hill

Latin America

President Jair Bolsonaro took aim at Germany and Norway after they cut donations for Brazilian forestry projects in criticism of his policies, with the far-right leader saying they should focus on their own environmental problems. – Associated Press

Russia’s defense minister has hosted his Venezuelan counterpart to discuss military ties between the two countries. – Associated Press

Russia and Venezuela signed an agreement on Thursday governing visits by the countries’ warships to each other’s ports, the Interfax news agency reported. – Reuters


Instagram on Thursday added a way for users to easily report deceptive posts at the photo and video-oriented social network owned by Facebook. – Agence FrancePresse

Congressman David Cicilline will be the first U.S. lawmaker to join an extraordinary collection of global officials investigating the spread of disinformation and “fake news” on social media. – CBS News

Facebook (FB.O) users suing the world’s largest social media network over a 2018 data breach say it failed to warn them about risks tied to its single sign-on tool, even though it protected its employees, a court filing on Thursday showed. – Reuters

Facebook says it’s getting more aggressive in its fight on harmful content in groups. In two blog posts on Wednesday, the social network explained how it is simplifying group privacy settings and giving moderators tools to scan rule-breaking posts. – Business Insider

The secretaries of state for Connecticut and Louisiana on Thursday called on Congress to appropriate more funding to boost election security heading into 2020. – The Hill

Democratic 2020 presidential campaigns say they are working to boost their cybersecurity, but experts worry those efforts may not be enough. – The Hill

The Defense Information Systems Agency launched a new secure file sharing site Aug. 15 as part of an effort to replace a popular tool run by the Army that had far exceeded what its creators had intended and become the go-to site for sending large files. – Fifth Domain


Former Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Maguire will take over as acting director of national intelligence (DNI) when Dan Coats steps down Thursday, thrusting him atop an intelligence community undergoing a broad shake-up in senior leadership. – The Hill

But a new report from Congress’ watchdog agency, the Government Accountability Office, found that the units are significantly understaffed and the service does not yet know how these units will be staffed, trained or equipped, which could deter them from completing a mission. – Fifth Domain

Justin Lynch writes: One commonly made assumption is that the United States has for decades enjoyed conventional military dominance, the ability to defeat any other actor in a conventional fight. The assumption of historic military dominance, often understood as fact, is almost entirely unsupported by meaningful evidence. […]If the common narrative proves to be unsupported, it will change America’s strategic variables. – War on the Rocks

Long War

Breaking a long silence about a high-profile National Security Agency program that sifts records of Americans’ telephone calls and text messages in search of terrorists, the Trump administration on Thursday acknowledged for the first time that the system has been indefinitely shut down — but asked Congress to extend its legal basis anyway. – New York Times

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday proposed a new state law to specifically penalize domestic terrorism, a response to recent mass shootings and what the Democratic governor said was inaction on the part of federal officials. – Wall Street Journal

The recent airlifts, which took place only after months of negotiation and vetting of the children, illustrate how resistant Western countries still are. On those flights in June, France and Belgium received only children whose extremist parents were dead; most are orphans, and some were taken to ISIS lands by their fathers, who were killed there, while their mothers remained in Europe. – New York Times

Swedish prosecutors say a man arrested in northern Sweden who initially was suspected of planning a murder is now suspected of conspiracy to commit terrorism. – Associated Press

The trial of the man accused of killing 51 people at two New Zealand mosques could be delayed by several weeks to avoid clashing with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. […]The 28-year-old Australian white supremacist has been charged with terrorism, murder and attempted murder. – Associated Press

Trump Administration

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday subpoenaed two former Trump associates who the panel’s Democratic chairman said were involved in President Trump’s effort to impede special counsel Robert Mueller ’s investigation. […]The House is seeking their testimony as part of its investigation into whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice by attempting to interfere in Mr. Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. – Wall Street Journal

The trial of President Obama’s former White House counsel opened on Thursday, promising to shed new light on the inner workings of Washington lawyers, public relations firms and journalists. In opening statements, prosecutors accused Gregory Craig—a veteran Democratic attorney who has served in two presidential administrations—of misleading a unit of the Justice Department responsible for enforcing the laws about foreign government representation. – Wall Street Journal

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) subpoenaed former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and former White House official Rick Dearborn on Thursday[…]. Nadler said he is seeking the public testimony on Sept. 17 from two individuals who were “prominently” involved in President Trump’s attempts to persuade then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to reverse his recusal from overseeing the Russia probe. – The Hill