Fdd's overnight brief

December 18, 2018

In The News


Chilean law enforcement officials are investigating the delivery of Iranian crude oil to state energy company ENAP as a possible source of the noxious fumes that caused hundreds of people to seek hospital treatment in August, a prosecutors’ office told Reuters. – Reuters

South Korea did not import any Iranian oil for the third straight month in November, customs data showed on Saturday, even though it has a waiver from sanctions targeting crude supplies from the Middle Eastern country. – Reuters

The UN General Assembly on Monday approved a resolution urging Iran to stop its widespread use of arbitrary detention and expressing serious concern at its “alarmingly high” use of the death penalty. The Canadian-drafted resolution was adopted by a vote of 84 to 30 with 67 abstentions. – Associated Press

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s son-in-law resigned on Monday, just two days after his appointment as head of Iran’s geological survey sparked accusations of nepotism, official news agency IRNA reported. – Agence France-Presse

As US President Donald Trump re-imposed harsh economic sanctions on Iran last month, hackers scrambled to break into personal emails of American officials tasked with enforcing them, The Associated Press has found — another sign of how deeply cyber espionage is embedded into the fabric of US-Iranian relations. – Associated Press


Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan escalated his threats Monday of a military attack on U.S.-controlled territory in northeastern Syria, while the U.S. military insisted that the two countries were “making progress” in resolving their differences. – Washington Post

Russia, Iran and Turkey are close to agreement on composition of a Syrian constitutional committee that could pave the way for drafting a new charter followed by elections, diplomats said on Monday. – Reuters

The United States said Monday it was no longer seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad but renewed warnings it would not fund reconstruction unless the regime is “fundamentally different.” James Jeffrey, the US special representative in Syria, said that Assad needed to compromise as he had not yet won the brutal seven-year civil war, estimating that some 100,000 armed opposition fighters remained in Syria. – Agence France-Presse

David L. Phillips writes: The US Congress should prevent Turkey from attacking civilians in North and East Syria. Establishing a no-fly-zone would deter Turkey by eliminating the advantage of its air power, thereby giving the Kurds a fighting chance. […] It should further restrict arms sales in response to Turkey’s violation of Syria’s sovereignty. – Boston Globe


Federal prosecutors accused the Turkish government of running a covert 2016 lobbying campaign in Washington aimed at pressuring the U.S. to hand over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s American-based nemesis, cleric Fethullah Gulen. – Wall Street Journal

Three years after she was acquitted over her role in Turkey’s Gezi Park protests, Mucella Yapici was called in last month by police to face more questions about the unrest that had posed a direct challenge to the authority of President Tayyip Erdogan. – Reuters

President Donald Trump did not commit during a meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at the G20 summit two weeks ago to extradite a Muslim cleric based in the United States, a senior White House official said on Monday. – Reuters


An Israeli military tactic intended to spare civilians actually killed two Palestinian teenagers recently and needs to be viewed as a form of attack, not as the ethically responsible precautionary measure that Israel portrays it to be, two human rights groups said in a new report. – New York Times

Just days away from a partial government shutdown, lawmakers are weighing adding a contentious measure to a stymied spending package that would keep American companies from participating in boycotts — primarily against Israel — that are being carried out by international organizations. – New York Times

The United Nations on Monday urged donor states to give $350 million in aid for Palestinians in 2019, saying it needed more but had to be “realistic” following swathing US cuts. – Times of Israel

The final status of Jerusalem – all of Jerusalem – is still on the negotiating table, the Palestinian Authority has claimed, rejecting Australia’s recent recognition of the western portion of the city as Israel’s capital. – Arutz Sheva

Amos Harel writes: Israel’s efforts against Hezbollah after the discovery of the attack tunnels under the Lebanese border enter the diplomatic sphere Wednesday. Israel’s claims, which have received U.S. support, will come up in the UN Security Council’s periodic briefing on the situation in the Middle East. Israel is trying to leverage military developments – the discovery of the tunnels – to increase the pressure on Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in the international arena. – Haaretz


Saudi and Emirati naval boats dominate the Red Sea waters where the shootings and bombings took place. Five involved attack helicopters, which the Houthis do not have. In one instance, Saudi officials made cash payments of nearly $500,000 to the families of fishermen killed in an attack. – New York Times

The U.N. Security Council is considering a draft resolution that asks U.N. chief António Guterres to submit proposals by the end of the month on how to monitor a ceasefire agreed by Yemen’s warring parties for the key port city of Hodeidah, diplomats said on Monday. – Reuters

A ceasefire in Yemen’s war was broken minutes after coming into effect, pro-government officials say. […]. But there have been reports of sporadic clashes between the Houthi rebels and pro-government forces in the city, which is a vital gateway for aid. – BBC News

Middle East

A human-rights commission reporting to Saudi King Salman is investigating the alleged torture of detained women’s rights activists, including accusations of waterboarding and electrocution, according to government officials and other people familiar with the activists’ situation. – Wall Street Journal

The use of armed drones in the Middle East, driven largely by sales from China, has grown significantly in the past few years with an increasing number of countries and other parties using them in regional conflicts to lethal effects, a new report said Monday. – Associated Press

As the Middle East ushers in 2019, the decade’s ruinous conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq seem to be winding down after exacting a painful price — many thousands killed, millions uprooted from their homes and entire cities reduced to rubble. Yet the potential for unrest remains high, including in countries that escaped civil war after the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. – Associated Press

Editorial: The Middle East in 2018 remained mired in three conflict systems: one between Iran and several of its neighbors; one among Sunni states; and one between Israel and Palestine. The first conflict system grew worse as the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal and ramped up sanctions, and Iran doubled down on its proxy military presence in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq; this conflict system continues to fuel regional instability, radical and terrorist dynamics, and civil wars. – Middle East Research Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea has accelerated a little-known program to use its abundant coal supply to produce synthetic gas, helping the isolated nation reduce its dependence on foreign oil and withstand sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear program. – Wall Street Journal

The U.N. General Assembly on Monday condemned North Korea’s “systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” and its diversion of resources into pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles over the welfare of its people. – Associated Press

Soo KIm writes: With just a couple weeks remaining in 2018, the prospect of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visiting Seoul by year-end — as agreed to between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in at the September Pyongyang summit — remain speculative at best. Headlines in Seoul and Washington largely rule out a Kim sojourn this month. – The Hill


In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s 40th anniversary celebrations, Mr. Xi’s brand of forward-leaning foreign policy and strongman-led national development has drawn fire. Critics within the party are pointing to China’s flagging economy and down-spiraling relations with the U.S. as proof Mr. Xi has concentrated too much authority in his hands, made policy missteps and provoked pushback against China’s superpower ambitions abroad. – Wall Street Journal

Huawei Technologies Co., the target of a multipronged offensive by the U.S. government, is hoping for its day in court. The Chinese cellular-technology giant is relying on a team of recently hired American lawyers, who have filed legal ripostes to U.S. agencies, to defend itself from an onslaught of accusations and restrictions emanating from Washington. – Wall Street Journal

The wives of four of China’s most prominent rights lawyers and activists shaved their heads on Monday in protest over what they called the “persecution” of their husbands by the government. – Reuters

China will never pursue hegemony, President Xi Jinping said Tuesday as global concerns persist over the country’s growing economic influence. During a speech to mark 40 years of market reforms, Xi repeated China’s commitment to a multilateral trading system and further opening of its economy. However, he did not announce any new initiatives to counter a slowing economy and trade frictions with the United States. – Associated Press

Ottawa’s ambassador to Beijing has met with the second Canadian detained in China on suspicion of threatening national security, Canada’s foreign ministry said Sunday. – Agence France-Presse

A recent surge of police action against churches in China has raised concerns the government is getting even tougher on unsanctioned Christian activity. Among those arrested are a prominent pastor and his wife, of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Sichuan. Both have been charged with state subversion. – BBC News


Japan plans to spend around $10 billion to become the largest customer outside the U.S. for Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jet fighters, as it responds to a rising China and pressure from President Trump to spend more on American military hardware. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration sought Monday to breathe momentum into its efforts to end the 17-year war in Afghanistan, as a U.S. special envoy met with representatives of the Taliban, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan for discussions on a road map for the talks. – Wall Street Journal

On Monday, Malaysia lodged criminal charges against the bank. The country’s attorney general said he would seek a fine well above the $2.7 billion allegedly stolen by two former Goldman bankers and a Malaysian financier named Jho Low, whom U.S. prosecutors accuse of conspiring to loot the fund. – Wall Street Journal

Initially the talks between the Taliban emissaries and a team led by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad as well as officials from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were just set to last one day, but a Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid confirmed the meetings would continue through Tuesday. – Washington Post

Russia said on Monday it had built new barracks for troops on a disputed chain of islands near Japan and would build more facilities for armored vehicles, a move likely to anger Tokyo after it urged Moscow to reduce its military activity there. – Reuters

One of South Korea’s largest human rights groups will strip Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi of its 2004 prize because of her “indifference” to the atrocities against the Rohingya minority, organisers said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse


U.S. and Ukrainian officials called Monday for tougher measures against Russia over its seizing of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Black Sea. The incident late last month caused Kiev to declare martial law but drew little more than condemnations from Western capitals. – Wall Street Journal

A Russian influence campaign ahead of the 2016 election used a range of social-media platforms to suppress African-American voter turnout and boost Donald Trump’s presidential bid, while relying more on Instagram than previously known, according to two independent studies released on Monday. – Wall Street Journal

Months after President Trump took office, Russia’s disinformation teams trained their sights on a new target: special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Having worked to help get Trump into the White House, they now worked to neutralize the biggest threat to his staying there. The Russian operatives unloaded on Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies. – Washington Post

To wield influence, Russian online operators must first build an audience. […] Two reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee and released on Monday shed some light on how Russia does it. The reports identify some of the most popular of the images and themes created by the Internet Research Agency, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, and owned by a businessman with close ties to President Vladimir V. Putin. – New York Times

The Kremlin on Monday accused Ukraine’s politicians of using the creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox church independent of Moscow for political ends. – Reuters

Russia has amassed “significant military capacity” on Ukraine’s borders, a top U.S. diplomat confirmed Monday amid fears Russia has its eyes on another piece of the country. – Washington Examiner


Backing down from a showdown with Brussels, Poland’s government reversed its purge of the country’s Supreme Court, as the president signed a law on Monday that will reinstate the judges who had been forced out of their jobs. – New York Times

After a failed bid to secure further concessions from European leaders on Brexit, Prime Minister Theresa May returned to Parliament on Monday with little to offer beyond a new date for a vote on the deal outlining how Britain will withdraw from the European Union. May said parliamentary debate on the deal would resume Jan. 7, with a vote held the following week. – Washington Post

Editorial: The immediate evidence is confusion over demands by some Labourites for a no-confidence motion against Theresa May’s Tory government. No one thinks it would succeed. But a defeat might corner Mr. Corbyn into supporting a second Brexit referendum by proving that a national election for a new parliament—Mr. Corbyn’s preferred option—isn’t feasible. – Wall Street Journal


The U.S. military announced Monday that it carried out six airstrikes over the weekend against the extremist group al-Shabab in a coastal region south of Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, killing 62 fighters. It said there were no collateral civilian casualties. – Washington Post

The Nigerian president has struggled to address a broad range of problems in the military. Its abuses have been carried out not only against protesting Shiites, but also against separatists in the southeast, where the president has launched major military operations. It has used excessive force in the northwest, where he has scrambled fighter jets against gangs roaming the forest. – New York Times

Nigeria’s army has called for the closure of Amnesty International’s operations in the country.
In a report on Monday, the human rights group said at least 3,641 people had died in clashes between farmers and herders in Nigeria since 2016. – BBC News

Editorial: The Trump administration has unveiled what John Bolton, the national security adviser, has billed as a “new” Africa strategy for the US. On the commercial front there is indeed some fresh thinking. But much of what Mr Bolton says has emerged from a detailed inter-agency debate about America’s future engagement with the continent, seems to belong in the past. – Financial Times

The Americas

Mexico’s new government has a strategy for dealing with President Trump. Don’t anger him. Don’t cave in to him. Try to get him to help fund an ambitious investment plan to stem migration by creating jobs in Central America. – New York Times

Three synagogues in Baltimore County reported receiving suspicious letters Monday, CBS news reported. Images of the letter posted online by the outlet appeared to show religious rhetoric. – Times of Israel

Editorial: Mr. Arias was once on track to succeed Álvaro Uribe, his political mentor, as president of Colombia. […] The Colombian Supreme Court, which is notoriously political, convicted the UCLA-trained economist of corruption after he had fled the country. He received a 17-year sentence in exile—from a country where the narco-terrorists known as the FARC enjoy amnesty these days. Mr. Arias was given no opportunity to appeal. – Wall Street Journal


President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order soon, possibly as early as Tuesday, creating a U.S. Space Command that will better organize and advance the military’s vast operations in space, U.S. officials say. – Associated Press

Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney’s takeover, at least temporarily, of the White House chief of staff position could have repercussions for defense spending, analysts predict. President Donald Trump made the announcement over the weekend on Twitter.

Mulvaney, a former congressman and leader of the fiscally hawkish House Freedom Caucus, is viewed as a budget hawk, one who has no problem pushing for lowered defense spending. – Defense News

Cybersecurity lapses as basic as neglecting to encrypt classified flash drives and failing to put physical locks on critical computer servers leave the United States vulnerable to deadly missile attacks, the Defense Department’s internal watchdog says in a new report. – MSNBC

Trump Administration

As questions swirl about his credibility, former Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone settled a defamation suit seeking $100 million in damages on Monday for publishing false and misleading statements on InfoWars.com, a far-right website known for promoting conspiracy theories. – Wall Street Journal

A judge will decide on Tuesday whether former national security adviser Michael Flynn should be sent to prison for lying to the FBI in a case stemming from the investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russia in the run-up to the 2016 election. – Reuters

Eli Lake writes: Since Congress authorized the war on terror 17 years ago, three presidents have used a 2001 resolution, which was was supposed to apply to the planners and organizers of the Sept. 11 attacks, to wage a progressively broader war throughout the Muslim world. George W. Bush said the authorization allowed him to target jihadists in Pakistan and Africa. Barack Obama used it to justify strikes against the Islamic State, which had broken away from al-Qaeda and was fighting its affiliates when the U.S. entered hostilities in 2014. – Bloomberg