Fdd's overnight brief

December 18, 2019

In The News


Iran sentenced two labor activists in the country’s south to five-year prison term each for taking part in a January protest over several months of owed back pay, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported Tuesday. – Associated Press 

The Trump administration plans to strengthen enforcement of Iran sanctions now that it’s driven oil exports down to unprecedented lows, with a plan to increase pressure on global shippers, Chinese state-owned enterprises and exporters of raw materials used in metal production. – Bloomberg 

The latest case involving Mahan Air and its network of enablers is “just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to illicit Iranian activities in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand,” Leighton said. “This would be an area worthy of further exploration for both intelligence services and journalists—but remember, the Iranians often play for keeps.” – Quartz 

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted his support for Roger Garaudy, a French philosopher who denies the Holocaust in his book Les Mythes Fondateurs de la Politique Israélienne (The Founding Myths of Modern Israel). – Jerusalem Post

When Iranian authorities recently imposed a near-total internet blackout for almost a week to help quell massive street protests, U.S.-based tech entrepreneur Nima Fatemi bolted into action. – Los Angeles Times 

Benny Avni writes: As effective as Mr. Trump’s mostly unilateral “maximum pressure” campaign has been at punishing Iran, it has yet to change minds in Tehran. The mullahs remain hopeful that business-hungry Europeans and others will save them from American pressure. A Security Council snapback would decisively end such hopes. […]Mr. Hook had better convince his State Department colleagues to force a snapback at the U.N. before the deal’s dangerous sunset clauses kick in. And who knows? Making maximum pressure multilateral might even force the mullahs to return to negotiations. – Wall Street Journal 

Matthew Petti writes: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on Friday that the United States must “remind Iran’s leaders that any attacks by them, or their proxies of any identity” that harm Americans, America’s allies, or America’s interests “will be answered with a decisive U.S. response.” […]Pompeo’s warning seemed to imply that the United States could fight Iran to defend the sovereignty and stability of Iraq. […]But the statement raised eyebrows over the Trump administration’s war powers—and reopened questions that Congress has been fighting over for months. – The National Interest


The IDF completed a large scale drill simulating a range of challenges and threats on the northern front on Tuesday, according to the IDF Spokespersons’ Unit. […]The drill may have focused on training for the possibility of a widespread attack and infiltration by Hezbollah. – Jerusalem Post 

The State Department task force on thwarting the activities of the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah met in the Netherlands on Monday and Tuesday, an official statement said. – Algemeiner

Ari Morgenstern writes: Congress should condition a portion of U.S. aid to the LAF by requiring the military to take steps to purge Hezbollah from its ranks, end coordination with Hezbollah, and make progress in efforts to take control of southern Lebanon, as mandated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1701. We can help Lebanon come back from death’s doorstep. The bill is already written; the time has long since passed for Congress to act. – Morning Consult


The Senate approved a defense-policy bill that includes provisions intended to hold Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime responsible for crimes against civilians through new punitive measures. – Wall Street Journal

For the past six years the United Nations and other aid groups have been crossing into Syria from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan at four places authorized by the U.N. Security Council to deliver humanitarian assistance to millions of people. The 15-member council is aiming to extend approval for those operations this week, which U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres describes as essential. – Reuters 

The Syrian government and Russian air strikes killed at least 17 people on Tuesday in rebel-held northwestern Syria in a spike in casualties from relentless daily strikes in recent months, witnesses and rescuers said. – Reuters 

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan urged world powers on Tuesday to help it resettle 1 million Syrian refugees very soon, accusing governments of moving more quickly to guard Syria’s oil fields than its children. – Reuters 

Russia is considering a slew of major commercial projects in Syria, a senior Russian official said Tuesday. Some of them could potentially increase Iran’s influence in the country. – Times of Israel

 Carlo J. V. Caro writes: It is essential not to ignore the historical relationship between Damascus and Moscow, which predated the Cold War and became intensified by it. It would be foolish to forget the political, personal, and cultural connections that were developed between these two countries over the decades. There is a reason why Bashar al Assad’s son was learning Russian, and it was not because of the Russian military intervention. The history between the two countries explains why Putin decided to intervene in 2015. – The National Interest


Turkey is allowing senior Hamas operatives to plot attacks against Israel from Istanbul, The Telegraph can disclose, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plays host to the terrorist group’s leaders. – The Telegraph 

The Trump administration has said it does not consider the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 to be a genocide, contradicting a unanimous vote by the US Senate. The historic vote last week incensed Turkey, which has always denied that the killings amounted to a genocide. – BBC 

The US Congress voted Tuesday to lift a decades-old arms embargo on Cyprus, defying Turkey by seeking warmer ties at a time of renewed tensions. – Agence France-Presse

In a December 11, 2019 column titled “What Business Do We Have In Libya?” in the Turkish daily Sözcü, Turkish investigative journalist Emin Çölaşan expressed his view that the Turkish government should not send troops to support the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya.[1] He wrote: “Turkey is not a power that can send soldiers to whatever country gets in its way. Turkish soldiers are for defending the homeland.” – Middle East Media Research Institute


The Palestinian Authority (PA) said on Tuesday its heralded national election must also be held in East Jerusalem, an area annexed by Israel, raising a demand on which a still-unscheduled vote could hinge. – Reuters 

Brazilian parliamentarian Eduardo Bolsonaro came to Israel on Sunday for a half-day visit to open Brazil’s trade office in Jerusalem, which, he declared, was the first step toward moving his country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem some time next year. – Times of Israel

The White House on Tuesday denied reports from a Lebanese television channel that its supposed peace plan will include a three-way deal between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Islamist terror group that rules the Gaza Strip. – Times of Israel

An Israeli military aircraft on Tuesday struck an armed militant in the Gaza Strip, who approached the security fence along the border with Israel. – Ynet

A rising star in Iowa politics announced what may be the first enforcement action of the state’s anti-BDS law on Tuesday. Rob Sand, the Democratic state auditor, issued a report Tuesday stating that the Municipal Fire & Police Retirement System of Iowa (MFPRSI) was in violation of the provision of Iowa code that required it to report any transactions “pertaining to companies boycotting Israel.” – Jewish Insider

David Makovsky writes: With the Knesset dissolving itself last week and declaring a third election within a year, Israel seems paralyzed and polarized. […]So far, Washington has largely avoided weighing in on these issues. Although the Trump administration had hoped to put forward its long-awaited peace vision if a unity government was formed, this now seems to be on hold again. The biggest rival for Netanyahu and Gantz may not be each other, but turnout. In September, turnout increased despite predictions of election fatigue and proximity to the summer vacation period, suggesting that the public understood the high stakes of the re-vote. – Washington Institute


Lebanon’s parliament speaker and caretaker prime minister warned against strife on Tuesday after clashes between supporters of Shi’ite groups and security forces overnight stirred fears of further political and economic turmoil. – Reuters 

Hanin Ghaddar writes: Lebanon’s economic situation is expected to worsen, so last week’s Paris meeting was probably the first of many. It is also becoming clear that Hariri cannot lead the next government. Even if he manages to secure Christian votes for his nomination, he will only be able to form a government that has Hezbollah’s blessing—and therefore fails to gain the trust of the street or the international community. […]Washington should therefore prepare sanctions against additional Hezbollah allies and corrupt politicians. – Washington Institute

 Hijab Shah, Melissa Dalton, and Erol Yayboke write: As the political and economic turmoil in Lebanon reaches a crescendo, the United States must reevaluate its civilian and security assistance to Lebanon to better align policy and programming with Lebanon’s conflict drivers. The most immediate need is to address Lebanon’s economic crisis. The U.S. government should work with allies and partners and multilateral institutions to develop a strategy to subvert a total collapse of the Lebanese economy. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Middle East & North Africa

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan will discuss Ankara’s offer to provide military support to Libya’s internationally recognized government during talks in Turkey next month, the Kremlin said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, is supported by the UN and by Turkey and Qatar, and is described by Saudi and UAE sources as receiving backing from Islamist circles in Libya such as the Muslim Brotherhood. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Will Todman writes: Jordanians’ economic woes are altering their understanding of what they can expect from others and the obligations they feel to them. Interviewees reported that because traditional social support networks in Jordan now have fewer resources, they are less able to provide for their members. Jordanians described financial troubles as the primary cause of strained family relationships, weakened community ties, and a stifled social life. Increasing mobility, technology, and the changing role of women as economic actors are also compounding these trends. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Korean Peninsula

In early November, two North Korean fishermen captured in South Korean waters were escorted to the inter-Korean border, blindfolded and their bodies tied with ropes​. There, they were handed over to the North Korean authorities. […]R​evelation after shocking revelation​ have since followed, leaving human rights advocates and groups that include South Korea’s bar association agape with outrage. – New York Times

China and Russia are pushing the U.N. Security Council to lift some sanctions on North Korea to ease the country’s humanitarian concerns and to “break the deadlock” in stalled denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang, China’s U.N. ambassador said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

The Air Force’s top general in the Asia-Pacific believes North Korea’s “Christmas gift” to the United States could be the test of a long-range ballistic missile. – Defense News 

Sarah Bidgood writes: To be clear, even if the U.S. signature on the treaty remains valid, the CTBT will still be vulnerable to future onslaughts. The only surefire way to protect it is through U.S. ratification, which remains highly unlikely under the Trump administration. […]For now, then, the top priority must be ensuring that the current leadership does not terminate prospects for the treaty’s entry into force, given its central importance to international security and nonproliferation. Linking it to outcomes on the Korean Peninsula might just be enough to preserve the status quo until more, and more ambitious steps, are possible. – The National interest


China’s first home-built aircraft carrier was commissioned into active service by President Xi Jinping at a military base on the edge of the South China Sea, the latest milestone in the country’s endeavors to rapidly modernize its military and become a world-class naval power. – Wall Street Journal

Congress ordered the Commerce Department to examine a loophole in federal law that has allowed China’s government to use U.S.-built satellites to support its police and military, following an investigation by The Wall Street Journal. – Wall Street Journal

China is ramping up its ability to spy on its nearly 1.4 billion people to new and disturbing levels, giving the world a blueprint for how to build a digital totalitarian state. – New York Times 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday came out in support of Arsenal player Mesut Ozil for his criticism of China’s treatment of ethnic Uighur Muslims, saying Beijing can censor the team’s football games but cannot hide rights violations. – Reuters 

Julian Gewirtz writes: A U.S.-China financial war fundamentally would be a contest over the ability of the United States to use its centrality in global finance to exert its power over its competitors and adversaries faster than they can find alternatives. The U.S. remains profoundly dominant, and China has few viable options—at least, not today. But if China undertakes a long-term struggle to develop alternative networks and succeeds in doing so, the impact on the foundations of American power would be severe. – Politico 


A roadside bombing in eastern Afghanistan killed at least 10 civilians on Tuesday morning, including women and children, while explosives attached to a bicycle detonated near a police vehicle in a northern province, wounding at least 18 people, officials said. – Associated Press

Hal Brands writes: The Afghanistan Papers” — is meant, clearly, to echo the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. It implies that we should see this conflict, like Vietnam, as a misbegotten war fought in the service of illusions and lies. […]The best option, then, may be deeply unsatisfying — reducing U.S. forces to the minimum level required to conduct counter-terrorism strikes and help the Afghan forces hold major cities, while accepting that the Taliban will run most of the countryside. That’s not a good outcome, but it isn’t catastrophic, and it can probably be achieved at an acceptable price. – Bloomberg 

Tamara Cofman Wittes and Kevin Huggard write: The insights produced by SIGAR’s work, and made vivid by the Afghanistan Papers, should produce a much-needed national reckoning. […]It’s always foolish for an American president to launch an ambitious foreign-policy project on the assumption of success. That was George W. Bush’s mistake in Iraq. In Afghanistan, success was not assumed. But when failure became inevitable, U.S. leaders didn’t look for an acceptable off-ramp, and the public didn’t pressure them to do so. – The Atlantic

South Asia

Protests against a new citizenship law favoring non-Muslim immigrants erupted in violence in a Muslim-dominated part of the Indian capital where communal tensions have flared in the past, as the prime minister appealed for calm. – Wall Street Journal

China has postponed a discussion by the U.N. Security Council planned for Tuesday about the situation in the disputed Indian territory of Jammu and Kashmir because the U.N. peacekeeping mission there was not ready to provide a brief, diplomats said. – Reuters 

Lara Jakes writes: But American diplomats have offered only muted public criticism of India’s moves against Muslims, seemingly wary of alienating even an unpredictable ally as the United States confronts China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific region. The stark contrast over religious protections for Muslims reveals an undercurrent in high-level meetings this week between the United States and India on a range of diplomatic and military issues. – New York Times


Macau today, like Hong Kong, is a political experiment that began in the late 1990s, when China reclaimed both territories from Western colonial powers and promised that civil liberties could coexist with its brand of authoritarian rule. Now, as Hong Kong’s political unrest continues, China’s ruling Communist Party has become increasingly explicit about how much it will tolerate under that formula — and holds Macau up as a shining example of obedience. – New York TImes

Two Indonesian soldiers have been shot dead in Indonesia’s easternmost province of Papua, ambushed by separatist rebels while transporting goods to a village in a remote area, a military spokesman said on Wednesday. – Reuters 

Leaders and senior representatives from some 20 Muslim nations flocked to the Malaysian capital on Wednesday to discuss issues agitating Muslims globally at a summit Saudi Arabia decided to snub, and Pakistan ducked out of attending. – Reuters 

China’s President Xi Jinping begins a three-day visit to the gambling hub of Macau on Wednesday to mark the 20th anniversary of its handover to China, with security tight and some media barred entry as protests rock nearby Hong Kong. – Reuters 

Taiwan is ramping up efforts ahead of a Jan. 11 election to combat fake news and disinformation that the government says China is bombarding the island with to undermine its democracy. – Reuters 


Few disputed the guilt of Vitaly Markiv, a Ukrainian who also holds Italian citizenship, when an Italian court sentenced him to 24 years in prison this summer. […]But it raised eyebrows when the court released its reasoning in the fall showing that among the evidence presented by Italian prosecutors were reports from publications that are generally considered outlets for Russian propaganda. – New York Times

The US Senate voted Tuesday to slap sanctions on companies working on Russia’s Nord Stream pipeline, sending a bill to President Donald Trump that is sure to antagonize European nations counting on the project’s natural gas. – Agence France-Presse

The U.S. has little leverage to prevent the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project between Russia and Germany from being completed, two senior administration officials said, acknowledging the failure of a years-long effort to head off what officials believe is a threat to European security. – Bloomberg

Earlier this year High North News published a detailed account utilizing satellite imagery to highlight some of these developments and to help visualize the scale of the investments. In this follow-up piece, HNN highlights the construction of two large radar installations in the Arctic, called Resonance-N, and the stationing of the country’s most advanced air-defence systems, S-400, on three military bases throughout the region. – High North News 

“The United States Coast Guard has received reports indicating that the RFN Viktor Leonov (AGI-175) has been operating in an unsafe manner off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia,” read the notice from Coast Guard in Charleston, S.C.[…]The Russian Navy has had a long history of sending surveillance ships to monitor U.S. naval bases of the East Coast, including Naval Station Norfolk, Va., Naval Station Mayport, Fla. and the nuclear submarine base at Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay, Ga. – USNI News 

Tom Rogan writes: The Coast Guard says that a Russian Navy spy ship, the Viktor Leonov, is operating in an “unsafe manner” in international waters off the Georgia and South Carolina coasts. But what’s the Viktor Leonov up to, and is it a threat? […]Yes, it’s not immediately clear what the Russians are up to here. But the Viktor Leonov is a frequent visitor to our shores and will return again in the future. We can handle it. Moreover, it’s not as if the U.S. military is idle in monitoring the Russians. The U.S. Navy is exceptionally bold in those efforts. It just tends to engage in them out of sight, below the waves. – Washington Examiner


Fresh from a convincing election victory, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said it would leave a post-Brexit transition period at the end of 2020, with or without a trade deal with the European Union, raising new fears of a disruptive break with the bloc. – Wall Street Journal

Boris Johnson’s big election victory this week drove another nail into the coffin of the brand of conservative politics Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher first rode to power four decades ago. – Wall Street Journal

The top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine will leave the post in Kyiv at the start of January, a move that had been anticipated, a person familiar with his plans said Tuesday. Bill Taylor was a witness in the impeachment inquiry driven by Democratic lawmakers seeking to determine whether President Trump abused his position by withholding security assistance to Ukraine to press the country to conduct politically favorable investigations. – Wall Street Journal

NATO will receive its second U.S.-made Global Hawk drone on Thursday and aims to have all five unmanned aircraft of its $1.5 billion surveillance system operational in 2022, alliance officials said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Poland could end up leaving the European Union because of plans by the ruling nationalists that would allow judges to be fired if they question the legitimacy of the government’s judicial reforms, the Supreme Court said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Steven Keil writes: Whether reckless, a dubious gamble or a calculated attempt to shift European security policy writ large, French President Emmanuel Macron’s choice words describing NATO’s “brain death” has made a lasting impression. Beneath the surface, a larger risk to the trans-Atlantic relationship looms in the Trump-like rhetoric. Macron’s increasing skepticism toward U.S. foreign policy is forcing him to spell out a different vision for European security. This vision sees less American engagement and seeks to reengage malign actors like Russia, all the while recasting them as less problematic to European security than the past several years would suggest. – Defense News

The Americas

Yet nearly a year later, Maduro — far wilier and more resilient than his opponents calculated — is still comfortably ensconced in the presidential palace. And the Venezuelans Guaidó once inspired are losing faith — in the opposition he leads, in its backers in the Trump administration and, for some, in Guaidó himself. – Washington Post

The deadly attack in a New Jersey kosher market last week punctuated several years of growing, increasingly violent, incidents of anti-Semitism in the U.S., a marked turnaround from declines that had lasted more than a decade. – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump thanked Guatemala’s president Tuesday for becoming a more active partner in helping stem a tide of migrants seeking to gain asylum in the United States. – Associated Press

 U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he backed Bolivia’s interim President Jeanine Anez as she seeks “a peaceful democratic transition,” and he denounced ongoing violence in the country. – Reuters 

Mac Margolis writes: After a year of frustrations, Venezuela’s opposition needs to work on outlasting, not out-muscling, an encastled ruler. In that sense, the legislature’s commitment to maintain Guaido, a dexterous conciliator, as interim president is encouraging. Venezuela’s democratic leaders would do well to embrace a return to dialogue, at a table where the U.S., Russia, China and even Cuba also have a seat. – Bloomberg 


The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to pass a $738 billion defense policy bill that creates President Donald Trump’s “Space Force” and gives federal employees 12 weeks of paid parental leave, sending it to the White House, where Trump has promised to quickly sign it into law. – Reuters 

Congressional appropriators and authorizers have increased advance procurement funds for the newest variant of the CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter as preparation to supply the aircraft to the Army’s active force, even though the service asked to only buy a small number of the helos in fiscal 2020 for special operations. – Defense News 

Steven Walker, the 21st director of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, announced his resignation on Tuesday, which will be effective Jan.10, 2020, Defense News has learned. – Defense News 

Congress is calling on the Pentagon would have to draft a plan within a year to close remaining burn pits and create a comprehensive list of sites where troops may have been exposed. The provision is inside the National Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House last week. – Military.com

U.S. Army equipment officials are testing prototypes of an improved combat boot that includes features from the service’s recent attempt to field a new Jungle Combat Boot. – Military.com

Missile Defense

Nuclear weapons received a small boost in a new spending deal passed by Congress, with lawmakers largely leaving the agency in charge of America’s warheads alone. – Defense News 

Lockheed Martin has selected Aerojet Rocketdyne to provide a solid-fuel rocket motor for a hypersonic missile meant for the U.S. Air Force, according to a Tuesday news release. – Defense News 

Congressional leaders have questions about the Pentagon’s strategy to provide space-based missile warning, according to a new spending bill for fiscal year 2020, but provided full funding for multiple space programs that help fill that need. – C4ISRNET

Trump Administration

President Trump assailed the House impeachment probe and accused Democrats of trying to overturn his election, as lawmakers prepared for a final day of debate followed by a vote that is expected to make Mr. Trump the third U.S. president to be impeached. – Wall Street Journal

Rudy Giuliani on Tuesday asserted that Marie Yovanovitch “needed to be removed” from her post as the top U.S. envoy to Ukraine — the latest in a string of incendiary public statements that President Donald Trump himself has amplified despite facing imminent impeachment over the matter. – Politico

White House officials will travel to London in January to begin trade talks with the new government of Boris Johnson but amid growing signs that U.K. leaders are putting a free trade agreement with Washington on the back burner. – Washington Examiner