Fdd's overnight brief

December 5, 2018

In The News


The United States and Iran traded accusations Tuesday over Tehran’s latest ballistic missile test, which the U.N. Security Council discussed behind closed doors without taking any action. – Associated Press

The United States has made 11 attempts to begin negotiations with Iran in the last two years, all rejected by Tehran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was quoted as saying on Tuesday. – Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rohani has threatened again to close the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for nearly a third of all oil traded by sea. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


The parents of missing American journalist Austin Tice on Tuesday said they have new information that bolsters their confidence that their son is alive and appealed to the U.S. and Syrian governments to work together directly to secure his release. – Washington Post

Evidence of war crimes is often hard to find — it gets destroyed in the conflict, or no records are kept in the first place. But war crimes prosecutor Stephen Rapp has told The World Today that the evidence of war crimes in Syria is the strongest since Nazi war crimes in World War II. – Australian Broadcasting Corporation

As U.S.-backed fighters in Syria continue to box the remnants of ISIS into a smaller and smaller corner of Syria, the American general preparing to take command of the region says the end is near for the 2,000 or so remaining fighters. – Washington Examiner

Eli Lake writes: A newly declassified U.S. assessment of the incident, scheduled to be released today, will say a so-called chlorine attack on Nov. 24 was essentially a false-flag operation. […]In Syria’s civil war, there is only one side gassing civilians: the government. The new assessment makes that abundantly clear. The regime and the rebels are not equally guilty, and anyone who says so is only emboldening the side actually using chemical weapons. – Bloomberg

Samuel Oakford writes: While many in the Trump administration want to avoid replicating what they see as the United States’ experience in Iraq, where a perceived early withdrawal ceded space to an extremist insurgency, the White House has offered another reason for keeping troops on the ground: Iran. Tehran has helped provide significant battlefield support to Assad’s forces, which, along with Russian help, has served to turn the tide of the conflict, and the White House’s overriding rationale for staying in Syria has shifted focus to Iran. – The Atlantic


Israel’s UN Ambassador Danny Danon predicted Tuesday that a US-sponsored resolution condemning the Hamas terror organization for launching rockets from Gaza into Israel will be approved by the General Assembly “no matter what.” – Associated Press

President of Lebanon Michel Aoun called on Lebanon’s military and security wings to “closely monitor” the situation in the south on Tuesday, in response to the initiation of the IDF’s Operation Northern Shield, according to Lebanese news agency Naharnet. The IDF had launched an operation in which the military is seeking out and destroying suspected Hezbollah built tunnels leading into Israel. – Jerusalem Post

Israeli security analysts believe that the decision to expose the Hezbollah attack tunnel is a precursor to a larger Israeli operation to remove the threat posed by the precision missiles being developed by the Lebanese terror group together with their Iranian sponsors. – Times of Israel

The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security and counterintelligence service, thwarted 500 terror attacks in 2018, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday at an awards ceremony for the organization’s agents who excelled in intelligence operations in 2017 and 2018. – Times of Israel

Saudi Arabia

Several leading senators briefed by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency said Tuesday that they were left more convinced that the killing of a Saudi Arabian journalist was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and vowed to press forward on ways to penalize Riyadh. – Wall Street Journal

Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries are bristling at the close ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia as the group looks to cut output to offset falling crude prices. – Wall Street Journal

Energy Secretary Rick Perry said Tuesday he is planning to make another trip to Saudi Arabia, just weeks after relations between the U.S. and the kingdom were roiled because of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. – Politico

Turkey has called on Saudi Arabia to extradite a number of suspects tied to the disappearance and murder of a dissident Saudi journalist. – Arutz Sheva

Winston Groom writes: Killing Khashoggi was reprehensible. And to say that the Saudis are not completely attuned to Western values would be a vast understatement. But perhaps the malediction presently heaped upon them will give them pause in the future. Either way, an old proverb comes to mind: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” – Wall Street Journal

Eli Lake writes: All that said, Graham is to be commended for trying to force Saudi Arabia to pay a greater price than the Trump administration has been willing to impose. He’s right that America’s allies must know that they cannot demolish international norms the way MBS has. Graham also deserves praise for pursuing a more sensible approach to Saudi Arabia than the resolution the Senate will debate next week that would cut off all U.S. support for the war in Yemen. – Bloomberg

Gulf States

For centuries, Jews did business and mixed socially—if warily—with Arab neighbors from Baghdad to Beirut, but most were expelled or emigrated when Israel was founded in 1948. Today, as the region’s economy grows and attitudes toward Israel soften, a fledgling Jewish community in Dubai has founded that city’s first synagogue. – Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia’s king invited Qatar’s ruler to attend a regional summit in Riyadh this month in a sign of a potential thaw between the nations as the Saudis struggle to overcome international condemnation for the killing of columnist Jamal Khashoggi and its conduct in the Yemen war. – Bloomberg

Abdulla Aljunaid writes: Arab Gulf countries should leverage all the political tools at their disposal to help restore stability in the Middle East, or even impose it if necessary. Throughout the past century, the Gulf region has been the biggest supporter of Palestinians, both politically and on a humanitarian level. However, today our responsibility means that our role does not end with political and humanitarian support: we can offer more to all the parties concerned. – Washington Institute


Lawmakers pressed the Trump administration Tuesday over its continued involvement in Yemen’s civil war, as widespread civilian suffering and staunch White House support for Saudi Arabia’s campaign there fuel opposition on Capitol Hill. – Washington Post

A delegation of Houthi rebels flew from the capital of Yemen to Sweden on Tuesday, the biggest step toward peace in the country’s civil war since 2016. – New York Times

Yemen’s government has said it has agreed to a large-scale prisoner swap with its adversaries, the Houthi rebels, as part of a “confidence-building measure”, suggesting the warring sides could come to a ceasefire agreement at peace talks in Sweden later this week. – Al Jazeera

Middle East & North Africa

Dozens of Libyans protested on Tuesday against a U.S. air strike on suspected al Qaeda militants in the country’s southwestern desert, saying civilians had been targeted, witnesses said. – Reuters

Italian prosecutors said Tuesday that five Egyptian security officials are suspects in the killing of an Italian student in Cairo nearly three years ago. – New York Times

A potential decision by the United States to remove Turkey from the F-35 program over its purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system may have only minimal impact on the fighter jet’s industrial base, a senior U.s. Air Force official said Tuesday. – Defense News

Korean Peninsula

President Trump plans to hold a second summit meeting early next year with Kim Jong-un, even though North Korea has failed to follow through with promises to start dismantling its nuclear weapons program, John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, said on Tuesday. – New York Times

When Seoul was preparing to open a liaison office in the North Korean city of Kaesong this summer after a decade of virtually no contact with its longtime enemy, South Korean officials had heated debates over whether they should seek approval from Washington. Some top aides to President Moon Jae-in stressed it was an issue for the two Koreas alone[…]. But to the surprise of several officials at the meeting, Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon argued Washington must be consulted – Reuters

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, responsible for inter-Korean affairs, has seen its standing wax and wane along with relations between the still officially warring neighbors. […]But those efforts have placed the ministry in a bind, with Washington wary of rapid progress between the two Koreas that may undermine international sanctions and efforts to dismantle the North’s nuclear and missile programs. – Reuters

With denuclearization talks set to continue in New York, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated Sunday that the United States would offer no relief on North Korea sanctions until full denuclearization is achieved. – Politico

Eric Brewer writes: The diplomatic sprint to North Korean denuclearization has slowed to a crawl. […]If current trends continue, any attempt to reinstate maximum pressure may well prove ineffective. The hard collapse of diplomacy could dangerously narrow U.S. policy options and make military conflict more likely. – Foreign Affairs


Trump administration officials said they planned to take a tough stand in their 90-day trade negotiations with China or impose further tariffs, as optimism over a truce gave way to uncertainties about how the two sides could find agreement on a wide range of issues. – Wall Street Journal

China has issued an upbeat but vague promise to carry out a tariff cease-fire with Washington but gave no details that might help dispel confusion about what Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump agreed to in Argentina. – Associated Press

Chinese oil trader Unipec plans to resume U.S. crude shipments to China by March after the Xi-Trump deal at the G20 meeting reduced the risk of tariffs being imposed on these imports, three sources with knowledge of the matter said. – Reuters

Jeff Moon writes: The U.S. and China have reached a truce in their trade dispute and agreed to 90 days of negotiations. To know if they’re making real progress, here are some signs to watch for – Wall Street Journal

William A. Galston writes:  U.S. government and business leaders now believe Mr. Xi is determined to reassert what he sees as China’s rightful place in the world, whatever the consequences for China’s neighbors and existing economic arrangements. U.S. leaders haven’t yet paid sufficient attention to China’s corresponding soft-power campaign. Mr. Xi is leading a carefully organized, well-funded, often covert effort to reduce foreign opposition to his grand strategy. – Wall Street Journal

Stuard Eizenstat and Anne Pence write: The reality is that President Trump and President Xi each appear to have recognized that they do not hold all the cards in this trade battle and that an all-out trade war between the world’s two largest economies would slow growth in both of them. The politics of that are not good for either of them. – The Hill


The U.S. special envoy tasked with finding a negotiated end to Afghanistan’s bloody 17-year-old war met Tuesday with Pakistani officials, and a Taliban official said four members from the group’s political office in the Middle Eastern state of Qatar were also in the Pakistani capital. – Associated Press

U.S. senators voiced concern Tuesday that the Pentagon’s new defense strategy, which emphasizes Russia and China, could hurt the U.S. counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan. –  Military.com

The Pentagon’s pick for the next commander of U.S. Central Command said on Tuesday the high casualty rate of Afghan security forces would not be sustainable even with the stalemate in the fight against Taliban militants. – Reuters

Vladimir Kara-Murza writes: It has been said that Russia is a country with an unpredictable past, as every new government tries to rewrite the historical narrative for its political advantage. In this, President Vladimir Putin’s regime has been particularly active, launching a wholesale rehabilitation of the Soviet period early on. […]Last month, Russian lawmakers took another big step in the same direction by approving a draft resolution that seeks to justify the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. – Washington Post


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Tuesday that the United States would no longer adhere to a Cold War-era arms control agreement if Russia does not come into compliance with the accord within 60 days. – Washington Post

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Wednesday the United States had yet to provide any evidence Moscow was in breach of a landmark arms control treaty, but said it was ready to keep discussing the matter with Washington. – Reuters

Ukraine’s leader renewed appeals to his nation’s allies in Europe and the U.S. to punish Russia for a naval clash that’s reignited tensions between the two ex-Soviet neighbors. – Bloomberg


A senior adviser to the European Union’s top court said the U.K. can reverse its decision to leave the bloc without permission from other members, possibly undercutting Prime Minister Theresa May’s effort to cast next week’s critical parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal as a make-or-break moment. – Wall Street Journal

German auto executives outlined plans for U.S. investments Tuesday during meetings with President Trump and top White House officials, a strategy aimed at easing U.S. threats of auto tariffs. – Wall Street Journal

The United Kingdom is open to working with U.S. industry to build a new global navigation satellite system, following London being frozen out of the Galileo spacecraft program by the European Union, the British defense secretary said this weekend. – Defense News

Adam Tooze writes: If the European Union is determined to hold the line on debt and deficits, it should offer something positive in exchange, such as a common European investment and growth strategy or a more cooperative approach to the refugee question, which has driven the upsurge in the League. If all Brussels has to offer is discipline, it is inviting the remaking of Italian politics along lines that are more nationalist and more hostile to Europe. – New York Times

Rachel Ellehuus, Ricklef Beutin, and Quentin Lopinot write: Over the next few months, it is essential that Allies work together to reinforce cohesion to alleviate the danger of a widening political gap over NATO’s nuclear policy and to demonstrate that unity is NATO’s center of gravity. The NATO foreign ministers this week made a good start by unanimously denouncing the Russian violation and underlining Russia’s responsibility to preserve the INF Treaty. But more difficult and just as important work lies ahead to prepare NATO for a possible post-INF era, while preserving Alliance unity. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Tom Rogan writes: As the UK Defence Journal reports, on Tuesday, a Spanish warship, Infanta Elena, sailed through Gibraltar waters playing the Spanish national anthem over loudspeakers. […]Spain must start respecting British sovereignty and spending more on defense. If not, the U.S. should prepare to relocate its military base at Rota to a different NATO location in the Mediterranean. If that fails to alter Spanish behavior, the U.S. can sanction Madrid. – Washington Examiner


The United States has renewed a “permanent diplomatic presence” in Somalia, the State Department said, nearly 30 years after the U.S. embassy was closed as a civil war raged in the Horn of Africa country. – Reuters

The U.S. Embassy in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) reopened Tuesday after being closed when U.S. operatives obtained intelligence that an ISIS affiliate may be planning an attack on American assets in the region, a representative from the State Department told The Hill. – The Hill

Economic migration from Africa to Europe driven by poverty could double in the next decade unless urgent investment is made in job creation for young people in rural areas, the head of a UN financial body has warned. – The Guardian

The Americas

The head of Canada’s spy agency said state-sponsored economic espionage and cyber threats now pose a potentially greater challenge to the country than terrorism, warning that foreign actors are already targeting the domestic technology and telecommunications sectors. – Wall Street Journal

The Pentagon has approved a request from the Department of Homeland Security to extend the active duty troops deployed to the southwest border with Mexico. – CNBC

Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., the second-most senior Democrat in the House of Representatives, said Tuesday that President Trump should not tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement as promised if Congress does not approve the revised trade agreement the administration negotiated with Canada and Mexico. – Washington Examiner

Cyber Security

The campaign arm for Republican congressional candidates fell victim to a cyberattack in April by an unidentified intruder, people familiar with the matter said on Tuesday, fueling concerns that the 2018 election campaign may have been more seriously targeted by hackers than previously known. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Secret Service on Nov. 19 started testing a facial recognition system that uses security cameras to capture images of people outside the White House and then tries to match them to “people of interest.” The move has heightened concerns of the government using high-tech tools to expand its monitoring of the public. – NBC News

Jamie Susskind writes: If chatbots are approaching the stage where they can answer diagnostic questions as well or better than human doctors, then it’s possible they might eventually reach or surpass our levels of political sophistication. And it is naïve to suppose that in the future bots will share the limitations of those we see today: They’ll likely have faces and voices, names and personalities — all engineered for maximum persuasion. […]Unless we take action, chatbots could seriously endanger our democracy, and not just when they go haywire. – New York Times


As the Pentagon shifts its focus from fighting terrorism to countering China and Russia, the two generals tapped to lead the forces most closely associated with counterterror efforts faced questions about how their commands fit into that new strategy. – Defense One

The nominee to lead U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) told lawmakers Tuesday that the unrelenting pace of operations may force the elite organization to pass some missions off to conventional combat units. – Military.com

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and two top Republican lawmakers met with President Donald Trump at the White House on Tuesday to argue against a $33 billion budget cut he’s considering for the military. – Defense News

Trump Administration

In a major speech on Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tried to explain one of the abiding conundrums of the Trump administration: How does a nationalist lead on the international stage? The answer, he said, is to revamp or jettison some treaties and institutions while bolstering others. – New York Times

A top FBI official who helped oversee two politically sensitive investigations related to the 2016 presidential campaign is retiring from government service. – Wall Street Journal

Mike Flynn has provided “substantial assistance” to the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference and other matters, federal prosecutors said Tuesday, recommending no jail time for the former top Trump aide who was one of the first of the president’s associates to be ensnared in the probe. – Wall Street Journal

U.S. President Donald Trump’s top diplomat promised on Tuesday a new democratic world order in which Washington will strengthen or jettison international agreements as it sees fit to stop “bad actors” such as Russia, China and Iran from gaining. – Reuters

The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia on Tuesday formally demanded financial records from U.S. President Donald Trump’s businesses as part of their lawsuit alleging his dealings with foreign governments violate anti-corruption clauses of the U.S. Constitution. – Reuters

Colin Dueck writes: The Trump era has triggered an intense yet useful discussion on the political right and center-right about the proper direction of American foreign policy. […]The president and his supporters have made some valid points against the post-Cold War liberal internationalist consensus. Bipartisan US opinion elites and transatlantic associates will have to come to terms with this, for whether in this form or some other, a conservatism oriented toward a sovereign American nation-state will remain within the mainstream for many years to come. – American Enterprise Institute