Fdd's overnight brief

February 21, 2019

In The News


Hackers based in Iran and implicated in attacks on the U.S. and Western allies were behind a computer breach of Australia’s Parliament and political parties, a U.S. cyber research company alleged. – Wall Street Journal

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif accused Israel of engaging in “adventurism” with its bombing campaigns in Syria and said he could not rule out the possibility of a military conflict between the countries. – Reuters

Iran’s navy says it will hold an annual drill in the strategic Strait of Hormuz as pressure mounts on the country months after the United States re-imposed sanctions on Iran, targeting its vital oil sector. – Associated Press

A senior Iranian military leader has predicted the extinction of the Saudi royal family within the next decade. Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, the former commander of the elite Revolutionary Guards who now serves as a special military adviser to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, responded to a recent visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan. – Newsweek

Mass executions and torture; the brutal persecution of women, minorities, and the opposition; the installation of an Islamist terror state that threatens to annihilate Israel, that covers the Middle East with its militias, and that denies the Holocaust. All of this started in Iran on 11 February, 1979, the day of the “Islamic Revolution”, when the mullahs seized power in Tehran. On the 40th anniversary of this day, friendly greetings from Berlin arrived in Tehran by telegram: the President of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier (63), sends “Congratulations” on the occasion of the national holiday, “also in the name of my compatriots”. – Bild

The entire secret Iranian nuclear archives taken by the Mossad from Tehran should be posted online, former foreign ministry director-general Dore Gold said on Monday. Gold was speaking at a panel on Iran at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem. – Jerusalem Post


As the deadline approaches for the withdrawal of U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria, America’s closest European allies have turned down a Trump administration request to fill the gap with their own troops, according to U.S. and foreign officials. – Washington Post

Several hundred of the last civilians trapped by Islamic State in the militant group’s remaining sliver of territory in Syria left on Wednesday, suggesting the extremist group was near a surrender to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. – Wall Street Journal

The last civilians are expected to be evacuated from Islamic State’s final enclave in eastern Syria on Thursday, clearing the way for U.S.-backed forces to attack jihadists still holed up inside, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said. – Reuters

Russian military police and Syrian troops have blockaded food and goods supply routes to the Rukban refugee camp in Syria in a bid to force thousands of desperate residents to leave the U.S.-protected area near a Pentagon-run base, camp residents and rebels said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Some 100 volunteers and family members from the Syria White Helmets civil defence group have been resettled in the UK, the Home Office has confirmed. The White Helmets group has saved more than 115,000 lives in Syria’s war zones, according to the UK government. – BBC

Islamic State looks about to lose its last foothold on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, but though its era of territorial rule may have been expunged for now, there is near universal agreement that the group remains a threat. – Reuters

Meghan McCain demanded that Democratic representative and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as an adversary of the United States during a heated encounter on the former’s morning television program. – Newsweek


Turkey criticized on Thursday as “unacceptable” a vote by the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee calling for the suspension of EU accession negotiations with it. – Reuters

Amid an ongoing rift between the United States and Turkey over its decision to buy a sophisticated Russian air defence system, Ankara says it is determined to complete the $3.5bn acquisition and activate the S-400s in October. – Al Jazeera

Zvi Bar’el writes: The Idlib province is the last significant holdout that is keeping the Syrian army from controlling the entire country, thus also constituting a stumbling block for reaching any diplomatic solution. Turkey is rightly concerned that fighting in Idlib will create a new and big wave of refugees that will cross into Turkey, as well as leading to another large-scale massacre. […]It seems that in the absence of an agreement that is acceptable to the U.S. and Turkey, the U.S. will find it difficult to adhere to the schedule set by President Trump for the withdrawal of American forces from Syria. – Haaretz


Israel‘s first spacecraft designed to land on the moon is set to blastoff from Florida on Thursday in the first privately-funded lunar mission, as the Jewish state seeks to become only the fourth nation to reach the surface of Earth’s natural satellite. – Reuters

Despite their cooperation in Syria to bolster the Assad regime, Russia and Iran are “not natural allies,” an ex-top Israeli diplomatic official said last week. – Algemeiner

With tensions still high between Israel and Iran a new air-to-surface long-range missile designed to destroy targets deep underground in heavily defended areas has been developed by Israeli defense giant Rafael Advanced Defense Systems. – Jerusalem Post

The prospect of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is fading by the day as violence and radicalism grow — and “the risk of war continues to loom large,” the UN Mideast envoy warned Wednesday. Nikolay Mladenov also told the UN Security Council that a negotiated two-state solution is drifting further away. – Times of Israel

Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas reiterated on Wednesday he would not accept partial payment of tax transfers owed by Israel, following the Cabinet’s decision to implement the policy to offset the PA’s payments to terrorists. – Arutz Sheva

A committee within in Jordan’s parliament called for the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador from the country in response to the latest measures taken by the Israeli army in occupied East Jerusalem. – Al Jazeera

Saudi Arabia

In his swing through Asia this week, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia vowed to invest billions of dollars in Pakistan and pushed to sell more oil to India. He will also explore deepening economic ties with China. – New York Times

Germany is sticking to its weapons exports freeze to Saudi Arabia, the government said on Wednesday, resisting pressure to soften its stance after criticism from Britain and defense firms, including Airbus, who argue it is hurting commerce. – Reuters

Bob Graham and Fionnula Ni Aolain write: While Saudi Arabia has made progress in reforming its laws and prosecuting alleged acts of terrorism, the reasons cited above strongly suggest that this progress is, at least in part, illusory. To admit Saudi Arabia to the task force before it has addressed these shortcomings would send the message that what counts is a high number of prosecutions, regardless of their merits. The nation should not be admitted to the task force until it has amended its counterterrorism laws to focus on terrorism and demonstrated progress in prosecuting terrorism financing outside the region. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

The United States delivered a shipment of laser-guided rockets to the Lebanese Air Force on the Feb. 13 – part of a military aid package to Lebanon valued at $16 million. The advanced precision kill weapon system, manufactured by BAE Systems, will add aerial fire capabilities to the Lebanese army. – Defense News

The United Arab Emirates Air Force will buy a new Challenger 650 business jet configured for a variety of missions including maritime surveillance, search and rescue, and medical evacuation, according a release sent to reporters at the IDEX exhibition. – Defense News

Egypt on Wednesday executed nine suspected Muslim Brotherhood members convicted of involvement in the 2015 assassination of the country’s top prosecutor, security officials said. – Associated Press

Korean Peninsula

A United Nations Security Council sanctions committee has approved the travel of a North Korean delegation to Vietnam next week for a summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on denuclearization. – Reuters

A week before a second summit with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, U.S. President Donald Trump held out the prospect of an easing of tough sanctions on the country, but only if it does “something that’s meaningful” on denuclearization. – Reuters

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has staked his legacy on the stunning diplomatic progress he has forged with North Korea, as well as the behind-the-scenes orchestration of the U.S.-North Korean summits. But following months of stalemate on North Korea nuclear talks, Moon’s presidency faces a crucial moment, with President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un set to meet for the second time next week. – Associated Press

Kim Jong Un has made little secret about what’s at the top of his agenda in his second meeting next week with U.S. President Donald Trump: Easing the sanctions choking North Korea’s moribund economy. That the Feb. 27-28 summit is happening at all is the clearest sign the Trump administration is backing away from its instance that the sanctions stay in place until the “final, fully verified denuclearization of North Korea.” – Bloomberg

Adam Taylor writes: “We’re in no rush whatsoever,” Trump said this week of North Korea’s denuclearization. That kind of rhetoric may seem like a waste of leverage, but it is also a reflection of reality: All but the most intense hawks see the window for an immediate, unilateral disarmament by North Korea as closed, if it were ever truly open. […]Many hope for a road map going forward: North Korea’s nuclear weapons program may well outlast Trump’s time in office, but the president has a real chance to chart a course for eventual denuclearization. – Washington Post


The Trump administration has spent a year trying to convince America’s allies in Europe that the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei is a grave threat to their national security and should not be allowed any role in developing new wireless networks. A top British official indicated Wednesday that the aggressive campaign may not be working. – New York Times

This week, as New Zealanders worried about rising tensions with China, a Chinese state newspaper published an opinion piece by a former prime minister of New Zealand, apparently hailing China’s achievements. “We need to learn to listen to China,” the headline read. – New York Times

China’s desire to develop close ties with Iran will remain unchanged, regardless of the international situation, President Xi Jinping told the speaker of Iran’s parliament, ahead of Thursday’s visit to Beijing by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. – Reuters

U.S. and Chinese negotiators are working on multiple memorandums of understanding that would form the basis of a final trade deal, according to a person briefed on the talks. – Bloomberg


U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to visit Japan in May to meet with the country’s new emperor and then return in June for a G20 gathering, a White House official said on Wednesday after a phone call between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. – Reuters

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday he would use a meeting with his Vietnamese counterpart to discuss resetting ties between the two countries after past differences over the kidnapping of a Vietnamese businessman in Berlin. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: Through the years, of course, Pakistan often promised diplomats that it would be a responsible partner and would crack down on terrorism. Simply put, authorities in Islamabad have repeatedly lied. […]Pakistan’s continued support for terrorism mandates a more serious response: Full designation as a state sponsor of terror, sanctions targeting Imran Khan and every commander in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, commitment to enhance India’s qualitative military edge, downgrading relations, and closure of all U.S. consulates outside Islamabad. – Washington Examiner


President Vladimir Putin said Russia would target the U.S. with new advanced weapons if Washington deploys intermediate-range missiles in Europe, a threat that appeared aimed at holding the line but leaving open the possibility of negotiations after the breakdown of a nuclear treaty. – New York Times

A group of hackers associated with Russian intelligence targeted civil society groups across Europe ahead of May elections there, Microsoft said on Tuesday. The attacks, disclosed by Microsoft in a blog post, demonstrate the continuing spread of a broad online campaign aimed at disrupting real and potential political opponents of Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin. – New York Times

Russia must prepare for possible Western attempts to deny it access to the global internet by creating its own self-sufficient ‘segments’ of the web, President Vladimir Putin was quoted as saying on Wednesday by Russian news agencies. – Reuters

President Vladimir Putin calls improving the Russian navy’s combat capabilities a priority.The unfinished husks of three guided-missile frigates that have languished for three years at a Baltic shipyard show that is easier said than done. – Reuters

Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov slammed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on Wednesday, arguing that the Western military alliance is forcing countries in the Western Balkans to join against their will. – Newsweek

NATO responded on Wednesday to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s threat that Russia would target the U.S. if it placed intermediate-range missiles in Europe. “We have taken note of the message from President Vladimir Putin on February 20. The Russian declarations that threaten to attack allies are unacceptable,” NATO spokesman Pierce Casalet told the Russian news outlet RIA Novosti. – Newsweek


Britain has said that it is revoking the citizenship of Shamima Begum, a teenager who four years ago fled to become an “ISIS bride” and has attracted widespread public attention for her effort to return home with her new baby. – Washington Post

In a speech to the United Nations and in meetings with the Ukrainian-American diaspora in New Jersey, President Petro O. Poroshenko expressed gratitude for international backing for Ukraine. – New York Times

With Britain’s chaotic departure from the European Union just weeks away, three prominent lawmakers abruptly resigned Wednesday from Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, saying the government has surrendered control to reckless, hard-line Brexiteers who are endangering the country’s future. – Washington Post

President Trump said Wednesday the U.S. would impose auto tariffs on the European Union if a trade deal can’t be reached between the two sides, as tensions between the traditional allies continue to build. – Wall Street Journal

British lawmakers could be given a vote on a revised Brexit deal as early as next week as talks with the European Union have been constructive, finance minister Philip Hammond said on Thursday. Unless Prime Minister Theresa May can get a Brexit deal approved by the British parliament, then she will have to decide whether to delay Brexit or thrust the world’s fifth largest economy into chaos by leaving without a deal on March 29. – Reuters

A French TV channel said on Wednesday it had been forced to cut short a live Facebook broadcast from a desecrated Jewish cemetery in eastern France because of an onslaught of anti-Semitic commentary. – Reuters

The German Defence Ministry is evaluating a bid from Canada to buy a high-altitude surveillance drone that has been parked at a German air base for years after the cancellation of the Euro Hawk program in 2013, with a further bid possible from NATO. – Reuters

United States

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Wednesday night that the House will vote in the coming days on a resolution rejecting President Trump’s national emergency declaration, encouraging fellow Democrats to support the effort as they try to stop Trump’s push to expand efforts to build a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. – Washington Post

A heavily armed group of foreign nationals, who were arrested in Haiti on Sunday after days of massive anti-government protests, were handed over to U.S. authorities on Wednesday, Haitian and U.S. authorities said. – Reuters

The United States and three Central American nations on Wednesday announced an effort to combat trafficking of people to the U.S.-Mexico border, days after U.S. President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, citing large-scale unlawful immigration. – Reuters


Venezuela’s opposition is trying to convince ruling Socialist Party officials to join a transition government, shifting focus as it seeks to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, who has clung to power in the face of growing international pressure and U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

Venezuela’s deputy U.N. military attache, Colonel Pedro Chirinos, said in a video on social media that he recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as the country’s interim president, increasing pressure on President Nicolas Maduro. – Reuters

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guiado’s designated ambassador to Costa Rica took control of Venezuela’s embassy in the Central American country on Wednesday, triggering criticism from the Costa Rican government for not waiting. – Reuters

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said he spoke to Switzerland’s president on Wednesday to try to freeze banks accounts belonging to the tumultuous South American nation after “irregular movements” were discovered. – Reuters

Venezuelan troops have begun disobeying orders from Nicolas Maduro’s top officers and are unlikely to heed calls to crack down on a humanitarian-aid caravan scheduled to enter the country this weekend, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio said. – Bloomberg

Moises Rendon writes: In the United States, the Venezuelan crisis has historically been and should continue to be a bipartisan issue. The role of the international community is vital to help Venezuelans restore their democracy through legitimate and constitutional means. A concrete step in that direction is defying Nicolas Maduro by providing desperately-needed provision of humanitarian assistance—which is set by Juan Guaidó, the interim president, to enter the country on February 23. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The Navy is rethinking how it will employ its emerging MQ-8C Fire Scout rotary-wing unmanned vehicles to help Littoral Combat Ships take on tougher targets in a new age of great power competition. Within the last year, the Navy has shifted the focus of the Fire Scout away from missions that would protect a Littoral Combat Ship from a swarm attack of fast attack craft/fast inshore attack craft (FAC/FIAC). – USNI News

The battle between military space juggernaut United Launch Alliance and its upstart rival SpaceX continues, with the two companies splitting a collection of launch contracts worth $739 million awarded by the Air Force on Tuesday. – Defense News

Kaitlyn Johnson writes: On February 19, 2019, President Trump signed a new Space Policy Directive, which directs the Department of Defense (DoD) to formally create a separate military service for space. This long-anticipated announcement endorses DoD to submit to Congress a request to stand up the U.S. Space Force. – Center For Strategic and International Studies

Long War

A U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant and self-identified white nationalist was arrested after federal investigators uncovered a cache of weapons and ammunition in his Maryland home that authorities say he stockpiled to launch a widespread domestic terrorist attack targeting politicians and journalists. – Washington Post

President Trump said Wednesday that an Alabama woman who joined the Islamic State will not be allowed back into the United States, prompting an outcry from the woman’s lawyer, who vowed to pursue legal action. – Washington Post

Muslims who have been put on the government’s secretive terrorism watch list are demanding to know more about the 1,441 private entities that have access. The number was revealed recently through litigation in Alexandria federal court, one of a half-dozen lawsuits related to the watch list filed by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. On Friday, CAIR will ask a federal judge to force the government to release the names of the private entities and explain how they access the list. – Washington Post

Vera Mironova writes: Although Islamic State propaganda bills the change as “a campaign that commences a new era of conquest,” the move to allow female combatants is born out of desperation. The group has lost essentially all its territory. Most of its male fighters have been killed, wounded or arrested, according to Raid Hamid, chief investigative judge at the Mosul terrorism court. – New York Times

Trump Administration

President Donald Trump may be on the verge of firing Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, according to Washington sources, indicating his deep displeasure with a perceived lack of loyalty displayed by the intelligence chief. – Newsweek

Former Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe has reiterated his belief that President Donald Trump might be a Russian asset. Speaking on Anderson Cooper 360 on Tuesday night, McCabe suggested the president’s alleged links with Russia could amount to something more sinister than previously believed. “I think it’s possible,” he replied when the CNN host asked if he still believed Trump was a Russian asset. – Newsweek

The search for a permanent replacement for former U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis—a candidate who will satisfy both the president and the Senate—is not going well. In recent months, at least four potential candidates approached about the job have demurred, according to several current and former U.S. officials. The list includes Sen. Lindsey Graham, Sen. Tom Cotton, and former Sen. Jon Kyl, all Republicans. – Foreign Policy