Fdd's overnight brief

December 19, 2018

In The News


Hackers infiltrated the European Union’s diplomatic communications network for years, downloading thousands of cables that reveal concerns about an unpredictable Trump administration and struggles to deal with Russia and China and the risk that Iran would revive its nuclear program. – New York Times

Iran’s reshuffled economics team is trying a new tactic to defend the rial against U.S. sanctions — ordering exporters to sell their foreign-currency earnings on a government-regulated trading platform. – Bloomberg

Following nearly a year of economic crisis, ordinary Iranians and market watchers who follow trends to help businesses in their decision making have been asking some key questions about how to survive and prevent losses let alone making a profit in current conditions. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “warmonger,” and claimed that Netanyahu is in no position to criticize Iran’s defensive missile program after publicly bragging about Israel’s firepower. – Jerusalem Post

Iran’s cyberattacks have been more successful against the US than against Israel so far, but the threat against Israel could increase in the future, according to a new INSS report. – Jerusalem Post


An American woman who died while in Syrian government custody is believed by aid groups and activists to have been executed, spurring concern for other U.S. citizens who may be detained by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. – Wall Street Journal

A Russian disinformation campaign has pushed Syria’s best-known civilian rescue group into the crosshairs of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces, turning its volunteers into hunted prey, according to a team of open-source researchers and the organization itself. – Washington Post

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Wednesday that Islamic State militants had executed nearly 700 prisoners in nearly two months in eastern Syria. – Reuters


The U.S. State Department has approved a possible $3.5 billion sale of Patriot air and missile defense systems to Turkey, the Pentagon said on Tuesday after notifying Congress of the certification. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump told his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan that Washington “would take a look at” the possibility of extraditing a U.S.-based Muslim cleric who Ankara suspects of being behind a 2016 coup attempt, but he made no commitment, the White House said on Tuesday. – Reuters

In a December 1, 2018 op-ed, Ibrahim Karagül, editor-in-chief of the Yeni Safak daily, the mouthpiece of Turkey’s leading AKP party, threatened Saudi Arabia and the UAE with war. Calling on the Arab street to revolt against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, he urged: “Take away their power. If possible, silence these two enemies of Arabs, who are anti-homeland and anti-region!” – Middle East Media Research Institute


U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said Tuesday that “Israel wants a peace agreement but it doesn’t need one,” signaling the Trump administration’s embrace of Israel’s security-centered approach that may not include a Palestinian state as it works to craft a Middle East peace plan. – Washington Post

A secretive U.S.-backed initiative to forge closer ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel faces setbacks after the crown prince, who spearheaded the effort, was implicated in a journalist’s killing along with two of his aides. – Wall Street Journal

Hezbollah terrorists have worked to close off some of their cross-border attack tunnels after the IDF uncovered four of them, the military said on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

Airbnb’s on-again/off-again settler boycott took another strange twist on Tuesday, when one of its top executives, Chris Lehane, took the unusual step of traveling over the Green Line to visit the Barkan Industrial Park. – Jerusalem Post

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke at the opening of the annual Globes Business Conference, held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center Wednesday morning. […]During his opening comments, Netanyahu recalled his meeting with the president of Moldova on Tuesday, and the role the legacy of the Holocaust must play in an Israeli leader’s service to the state. – Arutz Sheva

The European Union and Russia have warned US President Donald Trump that any Israeli-Palestinian peace plan not based on the pre-1967 borders and a two-state solution will not succeed. – Associated Press

A public opinion poll shows that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would lose to the leader of the Islamic militant group Hamas if elections were held today. – Associated Press

In response to the recent spate of terror attacks in the West Bank and the marking of the anniversary of the First Intifada, which began in 1987, columnists in the Jordanian Al-Dustour daily praised the armed resistance of the Palestinian people. They stated that this resistance has broken through the Palestinian barrier of fear, terrified the Israelis, and restored the desired balance of fear, and is the Palestinians’ only hope of salvation and will ultimately drive away the occupation and the settlers. – Middle East Media Research Institute

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is scrambling at the eleventh hour to include controversial language in a year-end spending bill prohibiting U.S. companies from joining boycotts of Israel launched by the United Nations or similar groups. – The Hill

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas on Tuesday filed a lawsuit over a state law requiring contractors to certify that they do not boycott Israel or Israel-controlled territories, arguing the law forces people to choose between their First Amendment rights and their livelihoods. – Times of Israel


Heavy fighting between Yemen’s government and Houthi rebels subsided Tuesday, suggesting the two sides are adhering to a deal struck as part of a U.S.-backed diplomatic push to end the nearly four-year war. – Wall Street Journal

An internationally backed cease-fire in the key Yemen port of Hudaydah got off to a shaky start on Tuesday when fighting erupted moments after it took effect at midnight. – New York Times

Yemen’s warring parties have traded accusations of breaching a ceasefire in Hodeidah that was mediated by the United Nations to avert a full-scale assault on a port city vital for food and aid supplies, and pave the way for peace negotiations. – Reuters

Mohammed was among 18 former child soldiers interviewed by The Associated Press who described the Houthis’ unrelenting efficiency when it comes to the recruitment, deployment and even battlefield deaths of boys as young as 10. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

The Saudi kingdom said it would increase spending next year to boost economic growth despite a drop in oil prices, as it seeks to rally domestic support amid international criticism for the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Wall Street Journal

Eighteen months after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt imposed a land and sea blockade aimed at bringing Qatar to heel, this tiny, gas-rich strip of sand jutting into the Persian Gulf is still refusing to capitulate. In the meantime, it has adapted, retooling its economy and foreign relations in ways that could reshape the strategic layout of the Persian Gulf. – New York Times

The World Trade Organization (WTO) said on Tuesday it would investigate Qatar’s allegations of intellectual property breaches against Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s objection that the WTO had no standing to hear the case. – Reuters

The United States is worried about the growing influence of the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, a State Department official said Tuesday, as Lebanese politicians signaled they were nearing completion of forming a new government. – Times of Israel

Karen E. Young writes: The GCC states, led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar, are now global development actors. The United States is less of an actor or leader of this conversation, as the new “Prosper Africa” policy meekly demonstrates we are late to the game and largely out-classed in terms of development dollars in Africa, but even more so in the Middle East as post-conflict reconstruction will demand. […]The great game of regional influence is on; the ramifications are largely unknown. – American Enterprise Institute

Ilan I. Berman writes: Has ISIS truly been defeated? More and more signs suggest that the answer is “no.” […]triumphalism over the end of ISIS, although tempting, is extremely premature. The original threat posed by the Islamic State’s physical “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria may indeed be gone, but the group’s activities and ideology remain a real challenge both to the Muslim World and to the West. – The Washington Times

Korean Peninsula

Now Mr. Tu, who is 55, is in diplomatic limbo. After two stints in Chinese prisons for helping North Koreans flee, Mr. Tu sought asylum from South Korea in 2016. […]More than 30,000 North Koreans have fled their country, most resettling in the South—including more than 1,000 this year. Escape usually means a harrowing journey across China and into Southeast Asia, where they are received by South Korean officials. China routinely detains North Koreans on the run and sends them back to face imprisonment. – Wall Street Journal

North Korea on Tuesday warned against the disruptive influence it said smartphones could have on its isolated population, as the devices have begun to expose young people in particular to information and trends from the outside world. – New York Times

A U.S. envoy is due to visit South Korea on Wednesday, officials said, as Washington and Pyongyang struggle to find a breakthrough in their stalled talks aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear program. – Reuters

North Korea’s main state newspaper warned on Tuesday of the “negative impact” from mobile phones use around the world, as both legal and illicit communications devices proliferate in the isolated country. – Reuters

American officials plan to review sanctions slapped on North Korea and a ban on travel to the country imposed on U.S. citizens to ensure that they do not limit humanitarian aid, a U.S. special envoy said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Robert R. King writes: The actions taken were noteworthy, and positive in terms of emphasizing U.S. concern for human rights. At the same time, however, this is not a fundamental shift or a return to publicizing or pressing North Korea on its human rights abuses. These actions were all taken without a word from President Trump personally, and there has been no word on the issue from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. […]If there is a shift toward greater emphasis on human rights in U.S. policy, more than we have seen this week is required. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


When President Xi Jinping of China spoke at a meeting on Tuesday to celebrate the country’s shift 40 years ago to an era of “reform and opening up,” expectations were high that he would enumerate steps for revamping the economy and defusing trade tensions with the United States and others. – New York Times

As the Chinese tech giant Huawei expanded around the globe, supplying equipment to bring mobile phone and data service to the planet’s farthest reaches, its employees were urged on by a culture that celebrated daring feats in pursuit of new business. […]Now, the company’s aggressive ways have been cast in a new light. – New York Times

China and the U.S. held vice-ministerial level talks on Wednesday to discuss the ongoing trade dispute as they move closer to meeting in January. – Bloomberg

Michael Mazza writes: Meng’s arrest confirms what many already suspected: Huawei presents a multifaceted threat to U.S. interests, both at home and abroad. […]Of course, in addition to Ren’s hard work, there was (alleged) IP theft and, as Huawei grew, support from the Communist Party. Yes, Huawei is a private company, but it is also a tool of the Chinese Communist Party. Others ignore that simple truth at their own peril. – The Daily Caller

Claude Barfield writes: The point of these examples is that there is a fertile field under existing WTO rules and obligations to challenge China’s protectionism and WTO-illegal subsides. The US should move vigorously to recruit like-minded WTO members to its side. But first it must put forward its own proposals for DSU reform — and cease its reckless war on the multilateral framework for settling trade disputes. – American Enterprise Institute

Matthew P. Goodman and Stephanie Segal write: U.S. interests and values are far more aligned with those of allies like the European Union and Japan than with China’s. Moreover, we need partners to solve the very problems the Trump administration has identified as priorities. The administration may be winning grudging approval from allies for calling out China’s problematic practices, but the gains are smaller and the costs higher than the White House thinks. Rather than antagonizing allies and partners, Washington should be building coalitions with them to take on shared global challenges. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


While U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held talks with a high-level Taliban delegation in one hotel in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, representatives of the Afghan government stewed in another, waiting for a summons to hold indirect talks with the Taliban officials. – Wall Street Journal

Recognizing the incredible risks taken by Afghans like Sharifi who were helping the American-led coalition during the war, Congress passed a bill in 2009 to provide special visas to interpreters and civilians who had worked for at least one year — later changed to two years — for the American government and who could prove there were imminent threats on their lives. […]More than 17,000 Afghans who have applied for the S.I.V. over the years are still waiting for an answer from the State Department – New York Times

Violence is rising again in the region, where India has presided over a bloody campaign to hunt down those fighting a quixotic battle for independence. This year, according to police officials in Kashmir, Indian security forces have killed over 240 militants, the highest annual toll in more than a decade. But along with the combatants’ deaths has come a new set of casualties: those of civilians who try to defend them. – New York Times

Japan said it would protest Russia’s construction of military facilities on islands at the center of a decadeslong dispute that the countries had been trying to resolve. – Wall Street Journal

As Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enters a seventh year in office, he is chasing the holy grail of Japanese diplomacy: a breakthrough in a decades-old territorial row with Russia that has stymied a formal peace treaty since the end of World War Two. – Reuters

Russia has lodged a protest over India’s decision to disquality its two munitions systems from the $1.6 billion Army program, spurring newfound tensions between the two allies. – Defense News

Erin Dunne writes: The territorial snatch and grab tactics against Japan, a much more powerful adversary than Russia’s more recent prey, demonstrates emboldened aggression from Moscow. […]As the United States continues to talk about combating Russia’s election interference and engages in domestic political wrangling over the response, Washington would do well to remember that Russia is a very real threat to the U.S. and its allies, not just a shadowy organization stirring up hate and distrust on the Internet. – Washington Examiner


Ukraine won a new lending commitment from the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday, a lifeline from the West for a country whose economy has been sapped by corruption and war with Russian-backed separatists. – New York Times

President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that there was nothing to stop Russia and the United States holding talks with other countries about the possibility of them joining a landmark arms control treaty that is at risk of unraveling. – Reuters

Almost five years since Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine sparked Western sanctions that have helped to smother growth, European governments are losing the appetite for punishing actions against Moscow. That’s no solace for investors. – Bloomberg

A new missile system should give Western powers pause before they threaten Russia, Vladimir Putin told his defense advisers in Moscow on Tuesday. – Washington Examiner

David Ignatius writes: Put the two halves of Russian behavior together and you have a portrait of the modern information-war battlespace, as conceived by Moscow: a wide-open United States (and Europe, too) that can be manipulated by orchestrated propaganda campaigns that exploit every racial, ethnic and political division; and a closed-off Russia, where the authorities can muzzle any hint of dissent. – Washington Post

Alexis C. Madrigal writes: In their efforts to influence the 2016 election, Russian operatives targeted every major social platform, but one demographic group, black Americans, got special treatment[…]. Russian governments have long enjoyed poking the United States about the country’s treatment of African Americans. If celebrating equality for black people or protesting black people’s treatment by police is seen as exploiting American racial divisions, that says a lot about the country, in and of itself. – The Atlantic

Edward Lucas writes: Russia’s military looks impressive, but only so long as the adversaries are weak. It is no match for China or the United States. Russia can attack or bully smaller neighbors, but its real effectiveness relies on western disunity and weakness. That is diminishing. – Center for European Policy Analysis


The European Union added ammunition to its battle against Chinese domination of technology industries by approving plans from France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. to fund a multibillion research project in microelectronics. – Wall Street Journal

The populist Italian government’s first experiment in challenging Europe appeared to near its conclusion Tuesday with reports of the most conventional of outcomes: an agreement with Brussels bureaucrats. – Washington Post

U.S. President Donald Trump has sent a letter to Kosovo counterpart Hashim Thaci urging him to do everything to reach a longstanding deal with Serbia two decades after their war ended, according to Thaci’s official website. – Reuters

A recent survey revealed a slew of data on Dutch Jewish perceptions of anti-Semitism in their country. The study was carried out by the TV program, EenVandaag, with the assistance of the Jewish umbrella organization, CJO and the Jewish Social Organization (JMW). – Arutz Sheva

The Americas

The United States, joining an effort by Mexico, will commit to investing billions in Central America in hopes of ending the poverty, violence and drug-trafficking that are driving thousands of people in the region to undertake the difficult trek to the United States, the State Department announced on Tuesday. – New York Times

The Nation of Islam and its leaders have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the U.S. government since 2008 to teach religious study programs for federal prison inmates, according to records reviewed by the Washington Examiner. – Washington Examiner

Brazil’s far-right President-elect Jair Bolsonaro said on Tuesday that he would take all action “within the rule of law and democracy” to oppose the governments of Venezuela and Cuba. – Reuters

The United States pledged $5.8 billion in aid and investment Tuesday for strengthening government and economic development in Central America, and another $4.8 billion in development aid for southern Mexico. – Associated Press

President Trump and lawmakers should impose new sanctions on Russia if Moscow attempts to establish a base for nuclear bombers in the Caribbean Sea, according to a senior House Republican. – Washington Examiner

Cyber Security

For years, Facebook gave some of the world’s largest technology companies more intrusive access to users’ personal data than it has disclosed, effectively exempting those business partners from its usual privacy rules, according to internal records and interviews. – New York Times

Germany’s Office for Information Security (BSI) has issued warnings to several German firms named by the United States as possible victims of hacking attacks, a newspaper reported, adding that Chinese activity against German firms had increased. – Reuters

Facebook Inc has removed hundreds of additional accounts, pages and groups in Myanmar from its social networks after discovering what it called “coordinated inauthentic behavior” and links to the country’s military. – Reuters

The military services are exposing networks to “unnecessary cybersecurity risks” thanks in part to a lack of visibility over software application inventories, according to a Department of Defense Inspector General report. – Fifth Domain

The Pentagon has received more power to conduct cyber operations in the past 18 months. But for the top Army commander in the Middle East and Central Asia, the new authority is not enough. – Fifth Domain

The Marines are looking to big data analysis and potentially an IBM Watson-like machine or software to help conduct complex wargaming and plan for future battles in an immersive environment. – Marine Times

The use of social media to spread political disinformation has been widely acknowledged, but two new reports show that the Russian-linked influence campaign spread way beyond Facebook and Twitter. […]Here are all the social media platforms identified in the most recent reports on the Russia-linked disinformation campaign. – Business Insider

Dozens of civil rights groups on Tuesday called on Facebook to purge Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg from its board for blunders including “weaponizing anti-Semitism.” – Times of Israel

Tiana Lowe writes: As long as there is America guiding the rest of the world toward freedom, there will always be an authoritarian regime seeking to destroy it. Eradicating Russian trolls from the Internet won’t stop the next set of foreign or domestic dissidents from cropping up and seeking to wreak havoc within the American electorate. The onus to fight fake news is ultimately not on large and inept corporations, but on ourselves. – Washington Examiner


US President Donald Trump on Tuesday ordered the creation of “Space Command,” a new organizational structure within the Pentagon that will have overall control of military space operations. – Agence France-Presse

The timeline for fielding several major ship and weapons programs has been bumped up to “as soon as possible,” the chief of naval operations said, to counter Russian and Chinese military modernization. – USNI News

If the Air Force moves forward on a proposed initiative to buy light attack planes, it won’t happen by the end of 2018. The service intended to put out a final request for proposals this month for a potential light attack aircraft program, but the date has now slipped into 2019, an Air Force official confirmed Tuesday. – Defense News

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency awarded Lockheed Martin the Homeland Defense Radar-Hawaii contract, a $585 million deal that could open the door for billions in additional business. – C4ISRNET

Cuts to new ships, aircraft, maintenance and much-needed public shipyard modernization are on deck if Congress can’t come to an agreement to avert across-the-board cuts to the defense budget by January of 2020, according to a document submitted to lawmakers Dec. 12. – Defense News

Trump Administration

President Trump on Tuesday abandoned months of strident demands for Congress to give him $5 billion for his border wall, bowing to political reality as Republicans scrambled to avoid shutting down large portions of the government this weekend. – Washington Post

The world is changing fast and 2019 promises to be another bewildering and chaotic year. […]In 2019, a number of these transitions from the post-Cold War era have the potential to come to a head, each carrying “worst case” risks. To help navigate them, we’ve compiled a calendar of some of the key moments to watch, organized by topic.  – Bloomberg

Marc A. Thiessen writes: Impeaching him over pre-presidential conduct unrelated to Russia would be seen by Trump voters as an effort to invalidate their votes. It would be received in Trump country as nothing short of an attempted coup. That could provoke a massive backlash. Just as the Democrats’ campaign to destroy Brett M. Kavanaugh cost them the chance to take back the Senate in 2018, a campaign to impeach Trump could very well cost them the chance to take back the presidency in 2020. – Washington Post

Philip Bump writes: More broadly, there’s no evidence that the Russian social media efforts were particularly sophisticated in their targeting or messaging. […]Russia does seem to have altered the trajectory of the 2016 election. But this appears to have happened not by leveraging social media in clever and focused ways but by leveraging the traditional media to cover the WikiLeaks dumps. – Washington Post

Eli Lake writes: All of which is to say: Two years ago, outside observers could be excused for being suspicious of Michael Flynn’s ties to Russia. The same, however, cannot be said of the FBI. […]Nearly two years after the FBI trapped Flynn, the crime the Justice Department was investigating remains unknown. If it turns out that the reason Flynn was a target is as flimsy as violating the Logan Act or not being candid with his colleagues, then that itself is a scandal. The FBI’s independence is not a license to interfere in American politics. – Bloomberg