Fdd's overnight brief

December 20, 2019

In The News


In a broad-brush critique of Iran’s human rights record, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday announced new visa restrictions on officials responsible for a crackdown on anti-government protesters. – Washington Post 

An Iranian judge who sentenced the American graduate student Xiyue Wang to a decade in prison was hit with United States sanctions on Thursday in the Trump administration’s latest pressure offensive against Tehran. – New York Times 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is visiting Tokyo to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday, in hopes of easing a nuclear impasse between Tehran and Washington and reduce tensions in the Middle East. – Associated Press  

Iran President Hassan Rouhani said his country is working on the development of new, advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges, according to Iranian state-run news agency IRNA, a move that appears to violate the landmark nuclear agreement Tehran signed with world powers in 2015. – CNN 

The United States said new evidence and analysis of weapons debris recovered from an attack on Saudi oil facilities on Sept. 14 indicates the strike likely came from the north, reinforcing its earlier assessment that Iran was behind the offensive. – Reuters

European lawmakers today passed a non-binding resolution deploring Iranian security forces’ widespread and disproportionate use of force against non-violent protesters in recent weeks and urged Iran to officially announce the death toll. – Radio Farda 

Hit by U.S. sanctions that make it difficult to get Western insurers from covering Iranian exports, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday proposed setting up a transport insurance mechanism exclusively for Muslim nations. – Reuters

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft made a rare compassionate public gesture toward her Iranian counterpart in the U.N. Security Council chamber on Thursday. – Reuters 

The United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday called on the US — which hosts the organization’s headquarters — to lift restrictions on Iranian diplomats. – Agence France-Presse 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani urged Muslim nations on Thursday to deepen financial and trade cooperation to fight what he described as U.S. economic hegemony, using an Islamic conference in Malaysia as a platform to decry American sanctions against his country. – Associated Press

Chairman of the Iranian Parliament’ National Security and Foreign Policy Commission Mojtaba Zonnour said that if the EU-proposed INSTEX is operationalized, Tehran may reconsider taking the fifth step in reducing its commitments to the nuclear deal. – Mehr News 

European lawmakers have passed a resolution denouncing the “widespread and disproportionate” use of force by Iranian security forces against nonviolent protesters. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Lebanon has designated a new prime minister, whose candidacy was proposed by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah movement, a move that risks provoking further political unrest and alienating the country’s Western allies just when Lebanon most needs international support for its rapidly collapsing economy. – Washington Post 

Germany’s parliament adopted a motion on Thursday urging the government to ban Hezbollah from operating in the country in the latest move by a Western nation to isolate the Iran-backed Lebanese movement. – Wall Street Journal

Hussein Ibish writes: Hezbollah, in particular, is desperate to protect the existing political order, one that maximizes its influence and minimizes its responsibility. No one stands to lose more from the sweeping reforms demanded by the protesters: a complete overhaul of the political system, undertaken by a government of unaffiliated technocrats. […]And what if, as is likely, the new man is rejected by the protesters? It is conceivable Hezbollah will go back to the drawing board, and seek another compromise candidate who preserves the status quo. – Bloomberg


The Russian and Syrian militaries wrapp ed up their first-ever joint naval drills as their armed forces launched a new land assault against the northwest Syrian province of Idlib. – Newsweek 

Civilians in opposition-held Syria face a cold, hungry start to the winter with an intensified bombing campaign forcing thousands to flee their homes while fuel shortages threaten medical care and push up prices of food and transport. – The Guardian 

Tessa Fox writes: Just two months after the launch of Turkey’s most recent incursion into Syria, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, civilians’ return to areas now occupied by Turkish forces has already begun. […]But there is no evidence these Syrian families who were sheltering in Turkey once lived in Syria’s northeast. Furthermore, the return of families who were sheltering in Jarabulus for the last few years ignores the need for the most recent wave of internally displaced people to return, too. – Foreign Policy


Just weeks after a NATO summit brushed internal disputes under the carpet, renewed sparring between the U.S. and Turkey points to longer term risks to the alliance. – Bloomberg

Turkey on Thursday denied accusations that a militant Palestinian group is using its territory to plan attacks against Israel. – Associated Press

Following a currency crisis sparked by US-Turkey tensions last year, the Turkish lira recovered much of its losses and remained fairly stable through 2019. Economic difficulties persisted with high unemployment, slow growth and grim news reports of families committing mass suicide due to their inability to pay off debts — but overall, Turkish markets proved more resilient than expected. – Al-Monitor 


The new conservative government in the UK will stop local authorities from supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday, presenting his plans for the coming years. – Jerusalem Post 

For the second time in less than 24 hours Israeli jets struck Hamas positions in the southern Gaza Strip following earlier rocket fire on Thursday evening. – Jerusalem Post 

Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas will join forces in the next round of fighting with Israel, PIJ Secretary-General Ziyad al-Nakhalah said on Thursday. – Jerusalem Post 

The US Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit seeking to revoke the naturalized citizenship of Abdul Jabbar Naji Shalabi, who is accused of falsely obtaining citizenship by concealing a conviction in Israel for supporting Hamas’ activities. – Jerusalem Post 

Arabian Peninsula

The Pentagon has completed a security screening of all Saudi Arabian military students in the United States and found no security threats, defense officials said Thursday, nearly two weeks after a Saudi lieutenant killed three people and wounded eight others at a Navy base in Florida. – Washington Post

A man arrested for stabbing three performers at a live show in Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh last month was operating under orders from al Qaeda in Yemen, state television said on Thursday without citing evidence. – Reuters 

Warring parties in Yemen’s Taiz governorate have exchanged dozens of prisoners in a locally-mediated swap, the Iran-aligned Houthi movement and government sources said on Thursday. – Reuters 

A European operation to ensure safe shipping in the Gulf region, scene of attacks on merchant vessels this year, will get underway next month when a French warship starts patrolling there, a French armed forces spokeswoman said on Thursday. – Reuters


The UN-recognised Libyan government has agreed to activate a military cooperation agreement with Turkey, bringing closer the possible dispatch of Turkish advisory troops to help defend the capital, Tripoli, from an attack by forces supported by the United Arab Emirates and Russia. – The Guardian

 Egypt has told the U.N. Security Council it rejects two agreements between Turkey and Libya’s U.N.-supported government on maritime rights in the Mediterranean and military cooperation. – Associated Press 

Turkey doesn’t foresee deploying combat troops to Libya under its military pact to support the country’s internationally recognized government, but could send personnel to help with training and guidance if requested by Tripoli, according to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s envoy to the fractured nation. – Bloomberg

David Rosenberg writes: What’s Erdogan up to? One commentator suggests that since Turkey hasn’t found any oil or gas in its internationally recognized EEZ, it’s decided to make it bigger. Or, it’s Erdogan’s ambition to turn Turkey into a regional super-power and his predilection for conflict over cooperation that explain his attitude. – Haaretz 

Soner Cagaptay and Ben Fishman write: U.S. indecision regarding the battle for Tripoli has allowed the Russians to gain influence on the southern flank of NATO. It has also created another unnecessary friction point with Turkey, as well as between Ankara and other U.S. allies in the East Mediterranean. Washington now has a narrow window to prevent further violence in Libya and limit Moscow’s influence there. […]U.S. officials should also threaten to use existing sanctions authorities against violators of a ceasefire once it is signed. – Washington Institute

Middle East & North Africa

With wisps of smoke still rising from the remnants of another night of violence, the workers came in the morning to salvage what merchandise they could from the torched warehouses in Baghdad’s central commercial district. – Associated Press

In his November 18, 2019 column in the London-based daily Al-Arab, Tunisian writer and poet Habib Lassoued attacked the U.S., saying it was continuing to cultivate relations with Qatar and to praise it for its contribution to regional security while ignoring the extensive evidence of Qatar’s support for global terrorism and Iran-sponsored terrorism. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Sevan Araz writes: The delineation of a national cybersecurity strategy marks a major milestone in Lebanese technology policy. As Beirut builds on the nascent strategy and refines its cybersecurity doctrine, the National Cybersecurity Committee and its institutional successors would do well to tackle lingering policy gaps. Bolstering Lebanon’s feeble data privacy laws is an ideal starting point. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

Hundreds of North Korean laborers are streaming out of Russia every day, thinning out a workforce that once stood at 30,000. Only several thousand remain. On most days this month, North Korean airline Air Koryo flies twice from Vladivostok to Pyongyang, up from twice a week earlier this year. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. is closely watching North Korea for signs of a possible missile launch or nuclear test in the coming days that officials are referring to as a “Christmas surprise.” – Associated Press

China on Thursday urged the United States and North Korea to resume dialogue and work to resolve disagreements as soon as possible amid renewed tensions between Washington and Pyongyang over the latter’s nuclear and missiles programs. – Reuters 

A last minute flurry of diplomacy aimed at engaging with North Korea ahead of its declared year-end deadline for talks has been met with stony silence from Pyongyang so far, with the looming crisis expected to top the agenda at summits in China next week. – Reuters 

North Korea stands to lose a rare legitimate source of foreign currency, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, if nations that employ its people as guest workers abide by a U.N. order to send them all home by this weekend. – Associated Press

Eight Democratic senators sent a letter to President Trump yesterday expressing “grave and growing concern” that his efforts to achieve complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula “appear to be stalled and on the brink of failure.” – Washington Examiner 


The European Union’s new leadership team has set a priority of deepening economic ties with China while protecting its own markets, a top official said, casting 2020 as a test of whether strains in Europe’s relations with Beijing can be reversed. – Wall Street Journal

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday the U.S. shouldn’t sign a final trade deal with China until the cases of Huawei Technologies Co. executive Meng Wanzhou and two Canadians detained in China have been resolved. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese officials have begun applying economic pressure to countries debating a partnership with their flagship telecommunications company amid American allegations that the advanced technology poses an espionage threat. – Washington Examiner 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping met Thursday with Macao’s new chief executive amid celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the former Portuguese colony’s handover to Chinese rule. – Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidates took aim at China on Thursday, with Joe Biden saying that ethnic Uighur Muslims are being kept in “concentration camps” and calling for sanctions against the world’s second-largest economy. – Bloomberg

Josh Rogin writes: U.S. research institutions have been asleep to Beijing’s efforts for a long time because they think of themselves as practicing “open science” — rather than “strategic science,” as the Chinese government does. Some believe that because the research will eventually be published, the China threat is overblown. But that ignores the huge body of evidence that the Chinese government is using talent programs not for mutually beneficial collaboration but as vehicles to steal non-public research to feed their own national ambitions. – Washington Post 

William C. Pacatte writes: Only in the past two years have the United States and its allies and partners come to the realization that an alternative to the BRI is a strategic necessity. To counter the geopolitical gains that Beijing is reaping through the BRI, a program that can compete with BRI is required. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Tori Smith and Riley Waters write: If the “phase one” deal with China announced by the White House works out, Americans can consider it an early Christmas gift. Details are still sparse, and the agreement text will not be available until after the New Year. But for now, this is a win. Agreements on trade should be a “win win” for all parties involved. Even as pundits argue whether the United States and China is the bigger winner, however, the American people have won already by now avoiding a big lump of coal in their stockings this year. – The Hill

John Vrolyk writes: The problem is not that the defense strategy prioritizes interstate strategic competition over terrorism. It correctly identifies China as the overriding strategic challenge for American interests. […]Competing with China might include a great-power war in the Western Pacific — but it’s almost certainly going to consist of fighting proxy wars and insurgencies around the globe where American and Chinese interests clash. – War on the Rocks

South Asia

Former Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday night said he pushed back on the Obama administration’s surge of troops in Afghanistan beginning in 2009, calling nation building a mistake and unachievable. – The Hill

The Trump administration has approved a resumption of Pakistan’s participation in a coveted U.S. military training and educational program more than a year after it was suspended, the State Department said on Thursday. – Reuters 

Frederick W. Kagan writes: Afghanistan isn’t Vietnam. It isn’t even Iraq. George W. Bush did not lie America into this war. He, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and their generals and diplomats didn’t conceal the challenges and failures the US was facing. The “revelations” in The Washington Post are only new to people who have forgotten front page news from a few years ago. The documents The Post obtained just aren’t the Pentagon Papers, however much some would like them to be. – American Enterprise Institute


Hong Kong protesters rallied outside diplomatic missions on Thursday to urge foreign governments to follow the United States and pass human rights bills to raise pressure on Beijing and support their pro-democracy campaign. – Reuters 

President Xi Jinping said on Friday China would never allow foreign forces to interfere with its special regions of Hong Kong and Macau, as he swore in a new pro-Beijing government for the gambling hub of Macau. – Reuters 

Jillian Kay Melchior writes:  Hong Kong’s reputation for the rule of law has made it a global financial hub, while Macau is a backwater, famous only for its casinos. You can see why Hong Kongers prefer to do things their way. But if the Communists in Beijing care about economic growth, they should be careful what they wish for. – Wall Street Journal

Nisha Gopalan writes: Macau has a great future ahead of it. As a gambling hub. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s call for the city to broaden its economy misses the point. Macau’s golden goose is that it’s the only place in China where casino gambling is legal. Why go looking for another meal ticket with an advantage like that? – Bloomberg


Russian leader Vladimir Putin triggered a flurry of speculation Thursday when he suggested he was open to a constitutional change that would limit any president to no more than two terms. – Washington Post 

Shooting erupted near the fortresslike headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service in central Moscow on Thursday evening, the spy agency reported in a series of statements that also said one of its agents had been killed. – New York Times 

It took roughly 90 minutes for the topic of President Trump’s impeachment to come up at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annual end-of-year news conference, but when the subject was finally broached, Putin defended his American counterpart. – Washington Post 

Russia will carry out tests on Monday on the reliability of its domestic internet infrastructure in the event that the country is disconnected from the worldwide web, the communications ministry said. – Reuters 

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday Russia is not planning to create a military alliance with China, despite Moscow helping Beijing build a missile attack warning system. – Reuters 

Israeli woman jailed in Russia for seven years over drug offenses said during her appeal hearing on Thursday that she was “forced” to sign documents in the Russian language without knowing what they were. – Ynet 

Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed the prospect of an “upcoming nuclear war” with the United States, despite recent Russian predictions of a “large-scale military conflict” with NATO. – Washington Examiner 

Russia and Ukraine reached an “agreement in principle” Thursday on the future transit of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory, days before the current deal between the two countries is due to expire at the end of the year. – Associated Press

Two former U.S. ambassadors criticized legislation that seeks to impose sanctions on companies building Russia’s $11-billion gas pipeline to Germany, saying it could harm relations between the two NATO countries. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Bulgarian officials say an investigation into the attempted assassination of an arms maker is focusing on five suspected Russian agents — including a Russian military intelligence general alleged to have commanded a team accused in the 2018 Novichok attack in Britain against former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Douglas Carr writes: It is time for the U.S. and EU to work together for Ukraine and for themselves. The EU should replace its shaky sanctions regime with a Russian import tariff, and the U.S. should waive sanctions. – The Hill


Lawyers for Julian Assange said on Thursday they will argue that the WikiLeaks founder cannot be sent from Britain to the United States to face spying charges because a treaty between the two countries bans extradition for political offences. – Reuters 

Britain’s government rejected Scotland’s First Minister demands for a new independence referendum after Brexit, saying it would be “a damaging distraction” and would undermine the result of the last vote five years ago. – Reuters

Russia, Ukraine and the European Commission, after hours-long talks on Thursday, agreed in principle on a new gas deal starting after Jan 1, 2020, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic told a briefing. – Reuters 

A jailed Catalan separatist leader was entitled to immunity as a member of the European Parliament, the EU’s highest court ruled on Thursday. – Reuters 

A group of 25 former Islamic State fighters, women and children, some of them orphaned, returned to Bosnia on Thursday, the prosecutor’s office and the security ministry said. – Reuters 

Germany’s foreign intelligence agency has declassified documents regarding its employment of the daughter of top Nazi Heinrich Himmler as a secretary in the early 1960s, the country’s top-selling newspaper reported Thursday. – Associated Press

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to overhaul the U.K.’s security laws to bring them in line with the U.S. in a crackdown on spies, saboteurs and hackers working for foreign states such as Russia, North Korea and Iran. – Bloomberg

Gary J. Schmitt writes: On more than one occasion in recent years, a German politician has indicated that Germany must find its way between the United States, China, and Russia, suggesting a kind of soft equivalence between the three. But developing policies that reflect that position is going to be increasingly difficult to do. – The American Interest


The border region of Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger lies at the centre of a jihadist revolt spreading along the Sahara’s southern rim. […]Soldiers peering through night-vision goggles attached to their helmets man the camp perimeter, assault rifles primed. Such scenes are everyday for troops from France’s 4,500-strong Barkhane mission when they are deployed in the field. – Agency France-Presse 

South Sudan is recalling its ambassador to the United States, an adviser to the president told the Associated Press on Thursday. – Associated Press 

“Piracy is a business,” says John Steed of the Hostage Support Partnership. “And the investors are still putting money in the business.” He adds, “As piracy is reduced in East Africa, piracy in West Africa and Southeast Asia has increased.” It feeds off the enormous amount of global ship traffic, with 11 billion tons shipped internationally in 2018. – Bloomberg 

Calls for reform of an African currency bloc, which has its roots in French colonial rule, could prove disruptive for foreign investors, analysts have suggested. – CNBC

The Americas

The House of Representatives voted Thursday in favor of a new trade deal for North America, delivering a hard-fought victory to President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) a day after Democrats impeached the president. – Washington Post 

The departure of Mr. Morales has helped to end a powerful but damaging chapter for the left in Latin America. He was part of a generation of socialist leaders who took charge in the early and mid-2000s, each drawing strength from the rise of the rest. At the height of the trend in 2009, presidents making up the so-called “Pink Tide” led 11 countries and some 300 million people. – Wall Street Journal

Guatemala’s Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart told Reuters on Thursday that he had analyzed whether Mexicans seeking asylum in the United States could be sent instead to the Central American country, adding that he could not “rule out” that possibility. – Reuters


Facial recognition systems can produce wildly inaccurate results, especially for non-whites, according to a US government study released Thursday that is likely to raise fresh doubts on deployment of the artificial intelligence technology. – Agency France-Presse 

The United States said a cybercrime resolution sponsored by Russia is an attempt to push state cyber controls and fears it will pass the United Nations General Assembly later this month. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

EU regulators must make more effort to stop tech companies from transferring data to countries with weaker data-protection standards, an advisor to the European Union’s top court said Thursday. It’s the latest in a lengthy and complex legal case involving an Austrian privacy campaigner and Facebook. – Associated Press

Congress codified the role of Department of Homeland Security cybersecurity professionals designated for hunting for and responding to cybersecurity threats as part of a larger spending bill that passed the Senate Dec.19. – Fifth Domain

Congress is poised to give states a last-minute infusion of federal funds to help boost election security with voting in early caucus and primary states slated to begin in February. – Associated Press

The potential for artificial intelligence in the military is vast, but the Pentagon does not have a coherent strategy to use it. That’s the conclusion from an exhaustive study by RAND, published Dec. 17, and commissioned by the Department of Defense to understand how, exactly, the military is planning for a future of greater machine intelligence. – C4ISRNET

Ben Garfinkel and Allan Dafoe write: One of the most important open questions is whether applications of AI, such as drone swarms and software vulnerability discovery tools, will tend to be more useful for conducting offensive or defensive military operations. If AI favors the offense, then a significant body of international relations theory suggests that this could have destabilizing effects. States could find themselves increasingly able to use force and increasingly frightened of having force used against them, making arms-racing and war more likely. – War on the Rocks


The Trump administration is celebrating the launch of Space Force, the first new military service in more than 70 years. – Associated Press

The U.S. Air Force accepted its first MH-139 Grey Wolf helicopter Thursday, paving the way for the replacement of the aging UH-1N Huey helicopters that have patrolled missile fields for almost five decades. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy’s littoral combat ship program endured another round of budget cuts this year to its mission modules, but all is not gloom for the Navy’s small surface combatants. – Defense News

Inmarsat is adding a new communications satellite to its fleet that is focused on Europe and the Middle East in response to what it sees as increased military demand for commercial bandwidth in that region. – C4ISRNET

The ideal battlefield network is so ever-present as to be unnoticeable. While the ubiquity of coverage people expect in civilian spaces is unlikely to be matched in combat, new communications tools hope to extend that power to military. One such device is the Helikite aerostat. – C4ISRNET

Grace Kier writes: In order to improve global security and avoid the type of scenario described above, the United States should further engage Russia on arms control and nuclear security; these issues are inherently intertwined with other key issues in the U.S.-Russian relationship, including cybersecurity and geopolitical competition. By effectively engaging Russia on nuclear security, the United States would see tangible results in these other sectors as well, thereby improving global security across many dimensions. – Foreign Policy

Trump Administration

The day after the House cast historic votes to impeach President Trump, Speaker Nancy Pelosi put an abrupt halt on the proceedings, holding back from sending the charges to the Republican-led Senate in a politically risky bid to exert influence over the contours of an election-year trial. – New York Times 

The federal prosecutor scrutinizing the Russia investigation has begun examining the role of the former C.I.A. director John O. Brennan in how the intelligence community assessed Russia’s 2016 election interference, according to three people briefed on the inquiry. – New York Times 

The US Senate on Thursday confirmed North Korea negotiator Stephen Biegun to be the State Department’s number two, raising the possibility that the veteran Republican will become the acting top US diplomat next year. – Agence France-Presse 

John Sullivan, the former deputy secretary of State who is now heading to Moscow as U.S. ambassador to Russia, said he will try to focus on areas where the two sides can cooperate, even with relations between the two sides still at a post-Cold-War low. – Bloomberg