Fdd's overnight brief

February 15, 2019

In The News


Vice President Pence on Thursday launched a broadside against some of the United States’ closest allies, calling on European countries to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran and accusing them of attempting to break U.S. sanctions against “that vile regime” in Tehran. – Washington Post

It was supposed to be a summit meeting of historical adversaries that gathered to unite against a common foe, Iran. But any expectation that nations with deep-rooted conflicts of their own would display a newfound amity seemed troubled from the start. – New York Times

Iran is in possession of improved and dangerous weapons systems that give Tehran the ability to threaten some of the world’s most important waterways, according to the top American admiral in the Middle East. – CNN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the European Union’s top diplomat in Brussels Friday following a scathing attack from the Trump administration on the bloc and several of its main members over their approach to Iran. – Associated Press

Iran’s “toxic” funding of violence in the region has prevented the resolution of conflicts in the Middle East, including between the Israeli and Palestinian people, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said at a closed-door session of the Warsaw summit. – Jerusalem Post

The former U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst, her brown hair now hidden underneath a mandatory hijab, stood before an Iranian ayatollah as a television camera filmed behind her. It was 2012 and Monica Elfriede Witt offered Ayatollah Hadi Barikbin the pledge of faith all Islam converts must recite: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His messenger.” – Associated Press

The U.N. Security Council is condemning “in the strongest possible terms” the bombing in Iran that killed 27 people, calling it a “heinous and cowardly terrorist attack.” – Associated Press

The photojournalist behind an award-winning image of an Iranian protester in a haze of tear gas has spoken out against U.S. President Donald Trump’s use of her photo to denounce Iran’s leadership in connection with the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Ahmed Awad Bin Mubarak writes: What has Iran’s power play in Yemen meant for us? Iranian guns turned on Yemeni citizens. Iranian land mines on our farms. Iranian trainers teaching extremists to use Yemenis as human shields. Iranian drones firing at peaceful parades. Iranian missiles launched from our soil at neighboring countries. – Wall Street Journal

Bret Stephens writes: These are countries that want better relations with Iran, and have made efforts to steer a course independent from the Trump administration. Tehran’s behavior gives the lie to the idea that it matches conciliation with conciliation. It matches conciliation with contempt. – New York Times

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: No one has figured out how to stop Iran from getting a nuclear bomb, but it appears that the US is engaging in another intense round of sabotage to slow it down. Will slowing it down hold off the Islamic Republic from becoming a nuclear threat? If past experience is any indication, slowing down is just that, and not a long-term solution to the threat. – Jerusalem Post


Islamic State group militants clung to their last square kilometer (square mile) of land in eastern Syria on Thursday with an unknown number of civilians trapped inside, officials said. – Associated Press

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia, Turkey and Iran had agreed to take unspecified extra steps to clear Syria’s Idlib region of what he called “a hotbed of terrorists,” but the Kremlin said there would be no military operation there. – Reuters

Russia has told Turkey it has no right to create a “safe zone” inside Syria unless it sought and received the consent of President Bashar al-Assad, signalling tensions as a three-way summit on the Syrian conflict began. – Al Jazeera


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office on Thursday leaked a video in which the foreign ministers of three Arab countries can be seen harshly attacking Iran and defending Israel, and in one case saying that confronting the Islamic Republic is more pressing than solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. – Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended on Thursday his decision to confirm Israeli strikes on Syria that were reported earlier in the week. – Haaretz

Poland on Friday morning appeared to settle a short-lived diplomatic spat with Israel over comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Polish collaboration with the Nazis, saying it had received clarifications from the Israeli government that had alleviated its concerns. – Times of Israel

Following Israel’s expulsion of an international observer force from the volatile West Bank city of Hebron, Palestinian activists are trying to fill the void by launching their own patrols to document alleged Israeli settler violence. – Associated Press

Eli Lake writes: To this day, these countries do not formally recognize Israel. But Iranian aggression has given old rivals common cause. None of this is surprising. Israel has been bombing Iranian and Hezbollah positions in Syria for years. The outgoing chief of staff for the Israel Defense Forces openly acknowledged this campaign in an interview last month with Bret Stephens of the New York Times. – Bloomberg

Gulf States

Turkish police believe the remains of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi may have been burned, Turkey’s state-run news agency Anadolu said on Thursday, citing a police report. – Reuters

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bristled on Wednesday when CBS News correspondent Roxana Saberi asked him whether he personally believed the CIA’s assessment that the heir to the Saudi throne likely had some role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – CBS News

Karen E. Young writes: Based on the specific demands of the Arab Gulf states and their shared efforts to diversify their economies away from oil and gas dependency, the research suggests that the current orientation toward China, and Asia more broadly, is a bridge strategy to create a next-generation energy market and future market access in expected areas of consumer growth. – American Enterprise Institute

Middle East & North Africa

President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, said that a show of unity among Israeli and Arab officials at a U.S.-backed conference here made him feel “optimistic” about prospects for peace in the Middle East, according to officials who witnessed the presentation behind closed doors on Thursday. – Wall Street Journal

The Egyptian Parliament approved sweeping measures on Thursday that would allow President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to extend his rule until 2034, further entrenching his authoritarian rule and enshrining in law the military’s dominance over the country. – New York Times

The ink wasn’t dry on a border security compromise before Jared Kushner had moved on to another enormous challenge. As lawmakers fine-tuned a border agreement that the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser had been unable to extract from Capitol Hill in earlier talks, Kushner was at an international conference in Poland discussing his efforts to produce a Mideast peace plan. – Associated Press

With artillery fire rumbling in the distance, residents of Derna gathered in a streetside cafe on Saturday to discuss the future of their city, long a jihadist hotbed in eastern Libya. – Reuters

The U.S. military denied on Thursday taking part in a raid on an al Qaeda site in the Libyan city of Ubari, contradicting a statement by a Libyan official. – Reuters

Adam Taylor writes: The centerpiece of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s trip around Europe this week is a much-vaunted policy conference in Warsaw. Ahead of it, the top U.S. diplomat told reporters he wanted to talk about “the future of Middle East stability and prosperity.” But the summit, initially designed to show international unity against Iran, is looking more and more like it will reveal the contradictions at the heart of President Trump’s policy on the region. – Washington Post

Michael Knights and Frzand Sherko write: The jury is still out concerning whether either Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement or Badr has truly joined the notional Iraqi political mainstream, given that both retain significant armed forces and both refuse to fully subordinate themselves to the state. All this being true, the United States regards both Sadr’s movement and Badr as legitimate political actors and indispensable components of the partisan landscape in Iraq. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

It’s been the better part of a year since U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stood face to face for the first time at their unprecedented summit in Singapore. – Reuters

Josh Rogin writes: In the run-up to the second summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, the South Korean government is rushing ahead to prematurely relax pressure on North Korea, which could undermine our last chance to compel real denuclearization. The Trump administration risks following Seoul down this ill-advised path. – Washington Post

James Jay Carafano writes: We’ll know North Korea is serious about negotiating if it agrees to make a full, complete and verifiable accounting of all its nuclear assets. Until then, we should make no concessions to North Korea. The path forward for Trump is clear: Now that you’ve gotten your allies to stand strong, don’t sell them short. For South Korea, the best path forward is equally simple: Don’t hold onto hard feelings. Trump respects allies that contribute and help themselves. He respects a tough negotiation. – Fox News


Chinese and U.S. negotiators are working Friday to wrap up this week’s trade talks with a statement discussing progress toward reaching a broader agreement, according to people with knowledge of the matter. – Wall Street Journal

Inflation moderated across the board in China last month in another sign of lethargic domestic demand—one that economists said gives the central bank more room to stimulate economic growth. – Wall Street Journal

Washington’s campaign to get some of its closest European allies to give up telecommunications gear made by Chinese companies has been a tough sell. European countries have been listening to the U.S. closely and will make the ultimate decision on whether or not to allow Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. in domestic networks. – Wall Street Journal

A Chinese-born scientist was arrested on charges of trying to steal trade secrets from companies doing research with Coca-Cola Co. , with the intent to set up a competing venture in China and win a reward from a Chinese government-backed program, authorities said. – Wall Street Journal

China is counting on promises of big purchases of U.S. semiconductors and other goods to ease trade tensions and persuade President Trump to extend a tariff truce and later resolve the market-rattling dispute directly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. – Wall Street Journal

High-level trade talks between the U.S. and China were set to wind up Friday in Beijing, with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin sounding a positive note as the clock ticks down to reach a deal agreement that would avert a tariff increase on Chinese goods by March 1. – Bloomberg

Chinese investment in the U.S. biotechnology industry presents a risk to national security, potentially giving China’s government access to patient data that could be used to blackmail Americans, according to a report for a Congressional advisory commission. – Bloomberg

The U.S. and China have made little progress so far during trade talks in Beijing, leaving much work to be done before President Donald Trump and his counterpart Xi Jinping look to seal a deal at a yet-to-be scheduled summit, according to people familiar with discussions. – Bloomberg

In one of her final acts as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley tried but failed to prevent a veteran Chinese diplomat from landing an influential post as the U.N. special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region. – Foreign Policy

David Brooks writes: For the past few decades, China has appeared to be a net positive force in world affairs. Sure, Beijing violated trade agreements and escalated regional tensions. But the Chinese economic explosion lowered our cost of living and expanded prosperity worldwide. But a few things have now changed. First, instead of liberalizing, the Chinese regime has become more aggressive and repressive. – New York Times


A surprise announcement by Afghan Taliban leaders that they are sending a delegation here early next week to meet with American negotiators and Pakistani officials was met with a cautious U.S. denial on Thursday and silence from Pakistan. – Washington Post

In the 18 years since, Mr. Mazhar and an entire generation of largely urban Afghans have grown up with all the basic liberties, including freedom of expression, that the Taliban had erased. But as American diplomats push for a deal with the Taliban to end the long war, Mr. Mazhar’s generation has been gripped by fear that those liberties could be at risk. – New York Times

The United States will not reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan unilaterally, the top Pentagon official said Thursday, pledging that any moves will be fully coordinated with its allies. – Associated Press

Islamic State

When London teenager Shamima Begum fled Britain with two other schoolgirls in 2015 to join the Islamic State, it shocked a nation. Now, she wants to come home. Begum, 19, is nine months pregnant and living in a Syrian refugee camp. She says she doesn’t regret leaving Britain but now wants to return to give birth to her child. – Washington Post

President Donald Trump boasts that the Islamic State is on the verge of defeat in Iraq and Syria — but the terrorist group is already resurging in those countries and expanded some of its territory elsewhere in parts of Asia and Africa, U.S. military and intelligence assessments and experts say. – Politico

Less than five years after it had proclaimed a caliphate the size of Britain, the realm of Islamic State (is) has shrunk to less than a square mile in a riverside hamlet, Baghuz al-Fawqani, on Syria’s border with Iraq. A few hundred fighters continue the battle, but as The Economist went to press, the American-led coalition was already erecting a podium for victory celebrations nearby. – Economist


Six southern Philippine towns that voted to join a new self-governing Muslim region have had their decision effectively vetoed—a first challenge to a peace deal supporters hope will stem Islamic extremism. – Wall Street Journal

A bombing attack claimed by a Pakistan-based militant group against a convoy carrying Indian security personnel killed dozens in the troubled region of Kashmir. Thursday’s strike, for which the armed Pakistani militant group Jaish e-Mohammad claimed responsibility, was the region’s deadliest in recent memory and immediately ignited calls within India for retaliation. – Wall Street Journal

Malaysian authorities said on Friday they have arrested six people, including four foreigners, suspected of planning attacks or being members of militant groups. – Reuters

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday promised a strong response to a car bombing in Kashmir that killed 44 paramilitary that his government blamed on Pakistan, ratcheting up tensions with the nuclear-rival. – Reuters

Barkha Dutt writes: Kashmir has endured roughly 30 years of insurgency, and the region is almost tragically numbed to headlines about terrorism, turmoil and tragedy. But what unfolded Thursday — the worst terrorist attack in decades — will fundamentally change both India’s internal policy within the state and its relations with Pakistan. – Washington Post

Mihir Sharma writes: The Pakistani military has found a new patron: the People’s Republic of China. Beijing has repeatedly blocked attempts by India at the United Nations to declare Azhar a “global terrorist,” freeze his assets and prevent him from travelling. Nobody can quite understand why the same country that runs prison camps for ordinary Muslims in Xinjiang is protecting a self-confessed jihadi militant. – Bloomberg


Russia has rebuked proposals from U.S. senators for tougher sanctions on its banking and energy sectors, with Kremlin officials calling them “insane”, “reckless” and tantamount to “racketeering.” – CNBC

When the last Soviet tanks rumbled back home across a bridge on the border with Afghanistan 30 years ago, the withdrawal was hailed as a much-anticipated end to a bloody quagmire. Since then, Moscow’s view of the war has changed radically. – Associated Press

Hal Brands writes: Russia and China are now cooperating on military exercises and arms sales, energy deals and economic ties, efforts to weaken international norms surrounding human rights, and many other fronts. This cooperation better enables each country to challenge the U.S. China, for instance, has improved its anti-access/area denial military capabilities by buying (and, in some cases, copying) Russian military technology. – Bloomberg


Sweden has recalled its ambassador to China and opened an internal investigation into her role in arranging a meeting where Chinese businessmen allegedly threatened the daughter of a detained Swedish bookseller, Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday. – Wall Street Journal

At a recent NATO meeting on a new Russian cruise-missile system that has undermined a Cold War-era arms treaty, the Polish ambassador turned to his counterparts from Western Europe and said: “Welcome to the club.” – Wall Street Journal

In his NATO debut this week, acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan sought to reassure skeptical U.S. allies about transatlantic strains over defense spending, arms control and Afghanistan. Appearing at his first meeting of NATO defense ministers since becoming Pentagon chief at the beginning of the year, the former Boeing executive delivered a message of unity but also gently pressed partners to increase contributions to the alliance and think more creatively about new threats. – Washington Post

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the European Union’s top diplomat in Brussels Friday following a scathing attack from the Trump administration on the bloc and several of its main members over their approach to Iran. – Associated Press

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered an embarrassing defeat by lawmakers Thursday in a vote that left her bid to secure a European Union divorce deal stuck between an intransigent EU and a resistant U.K. Parliament — with Brexit just six weeks away. – Associated Press

A third man suspected of involvement in the nerve agent poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England last year is a high-ranking Russian military intelligence agent, the investigative website Bellingcat said on Thursday. – Reuters

Joseph C. Sternberg writes: You can sympathize with the pro-EU crowd. They’ve believed for years that a more powerful Parliament elected by a more enthused population would form the democratic basis for more European integration. Now that the first two elements have finally materialized, those ornery voters are dragging the thing in a completely different direction. The mistake is to think this is bad for the EU. Instead, and without intending to, the insurgents may actually save it. – Wall Street Journal

Emily Schultheis and Uri Friedman write: Where they might have followed the U.S.’s lead in the past, German leaders now acknowledge that they, and Europe more broadly, must chart a course for themselves—and, in Germany’s case, step onto the world stage to an extent they’ve been reluctant to do. And the once-common view of the U.S.’s reliability as a partner, from issues of trade to rising threats from Russia or China, has been called into doubt in a way that creates nervousness in foreign-policy circles here. – The Atlantic

Therese Raphael writes: The no-deal threat has force largely because it is still the legal default if nothing happens to prevent it. There is a good chance parliament will vote on Feb. 27 to block the government from making a no-deal exit — but that hasn’t happened yet. So time is running out, making the risk all the greater. – Bloomberg

Luis Simon writes: As a historical and institutional reality, the European Union is wired into U.S. power and strategy. More broadly, in terms of interests and values, the entire Western Hemisphere is a historical and cultural extension of European civilization and constitutes the main source of strategic depth for the West and its political future. And that complicates any potential E.U. efforts to strive for geopolitical equidistance between the United States and China. – War on the Rocks


French airstrikes this month in support of Chad’s longtime autocratic ruler, Idriss Déby, have raised a familiar question: Has France really left behind decades of deep involvement in African politics? – New York Times

Nigeria is bracing for what could be a tight election this weekend. Threats of violence loom. In the northeast of the country on Tuesday, a convoy heading to an election event and carrying Kashim Shettima, a state governor, was attacked by Boko Haram, an extremist Islamist group which operates in the region. At least three people were killed, officials said. – New York Times

Amina Sanusi was getting ready for morning prayers at her home in northeastern Nigeria when she heard gunshots and explosions. She scrambled into nearby bushes with her two children, but lost contact with her husband. Government soldiers in the fishing town of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad fled too, overwhelmed by the firepower of Islamist militants. – Bloomberg

Eromo Egbejule writes: In short, the same band of characters has run this country of about 180 million people for upwards of half a century. And while Nigeria is entering its third decade of uninterrupted democracy, it does so with the omnipresent influence of the military in its politics. […]The longer that continues, the harder it becomes to separate the civilian leadership from the military’s top brass, and the worse the impact on public life in Nigeria. – The Atlantic

United States

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., has failed to quell concerns among Jewish leaders and groups both nationally and in her district that she has learned from her recent controversial comments many viewed as anti-Semitic. Jewish leaders told the Washington Examiner that they view her apology as insufficient and fear that she is unrepentant. – Washington Examiner

Catherine Weaver writes: President Trump may well achieve his short-term interest in getting one of his loyalists into the World Bank’s top position. But this outcome will likely undermine the longer term strategic objectives of the U.S. in sustaining its influence over the World Bank and the institution’s own eminent status. – Washington Post

Fareed Zakaria writes: In recent weeks, attention has focused on two freshman Democratic members of Congress, Ilhan Omar (Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (Mich.), both of whom are Muslim and have made critical statements about Israel and its most ardent American supporters. […]I don’t know what is in the hearts of the two representatives. But I believe that Muslims should be particularly thoughtful when speaking about these issues because anti-Semitism has spread through the Islamic world like a cancer. – Washington Post


Venezuela said Thursday it was joining forces with other U.N. countries to form a coalition that defends the sovereignty of nations against foreign interference. – Wall Street Journal

Brazil’s new government, already fighting allegations of misconduct, is ready to help neighboring Venezuela and approve a controversial pension reform, Vice President Hamilton Mourão said Thursday. – Wall Street Journal

A month into Venezuela’s high-stakes political crisis, President Nicolas Maduro revealed in an AP interview that his government held secret talks with the Trump administration and predicted he would survive an unprecedented global campaign to force his resignation. – Associated Press

In a display of their ability to act as a government, several Venezuelan opposition leaders traveled to Washington Thursday to share first steps of their plan to lead the country out of its humanitarian crisis, and to ask the international community for money to do it. – McClatchy

Francisco Toro writes: Dozens have been murdered in recent weeks alone for protesting against Maduro. Most of the killings have been committed by a police unit, a death-squad called the Special Actions Force, or FAES, notorious for its ski masks and extreme violence. […]So imagine my surprise when I learned that, instead of this mass slaughter, a back-and-forth in the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing revolved around political violence committed decades ago and a thousand miles away from the country the committee was supposedly discussing. – Washington Post

Cyber Security

Senators from both political parties on Thursday praised the military’s cyber force for helping secure last year’s midterm elections, with one suggesting it was largely due to U.S. Cyber Command that the Russians failed to affect the 2018 vote. – Washington Post

The defense and aerospace industry wants the Department of Defense to adopt the same set of cybersecurity standards their companies use to trim vulnerabilities throughout their supply chain, rather than piling on additional requirements. – Fifth Domain

Zachary Kallenborn and Phillip C. Bleek write: Swarms may also improve nuclear targeting. Drones can be used to collect information to identify vulnerabilities or previously unknown defenses. […]. This is especially useful for counterforce strikes against an adversary’s military, which hinge on accurate and comprehensive target identification and precise strikes on those targets. – War on the Rocks


President Donald Trump signaled on Thursday he will declare a national immigration emergency in coming days to get around congressional opposition to his controversial border wall project, possibly shifting billions in military funds to pay for the construction. – Military Times

Joseph Bosco writes: So, the concept of limited war had a long and inglorious history during both the Cold War and the post-Cold War periods. The question that seems unanswered so far in the public accounting of the new National Defense Strategy is what lessons were learned from that experience. Did limited war deter aggressors from seeking their goals at another time under more favorable circumstances […] or did it enable them to control the conflict by deploying only the resources they were prepared to lose? – The Hill

Trump Administration

President Trump plans to sign a spending bill that keeps the government open and will then declare a national emergency to seek more border-wall funding, the White House said, ending the suspense over a possible second shutdown but kicking off a new fight. – Wall Street Journal

Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe approved investigations into President Trump’s potential ties to Russia almost immediately after the president fired his former boss in May 2017, Mr. McCabe said in his first public interview since that tumultuous month. – Wall Street Journal

Congress on Thursday approved a massive budget deal to avert an impending government shutdown, and President Trump promised to sign it, but only after announcing he would also declare a national emergency so he can get more money for a border wall. – Washington Post

William P. Barr was confirmed Thursday as the U.S. attorney general, putting him in command of the Justice Department at one of the most politically charged moments in its history. – Washington Post

The Justice Department warned the White House that President Trump’s national emergency declaration will likely be blocked by the courts, at least temporarily, according to a report Thursday. – Washington Examiner