Fdd's overnight brief

December 13, 2019

In The News


Saudi Arabia is quietly trying to mend fences with Iran and other regional foes as officials in the kingdom have grown more worried about the risks conflict poses to its oil-dependent economy. – Wall Street Journal 

Iran’s security chief Ali Shamkhani has claimed that “85 percent of protesters shot to death in the Tehran County during the mid-November anti-government protest had nothing to do with protest gatherings.” – Radio Farda 

Iran is likely to attack more Western targets in the Middle East soon, and the United States will need to respond, Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Thursday. – Roll Call  

Based on the data provided by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Iran succeeded in obtaining nearly $3.5 billion of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2018, which is almost 30% less than the previous year. – Radio Farda 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The US is cautiously revealing the extent of Iranian threats in Iraq. Over the last week, a series of statements by US officials have indicated the depth of concern in Washington and Baghdad about Iran exploiting tensions in Iraq to fire at US troops. The US withdrew some diplomatic staff earlier this year due to tensions with Iran, but there are thousands of US personnel in Iraq, most of them involved in the anti-ISIS campaign as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. – Jerusalem Post 


The situation in Syria has calmed down following Turkey’s October incursion, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told lawmakers yesterday. […]Additionally, he noted, the United States has resumed counter-ISIS operations with its Syrian Kurdish partners. – Washington Examiner 

Iran has been constructing a new base near Albukamal in Syria, near the Iraqi border, according to satellite images published by Image Sat International over the last several months, which also has shown the bases’ continued expansion. The base is now clearly part of a much larger nexus of Iranian influence across Iraq and Syria that is in the spotlight as Iran moves ballistic missiles to Iraq, and as Iranian-backed militias fire rockets at bases housing US forces. – Jerusalem Post 

Josh Rogin writes: More than three years after it was first introduced, landmark legislation that would provide for U.S. sanctions against the Assad regime, Russia and Iran for past and ongoing war crimes in Syria is on the verge of finally passing in Congress. […]And if the administration were inclined, it could use these new sanctions to also pressure Assad, Russia and Iran to negotiate in good faith toward a political solution that provides basic dignity for the Syrian people. Despite eight years of failed U.S. policy in Syria, standing up against mass atrocities is still both our strategic interest and our moral obligation. – Washington Post


The Senate voted unanimously on Thursday to recognize the Armenian genocide as a matter of American foreign policy, a move that was made over the objections of the Trump administration and that underscored lawmakers’ bipartisan rage at Turkey. – New York Times 

The Turkish government is keen to revive talks with Rolls-Royce for the design and production of its first indigenous fighter jet, the TF-X, a top cabinet minister has said. – Defense News 

Turkey is attempting to stop Israel from laying a natural gas pipeline to Europe, Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported on Thursday. – Algemeiner


The setting was the gilded East Room at the White House as President Trump signed an executive order targeting anti-Semitic harassment on U.S. college campuses. […]But despite the ad-libbed nature of both events, the message the White House wanted to send heading into the 2020 election as it seeks to build support among Jewish conservatives and maintain the strong backing of evangelicals was clear: Trump is using support for Israel as the defining characteristic of fighting anti-Semitism. – Washington Post 

Christians in the Gaza Strip will not be allowed to visit holy cities such as Bethlehem and Jerusalem to celebrate Christmas this year, Israeli authorities said on Thursday. – Reuters 

Amir Tibon and Amos Harel write: At the same time, there was another source of tension over the summer between the U.S. and Israel: The Americans were angry over a series of aerial strikes in Iraq that were attributed to Israel, and that, according to foreign media, targeted mostly militias and convoys supported by Iran. The Americans were concerned that these attacks, which Israel never officially took responsibility for, will lead to acts of revenge carried out against American troops stationed in Iraq. – Haaretz 


Secretary of State Michael Pompeo personally intervened Thursday to order the release of about $115 million in economic aid to Lebanon that had been quietly held up for a month, the latest skirmish over delays that became an issue in the Ukraine impeachment inquiry, four people familiar with the matter said. – Bloomberg 

Lebanese officials protested against a recent threat by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC) to attack Israel from Lebanon, calling the statement a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty, the Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat reported. – Jerusalem Post 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently reported that professionals in Lebanon’s health sector have been warning they might not be able to provide emergency care if the country’s dire economic status continues. – Jerusalem Post


The anti-government protests that have shaken Iraq for months took a brutal turn on Thursday when protesters lynched a 16-year-old boy who had fired a pistol in the air to try to shoo them away from his family’s home. – New York Times 

A suicide bomber blew himself up killing at least seven fighters from an Iraqi paramilitary group near the city of Samarra north of Baghdad on Thursday, the military said in a statement. – Reuters 

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Friday condemned recent killings and kidnappings of protesters, urging the state to assert control over the widespread use of weapons. – Reuters 

Jonathan Spyer writes: So if it has been clear from the start that the Iran-backed militias were almost certainly responsible both for attacks on bases hosting US troops and for the slaughter of demonstrators, what is the reason for the reticence of both Iraqi and (until recently) US officials? The answer is that once the violent activities of a particular party are identified, logic holds that there may need to be a response. But the Iraqi political class is itself either on the side of the Iran-backed militias, or terrified of risking renewed civil war by confronting them. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

A year ago, a cease-fire agreement signed in Stockholm provided a blueprint for what many hoped would lead Yemen out of its devastating war and humanitarian crisis. […]The war pits a coalition of regional Sunni Muslim powers, led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, against Shiite rebels who are aligned with Iran. The U.S.-backed coalition is ostensibly seeking to restore Yemen’s government, which was ousted by the rebels, who are known as Houthis. – Washington Post 

 The ongoing battle for the city has accelerated interventions in Libya by Russia and neighboring countries as they maneuver to shape the future of the OPEC member state. – Bloomberg 

The head of Libya’s eastern-based parliament on Thursday said he disagreed with an accord between Libya and Turkey establishing maritime boundaries which has infuriated Athens. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

North Korea accused the United States of “hostile provocation” on Thursday for criticizing its ballistic missile tests during a United Nations Security Council meeting and warned that the Trump administration may have blown its chance to salvage nuclear negotiations. – Associated Press 

After an unprecedented series of meetings between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, negotiations over eliminating the latter’s nuclear arsenal have stalled. In the meantime, Kim has been busy making his nuclear arsenal bigger, deadlier and better able to strike South Korea, Japan, American forces stationed in Asia — and the U.S. mainland. – Bloomberg 

The U.S. special envoy for North Korea will arrive in South Korea on Sunday ahead of a year-end deadline set by Pyongyang for Washington to soften its approach to stalled denuclearization talks, Seoul said on Friday. – Reuters 


President Trump on Thursday approved a proposed U.S.-China trade deal, raising hopes for a possible truce in a 21-month commercial conflict that roiled financial markets, disrupted corporate supply chains and cost taxpayers tens of billions of dollars. – Washington Post 

 Chinese tech giant Huawei will survive a U.S. trade blockade, its chief executive said, but may need two or three years to overcome the damage the sanction has caused. – Washington Post 

Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi said on Friday that the United States had seriously damaged the hard-won mutual trust between the countries by criticizing Beijing over issues such as Hong Kong and the treatment of Muslim Uighurs. – Reuters 

China is ramping up a global campaign to promote its own vision of human rights, inviting the likes of North Korea and Syria to a forum on the topic and drafting other countries to back its policies at the UN. – Agence France-Presse 

Josh Rogin writes: As the election nears, the pressure on Trump to keep the market up and avoid any crises will only increase. Beijing knows that — and it’s calculating that the U.S. president will have little leverage if China doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain. A bad deal is worse than no deal. That’s why Trump was right when he said last week he likes the idea of waiting until after the election to make a deal with China. – Washington Post  

Andrei Lungu writes: Instead of “pushing out” U.S. troops, China should ask itself how to convince Washington to pull its troops back home. This means refusing to engage in a long-term struggle with the United States and taking necessary steps to improve its image among Americans. The United States will only become stronger if it sees itself as fighting against a global threat to its security and values. The more China tries to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific, the more resistance it will encounter. – Foreign Policy  

Thomas J. Duesterberg writes: Given these realities, serious national attention is needed to find creative ways of protecting vital national security and related privacy interests. […]Additionally, the State Department and the U.S. Trade Representative must work with allies on joint approaches to Chinese misuse of standards and take action at the World Trade Organization when China violates its obligations for using nondiscriminatory standards. Central coordination and leadership from the White House is badly needed to give coherence and vitality to this project. – Forbes 


The U.S. military is allowing its primary supplier of food and water for troops in Afghanistan to continue doing business with the military even though fraud charges against three former executives resulted in a $45 million settlement. […]The settlement highlights how the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, which has stretched for nearly two decades and cost taxpayers at least $1 trillion, has consistently created opportunities for fraud. – Washington Post

The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan said Thursday he was outraged by a Taliban attack near Bagram airfield this week, and “we’re taking a brief pause,” apparently in reference to peace talks that had recently resumed with the militant group. – NBC  

The Pentagon is considering several options to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, including one that would shift to a narrower counterterrorism mission, the top U.S. military officer told Congress on Wednesday. – Associated Press  

After months of deliberation, Congress on Wednesday agreed to a defense bill that allows thousands of Afghans who worked with the American military to immigrate to the United States. – Washington Examiner 

Ryan Crocker writes: Let’s be clear. We came to Afghanistan and remain there now for one essential reason: the United States’ national security. These SIGAR interviews are about what contributes to that end and what doesn’t. I have argued that a better life for people in a misgoverned country is an essential part of that effort. It is also about American values. – Washington Post 


A Vietnamese tanker tracked earlier this year in North Korea was seized by Malaysian authorities last week after it was found anchored without authorization just off the coast of Johor, maritime agency officials said. – Bloomberg  

The president of the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru promised on Friday to always stand beside Taiwan as their hearts are “linked as one”, as he visited Taipei amid a growing tussle for influence in the region between Beijing and Washington. – Reuters 

Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi urged UN judges on Thursday to throw out a genocide case against Myanmar, warning it risked reigniting the crisis that forced nearly three-quarters of a million Rohingya Muslims from their homes. – Agence France-Presse

A partnership between the United States and “like-minded nations” will keep Asian countries secure in the face of competition from a rising China, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet said on Friday. – Reuters 

When China’s top legislature criticized a Hong Kong court’s rejection of a face mask ban there, some global firms began to fear the potential for mainland interference in commercial contracts, lawyers and finance executives said. – Reuters 


The Senate on Thursday confirmed President Trump’s nominee John J. Sullivan to be the next United States ambassador to Russia, succeeding Jon M. Huntsman Jr., who resigned in August after a turbulent tenure characterized by sanctions against Moscow and investigations into the Kremlin’s election interference. – New York Times 

Russia said on Friday it was alarmed after the United States tested a ground-launched ballistic missile that would have been prohibited under the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the RIA news agency reported. – Reuters 

European Union leaders on December 12 decided to prolong economic sanctions against Russia over the ongoing conflict in Ukraine by another six months. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

The US military tested Thursday a conventional missile that was previously banned by the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty that the Trump administration exited earlier this year, citing Russian violations. – CNN  

Leonid Bershidsky writes: The current contract runs out at the end of the year, and Ukraine wants a long-term agreement to replace it while Russia doesn’t want to commit itself. The possibility of a protracted delay to Nord Stream 2 strengthens the Ukrainian position because it makes Russia nervous, and time is running out for the EU-brokered negotiations if supplies of Russian gas to Europe are to continue without interruption. – Bloomberg

Jill Dougherty writes: All of the thousands of missiles the United States produced over decades were designed to annihilate Moscow and other Russian cities, where our colleagues and their families live. And in Russia, thousands of similar missiles were forged to destroy American cities. It was a sobering visit as we all realized that still could happen. – CNN 

Janusz Bugajski writes: Moscow is not seeking a durable peace treaty between its surrogates and the Ukrainian government. It is intent on slicing up Ukrainian land, dividing its society, and fomenting instability. The Kremlin views the Normandy process as a way to further undermine Ukraine by legitimizing the Russo-Donbas entity or sparking widespread public opposition that weakens Zelenskyy. In either scenario, the Ukrainian government would be paralyzed and the country diverted from Western integration. – Center for European Policy Analysis 


Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a sweeping, decisive and powerful majority of parliamentary seats — and a mandate to deliver Brexit — in Thursday’s general election. – Washington Post 

European Union leaders are gathering Friday to discuss Britain’s departure from the bloc amid some relief that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has secured a parliamentary majority that will allow him to push the Brexit divorce deal he negotiated through parliament. – Associated Press   

A meeting between Russian and Ukrainian leaders in France this week aimed at putting an end to violence in eastern Ukraine was a step in the right direction, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said. But Moscow has more work to do. – Bloomberg  

U.S. President Donald Trump congratulated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the latter’s election win and said that Britain and the United States will now be free to strike a ‘massive’ new trade deal after Brexit. – Reuters 

German network provider Telefonica Deutschland has chosen Huawei to help build its next generation 5G network, ignoring pleas from the Trump administration to block the Chinese telecom company from expanding its reach. – NPR 

Leon Aron and Lance Kokonos write: Yet perhaps the tallest obstacle to a just, fair, and lasting peace in Ukraine is that Mr. Putin cannot abide a stable, prosperous, democratic and West-oriented Ukraine. Russians would do well to ask: If Ukrainians (whom Russians consider “fraternal,” if lesser, Russians) can live well in a law-abiding and truly European state, why can’t we? Mr. Putin’s regime might not survive millions of Russians asking that question. – New York Times 


Islamic State (ISIS)-linked militants claimed responsibility for an attack on a military installation in western Niger near the border of Mali on Wednesday, which killed at least 71 people and left 12 injured. – Fox News  

The United States on Thursday threatened visa restrictions on anyone who attempts to damage the peace process in South Sudan as Washington upped its pressure on the war-torn country to form a unity government and reevaluates its relationship with the African nation. – Reuters  

South Africa recorded less foreign direct investment in the third quarter compared with the second quarter, but portfolio investment jumped after the government issued international bonds, central bank data showed on Friday. – Reuters 

The Americas

The United States imposed sanctions on another son of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Rafael, on Thursday, accusing him of money laundering and corruption, in the latest effort by Washington to put pressure on the leftist government. – Reuters 

U.S. asylum seekers sent to Guatemala under a new Trump administration program have mostly preferred to return to their country of origin instead of staying in the Central American nation, Guatemala’s Interior Minister said on Thursday. – Reuters 

A Salvadoran man seeking asylum in the United States was kidnapped and murdered in the Mexican border city of Tijuana where he was sent to wait for his asylum court hearing under a migrant protection program instated by President Donald Trump. – Reuters 

Geovanny Vicente Romero writes: Several agreements recently signed between El Salvador and China may alter the pace of El Salvador’s growing cooperation with the United States. […]The world’s biggest block of support for Taiwan is in Central America and the Caribbean. China, however, is actively courting the region with lucrative infrastructure projects and the promise of investments, trade, and tourism. So far, Panama, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic have all ratified diplomatic ties with China and downgraded their partnerships with Taiwan. – Washington Examiner 


Congress wants the Air Force to consider transferring some funding allocated for light attack planes to U.S. Special Operations Command — a provision that could allow the service to quietly quash its light attack efforts and allow SOCOM to step in to run a program of record. – Defense News  

A compromise defense policy bill released Dec. 9 makes some progress toward unifying military space acquisitions, but ultimately delays big decisions on creating one authority to oversee every aspect of purchasing military satellites and their related terminals and ground stations. – C4ISRNET  

The U.S. Army’s major missile defense command system, which has been in development for years and experienced lengthy delays, successfully completed a complex test Dec. 12 against two cruise missiles, marking the last hurdle to get the system ready for its operational test next year. – Defense News  

Two senators unveiled bipartisan legislation on Thursday that would give the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) cyber agency the ability to subpoena internet service providers to increase transparency about cyber vulnerabilities. – The Hill   

U.S. Air Mobility Command is excited to work with the Space Force, the new, sixth armed service poised for approval by Congress, the command’s No. 2 officer said Tuesday. But AMC won’t operate from space any time soon. – Defense News  

Congress wants a detailed assessment from the Pentagon on whether to expand military presence in the Baltic states and what is needed to do so, according to the recently released conference report for the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill. – Defense News  

Dr. Hunter Hustus writes: The Air Force should develop concepts of operations using allied fighters to provide the capacity needed to win the fight. However, effective combat power and associated deterrent effect require more than concepts. The Air Force should also establish a training program and exercise regime to prepare allies and partners to fill capability gaps. Such an approach could obviate the need for F-15EX and provide a bridge to a time when the F-35 fleet is prepared to handle the task alone. – War on the Rocks