Fdd's overnight brief

December 27, 2018

In The News


As its economy buckles, Iran is zealously cracking down on financial fraud. […]Central to its efforts is a fast-track fraud court approved by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in August that has sentenced dozens of people, including some 50 men this month, to up to 20 years for paying bribes, embezzlement and damaging the economy. – Wall Street Journal

Iran’s economy is in a shambles, savaged by years of mismanagement and renewed economic sanctions. The government has expanded the money supply by more than 30 percent annually for more than a decade, using the extra cash to cover budget deficits and other expenses. In the United States, by comparison, a broad measure of the money supply has increased by an annual average of 6.4 percent over the last decade, according to the Federal Reserve. – New York Times

Iran said on Wednesday private exporters have had “no problems” selling Iranian oil, and 3 million barrels of crude could be sold soon to non-government traders, state media reported, despite U.S. sanctions targeting Tehran’s oil sales. – Reuters

Iran has been holding talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban with the knowledge of the Afghan government, a senior Iranian security official was quoted by the official news agency IRNA as saying on Wednesday during a visit to Kabul. – Reuters


The Syria that the United States military is vacating on President Trump’s orders is a Balkanized version of the country that plunged into a calamitous civil war nearly eight years ago. Now, with the American troop withdrawal and the demise of the insurgency against President Bashar al-Assad, Iran and Russia will be even freer to flex their power in Syria. – New York Times

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad should gain control of the territory currently held by U.S. forces, whom President Trump has decided to withdraw from the country, a senior Russian diplomat said. – Washington Examiner

Russia described Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a popular leader who has every chance to win re-election, welcoming a thaw in ties between his once-pariah regime and Arab nations. – Bloomberg

Syrian air defense attempt to intercept an attack west of Damascus on Tuesday. It fired an array of missiles at targets, and Syrian state media claimed it scored interceptions. Like previous claims, this one is likely false or only partially accurate. Syrian air defense consists of multiple layers of weapons systems, including the S-300 which Russia supplied in early October. – Jerusalem Post

Conor Friedersdorf writes: President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria is controversial partly because of the possible consequences for the country’s Kurdish minority. […]Syria hawks who insist that the United States ought to remain in the country indefinitely to avoid an immoral betrayal of the Kurds are neither acknowledging nor grappling with the full ramifications of their position—nor are they facing up to their part in any betrayal that occurs. – The Atlantic

Fredrick W. Kagan writes: Trump has set the retreat in motion with his decision to declare victory in Syria and withdraw, as well as to withdraw from Afghanistan for no clear reason whatsoever. The isolationists who have condemned the United States involvement in the Middle East and rest of the world for decades are about to get their wish. […]Our size and geographic advantages make our defeat improbable, yet those on both sides of the political aisle who see these dangers, as well as the need for America to rebuild a world in which we wish to live, must unite. – The Hill

James Phillips writes: Unless the administration has developed an effective exit strategy, there also is a danger that an accelerated U.S. troop withdrawal will negatively impact Syria’s kaleidoscopic political dynamics, pushing Syrian Kurds into the arms of Russia and Syria’s Assad regime, while reducing the chances that Syria’s Sunni Arabs will emerge from the intimidating shadow of ISIS. Such an outcome would pave the way for an ISIS resurgence, as it did after U.S. troops were withdrawn from Iraq. – Heritage Foundation


Turkey has fined two of the last television channels critical of the government over on-air comments which allegedly insulted the country’s president and encouraged civil disobedience, a television watchdog official told Reuters on Wednesday. – Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to convene his top defense body on Thursday to discuss a U.S. proposal to sell Patriot missile defense systems to Turkey, according to a senior Turkish official. – Bloomberg

Eugene M. Chudnovsky writes: Earlier this month, Turkey handed prison terms to eight professors and medical doctors that protested the massacres of Kurdish civilians during winter of 2015 and 2016. […]The withdrawal of the U.S. troops from Syria requested by President Erdogan and agreed to by President Trump on Dec. 19 changes the balance of forces in the area. The massacre of U.S. allies in northern Syria now appears imminent, and so does another avalanche of serial trials of peace activists inside Turkey. – Washington Examiner


The IDF Spokesmen’s unit announced on Wednesday that “IDF troops exposed an additional cross-border attack tunnel that was dug from the Shiite village of Ayta al-Shab and crossed into Israeli territory. A short while ago, the tunnel was neutralized by an explosion.” – Ynet

Russia’s Ministry of Defence said on Wednesday that Israeli missile strikes in Syria the previous day had directly threatened two civilian flights, Interfax news agency reported. – Reuters

Lebanon’s foreign ministry condemned on Wednesday Israeli air raids against Syria from its airspace and said it supported Syria’s right to defend its sovereignty. – Reuters

An Israeli security official on Wednesday confirmed responsibility for overnight Tuesday’s airstrikes in Syria, saying the air force had hit a series of targets involved in Iranian arms transfers to the Hezbollah terror group. – Associated Press

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday promised to continue airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria, despite Russian opposition. – Washington Examiner

It’s practically an axiom of Israeli politics that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is invincible because he doesn’t have any serious challengers. But what if the fragmented center-left opposition joined forces? Talk of a united front against Netanyahu percolated this week as polls showed him handily winning a fifth term in early elections, his popularity undented by a string of corruption allegations that threaten to land him in court. The Knesset formally voted Wednesday night to dissolve itself and hold elections April 9. – Bloomberg

Head of Coordination and Liaison Administration in Gaza, Col. Iyad Sarhan, urged Gazans to stay away from protests via the Arabic-language Facebook page of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) on Thursday. – Jerusalem Post

In a highly unusual rebuke of the Palestinian Mission in Berlin on Tuesday, Germany’s foreign ministry blasted the Mission for glorifying terrorism. – Jerusalem Post

Two former Israeli army chiefs Moshe Ya’alon and Benny Gantz have discussed over the past several weeks running on a joint ticket in the upcoming April 9 election. Their discussions focused on setting up two separate parties, which would run as one unified list. – Haaretz

US President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he was not worried that pulling troops out of Syria could endanger Israel, citing vast American military aid to the Jewish state and saying it can defend itself. – Times of Israel

Bret Stephens writes: What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. – New York Times


President Trump visited American military forces on Wednesday in Iraq, making his first trip to troops stationed in a combat zone only days after announcing his intention to withdraw the United States from foreign wars in Syria and Afghanistan. – New York Times

President Trump said he has no plans to withdraw American forces from Iraq, a week after announcing a surprise pullout of troops from Syria and ordering the Pentagon to bring home roughly half of the American forces deployed to Afghanistan. The decision allows the United States to maintain a presence in the heart of the Middle East and a bulwark against Iranian influence, while also keeping a nearby staging ground should American troops be forced to reenter Syria and engage a resurgent Islamic State. – Washington Post

Iraq’s prime minister has accepted an invitation from President Trump to visit the White House, according to White House press secretary Sarah Sanders. – Washington Examiner

President Donald Trump and the White House communications team revealed that a U.S. Navy SEAL team was deployed to Iraq after the president secretly traveled to the region to meet with American forces serving in a combat zone for the first time since being elected to office. – Newsweek

Tom Rogan writes:  As Trump continues withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, continued U.S. influence in Iraq will become increasingly important. So as long as Trump stays away from his unhelpful standing demand that the U.S. be given Iraqi oil, this visit can only be a good thing. – Washington Examiner

Middle East & North Africa

On Oct. 12, Virgin Group founder Richard Branson announced he was pulling out of talks on a $1 billion deal with Saudi Arabia over the killing of a Washington Post columnist. State involvement in the killing, “if proved true, would clearly change the ability of any of us in the West to do business with the Saudi government,” Mr. Branson said. – Wall Street Journal

Russia warned the U.S. against any effort to influence the royal succession in Saudi Arabia, offering its support to embattled Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who’s under continuing pressure over the killing of a government critic. – Bloomberg

Two protagonists of Egypt’s recent history faced each other in court on Wednesday, with toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak testifying for the first time against the Muslim Brotherhood’s jailed former president, Mohammed Mursi. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

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. – Washington Post

A war of nerves between South Korea and Japan over a South Korean warship’s radar search operations could be a sign of increasing tensions, as the countries reposition military operations in the region, military experts say. The episode, in particular, coincides with the South Korean military’s shift of its operational focus from North Korean threats to threats posed by neighboring countries, including Japan. – Defense News

Bruce Klinger writes: Trump warned earlier this year that if diplomacy did not work out, “we’ll have to go to Phase Two [which] may be a very rough thing. Maybe very, very unfortunate for the world.”  Strains with ally South Korea will also increase as President Moon continues his advocacy for benefits, including sanctions reduction, for Pyongyang even before meaningful denuclearization steps. The Korean Peninsula has been quiet of late…but that will change in 2019. – Heritage Foundation


Now there are early signals a new tide of migration could be looming, as concerns rise about civil liberties, living standards and quality of life. Since Beijing in 2014 faced down protesters calling for greater democracy in Hong Kong, the city’s leaders have stifled opposition in the former British colony. For all but the most ardent activists, resistance has come to feel futile. – Wall Street Journal

A Chinese court is scheduled to hear a Canadian citizen’s appeal against drug-smuggling charges, state media reported, in a case likely to compound the acrimony between China and Canada. – Wall Street Journal

A Chinese civil-rights lawyer known for uncompromising tactics stood trial for subversion, the last to be tried among dozens of legal campaigners detained in a government sweep three years ago to curb their activism. – Wall Street Journal

A US government delegation will travel to Beijing in early January for the first face-to-face talks since President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart agreed to a truce in their tariff war, Bloomberg News reported Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

President Donald Trump is considering an executive order in the new year to declare a national emergency that would bar U.S. companies from using telecommunications equipment made by China’s Huawei and ZTE, three sources familiar with the situation told Reuters. – Reuters

China has proposed a ban on forced technology transfer and illegal government “interference” in foreign business operations, practices that have come under the spotlight in a trade dispute with the United States. – Reuters

For Lighthizer, a veteran Washington trade attorney who at age 71 now oversees the president’s expansive trade ambitions, Trump’s decision to challenge China capped a career spent trying to convince Washington elites of Beijing’s underhanded economic intentions. And it cemented a bond with Trump that even prompted the president to briefly consider Lighthizer to be his next chief of staff. – Politico

Maya Wang writes: The increasingly aggressive and abusive Chinese government poses a significant danger, but the free world should not be cowed. Governments, companies and civil society can translate legitimate fears into concrete efforts to contain Beijing’s dystopian ambitions. – Wall Street Journal

South Asia

Afghanistan’s presidential elections will be postponed, an election official in Kabul suggested Wednesday, a move that could jeopardize the incumbent president’s reelection hopes while likely easing efforts to reach a negotiated settlement of the 17-year war. – Wall Street Journal

One of the alleged masterminds of an attack by a Pakistani separatist group on the Chinese consulate in Karachi last month has been killed along with five associates, the insurgent group said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Pentagon has not received orders for troops to depart Afghanistan despite reports to the contrary, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told troops in Bagram this week. – Military Times

Luke Coffey, James Jay Carafano, Thomas Spoehr, and Walter Lohman write: There is a huge space between victory and defeat and that is where the U.S. is today in Afghanistan and that is where the U.S. is likely to remain for the foreseeable future. Until there is a genuine peace settlement between all Afghans, and until Pakistan stops providing succor to the Taliban, we should accept that this is as good as it is going to get. This is not defeat. This is reality.- Heritage Foundation


Russia on Wednesday conducted a final test of a nuclear-capable glider that flies at 20 times the speed of sound, President Vladimir Putin said, adding that the weapon will be included in the country’s arsenal next year.  – Washington Post

A Russian court has sentenced a Ukrainian man to eight years in a maximum security prison for espionage and trying to illegally obtain and export military goods, Russia’s Kommersant newspaper reported on Wednesday. – Reuters

As Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ended martial law in the country on Wednesday, Russian officials lashed out at the Ukrainian leader, claiming that he supports far-right groups and that Washington is turning a blind eye. Analysts, however, note that the comments are misleading and in line with the Kremlin’s efforts to spread misinformation. – Newsweek

Tom Rogan writes: Russia retains growing capability in boutique war-fighting areas. That said, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s newest missile system is designed to grab American attention far more than it is to advance Russia’s nuclear destructive capability. […]Ultimately, the Avangard is a tangible reminder that Russia and China are America’s two primary adversaries. They must be deterred with U.S. military capability and command skill. – Washington Examiner

Catherine Harris, Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan write: Russia continues to build up and prepare its military forces for possible offensive operations against Ukraine from the Crimean Peninsula and the east. […]ISW therefore assesses that Russia has the capability to go on the offensive in Ukraine imminently and is conducting military maneuvers consistent with that intent. – Institute for the Study of War


Britain’s looming exit from the European bloc, known widely as Brexit, threatens to make the old border real again — a factor that has long collided with any prospect of a smooth divorce. – New York Times

An explosive device wounded a police officer and a civilian when it detonated outside a church in central Athens early on Thursday, police and state media said. – Reuters

A Belgian judge has ordered the government to repatriate six children of Islamic State (IS) militants and their mothers who have been detained in a camp in Kurdish-controlled Syria, the national news agency Belga said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Martial law, imposed on Nov. 25 in some Ukrainian areas after Russia captured three Ukrainian ships, expired on Wednesday, President Petro Poroshenko told the country’s security council. – Reuters

Throughout the Cold War, NATO fielded enough conventional forces – ships, planes, and soldiers – that Moscow never crossed the line. The U.S. should learn from this experience as it considers Poland’s request to permanently forward deploy American forces in their country. –

James Jay Carafano writes: Throughout the Cold War, NATO fielded enough conventional forces – ships, planes, and soldiers – that Moscow never crossed the line. The U.S. should learn from this experience as it considers Poland’s request to permanently forward deploy American forces in their country. […]In short, moving forward gives America and its allies every advantage and sends a stronger signal to Vladimir Putin – that he should keep his hands off Western Europe. – Heritage Foundation

United States

An article in Tablet last week depicted the Women’s March as an organization whose very first official meeting included anti-Semitic tropes spoken by those still in the organization’s leadership. – Business Insider

Ahead of the new year, US human rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Center published on Tuesday its list of the “top ten worst global anti-semitic incidents.” Topping the list was the Pittsburgh Synagogue Massacre. – Arutz Sheva

Tiana Lowe writes: Reporting on the Women’s March leadership and its open hatred of Jews has finally broken into the mainstream, putting them in good company with David Duke and Richard Spencer. […]To actually study history, empires, and the ceaseless wars of power plays as old as humanity itself would require the Women’s March to look at the world through a lens slightly more textured than just through skin color. – Washington Examiner


The U.S. surface fleet has a big year in store for 2019, and we’re going to start getting more details very soon on what the future has in store for surface warriors. – Defense News

If 2018 made anything clear, it’s that the U.S. Navy noticed the increased Russian submarine activity in the Atlantic and won’t let it go unaddressed. Much of the U.S. Navy’s major activities this year were focused on the Atlantic Ocean, on NATO allies and partners, and on boosting training and capabilities for great power competition. – USNI News

Andrew Degraff writes: America’s cellular network is as vital to society as the highway system and power grids. Vulnerabilities in the mobile phone infrastructure threaten not only personal privacy and security, but also the country’s. […]This should be at the top of our cybersecurity agenda, yet policymakers and industry leaders have been nearly silent on the issue. – New York Times

Trump Administration

Congressional lawmakers see no clear end in sight to the nation’s partial government shutdown, as thousands of federal workers have been furloughed amid a deep divide over President Trump’s proposed border wall. – Washington Post

Greg Ip writeS: When Donald Trump entered the White House on a platform of defiant nationalism nearly two years ago, many feared he would dismantle the global trading system the U.S. and its allies had built over the past 70 years. He hasn’t. Instead, he is presiding over its realignment into two distinct systems. One, between the U.S. and its traditional, democratic trading partners[…]. The second reflects an emerging rivalry between the U.S. and China carrying echoes of the Cold War. – Wall Street Journal

Becket Adams writes: Here’s a quick tip for the anti-Trump #Resistance: Inventing controversies where there are none actually works in the president’s favor. […]The point here is that if everything is at fever pitch, and there’s basically nothing Trump can do that won’t get the code red treatment from his detractors, people become desensitized and will eventually ignore all of it. If you’re going to go after this administration, then go after the things that matter. Take your time and make it count. Leave the nonsense distractions behind. – Washington Examiner