Fdd's overnight brief

February 14, 2020

In The News


The Senate passed a resolution blocking President Trump from using military force against Iran without congressional authorization, in the latest bipartisan effort on Capitol Hill to rein in presidential war-making powers. – Wall Street Journal   

In late September, a plane carrying senior Iranian officials touched down in Abu Dhabi, the gleaming capital of the United Arab Emirates. […]But the meeting set off alarms inside the White House, where officials learned about it only after reading reports from American spy agencies. – New York Times 

Iran’s crude-oil sales have been battered by a sudden downturn in demand from its last big trading partner, China, following the deadly coronavirus outbreak, U.S. and Iranian officials said, a blow that lands as the Islamic Republic faces the risk of an economic collapse. – Wall Street Journal 

Iran’s military leader said his country is prepared to attack both the United States and Israel if either makes the “slightest error.” – Washington Examiner 

Iran and the U.S. came to the brink of war in January, but the two sides are still keeping open a diplomatic channel to discuss the fate of Americans imprisoned in Iran, according to multiple sources familiar with the talks. – NBC News 

Iran’s week-long parliamentary election campaign started on Thursday, state TV reported, a vote seen as a popularity test for the clerical establishment at a time when relations with Washington are at their worst since the 1979 Islamic revolution. – Reuters  

Government-backed Iranian hackers have targeted universities in Europe, the United States and Australia in recent months, consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers has found, Dutch broadcaster NOS reported on Friday. – Reuters 

Michael Knights writes: Deterrence must be reviewed and refreshed on a regular basis, so any response system would need to be exercised and checked frequently to ensure it is still fit-for-purpose. […]To break the current cycle, the U.S. government needs a more formal retaliatory system with a balance of mechanical and political features. Otherwise, Iran and its proxy militias will keep pushing the limits of deterrence until they kill or grievously wound more Americans. – Washington Institute 


Russia’s rosy depiction of Syria is in stark contrast to the dystopian images from Idlib — the smoking ruins of bombed-out homes and displaced people forced to flee. Families weep over the charred remains of their dead, killed in bomb attacks by Syrian or Russian planes. – Washington Post

It is arguably one of the most coveted prizes in Syria’s civil war, and after eight years of fighting, Syrian President Bashar Assad has got it back. The Damascus-Aleppo highway, or the M5, is known to Syrians simply as the “International Road.” Cutting through all of Syria’s major cities, the motorway is key to who controls the country. – Associated Press 

More than 800,000 Syrians, mostly women and children, have fled their homes during a Russian-backed Syrian military campaign to clear the opposition in northwest Syria since Dec. 1, a senior U.N. spokesperson said on Thursday. – Reuters  

Syrian air defenses downed several missiles coming across the occupied Golan Heights from Israel before they hit their targets in the capital Damascus, Syrian state television said on Thursday. – Reuters  

Michael O’Hanlon and Steven Heydemann write: U.S. diplomacy toward this end would be strengthened by further exploiting two key priorities of both Moscow and Damascus: gaining Western aid for post-conflict reconstruction and obtaining sanctions relief. To be sure, no U.S. funds should be forthcoming while Assad remains in place. Nor should Washington do anything to loosen its effective sanctions policy while his regime is in power. – The Hill  

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The end result is Idlib’s current crises. The U.S. has condemned the Syrian regime and supported Turkey. It’s too little, too late. […]This sidetracked the Syrian rebellion and co-opted it. Now all that Ankara can do is manage the defeat of the Syrians and hope that it can hold a sliver of the border as Russia, Iran and Assad together decide the future of Syria. – The Hill


Direct clashes between Turkish and Syrian troops amid a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel stronghold of Idlib province are threatening to escalate into a full-blown conflict between the two neighbors and also shatter an alliance forged between Turkey and Russia. – Associated Press

Leading Turkish politicians, including President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli, and many journalists have made statements and commented on the recent fighting in Idlib between the Turkish military and Turkish-backed jihadi factions on one side and the Syrian military on the other.  – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Gönül Tol writes: Erdogan is in an unenviable position. His recent threats against the regime have raised the stakes. If he matches his words with actions, he may face Russia’s wrath. If he doesn’t, he will suffer Bahceli’s instead. In the meantime, Turkish soldiers in Idlib are ever more vulnerable to regime attacks, hundreds of thousands of people are camped out on Turkey’s border in subzero conditions, and tomato producers in Antalya are pushing for this all to be over, fast. – Middle East Institute 


A mortar shell slammed into an airbase hosting U.S. troops in northern Iraq late Thursday causing no casualties, two Iraqi security officials said. – Associated Press 

Hundreds of Iraqi women took to the streets of central Baghdad and southern Iraq on Thursday in defiance of a radical cleric’s calls for gender segregation at anti-government protest sites. […]Before the march, al-Sadr warned that Iraq must not “turn into Chicago,” equating the U.S. city with “immorality.” The statement was immediately mocked on social media with Iraqis posting memes and and tweets comparing Iraq to the American cosmopolitan city. – Associated Press 

The prominent Shi’ite Iraqi cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement in Iraq, appears to be attempting to set himself up as a recognized religious authority in Iraq – even though his studies in the holy city of Qom in Iran have not yet qualified him to issue fatwas. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Arabian Peninsula

The U.S. Navy boarded a boat in the Persian Gulf region and seized antitank missiles and three surface-to-air missiles it said were of Iranian origin and destined for rebel fighters in Yemen. – Bloomberg  

Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister on Thursday denied media reports of a possible meeting between Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, amid speculation about normalizing ties between Gulf Arab states and Israel. – Reuters 

Farzin Nadimi writes: Regarding the Houthi switch from seaborne to airborne attacks, this is partly due to geographical realities such as the loss of coastal bases. It also indicates the increasing versatility and utility of suicide aerial drones and cruise missiles. Yet one should not dismiss the possibility of older tactics reemerging (or merging with new tactics) if the Houthis decide to target high-value maritime assets across the Gulf of Aden and southern Red Sea. – Washington Institute 

Ibrahim Jalal writes: It is crucial that efforts be made to improve the relationship between the parties before trying to reach compromises on their diverging and incompatible interests and positions. If this is not done, the mistakes that led to the failure of talks in Switzerland and Kuwait, as well as the limited implementation of the Stockholm and Riyadh agreements, will likely reoccur, taking the process backward when it needs to move forward. – Middle East Institute  


Middle East & North Africa

The only functioning airport in Libya’s capital Tripoli reopened on Thursday following more than three hours of closure after missiles were fired towards it, causing chaos and fear among passengers, airport authorities said. – Reuters 

To see the limits of French President Emmanuel Macron’s go-it-alone forays into foreign policy look no further than the Libyan conflict. […]It’s not game over yet, but whatever the outcome, France’s role in the region has suffered. It’s facing rising anti-French sentiment in western Libya, as well as in the West African states battling Islamist militants inspired by al-Qaeda and Islamist State where it’s not uncommon to see protesters burning the French flag. – Bloomberg 

Gen. Kevin Chilton (ret.) and Harry Hoshovsky write: U.S. President Donald Trump recently remarked that his foremost priority regarding Iran is preventing its regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon. […]While that argument may not appeal much to Russia and China, neither wants a nuclear proliferation cascade that undermines their various interests throughout the region. – Defense News 

Korean Peninsula

The United States said it would approve humanitarian assistance to North Korea to help international aid agencies fight the coronavirus there, amid fears that the impoverished country may be hiding an outbreak. – New York Times  

President Donald Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly has dismissed the U.S. president’s unprecedented engagement with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as futile, saying he had never believed North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons and Pyongyang had played the United States to its benefit. – Reuters   

South Korea’s central bank chief said on Friday the bank must take a cautious approach to any further rate cuts, as economic indicators need to be assessed carefully to gauge the impact of China’s coronavirus outbreak on the economy. – Reuters 


Huawei Technologies Co. and two of its U.S. subsidiaries were charged with racketeering conspiracy and conspiracy to steal trade secrets in a federal indictment unsealed Thursday, opening another front in the Trump administration’s battle against the Chinese telecommunications firm. – Wall Street Journal 

Energy trade was the centerpiece of U.S. President Donald Trump’s just-completed pact with China, seemingly matching soaring U.S. production of oil and natural gas with bottomless Chinese demand for fuel. – Foreign Policy  

China’s foreign ministry said on Friday it urges the United States to immediately stop suppressing Chinese companies without reason, after U.S. prosecutors unveiled a new indictment against Huawei Technologies. – Reuters  

Joseph Bosco writes: But, throughout the ups and down, the twists and turns of U.S.-China and U.S.-North Korea relations, the core of American policy toward China has remained firm. […]While the gyrations of U.S.-China relations may seem unpredictable sometimes, the underlying guiding principles of American policy set forth in national strategy statements and the speeches of the vice president and the secretary of state clearly recognize the unprecedented existential threat that Communist China poses to American values and interests. – The Hill


President Trump said Thursday the U.S. is close to signing a deal with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and that the outcome of negotiations would be clear in the next two weeks. – Wall Street Journal  

The Pentagon announced that an Army soldier was killed in a noncombat-related incident in Afghanistan. – Washington Examiner 

Michael Rubin writes: The difference between the Trump administration and the Obama-Clinton approach is that, with the Taliban insurgency remaining strong, Khalilzad has looked for ways around the fact that, rather than abandon violence, the Taliban have been increasing it. […]When Khalilzad cut the Afghan administration out of its deal-making with the Taliban, Afghanistan’s national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, the point man on U.S. intelligence sharing and military cooperation, raised tough questions in Washington. – Washington Examiner 


Authorities in Pakistan approved sweeping new regulations restricting social media, rules that would dramatically change the way companies such as Facebook and Twitter operate in the country and critics say would threaten freedom of expression. – Wall Street Journal   

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said he would help Pakistan stay off a terrorism financing blacklist at a meeting of a global finance watchdog, a move he suggested would counter “political pressure” from Islamabad’s critics. – Reuters 

An anti-terrorism court in Pakistan has sentenced hardline Islamist cleric Hafiz Mohammad Saeed to 11 years in jail for financing terrorist operations. […]So why has it taken so long to put him behind bars – and will he stay there? The answer is complicated, not least by the fact that Saeed is widely known to have close links with the Pakistani military. – BBC 

South Asia

Internet shutdowns are a favored tactic for the government of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi. […]United Nations experts at the time said the ban had “the character of collective punishment.” On Wednesday, four U.S. senators wrote to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, expressing concern about the curbs on the internet in Kashmir and calling for its full restoration. – Associated Press 

At least 19 children were wounded when a primary school was hit by shelling in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, a lawmaker and a military spokesman said on Thursday. – Reuters   

Shairee Malhotra writes: Nowhere has that been more stark than in the U.S. and European media, with the latest cover of the Economist magazine – headlined “Intolerant India” neatly indicative of this.[…]India’s loss of control over its narrative abroad doesn’t augur well for a state with serious geopolitical ambitions, including a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. – Haaretz 


Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organization is pitting health concerns against geopolitics during the current crisis over the new illness known as COVID-19. […]So strong is China’s diplomatic pressure that Taiwan can no longer take part in the organization’s annual World Health Assembly, even as an observer. – Associated Press 

Malaysia will convert two Indonesian-built CN-235 transport aircraft into maritime patrol platforms using U.S. funding set aside for regional nations to improve maritime security, a top general confirmed. – Defense News 

Edward Wong writes: In December, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, denounced Washington’s prodding of Central Asian nations on the Muslim issue: “If the United States once again tries to get up to its old tricks, it will certainly still be futile for them.” Trump administration policies perceived as anti-Muslim undermine trust in Washington. – New York Times 


Russia said on Thursday it was alarmed by a trip to a Norwegian outpost in the Arctic by a U.S. Air Force unit and urged Oslo to refrain from what it said were de-stabilizing moves in the strategic region. – Reuters   

Russia said on Friday it had asked Canada to hand over case files on a 95-year-old former Nazi death squad member living in Canada to help Moscow with an investigation into the mass murder of children at a Soviet orphanage in 1942. […]In December, Canada’s Supreme Court rejected an appeal to restore his citizenship that he obtained in 1960. – Reuters 

A court in Moscow fined Twitter and Facebook 4 million rubles each Thursday for refusing to store the personal data of Russian citizens on servers in Russia, the largest penalties imposed on Western technology companies under internet use laws. – Associated Press 


The Brexit drama shook the foundations of the European Union for years and laid bare the need for much-delayed political renovations at the 27-nation bloc. But now that Britain has finally left, where does the EU revamp even start and who is going to foot the bill? – Associated Press 

The United States is one step closer to establishing a permanent diplomatic outpost in the Arctic by allocating money for a consulate in Greenland, the vast island that President Donald Trump once openly suggested buying, according to a federal budget proposal revealed this week. – Foreign Policy 

A new German strategy document declares defense-related cyber technologies as key national assets, affording the domestic sector some protection from international competition. – C4ISRNET 

Josh Rogin writes: The Huawei issue is symbolic of the gap between U.S. and European populations on how they view China’s rise. […]European countries don’t want to be pushed into the Trump administration’s view of great-power competition with China — and especially if they are simultaneously the targets of the Trump administration’s attacks on trade, burden-sharing and other issues. – Washington Post 

Daniel W. Drezner writes: I talked to two veteran diplomats this week, one from the United States and one from Europe, about whether the European Union would really be able to project geopolitical power. It would be safe to characterize their responses as “skeptical.” […]If European leaders cannot create an option other than “tolerating the status quo,” then the status quo will persist, no matter how uncomfortable it is for all concerned. – Washington Post  

Eli Lake writes: With authoritarian allies like Saudi Arabia, it’s possible to argue that America must be lenient for strategic reasons. But Georgia was able to build a close relationship with Washington in the last 15 years because of its commitment to the rule of law and competitive elections. Coleman’s new client is unfortunately on the other side of that issue. No amount of spin will change that fact. – Bloomberg

Rep. Ted Yoho writes: Huawei technology is also far more vulnerable to flaws and malicious attacks by nonstate actors than its rival companies, further demonstrating how the acceptance of Huawei technology leaves the UK wide open to serious national security risks from Chinese espionage and cyberattacks. In other words, this is a perfect recipe for short term gain and long-term pain. – The Hill  


Nigeria’s military burned down villages and forcibly displaced hundreds of people in its fight against Islamist insurgents in the country’s northeast, rights group Amnesty International alleged on Friday. – Reuters  

The African Development Bank on Thursday pushed back against World Bank President David Malpass’ comments that it and similar regional development banks were contributing to emerging market debt problems, saying that his criticism was “misleading and inaccurate.” – Reuters  

More than 200 Malian troops reached the northern city of Kidal on Thursday, the army said, in the military’s first permanent deployment there since being chased out by Tuareg separatist rebels in 2014. – Reuters 

News broke on February 11, 2020 of the willingness of Sudan’s transitional government to have every Sudanese indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague appear before that court. […]Surrendering al-Bashir to the court is a core demand of Sudanese rebel groups meeting in Juba with the Sudanese government, and certainly an aspiration of many of the al-Bashir regime’s victims whether in Darfur or anywhere else. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

The Americas

New rules taking effect today will give national security officials a clearer window into whether business acquisitions by foreign entities could compromise sensitive personal data of U.S. citizens. – Wall Street Journal 

Canadian telecom operator Telus Corp (T.TO) will soon begin rolling out its 5G network and its initial module will be with Huawei Technologies Co Ltd’s equipment, the company’s Chief Financial Officer Doug French said on Thursday. – Reuters  

A new “anti-Zionist” organization at Harvard University sparked controversy on Thursday after it used a Harvard Hillel email list to announce its founding, offending many Jewish students. – Algemeiner 

Thousands of young Haitians spent 2019 on the streets, demanding President Jovenel Moise resign over his government’s failure to prosecute years of unbridled corruption that siphoned billions in international aid into bank accounts overseas. […]Along with the Canadian and French ambassadors,, diplomats from the U.S., U.N. and Organization of American States are trying to persuade as many political players as possible to agree on an agenda for talks and sit down to negotiate. – Associated Press

Latin America

Ecuador hopes to persuade the U.S. to eliminate tariffs on exports of broccoli, artichokes, tuna and roses as part of talks intended to improve trade relations between the two countries, Economy and Finance Minister Richard Martínez Alvarado said. – Wall Street Journal   

Venezuela asked the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Thursday to investigate U.S. officials for what it called crimes against humanity resulting from sanctions imposed by Washington, Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said. – Reuters  

The European Union says it is donating 4 million euros ($4.3 million) to help refugees in Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras find living-wage jobs and better integrate into society. – Associated Press 

Editorial: Constructive criticism also came from the U.S. ambassador in El Salvador, Ronald Johnson, who tweeted his disapproval (in Spanish) of the military intervention and added that “El Salvador will only maintain the positive advances in security and promote economic growth if all arms of government work independently, respect the rule of law, maintain the apolitical role of the armed forces and national police and promote stability.” […]He needs to hear consistently that Washington will not accept the casual destruction of a democracy it spent years helping to build. – Washington Post


But there’s no consensus among venture capitalists that the industry even has an antitrust problem —- and they’re skeptical intervention from Washington would be good for their businesses. […]The DOJ officials attending the event were actively seeking to create a channel of communication with start-up investors as they continue their months-long review into antitrust issues in Silicon Valley. – Washington Post 

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Friday backed moves by the OECD group of free-market economies to reform the way online giants are taxed worldwide, even if that means companies like his own paying more to national governments. – Agence France-Presse 

The Trump administration is delaying a deadline for U.S. businesses to cut ties with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei for the fourth time, the Department of Commerce announced Thursday. – The Hill 

The elections office of Florida’s third-most populous county was breached by a crippling cyberattack in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election, NPR confirmed on Thursday. – NPR 

A U.S. judge on Thursday granted Amazon.com Inc’s request to temporarily halt the U.S. Department of Defense and Microsoft Corp from moving forward on an up-to-$10 billion cloud computing deal that Amazon says reflected undue influence by President Donald Trump. – Reuters 

How cyber operations fit into geopolitics and act as a tool of statecraft is still largely not understood despite decades of cyber activity, experts said Feb. 12 .A flood of large scale hacks, data dumps, espionage, sabotage and cyber-enabled information warfare have driven academics and policy makers to better understand the nuances of cyberspace and the application of cyber tools in political affairs. But much work remains, experts said during an event hosted by the Atlantic Council Feb. 12. – Fifth Domain 

Western allies need to develop a framework for data collection and information-sharing on a grand scale in order to maintain military preeminence in the 21st century, according to a top NATO commander. – Washington Examiner  


Struggles with manufacturing the Army’s new Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) and its modernized howitzer — the M109A7 Paladin Integrated Management (PIM) system — at BAE Systems’ York, Pennsylvania, production line have set both programs up as low-hanging fruit for funding cuts in the service’s fiscal 2021 budget request. – Defense News

The following is the Feb. 5, 2020 Government Accountability Office testimony before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security on the Coast Guard icebreaker programs. – USNI News 

The U.S. Army released its top 10 programs it intends to cancel or reduce in fiscal 2021 on Feb. 13, which accounts for $1.13 billion of the $2.4 billion the service plans to shift to higher priority modernization efforts. – Defense News 

Huntington Ingalls Industries is restructuring its shipbuilding businesses to tap into the Navy’s growing demand for unmanned undersea vehicles. – USNI News 

Lawmakers are lining up to slam the US Navy’s 2021 budget submission because it calls for a significant cut to shipbuilding and slows the rate of growth of the fleet over the next five years. – Defense News 

The U.S. Navy in 2021 is planning to kick off a five-year research, testing and design effort for its next generation of large surface combatant, according to Navy budget documents released Monday. – Defense News 

There is no part of this that is easy, and with the modern advent of hypersonic missiles, both the speeds and the trajectories at which missile interception has to take place to be successful, the already hard problem of missile defense is more daunting than ever. DARPA, the Pentagon’s home of blue-sky projects to turn hard problems into solved problems, is working on creating an interceptor of hypersonic vehicles. – C4ISRNET 

The U.S. Navy is requesting $21.5 million to fund ongoing studies on what the service will look like in 2045 once its fleet of Ticonderoga-class cruisers and many of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers no longer rules the waves, according to budget documents released Feb. 10. – Defense News 

Eric Lofgren writes: For years, industry has begged the Pentagon to make big bets on promising startups. Only two firms have reached a $1 billion valuation in the defense market in the last 30 years. […]Why would startups need them? After all, the Pentagon has long covered all development costs ahead of product launch. – Defense News 

Trump Administration

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on U.S. policy in Iran before the end of the month, the chairman of the committee told The Hill. – The Hill 

U.S. President Donald Trump is preparing to divert $3.8 billion in total from programs across the Department of Defense, including a controversial war account used to fund emergency requirements as well as the procurement of ships, F-35 fighter jets and Army vehicles, to help build his long-promised wall along the southern border, Foreign Policy has learned. – Foreign Policy 

President Donald Trump signed a new executive order on position, navigation and timing services Feb. 12, encouraging the development of a resilient PNT infrastructure that isn’t exclusively reliant on the Global Positioning System of satellites. – C4ISRNET 

Attorney General William Barr said Donald Trump’s tweets and public comments about the Justice Department and ongoing cases make his job “impossible,” a rare public rebuke of the president by one of his most trusted Cabinet members. – Bloomberg