Fdd's overnight brief

December 31, 2019

In The News


U.S. military officials said they are closely watching for reprisals for American air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia group, with the potential for a cycle of retaliatory actions that could inflame tensions between Washington and Tehran. – Reuters

Renewed U.S. sanctions have cost Iran $200 billion in foreign-exchange income and investment, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said Tuesday. – Bloomberg

Iranian state media are reporting that the country’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has seized a foreign tanker and crew that it says were carrying illegal oil. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Retaliatory U.S. airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq and Syria have injected a volatile new element into the already tense relations between Washington and Tehran. – The Hill

Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers is in danger of “falling apart” without the compliance of the United States and the European Union, Russia’s foreign minister warned Monday after meeting with his Iranian counterpart in Moscow. – Associated Press

US President Donald Trump’s order for airstrikes on a Tehran-backed Iraqi militia group, after resisting retaliating against Iran for months, sent a clear message Sunday that killing Americans was his red line. – Agence France-Presse

U.S. airstrikes yesterday against the bases of pro-Iran forces in Syria and Iraq were welcomed enthusiastically by Israel’s government, Israeli officials tell me. – Axios

Russia has called deadly airstrikes by US forces on targets in Iraq and Syria unacceptable and counterproductive, and on Monday urged all sides to avoid fuelling tensions in the Middle East. – The Guardian

Jonathan Spyer writes: Ktaib and Baghdad are still entwined today. Ktaib and other militias are closely involved in the bloody, IRGC-organized repression of demonstrations, confirmed and reported extensively by Iraqi journalists on the ground. Ktaib is also part of the Fatah alliance, the second-largest bloc in the Iraqi Parliament and an integral part of the current government. In this capacity, Ktaib works in close cooperation with larger and more-established pro-Iranian groups. This militia edifice is the most potent enemy of the U.S. and its allies in Iraq today. Mr. Ibrahimi promised a “harsh response” to the U.S. strikes. Experience suggests he should be taken at his word. – Wall Street Journal

Amos Harel writes: The American move was designed to reinstate its deterrence vis-à-vis Iran and to restate its red line. But despite hopes in Israel, it probably doesn’t portend a change in U.S. policy towards Iran. The administration believes in the theory of maximum economic pressure on Tehran. So far there’s been no indication that Trump will replace economic sanctions with military moves, despite Iran’s clear maneuvers. – Haaretz

Tim Lister writes: For the Iraqi government, the face-off between the US and pro-Iranian militia adds another source of instability in a country already deep in crisis. […]But Iran has invested heavily in deepening its influence in an arc from Iraq through Syria to Lebanon and will not give up its strategic gains without a fight, even as US sanctions make its expansionism difficult to afford. – CNN

Seth J. Frantzman writes: But for Iran the US threats are more an annoyance when it has global ambitions that Tehran thinks it is fulfilling. […]For now, it wants to push Iraq to believe its sovereignty has been violated and push the US to leave. Iran is playing the long game, seeking a triumvirate of power linking it to Russia, India and China, the rising powers. It believes it has outplayed the Europeans and that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East. – Jerusalem Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Kataib Hezbollah is not as large as Lebanese Hezbollah but it plays a significant role in Iraq because of its direct links to Qasem Soleimani and the PMU. It has sought to transform the PMU into Iraq’s version of the IRGC. […]Now KH is calling for a response to the US airstrikes. Iran is contemplating that response. KH’s long network from Beirut to Baghdad, including its ability to strike at Saudi Arabia and Israel, reveals its threat to the region and to US forces. – Jerusalem Post


Nine months since Islamic State’s experiment collapsed, thousands of children remain trapped here and in several other camps in northeast Syria—victims of geopolitics and hostage to the fortunes of their parents. – Wall Street Journal

As the civil war in Syria rages on, the White Helmets — an all-volunteer rescue organization — have defied death to rush headfirst toward airstrikes. They served as a beacon to the trapped and desperately wounded that the only help around was on its way, often the deciding factor between life and death. – CBS News

Josh Rogin writes: The continuing war crimes in northern Syria will only send thousands more Syrians fleeing all over the world. They will surely continue to remind us of our moral failing to stand up against mass atrocities for many holiday seasons to come. – Washington Post


Turkish police have detained at least 124 people suspected of links with Islamic State in an apparent attempt to prevent potential New Year’s Eve attacks. – Sky News (UK)

Desmond Lachman writes: Sadly, Mr. Erdogan does not seem to be heeding the IMF’s advice about the need for economic policy caution. […]He is doing so even though strained US-Turkey relations are again weighing heavily on the currency and even though little is being done to strengthen the country’s public finances. All of this suggests that in 2020 Turkey could very well be the next emerging market economy to have a real debt problem. This merits close monitoring considering that Turkey is a significantly larger and more indebted economy than is Argentina. – American Enterprise Institute

Simon A. Waldman writes: However, such moves also highlight Ankara’s delusions of grandeur in its quest to become a regional and global power. […]Instead of gaining influence, Turkey is risking further international isolation by involving itself in the Libyan civil war. – Haaretz


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called Israel’s move to achieve ceasefire understandings with Hamas while withholding funds from Ramallah and advancing settlement activity in the West Bank a “strange paradox.” – Times of Israel

Israeli defense officials judge that the U.S. airstrikes Sunday in Iraq and Syria that killed fighters in an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia organization will not affect the Israel military. – Haaretz

Some 1,132 Israeli terror victims filed a lawsuit on Tuesday for NIS 20 billion against the Arab Bank PLC for allegedly cooperating, supporting and assisting terrorist attacks against Israel. – Jerusalem Post

Israel has notified six Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem of its intention to place them under nighttime curfew for several months, in an unusual move to use British Mandate-era emergency regulations against permanent Israeli residents in an area annexed by Israel. – Haaretz


Protesters tried to storm the U.S. Embassy in the Iraqi capital Tuesday, in an intensifying backlash against the U.S. after it conducted deadly strikes on an Iran-backed militia in the country. – Wall Street Journal

Tensions soared between Washington and Baghdad on Monday as officials traded accusations over U.S. airstrikes against an Iranian-backed militia based in Iraq and Syria. – Washington Post

An Iranian-backed Iraqi militia vowed Monday to retaliate for U.S. military strikes in Iraq and Syria that killed 25 of its fighters and wounded dozens, raising concerns of new attacks that could threaten American interests in the region. – Associated Press

Iraq resumed pumping at the Nasiriya oil field a day after protesters forced it to halt operations, the government said, as widespread unrest starts to take a toll on the country’s most important industry. – Bloomberg

U.S. officials said on Sunday that air strikes in Iraq and Syria against an Iran-backed militia group were successful, but warned that “additional actions” may still be taken in the region to defend U.S. interests. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia condemned attacks launched last week by Iranian regime-backed militias against American forces in Iraq, an official source said in statement published by the state-owned Saudi Press Agency. – Reuters

Neville Teller writes: More than a year after US President Donald Trump’s declaration of victory over ISIS, the movement is rising from its ashes like the legendary phoenix. A politically ravaged Iraq, its government clinging precariously to power, has provided prime conditions for ISIS to stage its comeback. Unless the West takes notice reasonably soon, the five-year battles of 2014-2019 may have to be fought all over again. – Jerusalem Post


When the European Union started funneling millions of euros into Libya to slow the tide of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, the money came with EU promises to improve detention centers notorious for abuse and fight human trafficking. That hasn’t happened. Instead, the misery of migrants in Libya has spawned a thriving and highly lucrative web of businesses funded in part by the EU and enabled by the United Nations, an Associated Press investigation has found. – Associated Press

German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed efforts to reach a diplomatic solution for the Libyan conflict in separate phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, whose government intends to send troops to Libya, a government spokesman said on Monday. – Reuters

Turkey’s government on Monday submitted a motion to parliament seeking approval to deploy troops to Libya, arguing that the conflict in the North African country could escalate into a civil war and threaten Turkey’s interests. – Associated Press

Korean Peninsula

North Korea has played by President Trump’s rules by freezing long-range missile and nuclear tests, but its weapons programs still ended the year with a significant list of accomplishments. – Wall Street Journal

Microsoft said on Monday it won a court order that allowed the tech giant to take control of 50 websites that a North Korea-linked hacking group was using to carry out cyberattacks. – CNBC

China and Russia have accelerated their coordination on international issues involving Iran and North Korea in the final weeks of this year as the United States’ own hard-line approaches were met with increasing difficulties. – Newsweek 


Huawei Technologies Co. said its revenue rose to a record $122 billion this year, showing the Chinese tech giant’s continued rise despite the Trump administration’s campaign to curtail its global business. – Wall Street Journal

The order from Chinese officials was blunt and urgent. Villagers from Muslim minorities should be pushed into jobs, willing or not. Quotas would be set and families penalized if they refused to go along. […]They are crucial to the government’s strategy of social re-engineering alongside the indoctrination camps, which have held one million or more Uighurs and Kazakhs. – New York Times

President Trump’s trade deal with Beijing leaves untouched the marriage of business and government known as China Inc. that American executives for nearly two decades have said tilted global markets against them. – Washington Post

Those findings — that China is waging a “covert, coercive or corrupting” influence campaign inside the U.S. — have provided intellectual validation for many of the worst fears about China’s activities. – Bloomberg

Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to deliver his annual New Year’s Eve address amid mounting pressure at home and abroad on issues from economic slowdown to protests against Beijing’s rule in Hong Kong and a looming “phase one” trade deal with the U.S. – Bloomberg

The White House’s leading China hawk, trade adviser Peter Navarro, said Monday that a preliminary trade deal with Beijing is completed. – Bloomberg


Thousands of Taliban prisoners jailed in Afghanistan as insurgents see a peace deal being hammered out between the United States and the Taliban as their ticket to freedom. – Associated Press

The Taliban said it won’t accept a nationwide cease-fire proposed by the U.S. government, hours after the militant group killed at least 14 Afghan soldiers. – Bloomberg 

A key commander of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), has been shot dead at a refugee camp in southeastern Afghanistan, a Pakistani security source and a tribal elder have told RFE/RL. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 


Taiwan’s legislature on Tuesday passed a law aimed at blocking political interference from China, less than two weeks before presidential and legislative elections. – Associated Press

Indonesia said on Monday it had protested to Beijing over the presence of a Chinese coastguard vessel in its territorial waters near the disputed South China Sea, saying it marked a “violation of sovereignty” – Reuters

With just days to go before Taiwan’s elections, its giant neighbor is trying a push-and-pull strategy on the island Beijing claims as Chinese territory, rattling its saber while trying to coax electors with outwardly friendlier policies. – Reuters

A Singapore diplomat defended the Asian city-state’s controversial law against “fake news” in a letter published on Tuesday in the South China Morning Post, saying the Hong Kong newspaper reported untrue accusations about the measure. – Reuters

Derek Grossman and Christopher Sharman write: Vietnam’s latest defense white paper is full of warnings to China and opportunities for the United States. […]The white paper makes clear that Hanoi gets it. Rather, Washington simply needs to reassure Vietnam that the United States is committed to the relationship by deepening existing military exchanges, which will give Vietnam greater confidence to stand up to China when the time comes. – War on the Rocks


U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the state of relations between their two countries in a phone call instigated by Putin, the White House said on Monday. – Reuters

Russian and Ukrainian gas companies say they have finalized a slew of contracts ensuring uninterrupted transit of Russian natural gas to Europe. – Associated Press

A St. Petersburg court on Monday ordered the detention of two Russian men who were arrested on a tip provided by the U.S. and are suspected of plotting unspecified terrorist attacks in the city during the New Year holidays. – Associated Press

The U.S, German and Israeli ambassadors in Warsaw weighed in Monday against claims by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Poland bears part of the blame for the outbreak of World War II. – Associated Press


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to visit Ukraine on Friday amid the drama on Capitol Hill over President Trump’s impeachment. – Washington Post

Five men have been arrested on suspicion of terrorism offences following raids in London, Manchester and Peterborough. – Sky News (UK)

Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden has also exposed the cracks in the West’s response to an emboldened Russia, inflicted permanent damage on Ukraine and heightened the risk of Moscow extending its influence in the country, according to democracy advocates and military experts. U.S. support, in particular, is seen as essential in keeping what is widely seen as a bully in the East at bay. – NBC


American intelligence agencies face a significant reduction in their counterterrorism collection efforts in Africa if a proposed withdrawal of United States military forces is carried out by the Pentagon, intelligence officials said. – New York Times

Islamist group al Shabaab on Monday claimed responsibility for a bomb blast in Mogadishu that killed at least 90 people over the weekend while Somalia said a foreign government that it did not identify helped plan the attack. – Reuters

Militants killed 20 people, most of them hacked to death, in Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern Beni region in the latest attack by an armed group blamed for massacres that have sparked angry protests. – Agence France-Presse

Sudan’s authorities said on Monday they would deploy military forces to West Darfur and suspend peace talks with rebel groups for 24 hours after an outbreak of deadly violence around the regional capital. – Reuters

A Sudanese court sentenced at least 27 members of the country’s intelligence service to death by hanging for the torture and death of a protester during demonstrations against then-President Omar al-Bashir. – Fox News

Eight people were abducted and one person injured during an armed raid overnight on a Greek-registered tanker anchored off Cameroon, Greek authorities said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The Americas

The shocking attack on a Jewish community celebrating Hanukkah in suburban New York on Saturday brings to a close a deadly year for Jews in the U.S. Anti-Semitic attacks that have become more frequent, sinister and deadly are showing no signs of abating as the year closes. – The Hill

Bolivia’s government expelled Mexican and Spanish diplomats on Monday, escalating a diplomatic dispute after Mexico’s embassy in La Paz granted asylum to allies of Bolivia’s former socialist president Evo Morales. – Reuters

Russia is waiting for Venezuela’s opposition leader to leave office before despatching economic advisers to help its ally President Nicolas Maduro’s crisis-torn government. – Bloomberg

Editorial: Making anti-Semitism about Trump or the “right-wing” reveals a lack of understanding or honesty about the nature of the problem, which guarantees that it will persist. […]Anti-Semitism defies any easy solution. But to confront it, people need to start treating it as a problem independent of whether it can be used as a weapon against political enemies. – Washington Examiner

Beth Bailey writes: First, hate is never the remedy for hate. Second, anti-Semitism remains a multiheaded hydra espoused by white supremacists, anti-Israel campus groups, and advocates for groups like the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Its adherents may hold uniquely absurd rationales for their hatred of Jews, but the expression of their hatred comes with violence and intolerance that are all too similar. – Washington Examiner


In one of the largest-ever corporate espionage efforts, cyberattackers alleged to be working for China’s intelligence services stole volumes of intellectual property, security clearance details and other records from scores of companies over the past several years. […]Cybersecurity investigators first identified aspects of the hack, called Cloud Hopper by the security researchers who first uncovered it, in 2016, and U.S. prosecutors charged two Chinese nationals for the global operation last December. The two men remain at large. – Wall Street Journal

Over and over cybersecurity officials in the civilian government, the intelligence community and the Department of Defense say the same platitude: information sharing is important. […]But a new joint report from inspectors general across the government found that information sharing among the intelligence community and the rest of government “made progress.” – Fifth Domain

The digital measuring of people and big data has never been easier, and it’s causing some major issues for intelligence networks around the world. – Washington Examiner


The Marine Corps in 2019 continued on its path to modernize aging systems to allow Marines to move across the air, land and sea in a high-end environment. – USNI News 

These are the approximate positions of the U.S. Navy’s deployed carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups throughout the world as of Dec. 30, 2019, based on Navy and public data. In cases where a CSG or ARG is conducting disaggregated operations, the chart reflects the location of the capital ship. – USNI News 

A company recently selected as the winner of a program to create a “robotic mule” for troops to carry a squad’s worth of gear will have the next year to roll out the automated addition to dismounted soldiers. – Army Times 

Despite causing a political firestorm earlier this year and forcing President Donald Trump to publicly reverse his administration’s position on the matter, the U.S. military again tried to push a plan that would lead to the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman retiring 25 years early and would defund a carrier air wing, according to a White House memo obtained by Defense News. – Defense News 

The Pentagon has awarded data analytics firm Govini a $400 million contract — a move related to broader efforts to find savings inside the department and bring nontraditional players into the department’s orbit. – Defense News 

When it comes to robots that can accompany humans into battle, researchers have leaned heavily on biomimicry and designed machines that resemble animals who have long been trained for war. – C4ISRNET

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said he is leaning toward an annual defense policy bill in 2020 that is more narrow than the one Congress passed this month, which means fewer unrelated provisions of the sort that complicated passage this year. – Defense News 

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency has devised technology to restrict the use of anti-aircraft missiles after they leave American hands, a researcher said, a move that experts say could persuade the United States that it would be safe to disseminate powerful weapons more frequently. – Reuters 

A new hypersonic nuclear missile that Russia says it has deployed is fueling concerns of a new arms race with the U.S. as the clock ticks down on the expiry of the last treaty limiting the strategic arsenals of the two former Cold War foes. – Bloomberg 

The Army wants to know if industry can provide a series of sensors for the service’s largest unmanned platform as a way to help see past enemy defenses. – C4ISRNET