Fdd's overnight brief

December 17, 2019

In The News


An American graduate student from Princeton University who had been imprisoned for three and a half years in Iran called on Monday for all nations to free their political prisoners. – New York Times

President Hassan Rouhani will visit Japan later this week in the first trip to the country by an Iranian head of state for two decades, official news agency IRNA reported Monday. – Agence France-Presse

Iran’s threat to British shipping in the Gulf “hasn’t gone away”, the head of the Royal Navy has told the BBC. – BBC

Prominent Iranian artists, inside and outside the country, have reacted to the brutal crackdown of recent protests in Iran. – The Independent

After a dozen years as speaker of Iran’s parliament, half of them allied with President Hassan Rouhani as he reached out to the West, Ali Larijani is bowing out. – Bloomberg

Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied that secret negotiations are taking place with Saudi Arabia as rumors mounted that the Islamic republic and the kingdom have both sought to reduce tensions over recent months. – Jerusalem Post

Eric R. Mandel writes: Naysayers will argue this is a dangerous play that will drag America into another war in the Middle East. Perhaps, but they are blind to the dangers of the JCPOA that they support — it’s a pathway for Iran to develop its nuclear program in the near future. No matter where you stand, now is the time to begin discussions about how to handle Iran’s nuclear destiny, not when Israel has decided to act. – The Hill

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps naval commander Admiral Alireza Tangsiri said the Persian Gulf belongs to Iran, saying that Iran has “the right to question any vessels entering the Straits of Hormuz and Iranian territorial waters.” – Jerusalem Post


A provision known as the Caesar Act — named for the photographer, code-named Caesar — is included in a giant must-pass military policy bill that the Senate is expected to pass on Tuesday, which would clear the way for an expected signature from President Trump. – New York Times

The Arab Spring gave way to bloodletting in Syria, a refugee exodus and surging jihadist violence. Obama gave way to Trump. The United Kingdom chose to Brexit. And for many around the world, while the 2010s began with hope for a more equitable world, they end with a slide towards nationalistic populism. – Agence France-Presse

The United Nations has no choice but to keep shipping humanitarian aid across Syria’s borders and civil war front lines, according to a report by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, which ran into contrary views from Russia. – Agence France-Presse

Syria’s parliament has approved contracts for oil exploration with two Russian companies in an effort to boost production hit by more than eight years of war and Western sanctions. – Reuters

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused U.S. forces of stealing the country’s oil and working with terrorists to maintain their positions there, as he tries to restore his authoritarian rule over the war-torn nation. – Newsweek

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, revealed he is in talks with China to join its Belt and Road Initiative, as he looks for funding to rebuild Syria and Beijing looks to extend its influence in the region. – The Telegraph

Ali Demirdas writes: The recent American withdrawal from northeast Syria and the subsequent Russian spillover into the region have reinforced the notion that Putin is “the new Sheriff in Syria.” He appears stronger than ever. Unfortunately, having stretched thin in its great power aspirations, Russia may have reached its limits in Syria. Thus, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops may usher in an era of endless Russian wars. – The National Interest


U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday that he needed to speak with his Turkish counterpart to understand how serious President Tayyip Erdogan was when he said he could shut down the Incirlik air base, which hosts U.S. nuclear warheads. – Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that lawmakers in his country may recognize the deaths of Native Americans as a genocide after Congress rebuffed Turkey and voted to acknowledge and condemn the Armenian genocide. – Washington Examiner

The Turkish lira slid to its weakest level in almost two months on speculation Turkey was headed for a fresh spat with the U.S. – Bloomberg

Michael Rubin writes: If the White House is serious about religious freedom, the return of 3,000 Yazidis girls and women from de facto Turkish enslavement should be top priority. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should instruct both the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and the U.S. consul-general in Erbil to investigate the reports of Yazidi survival rather than figuratively shrugging their shoulders. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees might exercise their oversight to press the CIA on their knowledge and understanding of continuing post-ISIS sex and human trafficking. – Washington Examiner


An upswell in Lebanon’s protests has paralyzed the search for a new prime minister, as political gridlock deepens the country’s economic crisis. – Wall Street Journal

Lebanese troops lobbed tear gas on Tuesday to disperse supporters of Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal who tried to storm a square in Beirut in response to a video that purportedly offended Shi’ite figures, witnesses and media reports said. – Reuters

On December 2, 2019, the Lebanese Al-Modon online daily, known for its opposition to Hizbullah, published an article about the close connection which it claims Hizbullah has established with Lebanese money-changers, so as to evade American sanctions. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Gulf States

Saudi Aramco, the world’s biggest oil company, ended trading on Monday with a market value of over $2 trillion, a worth that had eluded it when it took its shares public. – New York Times

Qatar’s foreign minister said recent talks had broken a protracted stalemate with Saudi Arabia and that Doha would study demands by its Gulf rivals but not turn its back on ally Turkey. – Associated Press

Police in Dubai have arrested the suspected head of a cocaine trafficking gang described as the most wanted man in the Netherlands. – The Guardian


U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday he spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi amid a spate of attacks on bases housing U.S. forces in Iraq and called on Baghdad to take steps to get the situation under control. – Reuters

Baghdad cautioned Monday against “an escalation” after a flurry of attacks on US interests in Iraq prompted Washington to warn of a “decisive” response against Iran. – Agence France-Presse

Sinan Antoon writes: The regime’s brutal suppression and killing of peaceful protesters fueled Iraqis’ anger, widening and intensifying the protests and strikes across Iraq. It also radicalized the tone and demands of protesters who have been calling for an overhaul of the entire system, rather than cosmetic change. The resignation of Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi on Nov. 29 did nothing to quiet the protesters. And the regime’s violence continues unabated. – New York Times

Middle East & North Africa

This year, the Israeli orchestra opened the Andalussyat Festival on December 4, but the performance took place amid tremendous pressure to cancel and threats to boycott the festival from local BDS activists opposed to normalized relations between Israel and Morocco. – Times of Israel

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back Monday against congressional Democrats who demanded that the Trump administration retract its declaration last month that it views Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria as legal under international law. – Arutz Sheva

David Pollock and Shaina Katz write: The government of Jordan has been adept at balancing domestic demands and international pressures in order to remain a moderate force in the Middle East and will need to continue to take steps to ensure this delicate balance. Right now, despite continued popular concern over economic hardships, the main Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement garners support from just one-fifth (19 percent) of the Jordanian public. – Washington Institute

Gönül Tol and David Dumke write: The rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey in the early 2000s under now-President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ushered in a new era in Ankara’s Middle East policy — one that was dramatically reshaped by the Arab uprisings of 2010-12 and their aftermath. Early hopes for a positive transformation gave way to violence, civil wars, and failed states. The uprisings not only transformed the internal dynamics of regional states, but they also led to a new regional order, with powers such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia playing a greater role. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

South Koreans overwhelmingly reject the Trump administration’s calls to pay more money for U.S. troops stationed in the country, according to a survey released Monday, with 4 percent of respondents saying that Seoul should meet the U.S. demands and a quarter suggesting it refuse to pay rather than negotiate. – Washington Post

With little more than an internet connection, a laptop and a cellphone, Chan Han Choi, a soft-spoken janitor in his early 60s, allegedly played a central role in a plot to help North Korea sell missile parts and coal on the black market. – Wall Street Journal

China and Russia are calling on the U.N. Security Council to terminate sanctions on key North Korean exports such as coal, iron, iron ore and textiles, “with the intent of enhancing the livelihood of the civilian population.” – Associated Press

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are back to square one, using the same personal insults and existential threats that launched their official communications two years ago. – The Hill

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday North Korea would likely carry out unspecified tests if they “don’t feel satisfied,” amid fears the two countries could return to the collision course they had been on before launching diplomacy. – Reuters

President Donald Trump on Monday said he would be disappointed if something is “in the works” in North Korea and the United States is watching activities in the Asian nation closely. – Reuters


The Chinese government denounced on Monday the United States’ secret expulsion this fall of two Chinese diplomats suspected of espionage, and asked for a reversal of the action. The expulsions appeared to be the first of Chinese diplomats suspected of spying in more than three decades. – New York Times

China is prioritizing its diplomatic relations with Europe, a top Chinese foreign policy official said, highlighting Beijing’s efforts to become less dependent on the United States following months of trade tensions. – Reuters

China has protested against Malaysia filing a submissihere with the United Nations last week seeking to establish the limits of Malaysia’s continental shelf in the northern part of the disputed South China Sea, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday. – Reuters

Vietnam said it hoped China would show restraint in the South China Sea next year after a Chinese oil survey vessel and its escorts spent months within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone in what Hanoi called a blatant violation of its sovereignty. – Reuters

China may not fulfill its obligations under the so-called “phase one” trade deal touted by President Trump, according to officials and analysts. – Washington Examiner

A new report from the Defense Department’s JASON research group says U.S. scientific research can be threatened when Chinese nationals who come to the United States for post-graduate degrees in science and technology return home and are pressed to cooperate with China’s intelligence and security services. – Defense One

Editorial: In reality, China has corralled more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims into concentration camps in Xinjiang in order to wipe out their language, religion and culture.[…] China is to host the Winter Olympics in February 2022. Should such an event of global significance be held in a country that maintains concentration camps and coerced labor? It is not too early to begin raising the question. – Washington Post

Max Boot writes: Indeed, the New York Times reports that Chinese hard-liners are “jubilant and even incredulous” that they have gotten such a good deal. They have good cause to cheer because the real issues with China — from trade barriers to militarism in the South China Sea to human rights violations — remain unaddressed. Trump would rather trumpet “our GREAT new deal with China” than take serious action to address the real challenges from China. – Washington Post

South Asia

President Trump could order a sharp reduction in U.S. troops in Afghanistan without endangering the Pentagon’s ability to prevent another catastrophic terrorist attack on American shores, a close ally of the president said Monday. – Wall Street Journal

Fresh protests swept India on Monday, a day after police entered a university campus in the nation’s capital and injured hundreds of students who were expressing opposition to the country’s controversial new citizenship law. – Washington Post

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has rounded up thousands of Muslims in Kashmir, revoked the area’s autonomy and enforced a citizenship test in northeastern India that left nearly two million people potentially stateless, many of them Muslim. But it was Mr. Modi’s gamble to pass a sweeping new citizenship law that favors every South Asian faith other than Islam that has set off days of widespread protests. – New York Times

A Pakistani special court sentenced former military dictator and president Pervez Musharraf to death in absentia, ending six-year long high treason proceedings against him for suspending the nation’s constitution in 2007. – Bloomberg

The United Nations Security Council will meet at China’s request on Tuesday to discuss the situation in the disputed Indian territory of Jammu and Kashmir, diplomats said. – Reuters

Muslim-majority Indonesia will deploy nearly 200,000 security personnel nationwide ahead of Christmas to guard against potential terror attacks, police said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

Indian police have denied shooting people during protests in Delhi – as anger at a citizenship law spreads across the country. – BBC

A Sri Lankan employee of the Swiss embassy in Colombo, who says she was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and forced to disclose information, has been arrested. – BBC

Ketevan Murusidze and Natia Chankvetadze write: While business relationships and a growing number of tourists strengthen positive connections, Georgia and the Middle East are closely tied together due to the competing interests of regional and international actors. Thus, collaboration to enhance regional stability and share best practices in dealing with conflicts can benefit both Georgia and the Middle East. – Middle East Institute


Chinese President Xi Jinping praised what he called the courage and commitment of Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, underlining Beijing’s support for her handling of monthslong antigovernment protests despite a public rebuke of the establishment in local elections last month. – Wall Street Journal

China’s Premier Li Keqiang says the Hong Kong government must speed up research and resolution of deep-rooted economic problems, according to state radio. – Reuters

Two brothers have been sentenced to a total of 76 years in prison by an Australian court for planning to blow up an Etihad Airways flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi with a bomb hidden in a meat grinder. – Reuters


But now, paramilitary groups that have been lingering for decades are beginning to reorganize, driven by economic stagnation, political paralysis and the potential impact of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan, which was given a final stamp of approval in last week’s general election after the Conservative Party won a commanding majority in the British Parliament. – New York Times

Side by side, the Allies and former enemy Germany togethermarked the 75th anniversary of one of the most important battles in World War II — the Battle of the Bulge, which stopped Adolf Hitler’s last-ditch offensive to turn the tide of the war.  – Associated Press

Britain’s new political landscape began to take shape Monday as triumphant Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked trade with President Donald Trump and gave a pep talk to his new Conservative Party lawmakers. – Associated Press

The European Commission said on Monday it would closely examine whether a new Polish draft law undermines the independence of the judiciary, amid tensions between Brussels and Warsaw over democratic standards. – Reuters

Four central European capitals, all at odds with their countries’ populist governments, signed a deal Monday in Budapest to seek more EU funding together to bypass their nations’ rulers. – Agence France-Presse

Despite a rising chorus of U.S. defense officials crying foul at European Union efforts to take a larger role in security, NATO’s top officer said that he had a close working relationship with the bloc and his forces have access to projects to improve defense infrastructure on the continent. – Defense News

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization recently declared that space is an “operational domain” for the alliance. Though much work remains to actualize an integrated NATO space posture, the affirmation is an important benchmark as NATO scrambles to meet rapidly evolving space and counter-space threats. – Defense News

An Italian cartoonist has depicted Brexit portraying the European Union as Auschwitz and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a prisoner, excited to get out of the gates. – Jerusalem Post

Walter Russell Mead writes: Those who believe nationalism is fundamentally hostile to capitalism and liberal values need to study British and American history. Anglo-American conservative nationalism is more of a revolutionary force than a reactionary one. If Boris Johnson unleashes it, he may just make Britain great again. – Wall Street Journal

Dan Hannan writes: Still, it is hard to see any realistic way to draw Putin into the comity of nations. We can flatter him, lift sanctions, invite him to rejoin the G-8, and force concessions on Ukraine. But in the end, none of it will make him behave differently. Our enmity is more valuable to him than our friendship could ever be. – Washington Examiner


The U.S. imposed sanctions on two senior South Sudanese officials for allegedly perpetuating conflict in the East African nation, the U.S. Treasury Department said. – Wall Street Journal

Former Central African President Francois Bozize, who was ousted nearly seven years ago by a coalition of rebel groups, has returned from exile, his political party announced Monday. – Associated Press

India’s foreign ministry said on Monday that 20 of its nationals had been kidnapped from an oil tanker in West African waters, where piracy has been on the rise. – Reuters

Five West African leaders have appealed for greater international help to combat militant Islamists following the killing of 71 soldiers in Niger. – BBC

The Americas

The U.S. and Mexico appeared to resolve an 11th-hour labor dispute that had threatened to sour a planned congressional vote on a new North American trade agreement. – Wall Street Journal

Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said Monday he does not feel tricked by the insertion of a provision for labor inspectors in legislation for a new regional trade agreement before the U.S. Congress. – Associated Press

A top Cuban diplomat reportedly said Monday that some officials in the U.S. government want to “sever” the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. – The Hill

Cuba’s Communist government is prepared if the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump decides to sever diplomatic relations although it hopes that does not come to pass, a top Cuban diplomat said on Monday. – Reuters


Two Marine Raiders and a Navy corpsman will face charges related to the death of a defense contractor during a street fight in Iraq, the Marine Corps said. – Washington Examiner

The Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group is now in the Indian Ocean after a seven-month stint in the Middle East in parallel with the U.S. maximum pressure campaign targeting Iran, defense officials confirmed to USNI News on Monday morning. – USNI News

As the Navy and Marines continue to highlight close naval integration, the interconnectedness of the two services has moved beyond concepts and doctrine and is spilling into acquisition decisions being made, a top Marine Corps general told USNI News. – USNI News

Congressional appropriators gifted the Pentagon with approval to spend money on its heavily scrutinized enterprise program as conferees removed earlier restrictions from the House version of the Department of Defense’s fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill. – Federal Times

Leidos has won a contract to provide support services for the operation, defense and sustainment of the Department of Defense’s major information networks, the government announced Dec. 12. – C4ISRNET

Henry M. Paulson Jr writes: Rather than forfeiting the fruit of this industrial revolution even before it has ripened, the United States needs to capitalize on it. We must learn the lessons of the 5G fumble, or we will forfeit our economic future. The race will be long, but with the right strategic focus and policies in place, the United States can protect its national security without ceding its leadership to China in emergent technologies. – Washington Post

Elizabeth Rosenberg and Jordan Tama write: For the sake of effective foreign policy and defense planning, U.S. security leaders should pursue a transparent effort to bring thinking about deterrence and escalation in line with realities about the uses of economic coercion in conflict. Expanding, maturing, and formalizing the way that U.S. leaders view, and communicate about, economic coercion in situations of conflict may have an even more important outcome in minimizing a march into aggression. – Defense One

Josef Koller writes: U.S. military operators should be investing now in programs to mitigate the effects of a GEOINT singularity. Advancing and developing new deception and denial techniques may appear costly at first. But the alternative may be more expensive; indeed, restricting remote sensing licenses now would simply delay the cost to a later time when existing methods have become ineffective due to the growth of foreign remote sensing capabilities. – Defense One

Trump Administration

Amid uncertainty over President Donald Trump’s intentions toward NATO, Congress is taking bipartisan action to stop him from withdrawing from the alliance. – Defense News

Bob Bauer and Jack Goldsmith: Horowitz’s four reports on the 2016 election make clear that reform is urgently needed in how the FBI and the Justice Department open and conduct investigations related to politicians and political campaigns. There are many destructive pressures today on the legitimacy of the American electoral process, including an explosive social-media environment, a splintered polity, and foreign-influence operations. – Defense One

Martijn Rasser, Megan Lamberth, Ainikki Riikonen, Chelsea Guo, Michael Horowitz, and Paul Scharre write: Still, the United States holds important advantages with its extensive system of world-class universities and research institutes, leading technology companies, and a vibrant venture capital and private equity market to fund AI start-ups. […] The Trump administration articulated a strong strategic vision with its executive order and National R&D Strategy for AI. The next phase must be executing to achieve these goals. – Center for a New American Security