Fdd's overnight brief

December 28, 2018

In The News


When U.S. forces leave Syria, the plan is for troops from neighboring Turkey to take their place. One exception: a small, remote U.S. base in southern Syria that has made it more difficult for Iran to project power across the Middle East. More than 200 U.S. troops have been advising local Syrian fighters at the al-Tanf garrison, which they have used to combat Islamic State and which sits in strategically important terrain astride a potential Iranian supply route through Iraq to Syria. – Wall Street Journal

A leading Iranian general has called on President Donald Trump to withdraw his forces from the entire Middle East, arguing that the United States has wasted resources there as rival nations such as Russia and China rose. – Newsweek

No officials from the Islamic republic had ever called for the destruction of Israel, [Javad Zarif] said; rather, he claimed, the official line has always been that Israel’s downfall would be of its own doing. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

An Israeli satellite imaging firm, ImageSat International, has released images showing the damage from a reported Israeli strike on Iranian targets near Damascus Tuesday. – Haaretz

A spokesman for the German company Krempel, which provided construction material to Tehran businessmen that was used in rockets produced by the Iranian regime to gas Syrians earlier this year, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that the global business firm has stopped trade with the Islamic Republic of Iran. – Jerusalem Post

Iran’s interior minister has tried to downplay the threat from protests by various groups in the past year, insisting that none of them were organized by political groups or unions. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


U.S. allies in the Persian Gulf are exploring stronger ties with the Syrian regime, which was been widely shunned by Arab states in the region during the country’s nearly eight years of civil war. – Wall Street Journal

The United Arab Emirates’ minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, told Al Arabiya TV on Thursday that Syria’s return to Arab league, which was suspended seven years ago, required Arab consensus. – Reuters

Alarmed by a U.S. decision to leave Syria, Kurdish leaders who run much of the north are urging Russia and its ally Damascus to send forces to shield the border from the threat of a Turkish offensive. – Reuters

Moscow will early next year host the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey to discuss the Syrian conflict, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said Friday, after the United States announced it was withdrawing troops from the country. – Agence France-Presse

Editorial: Now that he’s declared victory over ISIS, prematurely in our view, Mr. Trump will be politically responsible if Islamic State returns in force. The biggest risk for Mr. Trump’s next two years is whether U.S. adversaries see his Syrian withdrawal as a sign of weakness and retreat. Iran and others are already beginning to see him as a one-termer. They may soon test him to make it a self-fulfilling prophesy. – Wall Street Journal

Daniela Blei writes: Until now, media narratives have shaped the story of Syria’s war, but the testimonies of thousands of Syrians will eventually rewrite it. These oral histories will shape public understanding of the conflict—its causes and consequences, and the fates of its victims and perpetrators. “We can’t save Syrians anymore, but we can save the truth,” one refugee told Ungor. – Foreign Policy

Josh Rogin writes: President’s Trump’s foreign policy follows no firm ideology but is often a combination of his long-held personal views and the influence of whoever currently has his ear. These days, Trump is listening more than ever to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is quietly steering U.S. foreign policy in a new direction. – Washington Post


The IDF flooded with cement and water the Hezbollah tunnels, which appear to have been dug from residential houses in Lebanese villages, as the Shi’ite terror group scrambles to salvage what’s left of their strategic assets. – Ynet

France on Thursday called on Israel to reconsider recently issued approvals for more than 2,000 settler homes in the occupied West Bank, saying they would violate international law. – Reuters

Banking giant HSBC has pulled out its investments in Israeli arms firm Elbit Systems after a campaign by pro-Palestinian activists, according to sources. – Al Jazeera

Incendiary balloons were found Friday morning near the northern Gaza border in Sdot Negev Regional Council, beside a kindergarten. A police bomb disposal unit was dispatched immediately. – Jerusalem Post

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has launched a production line for the outer wing set of the F-35 stealth fighter key component to make the advanced fighter jet invisible to radar, the company announced. – Jerusalem Post

Pompeo and Netanyahu will meet in Brasilia where both will be attending the New Year’s Day inauguration of president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing firebrand who has vowed to move Brazil closer to Israel and US President Donald Trump. – Agence France-Presse

Brazil’s incoming president Jair Bolsonaro pushed back against critics and feted burgeoning ties with Israel Thursday, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made his way to Brasilia for the new leader’s swearing in. – Times of Israel

Former chief of staff Benny Gantz ended months of speculation regarding his political ambitions on Thursday, registering a new political party, Resilience for Israel. Gantz is now considering potential partners to join his party, and holding meetings with other party heads and senior political figures. – Ynet

Jason D. Greenblatt writes: The UN General Assembly claims to want peace between Israelis and Palestinians, but it seems to think it can achieve it by defending terrorists. Given the choice between peace and terrorism, the General Assembly has chosen to defend terrorism. […]We can continue to play the same decades-old game and not to speak the truth, even about terrorist organizations like Hamas, or we can realize that this will never achieve peace. We can and must do better. Palestinians need it, Israelis need it and the world needs it.  – The Hill

Giora Eiland writes: Israel’s Syria strike on Tuesday night achieved its goal by proving once again that the Jewish States does more than just talk, bolstering its credibility and deterrence. […]If a third war breaks out in Lebanon, Israel would act against the country as a whole to ensure a short military campaign, as opposed to the Second Lebanon War in 2006, which lasted 34 days. Iran is Hezbollah is Lebanon. – Ynet


A range of Iraqi politicians criticized President Trump on Thursday over his surprise visit to a United States military base in Iraq, and some called for a parliamentary debate on whether American forces should leave. – New York Times

At least some of the Iraqi discontent appears to be a result of the way the U.S. government set up Trump’s visit. […]“Visiting a military base in Iraq and not meeting any Iraqi officials is a good way to increase the risks that we don’t have much of a military presence at all in Iraq for very long,” said a senior anti-Islamic State coalition official, who did not want to be named. – Washington Post

On his first trip to an active combat zone since taking office, President Donald Trump suggested to U.S. troops on Wednesday that the military might get another funding boost this year. – Foreign Policy

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been waging a ruinous war on neighboring Yemen for three years, with support from the United States. Armed with powerful fighter jets and warships, the Saudi-led coalition has employed tactics that minimize risk to its troops. But it has killed thousands of civilians and dealt a crushing blow to Yemen’s fragile economy. The architect of the war, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, initially promised a swift victory against his Houthi foes. But the effort quickly bogged down. – New York Times

Saudi Arabia’s king on Thursday moved to bolster his son and heir apparent and contain political fallout after the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, elevating allies of the crown prince and surrounding him with experienced advisers. – Wall Street Journal

The government overhaul, announced in a string of decrees by the Saudi leader, King Salman, elevated allies of the king’s son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to head a critical security agency and other posts, in moves seen as aiding the prince’s ongoing consolidation of power.  – Washington Post

Tom Rogan writes: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s demotion of foreign minister and former ambassador to Washington, Adel al-Jubeir, is a clear riposte to America. Adel is a trusted U.S. partner for dealings with the Sunni kingdom. […]Getting rid of a foreign minister the Russians knew was very close to Washington thus serves to tease Moscow with the hint of greater influence towards Riyadh in the future. – Washington Examiner

Middle East & North Africa

A Chadian armed group attacked a military camp of forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar in southern Libya on Thursday, killing one fighter, a local official and a spokesman for Haftar said. – Reuters

John Dale Grover writes: The president should reconsider his position and determine if it makes sense to pull our troops out of Iraq as well, and decide how to best carry out such a withdrawal. Washington needs to end its obsession with the Middle East. President Trump’s National Security Strategy rightly points out that the real long-term threat to the United States comes Russia and China. With limited dollars to spend on our military, it’s time we focused our defenses against those two powerful nations. – Fox News

Daniel Hoffman writes: President Trump’s decision not to withdraw our troops from Iraq indicates he has a longer timeline for fulfilling his campaign pledge to wind down the U.S. military commitment there. The coming year promises to be another critical year for the Middle East and South Asia. Once he determines the path the U.S. should pursue in these combat zones, the president should speak to the American people in a broadcast address to explain where we go from here. – Fox News

Daniel L. Davis writes: The best thing Trump can do to safeguard American security and prosperity is to reinforce the things that do keep our country safe from terrorism. That includes robust global intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance effort[…]. The best Christmas gift Trump could give the American people and our selfless service members, then, is a promise to withdraw our combat troops from the Middle East so we can better defend our country. – The Hill

Korean Peninsula

South Korea said Friday it’s responding to a hacking attack that stole the names and addresses of nearly 1,000 North Korean defectors who resettled in the South. A regional office of the Hana resettlement center said it has been notifying affected defectors after discovering last week that one of its computers had been breached sometime around November. – Associated Press

Japan released video footage on Friday to prove that a South Korean warship allegedly locked its fire-control radar onto a Japanese warplane off the country’s northern coast, the latest move in an escalating row between the two Asian neighbors. – Associated Press

David Ignatius writes: Here’s one New Year’s resolution that should be easy: The United States and North Korea should resume the diplomatic progress they began in 2018 toward peace and denuclearization. […]Trump got many things wrong in foreign policy this past year. But he made the right start on North Korea, and sensible people should hope that his dialogue with Kim will deepen into a real transformation of the Korean Peninsula. – Washington Post


As President Donald Trump has escalated trade tensions throughout 2018, extra scrutiny and inexplicable shipment rejections have come to symbolize the pitfalls, beyond tariffs, that American firms doing business in China have faced. Data on such disruptions is hard to come by. But more than one in four businesses that responded to a recent U.S.-China Business Council survey said they have been subject to increased scrutiny from Chinese regulators as a result of the increasing trade tensions. – Politico

Top Chinese leaders have been forced to undergo a self-criticism session, state media said Thursday, in a further sign of President Xi Jinping’s efforts to enforce party loyalty amid signs of internal dissent over his handling of a trade war with the United States. – Agence France-Presse

China’s alternative to the American-owned GPS extended its coverage beyond the Asia-Pacific region with a goal of becoming a dominating technology in the future, spurring gains in shares of related companies. – Bloomberg

China will speed up approvals for securities firms and fund-company joint ventures in which foreign investors have majority stakes, a senior official said, another sign that policy makers are pressing ahead with efforts to open up the country’s financial system. – Bloomberg

Chris Smith writes: The United States must lead the way in letting the Chinese Communist Party know that taking a hammer and sickle to the cross and enslaving more than 1 million Uighurs in an effort to erase their religion and culture are destructive, shameful acts that will not be tolerated by the community of nations. – Washington Post

Martin Feldstein writes: It is unlikely that China will make enough policy changes in the next three months to satisfy the U.S. and avoid the tariffs. Looking ahead, the U.S. could impose heavier tariffs and other economic penalties in order to force China to play by the rules, ending its attempt to dominate global markets through subsidies and technology theft. – Wall Street Journal

Hilton Yip writes: For the ruling Chinese Communist Party, this sense of victimhood provides numerous benefits. It shifts the blame onto foreigners, mainly the West, for many of China’s problems and focuses domestic anger and scrutiny away from the party. There is never a need to take responsibility and be accountable for your own actions if you can stoke historical grievances like the “century of humiliation.” […]It is time that the West stopped taking China’s victimhood claims at face value. – Foreign Policy

Tim Culpan writes: Huawei may choose to keep its head down and weather the storm. Or it may become more proactive in combating allegations that it’s a tool for Beijing espionage and complicit in installing back doors into telecom networks.  Whom Huawei puts forth to deliver that message will say as much about the identity of its leaders as any org chart. – Bloomberg


A week after President Trump directed the military to draw up plans to withdraw about half the U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, military officials are walking a fine line detailing the future of the longest U.S. war in history. – Washington Post

Daniel DePetris writes: In an ideal world, Washington would have pulled out of Afghanistan in 2002, when Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda organization was bludgeoned to smithereens and Taliban fighters were desperately throwing up their hands in surrender — or more recently in 2011, when U.S. Special Forces eliminated bin Laden once and for all. After 17 years, now is the time for our troops to come home. Better late than never. – Washington Examiner

Michael Kugelman writes: Realistically, Trump is unlikely to change course; he’s never been comfortable remaining in Afghanistan. […]Amid a suddenly receding US role and presence in Afghanistan, Kabul’s participation in a potential peace process has never been more critical. Khalilzad can limit the damage of his boss’s rash decision by helping create the right conditions for an eventual launch of an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process that Afghanistan and its long-suffering citizenry richly deserve. – Al Jazeera


Russia’s new strategic weapon has rendered any missile defenses useless at a small fraction of their cost, officials said Thursday. – Associated Press

Rising protectionism and trade wars and the unpredictability of the U.S. administration have greatly contributed to global oil price volatility over the past two years, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said on Thursday. – Reuters

Russia touted Thursday a new hypersonic missile said to hit speeds of more than 30,000 kilometres per hour, amid heightened tension with the US over arms control. – Agence France-Presse

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Europe has a lot to gain if it has the courage. Drawing Russia in could solve some of the European Union’s fundamental problems. […]In the absence of such interest from Europe, any Putin successor will be tempted to continue the superpower game to the bitter economic end, with China waiting to get access to Russia’s natural resources on the most favorable terms it can get. The option of continuing as China’s junior partner, the least preferable for Russia, could end up choosing itself. – Bloomberg


The mysterious saga of the loan offers a rare look inside the Russian influence engine, demonstrating how people, companies and networks outside the Kremlin pursue President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy aims, often without a centralized plan. – Washington Post

Concerned about filling its ranks seven years after abolishing mandatory military service, Germany is looking into recruiting foreigners for service, according to reports released on Thursday, though there were conflicting accounts of the extent of those plans. – New York Times

Britain’s defense minister has reportedly voiced “grave” concerns over Huawei’s role in the rollout of the U.K.’s 5G network. Gavin Williamson is the first U.K. cabinet minister to speak out against the telecoms giant, according to British newspaper The Times, which reported Thursday that he believed using Huawei’s 5G equipment may enable Chinese espionage. – CNBC

Acting Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian says his country is determined to continue “integration” within the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EES). – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Editorial: The European Parliament used to be a novelty—it employs more translators than Members—but the failure to stir up interest in its elections is now one of the EU’s biggest liabilities. In an era when voters turn to insurgents to wrest power from unaccountable bureaucracies, voters have no way to do the same in Brussels. An election that could have quelled euroskepticism may incite it instead. – Wall Street Journal

Philip Terzian writes: This was expressed, with particular emphasis, earlier this year when he reminded the Polish president that while he recognized the “suffering of the Polish nation after Poland was seized by Nazi Germany … the methodical genocide of my brothers and sisters, Poland’s Jewish citizens, by the Nazi-German extermination machine … had many Polish accomplices. […]Simcha Rotem reminded his fellow Jews, and admirers worldwide, of the price of survival and the power of sacrifice. He also showed that the lessons of history may be found anywhere, even in sewers. – Washington Examiner


Suspected Boko Haram fighters have attacked two military bases in northeast Nigeria, and briefly seized the headquarters of a multinational force comprising troops from Niger, Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon. – Al Jazeera

Congo’s march toward Sunday’s election took a nasty turn on Thursday as the government ordered the European Union ambassador to leave the country within 48 hours after the EU prolonged sanctions against the ruling party’s presidential candidate. – Associated Press

At least 19 people have been killed in clashes between Sudanese anti-riot police and protesters in demonstrations triggered by a rise in bread prices, according to a government official. – Al Jazeera

United States

Lawyers for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev have asked an appeals court to overturn his conviction and death penalty, arguing that it was impossible for him to get a fair trial in the same city where the deadly 2013 terrorist attack took place. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

The Nation of Islam has received more than half a million dollars in funding from the federal government – despite its lengthy history of anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia and even anti-American rhetoric. – Arutz Sheva

Deroy Murdock writes: Nation of Islam leader Minister Louis Farrakhan, 84, is America’s highest-profile Jew-hater. Former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke might covet that distinction, but he is far less in the spotlight today than yesterday. More importantly, Farrakhan can boast that his loathing for Jews has not stopped him from raking in federal tax dollars. […]Democrats and the left just can’t get enough of Farrakhan, no matter how many times he talks like a Nazi. – Fox News

Cyber Security

How can Facebook monitor billions of posts per day in over 100 languages, all without disturbing the endless expansion that is core to its business? The company’s solution: a network of workers using a maze of PowerPoint slides spelling out what’s forbidden. – New York Times

Consumer privacy and data security is increasingly the hot issue in cybersecurity policy circles, something that lawmakers, industry groups, and consumer advocates all agree should be addressed by the new Congress, as well as by senior members of the executive branch and regulatory agencies. – Washington Examiner

The Air Force is beginning to build specialized cyber teams across the service whose primary mission is to defend local installations and critical mission tasks from cyberattacks. – Fifth Domain


A day after President Trump’s surprise visit to American forces in Iraq and Germany, questions persisted about whether he had jeopardized the political neutrality of the U.S. military by leveling partisan attacks and signing red “Make America Great Again” hats for the troops. – Washington Post

As the Air Force leaves 2018 behind and flies into into a new year, the service may face some big changes to its organization and aircraft inventory. Expect to see a lot of these questions answered with the release of the fiscal year 2020 budget, which officials have said will be released in early February. – Defense News

On Dec. 21, Thales and Aquabotix announced a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on the research and design of autonomous robot minesweepers. Formally described as a “rapidly deployable Mine Counter Measures (MCM), Rapid Environment Assessment (REA) and Military Hydrographic autonomous system mission solution,” the robots the companies hope to collaborate on will be an alternative to sending humans immediately into the danger of aquatic unexploded ordnance. – C4ISRNET

Long War

One of France’s most wanted jihadists, considered a potential source of valuable information by Western intelligence agencies, is set to return to prison Thursday following seven years on the run. Peter Cherif, 36, was close to the brothers who massacred staff members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. He later became a high-ranking member of Al-Qaeda in Yemen. – Agence France-Presse

Swedish prosecutors say they have charged three men with preparing an extremist attack, and they were also charged along with three other men for financing the Islamic State group. – Associated Press

The Afghan National Army says a leading spokesman for the affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan has been killed in a drone strike. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Marc A. Thiessen writes: The U.S. departure could lead to the release of 1,100 Islamic State fighters now held in detention camps in northeastern Syria — creating a dangerous new terrorist threat to the West. […]We cannot allow more than a thousand dangerous terrorists to be released into the world so that they can return to the fight. They must be kept off the battlefield. Better to keep them in Syria than in Guantanamo, to be sure. But better to keep them in Guantanamo than release them to carry out jihad against the West. – Washington Post

Trump Administration

As the era of uncontested U.S. primacy fades, the international order has been thrown into turmoil. More leaders are tempted more often to test limits, jostle for power, and seek to bolster their influence—or diminish that of their rivals—by meddling in foreign conflicts. […]The international order as we know it is unraveling, with no clear sense of what will come in its wake. The danger may well lie less in the ultimate destination than in the process of getting there. As the following list of 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2019 amply illustrates, that road will be bumpy, and it will be perilous. – Foreign Policy

President Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen denied a report Thursday that added to an unverified claim that Cohen took a trip to Prague in summer 2016 to meet with Russian officials. – The Hill

Editorial: A New York Times article detailing how a group of Democrats borrowed Russian tactics in last year’s Senate race in Alabama is an ominous development in a dawning age of information warfare. […]The Russians’ goal in 2016 may have been to get Donald Trump elected, but it was also to convince Americans that the democracy we had spent our lives believing in could not be trusted after all. Now it is up to us to prove them wrong. – Washington Post

Josh Rogin writes: Trump’s worldview is not predetermined. He’s not a neocon or a hawk or a realist. Right now, he is listening to Paul because Paul is telling him what he wants to hear. Ideally, Trump will soon realize that adopting Paul’s vision for the future of U.S. foreign policy is not only dangerous for our national security but bad politics as well. – Washington Post

Liberty Vittert writes: The arrival of 2019 marks the kickoff of the 2020 presidential election campaign, amid continued worries about foreign influence – particularly from Russia[…]. The foreign entity that is able to interfere with the information upon which we determine who these candidates are, and who among them we vote for, is a terrible and fearsome foe. The question is not whether Russia is going to try to disrupt the 2020 elections, but rather, if our government is going to let Russia do it. – Fox News