Fdd's overnight brief

December 26, 2018

In The News


Prominent British-Iranian scholar detained in Iran since April has returned to Britain, according to an advocacy organization he helped found. – New York Times

Iran said Tuesday it plans to spend more money on the poor next year and increase salaries for government employees in an attempt to boost living standards as the government tries to cope with growing U.S. sanctions pressure on its struggling economy. – Wall Street Journal

India has formally taken over operations at Iran’s strategic Chabahar Port, a move that could have significant geopolitical ramifications in the region. The port on the Indian Ocean, inaugurated last year, is being built largely by India and is expected to provide a key supply route for Afghanistan while allowing India to bypass rival Pakistan to trade with Central Asia. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

A high-ranking Iranian naval commander dismissed the possibility of a military confrontation with the United States, arguing that Washington did not have the “courage or ability” to launch such a strike. Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari responded on Monday to the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier’s arrival in the Persian Gulf on Friday, following a long absence of such ships from the waterway. – Newsweek


Pope Francis Tuesday called for a political solution to the civil war in Syria, less than a week after President Trump abruptly announced his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country. The pope’s remarks came in his annual Christmas speech “Urbi et Orbi”—“to the city [of Rome] and the world”—which is traditionally a survey of trouble spots and a call for peace around the world. – Wall Street Journal

Israeli warplanes flying over Lebanon fired missiles toward areas near the Syrian capital of Damascus late Tuesday, hitting an arms depot and wounding three soldiers, Syrian state media reported, saying that most of the missiles were shot down by air defense units. – Associated Press

Turkey said Tuesday it is working with the United States to coordinate the withdrawal of American forces but remains “determined” to clear U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters from northeastern Syria. – Associated Press

Turkey vowed on Monday that the fight against Islamic State would not be slowed by the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, where Ankara-backed rebels reinforced their positions around the potential flashpoint town of Manbij. – Reuters

Gulf nations are moving to readmit Syria into the Arab League, eight years after Damascus was expelled from the regional bloc over its brutal repression of peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad. – The Guardian

Syrian government forces have entered the country’s northern border region of Manbij controlled by Kurdish fighters, local sources told Al Jazeera and Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency. – Al Jazeera

Turkey is determined to cross to the east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria as soon as possible, Ankara’s foreign minister was quoted as saying on Tuesday, signaling renewed intent to launch a military campaign delayed by the U.S. withdrawal. – Reuters

A top Israeli official has expressed concern over the fate of the Kurds in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from the country. “The Kurds are great heroes,” Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told Army Radio on Sunday, “Because of them, the West succeeded in its fight against ISIS.” – Algemeiner


Turkey sent more troops and tanks to its border with Syria, state media reported, continuing to amass along Kurdish-held areas after President Trump said Ankara would take over the fight against Islamic State there. The president last week abruptly ordered a U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria, triggering concerns that the move could allow the extremist group to rebuild. – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump has been invited to visit Turkey in 2019 by that country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the White House said on Monday night. – Bloomberg

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Tuesday that he will most probably meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss U.S. withdrawal from Syria. He did not disclose the timing of the meeting. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will travel to Russia in the coming days to discuss the same issue, broadcaster CNN Turk quoted him as saying on Tuesday. – Reuters

Yaroslav Trofimov writes: President Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw U.S. troops from east Syria, transferring the region to Turkish military control, goes beyond the wildest expectations of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For Mr. Erdogan, this may also turn into an example of the need to be careful what you wish for. – Wall Street Journal


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition announced Monday that early elections will be held in April, sending the Israeli leader back to face the voters at a time when he is confronting mounting criticism over his handling of security and under investigation for bribery. – Washington Post

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely remain at the head of Israel’s government after April elections, according to a poll taken after the vote was moved up on Monday, the daily Maariv reported. – Bloomberg

Prime Minister and Defense Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that the Israeli army has nearly completed Operation Northern Shield, aimed at destroying Hezbollah’s cross-border tunnels, which began earlier this month. – Haaretz

Adam Taylor writes: If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wins next year’s freshly announced snap election, he will become Israel’s longest-serving premier — besting even the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion. Recent polling suggests that Netanyahu is on course to do just that, despite his involvement in corruption scandals that could yet send him to prison. – Washington Post

Shmuley Boteach writes: For defenders and lovers of Israel, Airbnb’s partial retraction of their discriminatory policy of de-listing Jewish homes in Judea and Samaria is cause to celebrate. True, the hospitality behemoth did not completely reverse their biased and bigoted attack on Jewish homeowners living in Biblical lands west of the Jordan river. But their humiliating climb-down, caused by ferocious pressure from pro-Israel groups and others, demonstrates that BDS can and must be defeated. – Algemeiner

Saudi Arabia

An elderly Saudi lawyer who had defended human rights activists has been released after seven months in detention, according to two people familiar with the matter. Ibrahim Almodaimigh, who is about 80, was arrested in May along with some of the kingdom’s most prominent female activists, including Loujain Al Hathloul, Aziza Alyousef and Eman Al Nafjan. The government accused the group of collaborating with unspecified foreign entities hostile to Saudi Arabia. – Bloomberg

US President Donald Trump has said Saudi Arabia will spend the “necessary money” to help reconstruct war-torn Syria, without offering any details. Trump’s comments on Monday came days after he took to Twitter to announce the withdrawal of all 2,000 US troops from Syria while also abruptly declaring victory over the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in the country. – Al Jazeera

Haisam Hassanein writes: After the unfortunate killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has relied on leaks and insinuations to pressure and damage Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s international standing. The tactics deployed by Erdogan have proven to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, leading MbS to lose any hope of restoring the already tense relations with Turkey. For MbS, Israel represents the ideal non-Arab state to integrate into his vision for the region. – Jerusalem Post


A suicide bomber struck the Libyan Foreign Ministry in the capital, Tripoli, killing three people on Tuesday, security officials said. – Associated Press

Islamic State claimed a suicide attack on the Libyan Foreign Ministry’s headquarters in Tripoli that officials said killed three people, in the latest blow to efforts to stabilize the war-ravaged North African nation. – Bloomberg

Russia said it supports a political role for the son of deposed Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who’s bidding to take over the leadership of the oil-rich North African state. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

When the prince, then the Saudi defense minister, sent fighter jets to Yemen in March 2015, Pentagon officials were flustered to receive just 48 hours notice of the first strikes against Houthi rebels, two former senior American officials said. American officials were persuaded by Saudi assurances the campaign would be over in weeks. – New York Times

Sources in the US Defense Department claim that several senior Hezbollah officials had been hit in an alleged Israeli airstrike near Damascus, according to a report Wednesday by Newsweek. Tuesday night’s strike, apparently targeting Iran and Hezbollah’s arms depots located southwest of Damascus, occurred shortly after the terror group’s officials had boarded a plane bound for Tehran. – Associated Press

C. Jacob and H. Varulkar write: On this backdrop, many political circles accused Hizbullah of deliberately sabotaging the establishment of the government and paralyzing political life in Lebanon in an attempt to impose compliance with its demands. These circles even accused Hizbullah of violating the Taif Agreement, which regulates the relations between the sects in Lebanon, and which is anchored in the Lebanese constitution. –  Middle East Institute Research Institute

Korean Peninsula

A federal judge in Washington awarded the parents of Otto Warmbier more than half a billion dollars in a wrongful death suit against the North Korean government, which detained and allegedly tortured the college student over 17 months before returning him to the US last year, where he died days later. – CNN

North and South Korea broke ground Wednesday on an ambitious project to modernize North Korean railways and roads and connect them with the South, but without progress in nuclear negotiations, regular trains won’t be crossing the border anytime soon. – Associated Press

North Korea is impatient that U.S. and international sanctions remain in force against it. We should expect at least one new North Korean missile test in the months ahead. In an aggressive statement on Thursday, North Korea warned that “The United States must now recognize … the accurate meaning of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula … means the removal of all sources of nuclear threat, not only from the South and North but also from areas neighboring the Korean Peninsula.” – Washington Examiner


As millions around the world gathered to celebrate Christmas, China is capping a year in which the government of President Xi Jinping has led an unrelenting campaign against unofficial churches in China, which by some estimates serve as many as 30 million people.- New York Times

In the U.S., China’s steel is used for everything from bridges and oil pipes to home appliances and cutlery. China’s emergence as a steel powerhouse over four relentless decades, driven by global demand and supported by government subsidies, cheap loans and tax breaks, helped the country become the world’s second-largest economy from one of the poorest. It’s also one of the main drivers of trade tensions coursing through the global economy. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese police locked down a courthouse on Wednesday at the start of the trial of a prominent rights lawyer who is accused of subversion of state power and whose case has attracted widespread concern in Western capitals. – Reuters

China on Monday lashed out at Canada and the US for demanding the release of detained Canadians and accused Western countries of double standards.“The Chinese side expressed strong dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to the statements made by Canada and the US,” Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing. – Agence France-Presse


The death toll from an attack Monday on two government office buildings by heavily armed men rose to 43 people, Public Health Ministry officials said Tuesday. – Washington Post

Funerals were held across the Afghan capital on Tuesday for victims of a deadly attack on a government compound, an assault that cast a further pall over a city reeling with confusion and concern over the prospect of the withdrawal from the country of thousands of U.S. forces. – Wall Street Journal

An Afghan official says a suicide bomber disguised as a beggar has killed six people in a wealthy subdivision of the southern city of Kandahar. – Associated Press


Global charities have said their operations in India are in danger after the government froze their bank accounts, forcing them to shed staff. Amnesty International and Greenpeace have accused India of launching a “smear campaign” against NGOs, activists and journalists critical of the government. – The Guardian

Japan’s top government spokesman said on Wednesday his government wants to promote rules that protect free and fair trade for the global economy. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, […]said Japan is ready to explain its stance in trade negotiations with the United States. Suga also warned that the global rules of trade could be compromised if all countries simply pursued their own interests. – Reuters

Senior Chinese and Pakistani diplomats discussed on Tuesday “new changes” to the situation in Afghanistan, China’s foreign ministry said, amid plans by the United States to withdraw about half of the 14,000 U.S. troops based in the country. – Reuters

Two Reuters journalists jailed while reporting on the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar are set to appeal the decision on Monday, after spending more than a year in prison. – Reuters


Russia’s UN ambassador says relations between Moscow and Washington are “practically non-existent,” which he says is bad not only for both countries but for the world — and he sees little prospect for improvement anytime soon. – Associated Press

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has expanded Russia’s targeted sanctions against Ukrainian individuals and legal entities. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

A Ukrainian minister has condemned the “shortsightedness” of some EU countries over Russia’s aims and urged the bloc to impose news sanctions over Moscow’s capture last month of Ukrainian naval ships. – Financial Times

As people in Western Europe and the United States get comfortable for the holidays, the chances increase that Russia will take advantage of the distraction to launch attacks against its neighbor Ukraine, experts said. – Newsweek


Britain has commissioned an independent review into the persecution of Christians to find practical steps to support followers of a religion that it said has been subject to a dramatic rise in violence worldwide. – Reuters

German police said on Tuesday they had found a flag of the Islamic State (IS) militant group near the site of a suspected attack on a railway track in Berlin and that investigators were examining whether the perpetrators had any political motives. – Reuters

Micheal Birnbaum writes: Right now, police and counterterrorism officials can tap into E.U. databases to check on the people they encounter at border crossings and during traffic stops. European security officials credit that information-sharing, which increased significantly after a spate of terrorist attacks in 2015, with helping to foil major new plots. British law enforcement officials consulted one crime-stopping database, the Schengen Information System, 539 million times in 2017. – Washington Post

United States

President Trump said Tuesday that he intends to keep the federal government closed until he secures the desired funding from Congress for his promised border wall, and he cast doubt about the performance of Federal Reserve Board Chair Jerome H. Powell after a sharp downturn in U.S. stock markets. – Washington Post

“We are not the Department of No,” Mr. Shanahan told Pentagon officials after Space Force was announced, arguing that it was a presidential priority and could help develop new military capabilities more quickly. “There is a vision, and it makes sense.” – New York Times

Richard Cohen writes: Times readers howled. The paper should have flagged the book as an anti-Semitic tome, they insisted. The Times disagreed. It doesn’t do that sort of thing in its “By the Book” feature. In the Times’s response, the paper conceded that Icke “has been accused of anti-Semitism,” a bit like conceding that David Duke has been accused of racism. – Washington Post

Latin America

In exchange for modest loans and bailouts over the past decade, Russia now owns significant parts of at least five oil fields in Venezuela, which holds the world’s largest reserves, along with 30 years’ worth of future output from two Caribbean natural-gas fields. – Washington Post

This giant dam in the jungle, financed and built by China, was supposed to christen Ecuador’s vast ambitions, solve its energy needs and help lift the small South American country out of poverty. Instead, it has become part of a national scandal engulfing the country in corruption, perilous amounts of debt — and a future tethered to China. – New York Times

Venezuela’s foreign ministry on Tuesday described as “interventionist and disrespectful” U.S. comments on a weekend incident in which the country’s navy stopped two ships exploring for oil for Exxon Mobil off Guyana’s coast. – Reuters


A sweeping update of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, passed by Congress in 2016, will take effect on Jan. 1, bringing dozens of changes that are intended to make the system fairer and more efficient. Most are the kind of procedural tweaks that concern lawyers, not sailors. But the bread-and-water part will be felt on all decks. – New York Times

The Marine Corps is drafting a plan to inform how it designs capabilities for its nascent information forces. Among the three priorities for the deputy commandant for information, […], is using the new Marine Expeditionary Force Information Groups, or MIGs. These teams will work on all information-related capabilities, providing commanders a clearinghouse of options including cyber, intelligence, electronic warfare and information operations. – Defense News

After an aborted launch Tues., Dec. 18, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket successfully carried its payload into orbit Sun., Dec. 23. With the launch begins the installation of a new constellation of GPS satellites and a looming question over the entire enterprise: Can communications in space be secured by good satellite design alone? – Defense News

The Marine Corps spent 2018 preparing the force for a new era of warfare, modernizing how it conducts its business in ways large and small. Arguably the biggest headline for the service this year was the first deployment of the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter on a routine Amphibious Ready Group/Marine Expeditionary Unit float, and the jet’s first combat actions during that deployment. – USNI News