Fdd's overnight brief

December 31, 2018

In The News


A Fars Air Qeshm cargo 747 airliner left Tehran at 8 a.m. on Sunday and landed in Damascus at 10:30 a.m., returning to Tehran at 5 p.m. The 747 allegedly transported weapons to Hezbollah in September, according to a report from Fox News that was based on Western intelligence assessments. The aircraft also made suspicious flights in July and August to Damascus and Beirut. – Jerusalem Post

A former minister-turned alleged spy for Iran is negotiating a plea bargain with prosecutors, according to a television report on Sunday. Gonen Segev is accused of “aggravated espionage,” as well as assisting the enemy in wartime, attempted aggravated espionage, and dozens of counts of attempting to provide information to the enemy. – Times of Israel

Ayatollah Sadeq Amoli Larijani – the chief of Iran’s hardline judiciary who has been blacklisted by Washington – was named on Sunday as the new head of the powerful Expediency Council, state television reported. – Reuters

The spokesman of Iran’s foreign ministry has denied any knowledge of conditions set by Europe for launching a special mechanism to allow Iran to trade with European countries, despite U.S. sanctions. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

In the months since September, when a Russian spy plane was downed by Syrian anti-aircraft fire following an Israeli airstrike, Tehran seemed to have slowed its arms smuggling to Hezbollah and its military entrenchment in Syria because of Russian pressure. Israel therefore greatly curtailed its airstrikes. But Tuesday night, a new Israeli strike was reported, apparently targeting a new arms shipment that had just arrived in Damascus. Russia issued a condemnation, but this was restrained compared to its demonstrative fury in September. – Haaretz


The Syrian army said Friday it has entered a key city in northern Syria at the behest of Kurdish fighters, raising the government flag in a bid to thwart Turkish plans for a military offensive. But both the U.S.-led coalition in Syria and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan contested the claims about Syrian troop movement. – Washington Post

Syrian government forces moved to protect Syrian Kurds who are fighting Islamic State after the U.S. said it would withdraw its troops from the region and the Syrian Kurds said they feared an attack by Turkey. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump is re-evaluating a rapid pullout of U.S. troops from Syria but remains committed to pursuing the withdrawal he announced earlier this month, Sen. Lindsey Graham said Sunday after a White House meeting. – Wall Street Journal

The Stars and Stripes fluttered above four US armoured vehicles driving through drizzle in the Syrian city of Manbij Sunday, each visibly carrying an armed soldier on lookout duty. – Agence France-Presse

A senior Republican senator said Sunday that President Donald Trump had promised to stay in Syria to finish the job of destroying the Islamic State group — just days after announcing he would be withdrawing troops immediately. – Agence France-Presse

Foreign and defense ministers from Russia and Turkey discussed coordination between their forces in Syria after the United States’ decision to withdraw troops from the Arab republic, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday. – Reuters

Syrian President Bashar Assad authorized Iraqi forces on Sunday to attack the Islamic State group inside Syria without waiting for permission from authorities in Damascus, the state news agency SANA said, as the two allies coordinate their fight against extremists ahead of a planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria. – Associated Press

Tom Rogan writes: America’s allies’ worse-case scenario is that they lose all influence with Assad and Russia and thus find themselves facing an unleashed Iran alone. That’s a gambit they cannot entertain. And so we’re seeing what we’re seeing: deals with the devil that damage their own interests in the hope that worse damage can be avoided. – Washington Examiner


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Brazil’s President-elect Jair Bolsonaro told him that it was a matter of “when, not if” he moves his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. – Reuters

Israel protested to Jordan on Sunday after the spokeswoman for the government in Amman was photographed stepping on the Israeli flag during a meeting with trade unionists. – Reuters

For Benjamin Netanyahu, 2019 could be the year he surpasses founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. It could also be the year he’s forced to step down to fight the legal battle of his life. The Israeli parliament’s decision to trigger early elections April 9 means that Netanyahu will be running for re-election even as the attorney general mulls whether to indict the prime minister in a sprawling corruption investigation. – Bloomberg

A Palestinian rioter was killed by IDF fire during the latest round of weekly border clashes on Friday, Palestinian health officials said. – Reuters

A six week lull in rocket fire from the Gaza Strip was shattered late Friday night when a projectile was fired into southern Israel. According to the Hebrew news site Mako, the rocket was detected immediately by the IDF but was not intercepted by defense systems as it was determined to be headed toward an open area. – Algemeiner

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is scheduled to visit Israel in mid-January, at a time of complicated relations between Israel and Russia due to Russia’s presence in Syria.  – Jerusalem Post

The security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel hangs in balance due to a new US legislation, which is expected to take effect next month, that threatens to bankrupt the government in Ramallah and collapse its security apparatus. – Ynet

Hamas politburo chief Ismail Haniyeh is scheduled to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on January 15, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told reporters over the weekend, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency. – Times of Israel

Nolan Finley writes: It’s a fair argument that criticizing Israeli policies in regards to the Palestinians, as Walker does in her poem, doesn’t automatically equate to anti-Semitism. But the author  confirms her bigotry by rambling on about the evils of the Talmud, the Jewish holy book. […]Anti-Semitism is the most murderous force in history. It’s not OK to engage in it as casually as James did, nor as whole-heartedly as Farrakhan does. You don’t get a pass because you’re a member of a group that has also endured racism and discrimination. Hate is hate. – Arutz Sheva 


When the United Arab Emirates began drawing up new plans earlier this year to launch a risky operation to seize Yemen’s most-important port from Iran-aligned fighters, it turned to the U.S. military for help. The response wasn’t what Emirati leaders were hoping for. – Wall Street Journal

Last year, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on a powerful Yemeni Islamist warlord, accusing him of being a “prominent military instructor” and fundraiser for al-Qaeda who had also at one point “served with” the Islamic State and financed its forces. But Abu al-Abbas is not on the run. He is not even in hiding. – Washington Post

Yemeni rebels have begun to withdraw from the port of Hodeida, under a truce agreement, a UN official said Saturday, amid doubts over the handover process by pro-government forces. – Agence France-Presse

The United Nations welcomed on Sunday any redeployment of Yemen’s Houthi forces away from the port city of Hodeidah, but said this should be independently verified to ensure it is in line with the Stockholm ceasefire agreement. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

Egyptian security forces killed at least 40 people suspected of being militants in North Sinai and Giza, officials said on Saturday, a day after an explosion hit a tour bus, leaving four people dead and 10 others wounded. – New York Times

A bomb attack on a sightseeing bus near Egypt’s famed pyramids killed at least four people and wounded 12 others on Friday, as attackers struck a target near the heart of the country’s struggling tourist industry. – Wall Street Journal

Lebanon’s political turmoil is turning into a crisis that could ultimately threaten the Middle Eastern country’s economic foundations, according to its finance minister. – Bloomberg

Tom Rogan writes: Why is ISIS willing to sacrifice its fighters for a video? Simple: Priceless propaganda. […]ISIS is no longer focused on the holding of territory but on the expanded holding of minds. With time, ISIS believes its physical caliphate will rise again. But it also knows that such an outcome requires human servants. Hence, the priority of propaganda. Expect more videos such as this one, and others, in the vein of the 2014-2015 video executions. – Washington Examiner

Simon Henderson writes: On December 27, Saudi Arabia announced new appointments in the name of King Salman that substantially alter the makeup of the Political and Security Affairs Council[…]. In terms of foreign policy, the changes do not suggest any immediate shift in Riyadh’s views on Iran, the Yemen war, or the ongoing diplomatic spat with Qatar. The kingdom is certainly concerned about President Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, but the new appointments were likely being prepared before that change in American policy. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed hope for a peaceful 2019 in a personal letter sent to South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a Seoul government spokesman said, in a goodwill gesture that appears aimed at reviving stalled inter-Korean economic projects. – Wall Street Journal

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un vowed to meet the South’s President Moon Jae-in “frequently” next year to discuss denuclearisation of the peninsula in a rare letter sent to Seoul, Moon’s office said Sunday. – Agence France-Presse

Kim Jong Un will be keeping North Korea watchers busy on New Year’s Day, when he is expected to give his annual address laying out the country’s top priorities for the year ahead. – Associated Press

The 105-story Ryugyong Hotel has long been a blot on the Pyongyang skyline. The world’s tallest unoccupied building has towered over North Korea’s capital since 1987, a grand but empty pyramid entirely dark except for the lone aircraft warning light at its top. – Associated Press

Kim Jong Un shocked the world in 2018 by transforming his image from nuclear-armed tyrant to global statesman. So what does he have up his sleeve for 2019? Analysts believe that key clues will emerge during his annual New Year’s Day speech — essentially North Korea’s version of the State of the Union in the United States. – CNN


A Chinese court has ordered a retrial for a Canadian man convicted of drug smuggling, raising the possibility of a harsher sentence — death — as well as the stakes of a running dispute between China and Canada over their respective seizures of the other country’s citizens. – Washington Post

The American ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, wanted to make what in most nations would have been a routine trip. […]The rebuff underscored how the United States and China compete not only in trade and technology, but also over the values and beliefs that define their societies, an echo of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. – New York Times

The U.S. is urging Beijing to fill in the details of a slew of trade and investment proposals Chinese officials have made recently, as the two sides try to resolve a trade battle that has rocked global markets. – Wall Street Journal

Tough negotiations lie ahead over a new pact between China and Southeast Asian nations aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea, as Vietnam pushes for provisions likely to prove unpalatable to Beijing, documents reviewed by Reuters suggest. – Reuters

China will kick off a year of sensitive anniversaries with a major speech on Wednesday by President Xi Jinping on Taiwan, China’s most sensitive issue. – Reuters

China sees an opportunity in the Arctic’s expansive sea of melting ice. Beijing has begun pushing for a greater stake in the region with a view to opening new trade routes, exploring for oil and gas and conducting research on climate change, experts say. – CNN

Kenya is the latest country where China is frantically defusing a public relations storm over President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road megaproject. […]Despite Beijing and Nairobi’s vehement denials, concerns over the loans speak to a growing fear in many developing countries that their governments, in rushing to cash in on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), have left themselves overextended – CNN


Just 10 days ago, Afghanistan finally seemed to be moving forward. […]Today, it is a very different story. The forward momentum has all but stopped, the news has all been bad, and the country’s political future seems more uncertain than ever. – Washington Post

At a time when the conventional Afghan military and police forces are being killed in record numbers across the country, the regional forces overseen by the C.I.A. have managed to hold the line against the most brutal militant groups[…]. But the units have also operated unconstrained by battlefield rules designed to protect civilians, conducting night raids, torture and killings with near impunity, in a covert campaign that some Afghan and American officials say is undermining the wider American effort to strengthen Afghan institutions. – New York Times

After weeks of disarray and mixed signals, Afghan officials announced Sunday that the country’s presidential election, scheduled for April 20, will be delayed by three months to ensure the polls are better organized than the chaotic parliamentary elections held in October. – Washington Post

After a year of record bloodshed, Afghans are bracing for an even deadlier 2019 with the threat of a US drawdown and a looming presidential vote likely to fuel violence. – Agence France-Presse

The former top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Sunday that withdrawing up to half the 14,000 American troops serving there would reduce the incentive for the Taliban to negotiate a peace deal after more than 17 years of war. – Associated Press

The Taliban have rejected Kabul’s offer of talks next month in Saudi Arabia where the militants, fighting to restore strict Islamic law in Afghanistan, will meet U.S. officials to further peace efforts, a Taliban leader said on Sunday. – Reuters


As Russian President Vladimir Putin tightens his grip at home and asserts Russian influence abroad, the country’s military intelligence agency — a worldwide network of thousands of officers, special-forces troops and spies — is emerging as one of his most powerful tools. – Washington Post

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued holiday greetings to dozens of global leaders Sunday, and President Donald Trump made his list. Putin said relations between the U.S.and Russia are the key to “ensuring strategic stability and international security.” Putin added that Russia is “open to dialogue with the United States on the most extensive agenda.” – USA Today

The BBC has sent a formal complaint to Russian authorities regarding the “apparent leak” of personal information to Russian media about some of its employees working in Moscow. The full names and photographs of 44 Russian citizens working for the BBC World Service were published online by a group called For Mother Russia on social media on Christmas and also appeared on at least two Russian websites. – Washington Examiner

The Russian ambassador to the United States complained of “extreme spy mania” among Americans. Anatoly Antonov made the comment to reporters Friday while taking a swipe at the U.S. for expelling dozens of Russian diplomats earlier this year in response to the deadly poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in the United Kingdom. – Washington Examiner

Putin may look like a winner after an abrupt U.S. decision to pull out of Syria. But Russia’s leader faces massive challenges in Syria and elsewhere, and he hasn’t moved an inch closer toward throwing off the Western sanctions that have emaciated Russia’s economy. – Associated Press


The British government on Friday was criticized for poor taste and bad timing after posting a video informing European Union citizens of the steps they will need to take if they want to “continue living” in Britain after the country leaves the E.U. – Washington Post

Mr. Loinger, who had served in the French army and escaped from a German prisoner-of-war camp before joining the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, a Jewish relief organization known as the OSE, became one of the war’s most daring smugglers of Jewish children[…]. Mr. Loinger, whom Le Monde described as the “dean of the Jewish resistance in occupied France,” was 108 when he died Dec. 28 at his home in Paris. His death was confirmed by Jean-François Guthmann, president of the OSE, who said he did not know the precise cause. – Washington Post

The Trump administration is launching its next effort in helping Europe wean itself off of Russian energy by lending U.S. technology know-how to help cut the ties to the Russian electric grid, says a senior Energy Department official. – Washington Examiner

The U.K. is working on plans to build two new military bases in the Caribbean and southeast Asia, the Sunday Telegraph reported, citing an interview with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson. The plans are part of an effort to make the U.K. “a true global player” by increasing the country’s role on the international stage after it leaves the European Union – Bloomberg

The Americas

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro could stem the rising tide of Chinese influence in South America, a senior State Department official suggested Friday. […]Brazil’s membership in an economic bloc with China and Russia lends significance to the meetings, as both U.S. rivals have made recent in-roads into Latin America. – Washington Examiner

Israel, the US and UK have helped boost security around Colombian President Ivan Duque as authorities are investigating a possible assassination plot involving Venezuelan nationals, officials told the Reuters news agency on Saturday. – Times of Israel

Manfred Gerstenfeld writes: The extreme hate speech by several imams and the support of their faithful exposes a structural problem in American society. The First Amendment of the Constitution’s free speech rules apparently enables both incitement to murder and applauding it. If these preachers do not have American citizenship, the U.S. should have expelled them. Yet, it may take a long time before Americans become aware of the need to change the Constitution to make such hate speech punishable. – Arutz Sheva

Cyber Security

The Los Angeles Times says an unusual cyberattack that disrupted its printing operations and those at newspapers in San Diego and Florida over the weekend came from outside the United States, but it stopped short of accusing a specific foreign government. – New York Times

Data breaches can happen for a variety of reasons. Some companies are hacked. Data can be mishandled or sold to third parties. Holes in a website’s security system can leave information unprotected. […]Here are the biggest data breaches that were revealed this year, ranked by the number of users affected. – Business Insider

James Ball writes: The era of spy versus spy—if it ever truly existed—has certainly been ended by the internet. […]But neither good intentions nor the fact that most breaches end up being inconsequential matters. The risks are real, and the signs don’t suggest that even the world’s largest superpower is ready to take the issue seriously, not least because it can’t seem to resolve even the simplest of problems: making the president’s plane hard to track. – The Atlantic


The Army is looking for a few good robots. Not to fight — not yet, at least — but to help the men and women who do. These robots aren’t taking up arms, but the companies making them have waged a different kind of battle. At stake is a contract worth almost half a billion dollars for 3,000 backpack-sized robots that can defuse bombs and scout enemy positions. – Associated Press

The agency that invented stealth technology, the internet, and the M16 has its sights focused on enhancing how the infantry squad works on the battlefield with robots, and advanced targeting and sensing gear. – Military Times

One constant in the abrupt transition from outgoing Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to his deputy, soon to be acting secretary, Patrick Shanahan? The grueling, technical, but crucial business of acquisition reform. For all their differences, Pentagon technocrats, House Democrats, Senate Republicans, and even President Trump can all agree that the Defense Department needs to do a better job of buying weapons. – Breaking Defense

Long War

Dutch and German police on Saturday arrested five people suspected of preparing a terrorist act in the Netherlands. Dutch police said in a statement that four suspects were detained in Rotterdam and officers searched multiple locations. – Associated Press

Belgium will appeal against a judge’s order forcing it to repatriate two Belgian women convicted of being Islamic State militants and their six children from Syria, the migration minister said on Sunday. – Reuters

Russia resettled 30 children of jailed and deceased Islamic State members from Iraq, on Sunday, in a minor breakthrough to the deadlock over what to do with the foreign families to IS militants. – Associated Press

Morocco arrested a Swiss national on Saturday in connection with the killing of two Scandinavian women, the counter-terrorism agency said. […]The man arrested is also suspected of “involvement in recruiting Moroccan and sub-Saharan nationals to carry out terrorist plots in Morocco against foreign targets and security forces in order to take hold of their service weapons”, the Central Bureau for Judicial Investigations (BCIJ) said. – Reuters

Michael Morell and Mike Vickers write: It means the United States and its coalition must keep the pressure on the tens of thousands of Islamic State members who remain in Iraq and Syria. […]As he makes decisions regarding the Middle East and South Asia, the president needs to take account of the regenerative capability of these groups if he is to fulfill his No. 1 responsibility: protecting the American people. – Washington Post

Trump Administration

US President Donald Trump on Saturday blamed opposition Democrats for the death of two immigrant children in US custody, comments set to heighten tensions as the second week of a government shutdown began over his demands for a border wall. – Agence France-Presse

When Melania Trump accompanied her husband President Trump to Iraq this week, it was the first time in more than a decade that a first lady of the United States had visited a war zone. Trump also became the only first lady to have visited Iraq since the war began more than 15 years ago. – Washington Examiner

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was pressured by an ex-Russian intelligence officer to pay down millions of dollars in debt owed to a Kremlin-linked billionaire, according to a report. – Washington Examiner

One of Paul Manafort’s Russian contacts has been revealed as ex-spy Victor Boyarkin, who acted as a direct link between Manafort and wealthy Russian-Ukrainian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. – Business Insider

Colin Dueck writes: Donald Trump throws fastballs at allies and adversaries alike. Considered as a package, unpredictability in national-security policy carries both advantages and disadvantages, and critics along with supporters should be intellectually honest enough to admit it. Being unpredictable at the operational level is a plus. – National Review