Fdd's overnight brief

February 13, 2019

FDD Research & Analysis

In The News


The Trump administration’s sanctions on Venezuelan crude complicate its effort to bring Iran’s oil exports to zero. To avoid a price spike, Washington will likely be forced to allow some buyers to continue purchasing oil from Tehran, experts say. – Wall Street Journal

Foreign ministers and senior officials from 60 nations gather in the Polish capital Warsaw on Wednesday where the United States hopes to ratchet up pressure against Iran despite concerns among major European countries about heightened tensions with Tehran. – Reuters

The wrecks of vehicles used by Islamic State militants as car bombs and other metal debris left by the war in Iraq are now helping fund their Iran-backed enemies, industry sources say. – Reuters

Benny Avni writes: They’re intently watching Venezuela in Iran. The revolutionary regimes in Tehran and Caracas are birds of a feather. True, one is Islamist green, the other socialist red, but in some ways they are as similar as that blue-gold dress in the viral internet meme of a few years ago. – New York Post

Nicholas Carl writes: These new leaders will also confront a growing protest movement, which has rooted itself in Iran demanding change. Demonstrations have become more demographically and geographically diverse and are flaring up more frequently than during Iran’s previous protest waves in 1999 and 2009. They will continue evolving as the population becomes increasingly frustrated with the government’s unwillingness to address its concerns. The protest movement does not yet threaten regime survival, but it is growing. – American Enterprise Institute

Lawrence J. Haas writes: Iran is expanding its regional footprint even as it continues to finance terrorism — undoubtedly with some of the tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief that it secured under the U.S.-led 2015 global nuclear deal. Detailing Iran’s terrorist activities to the UN Security Council, Israel Ambassador Danny Danon estimated that it now funds Hezbollah, Hamas, and other such groups to the tune of $7 billion a year. – The Hill

Jonathan Marcus writes: There is a fundamental division amongst the participants here. The US, Israel and many of the moderate Arab States see Iran as a malevolent influence in the region, seeking to expand its role at every opportunity. They were sceptical about the 2015 nuclear deal that was intended to constrain Iran’s nuclear activities. Israel in particular stands with the US and the Saudis here. It is confronting a growing Iranian military presence in Syria and Lebanon. It is actively engaged in a battle of attrition against Iranian forces and proxy militias in the region. – BBC News


The U.S. military said Tuesday it struck a mosque that had allegedly been used as an Islamic State control center, as American-allied Syrian forces battled the extremists in their last stronghold in eastern Syria amid reports of more civilian casualties. – Associated Press

The United States is ready to help countries repatriate Islamic State jihadists detained in Syria but time is of the essence and Washington insists that ultimately it is up to their home governments to come up with solutions. – Agence France-Presse

Clamouring up dirt berms, clutching babies and blankets, the newest refugees of the Islamic State could well be the last. Inside the nearby enclave they fled are perhaps no more than 500 people – nearly all of them fighters who are refusing to leave a two square kilometre corner of eastern Syria that is all that remains of the group’s so-called caliphate. – The Guardian

In Syria’s Idlib province, the dust has largely settled after last month’s dramatic takeover of the area by al-Qaida-linked fighters. As a result, however, international organisations have withdrawn aid and support for schools and hospitals – and Idlib’s 3 million residents are beginning to feel the pinch. – The Guardian


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israeli forces had carried out another strike in Iran-aligned Syria, a day after the Syrian army said an Israeli drone fired missiles near a demolished hospital and an army observation post. – Reuters

A man from Nablus who collaborated with the IDF and the Shin Bet General Security Service is suing Al Jazeera for NIS 10 million, claiming the broadcaster exposed his identity, according to a report in Maariv. – Jerusalem Post

An Israeli company made up of former Mossad agents that specialized in covertly spreading messages to influence what people believed and how they behaved targeted the boycott Israel movement on American college campuses. Psy-Group also took credit for turning Bernie Sanders supporters against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton using Facebook during the 2016 election, the New Yorker reported in “Mossad for Hire,” an article by Adam Entous and Ronan Farrow published this week. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan highlighted the U.S. commitment to Iraqi autonomy during talks in Baghdad on Tuesday, in the wake of comments from President Trump that have jeopardized plans for an ongoing counterterrorism presence there. – Washington Post

The Trump administration says it “strongly opposes” a bill that would direct the president to withdraw U.S. armed forces from the Saudi-led conflict in Yemen, threatening to veto a measure the House plans to vote on later this week. – Bloomberg

The Mideast conference in Poland starting Wednesday offers Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an opportunity to flaunt in public what he has long boasted about happening behind the scenes — his country’s improved relations with some Gulf Arab nations. – Associated Press

Anthony H Cordesman writes: The United States cannot dictate to Iraq or successfully bully it over burden sharing or use it a base against Iran. It may, however, be able to help Iraq become a much stronger and more unified country. It may be able to help Iraq make a successful transition back to having an effective self-defense capability and internal security forces. – Center for Strategic & International Studies

Korean Peninsula

Hundreds of the fallen were never recovered from Arrowhead Hill and adjacent peaks; their remains lie in no-man’s-land inside the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea. Now, warming inter-Korean relations have fostered a joint effort to retrieve the remains of some 300 United Nations soldiers and perhaps thousands of Chinese. – Wall Street Journal

South Korea’s presidential Blue House pushed back on Wednesday against comments by U.S. President Donald Trump that suggested Seoul had agreed to pay $500 million more toward maintaining U.S. troops in the country. – Reuters

The commander of U.S. forces in South Korea cited a “palpable” decline in tensions amid U.S.-North Korean peace talks but cautioned there’s little evidence that Kim Jong Un is willing to give up his nuclear arsenal. – Bloomberg

David Ignatius writes: The Carnegie team has explored how limits on North Korea’s nuclear and missile program might be verified, given the lack of modern infrastructure in that country and its poor record-keeping. The answer, it argues , is “probabilistic verification,” which may not measure every item in the stockpile but can give a reliable overall assessment of whether Pyongyang is complying. – Washington Post


The Trump administration is poised to issue an executive order this week to secure American telecommunications networks, a move that’s likely to result in the barring of Chinese tech firms such as Huawei, according to three U.S. officials. – Washington Post

So when the Czech government’s cybersecurity agency issued a directive in December warning that Huawei represented a potential national security threat, company officials were shocked — as was Mr. Zeman, known for his closeness to China. Huawei has threatened legal and financial retaliation. Mr. Zeman has accused his own intelligence services, including the cybersecurity agency, known as Nukib, of “dirty tricks.” – New York Times

To compete with a more assertive China, the United States should invest in alliances and multilateral institutions, which President Trump and his administration have rejected or undermined, a report issued Tuesday by prominent scholars and former top White House, State Department and trade officials working on China concluded. – New York Times

When China joined the World Trade Organization, the global fraternity of cross-border commerce, it promised to open itself up to foreigners in lucrative businesses like banking, telecommunications and electronic-payment processing. – New York Times

U.S. stocks rose Tuesday as President Trump said he is willing to delay next month’s deadline for resolving the U.S.’s trade conflict with China if negotiations with Beijing are progressing smoothly. – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump said he’s open to extending a March 1 deadline to raise tariffs on Chinese products if the two sides are near an agreement, sending a conciliatory signal amid talks to resolve the trade war between the world’s two biggest economies. – Bloomberg

Editorial: Other nations, fearful of Chinese bullying and eager to preserve economic ties, have been slow to condemn or even acknowledge this ongoing crime against humanity. But on Saturday, the government of Turkey, a large Muslim state with a significant Uighur population, denounced China’s practices as “violating the fundamental human rights” of the Uighur population in Xinjiang and called the concentration camps “a great shame for humanity.” – Washington Post


Afghanistan’s coalition government fired on Tuesday all the commissioners who directed fraud-tainted parliamentary elections last fall, as the country prepares for a presidential race this summer and watches, with its leaders on the sidelines, peace talks unfold between Americans and the Taliban. – New York Times

The Taliban on Tuesday announced a 14-member negotiating team ahead of talks this month with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has been meeting with the insurgents to try to end America’s longest war. – Associated Press

They served the French army on the frontlines in Afghanistan, sometimes bearing arms during operations by international forces against the Taliban. […]Their long fight for protection from France ended on February 1 when a top French court ordered the state to give immediate protection to all those who had been previously turned away. – Agence France-Presse

Krishnadev Calamur writes: Can a peace process work if it excludes the government of the country in conflict? We may be finding out. At present, there are two distinct efforts under way to bring peace in Afghanistan: In one, Zalmay Khalilzad, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, has held several discussions with Taliban leaders. In the other, a meeting in Moscow this month brought together influential Afghans, including former President Hamid Karzai, and Taliban leaders. Conspicuously missing from both? The Afghan government. – The Atlantic


Australia’s parliament narrowly approved legislation to allow asylum seekers held in detention centers on Pacific islands to be brought to the country for medical treatment, an easing of its strict policy toward migrants arriving by boat and a setback for the conservative government, which had opposed the move. – Wall Street Journal

Until recently, few had heard of PNR, a company in South Korea that turns sludge from steel mills into iron. Then a 94-year-old man named Lee Chun-shik tried to settle an old debt. Mr. Lee grew up during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and as a teenager, he was taken to Japan and forced to work for a steel maker, essentially as slave labor. – New York Times

The speaker of South Korea’s parliament said he had no intention to apologize for his comments about Japan’s emperor, suggesting the issue could continue to stoke tensions between the neighbors. – Bloomberg

U.S. Republicans and Democrats joined together on Tuesday to tout the long alliance between Japan, South Korea and the United States, hoping to reinforce the trilateral relationship amid an intensifying feud between Tokyo and Seoul. – Reuters

China’s Huawei has taken out full-page ads in major New Zealand newspapers in which they equate the idea of ban on the company to a rugby tournament without the All Blacks. – The Guardian


Western nations are close to agreeing new sanctions against Russia in a co-ordinated push aimed at punishing Moscow for its aggression towards Ukraine in the Sea of Azov. The measures are expected to be discussed at a meeting of EU foreign ministers next Monday and could be levied over the next two months, according to diplomats briefed on the discussions. – Financial Times

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Whether or not you believe the Russian economy grew 2.3 percent last year, beating the most optimistic expectations, the Russian Economy Ministry doesn’t want anyone to expect a repeat in 2019. That doesn’t mean there will be no baffling statistical anomalies this year, only that, realistically, there’s no reason for a rapid economic expansion. – Bloomberg

Tom Rogan writes: Russia has a plan to temporarily disconnect its Internet servers from international servers and traffic. This isn’t about cybersecurity. Instead, it’s a gambit intended to scare the West into thinking Russia is preparing for war. – Washington Examiner


When he was prime minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, fighting desperately to win a referendum on which he had staked his job, […] He was surprised, then, to discover that RT, the international Russian television network with close ties to the Kremlin that was formerly known as Russia Today, had mischaracterized the pro-Renzi event on Oct. 29, 2016, as “Protests against the Italian prime minister ahead of the referendum on the Constitution.” – New York Times

Prime Minister Theresa May has delayed so many decisions on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union that critics accuse her of turning can-kicking into a political art form. – New York Times

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling partners are reconsidering their support for a decadesold arrangement that puts Germany under the U.S. nuclear shield, a development that could further undermine the country’s already-tense relationship with the Trump administration. – Wall Street Journal

The trial starting Tuesday of 12 politicians and activists who organized an unauthorized independence referendum in Catalonia in 2017 has intensified the clash over the future of the northern Spanish region. Those on trial face charges ranging from rebellion and sedition to misappropriation of public funds. – Wall Street Journal

With just over a month until the U.K. is set to leave the European Union, British Prime Minister Theresa May’s efforts to garner support for a Brexit deal will go down to the wire, as she tries to herd her divided party toward a knife-edge vote that now looks likely to take place in March. – Wall Street Journal

Enter North Macedonia. The small Balkan country of Macedonia officially changed its name Tuesday by adding a geographic designation that ends a decades-old dispute with neighboring Greece and secures its entry into NATO. – Associated Press

The conflict in eastern Ukraine is in danger of escalating, threatening to exacerbate an already precarious humanitarian crisis, a United Nations official warned. – Bloomberg

Emily Tamkin writes: Pompeo’s approach to the region — putting strategic interests and great power politics ahead of human rights concerns to beat back Russia and China from Central Europe — was the cornerstone of Assistant Secretary for Europe and Eurasia Wess Mitchell’s tenure. Mitchell’s last day is Friday, but Pompeo is doubling down on Mitchell’s method. – Washington Post

Edward Lucas writes: Another bit of good news is that the Alliance is now back in business in its core mission of territorial defense. Following decisions at the summit in 2016, it has multinational trip-wire forces in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland and is developing a tailored presence in the Black Sea. Plenty to celebrate: real troops, real plans, and real exercises in the countries most vulnerable to Russia make war less likely, not more. – European Policy Analysis  

United States

President Trump on Tuesday called on Rep. Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) to resign over comments she made that were criticized as anti-Semitic. “I think she should either resign from Congress or she should certainly resign from the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” he said, speaking during a cabinet meeting at the White House. – Wall Street Journal

Abigail Shrier writes: The Democrats have an anti-Semitism problem, and it isn’t subtle. […]That Ms. Omar would slander Israel is disturbing not because of the feelings it tramples. Since her appointment to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, her statement raises alarm about how her enmity for the world’s only Jewish country—and the world’s largest Jewish population—might translate into policy aims. – Wall Street Journal

Abe Greenwald writes: Asking for an apology is an immoral response to anti-Semitism because it’s designed to allow the anti-Semite to move past her offense. In the public sphere, these apologies become a licensing fee paid by people like Omar every time they want to sound off about the evil Jews. She “apologizes,” people praise her willingness to learn and grow, and the headlines shift from her offense to the hysterics who won’t let her be. The only ones who benefit here are the bigots and their allies. – Commentary Magazine


Venezuelans on Tuesday fed a wave of discontent seeking to drive President Nicolás Maduro from office, turning out into the streets in massive protests. But even as the opposition hailed new momentum, its leaders conceded that their bid to bring down the socialist government appeared to be morphing into a longer-term struggle. – Washington Post

The foreign minister for the Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro said on Tuesday that his government is ready to negotiate with the opposition and that the country plans to increase its cooperation with U.N. agencies to improve the economy. – Wall Street Journal

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó called for caravans to pressure the military to allow deliveries of humanitarian aid on Feb. 23, testing a president who sees the food and medical supplies as a way to embarrass him and undermine his rule. – Wall Street Journal

China has been holding talks with Venezuela’s political opposition to safeguard its investments in the troubled Latin American nation, hedging its bets as pressure builds on Nicolás Maduro, the embattled leader for whom Beijing has been a vital ally. – Wall Street Journal

Russia said on Tuesday it was ready to facilitate the start of dialogue between Venezuela’s government and opposition but warned the United States against intervening in Caracas’ internal affairs. – Reuters

Argentina saw a sharp spike in Venezuelan migrants arriving last year, and the trend is expected to continue in 2019 even in the event of regime change, according to the Buenos Aires-based representative for Venezuelan National Assembly leader Juan Guaido. – Bloomberg

Cyber Security

The lower house of Russia’s parliament has passed the first reading of a bill to create a self-standing Russian segment of the internet. – Associated Press

Cyber criminals increasingly turned to “formjacking” as their go-to way to carry out attacks against companies last year, according to a new report released early Wednesday morning. – The Hill

India’s government dealt retail giants Amazon.com and Walmart a devastating blow this year with new policies undermining their growth plans. Now U.S. social media pioneers Facebook and Twitter are in danger of suffering similar setbacks in what is perhaps the world’s most important emerging technology market. – Bloomberg

The Pentagon is investing tens of millions of dollars into new cyber training centers, which comes as the American military has pledged to take more offensive operations in cyberspace. – Fifth Domain


Everywhere he went in Iraq during his yearlong deployment, Ryne Robinson saw the burning trash pits. Sometimes, like in Ramadi, they were as large as a municipal dump, filled with abandoned or destroyed military vehicles, synthetic piping and discarded combat meals. Sometimes he tossed garbage on them himself. – New York Times

Climate change and a deteriorating environment are likely to fuel social disorder and could threaten some US military bases, a top admiral said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

The U.S. will continue the recent pace of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea and will include allies and partners in future missions, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command told a Senate panel on Tuesday. – USNI News

A top nuclear official at the U.S. Defense Department warned Tuesday that the future of the nuclear arsenal has to come from innovations in the warheads, rather than the Pentagon’s traditional focus on delivery systems. – Defense News

The Pentagon’s inspector general is launching an investigation as to whether the U.S. Air Force improperly certified SpaceX launch systems, it announced Monday. – Defense News

In a tense exchange before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the four-star admiral who led the U.S. Navy’s internal review into two deadly collisions in 2017 told members that while two ships had tragic accidents that year, the rest of the fleet was collision-free. – Defense News

Trump Administration

President Trump sent mixed signals on a bipartisan border-security deal reached by lawmakers, but he didn’t rule out ultimately signing the resulting legislation, injecting new suspense over whether another government shutdown would begin this weekend. – Wall Street Journal

The 2016 nominating conventions had recently concluded and the presidential race was hitting a new level of intensity when Paul Manafort, Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, ducked into an unusual dinner meeting at a private cigar room a few blocks away from the campaign’s Trump Tower headquarters in Manhattan. […]It was at that meeting that prosecutors believe Manafort and Kilimnik may have exchanged key information relevant to Russia and Trump’s presidential bid. – Washington Post

William P. Barr on Tuesday cleared a crucial hurdle for his nomination as attorney general, virtually assuring his confirmation this week to take over the Justice Department — and oversee the investigation into links between the Trump campaign and Russia’s election-manipulation operations. – New York Times

Aaron Blake writes: We’re (apparently) nearing the end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign’s possible ties to Russia, and the current degree of confusion and misinformation bodes very poorly for any kind of widely-accepted resolution. – Washington Post