Fdd's overnight brief

February 25, 2020

In The News


China, Russia, France, Germany and Britain will meet with Iran in Vienna on Feb. 26 to discuss how to uphold the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, the European Commission said in a statement on Tuesday. – Reuters

The Iranian public’s revulsion over the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shootdown of a Ukrainian commercial aircraft could be critical reason tension between Tehran and Washington did not escalate after an American airstrike killed one of its top military leaders, the former acting director of the Central Intelligence Agency said Monday. – USNI News

A hard-line student group in Iran has threatened to destroy the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in the north of the country in revenge for the Trump administration’s peace plan. – Jerusalem Post

A Revolutionary Court in Tehran has sentenced three people arrested in the heat of anti-government protests last November to death. They were sentenced behind closed doors by the notorious ultraconservative judge, Abolqassem Salavati. – Radio Farda

Jason Rezaian writes: The Islamic Republic of Iran’s inept and dishonest response to the initial outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus is exacerbating an already dangerous situation. Now it is arguably threatening to spark a regional epidemic as well. – Washington Post

Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar writes: Frustrations against the political system run deep in the country. So do anxieties over external threats to the nation’s security and territorial integrity. It is unclear which direction Iranian society will take. Elections in the past have laid the ground for cultural exchanges, diplomatic negotiations and a nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States. After the starkly low turnout and the conservative victory, we might be inching toward a more turbulent phase between the two countries. – New York Times

Bobby Ghosh writes: Not quite two months in, 2020 is already proving to be Ali Khamenei’s annus horribilis. In word, deed and vote, Iranians are demonstrating a profound loss of faith in the Islamic Republic, and a deep contempt for its Supreme Leader. Trust in Iran is also dwindling in its neighborhood, and in the international community. – Bloomberg


Russia’s top diplomat has warned against any U.S. effort to hold talks with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militant group, a jihadi coalition on the frontlines of a violent struggle for Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. – Newsweek

Russia’s defence ministry has denied a report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights about its air force strikes on two settlements in the Syrian province of Idlib on Monday, TASS news agency reported, citing the ministry’s statement. – Reuters 

Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the displaced persons camp where Adnan Abdelkarim and his family have taken shelter along the Turkish border after being uprooted multiple times, and he fears there is nowhere left to go. – Reuters 

Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have seized the town of Nairab in northwest Syria’s Idlib, Turkish and rebel officials said on Tuesday, the first area to be taken back from Syrian government forces advancing in the province. – Reuters

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on the warring sides in Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday to allow safe passage for civilians to escape attacks and it reminded them that hospitals, markets and schools are protected by law. – Reuters

Walter Russell Mead writes: The U.S. has also failed to create a new and sustainable order in the Middle East. From the George W. Bush administration’s efforts to bring democratic stability to Iraq and its neighbors, to the Obama administration’s attempts to promote democracy in Egypt, American attempts at transforming the Middle East have ended poorly. […]Neither President Trump nor his Democratic rivals show any interest in getting more deeply entangled in the Syrian war. The refugees of Idlib must find their own way without U.S. help. – Wall Street Journal


A Russian delegation will arrive in Turkey on Wednesday to discuss tensions in Syria’s Idlib province ahead of a possible visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. – Bloomberg

The Kremlin said on Tuesday it was working to organize a summit with Turkey and Iran to discuss the conflict in Syria’s Idlib region, but was not organizing a separate mooted four-way summit that would gather France, Germany, Turkey and Russia. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that there was not yet full agreement on holding a proposed March 5 summit with Russia, France and Germany on the conflict in Syria’s Idlib, but he may meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin on that date. – Reuters


With Israel’s prime minister eager to court the votes of the country’s influential West Bank settlers, President Donald Trump’s Mideast plan seemed to be the key to ramping up their support ahead of critical elections next week. – Associated Press

The U.N. Security Council on Monday reiterated its support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in its first statement following the unveiling of the U.S. plan for resolving the decades-old struggle three weeks ago. – Associated Press

The European Union and Germany on Monday condemned Palestinian Islamic Jihad for firing rockets at Israel and called for restraint from both sides. – Times of Israel 

Gaza militants on Monday fired rockets toward Israel, which responded with air strikes, in the second day of an escalation that began to ebb after the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad announced a halt to its attacks. – Reuters 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened war with militants in the Gaza Strip as rocket sirens blared across southern Israel. – Washington Examiner  

Roads reopened and train service resumed in southern Israel on Tuesday morning as a ceasefire appeared to hold between the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following two days of intense fighting around the Gaza Strip. – Times of Israel 

Arabian Peninsula

The death last month of the leader of al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch in a U.S. drone strike has dealt a blow to the group’s ambitions, but Western officials and analysts warn that a recent escalation in Yemen’s conflict could allow it to regroup to some extent. – Washington Post

For apparently the first time in modern history, a rabbi met with the king of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh last week. King Salman hosted Jerusalem-based rabbi David Rosen in his royal palace in the Saudi capital, in a move indicative of the monarchy’s desire to further open itself up to the Western world. – Times of Israel

USAID said late Monday that it will suspend aid to Houthi-controlled areas in Yemen, where most of the country’s people live, if the rebels don’t remove impediments obstructing aid operations. – Associated Press


Lawmakers based in areas of eastern Libya controlled by military commander Khalifa Haftar said on Monday they would not participate for now in peace talks with politicians allied to the internationally recognized government. – Reuters

Two Turkish soldiers were killed in Libya, the nation’s first casualties in the North African country’s civil war, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. – Bloomberg 

Many Libyans believe it will be these outside powers that determine whether the fighting ends, amid warnings from diplomats that all the protagonists risk being sucked deeper into a protracted proxy war that threatens to reverberate from the Sahel across north Africa to the Mediterranean. – Financial Times

Battles with characteristics of near-peer combat are raging in Africa — especially in Libya, where high-tech precision strike weapons are flooding the battlefield. And at a time when the U.S. is considering drawing down troops, the conflict in Libya is providing Pentagon planners with an opportunity to better prepare for any future conflict with China or Russia. – Military Times 

Middle East & North Africa

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have introduced a biting new sanctions bill aimed at senior Lebanese officials involved in the holding of U.S. citizens — in response to the detention and torture of 57-year-old American citizen Amer Fakhoury. – Fox News

When the grip of Iraq’s Tehran-backed Shi’ite Muslim parties and militias threatened to slip following the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, they turned to an unpredictable rival. At meetings in the Iranian holy city of Qom, they struck a deal with populist Shi’ite cleric Sayyed Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis. – Reuters

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: U.S. defense planners have been examining the need to create effective missile defenses in the Gulf since at least Iraq’s first use of ballistic missiles against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War in the mid-1980s […]Israel has developed effective layered missile and rocket defenses for itself, but the defenses of our Arab strategic partners consist largely of limited coverage by dual capable Patriot missile and air defense systems and surface-to-air missiles that provide some coverage against cruises missiles, UCAVs, and drones. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Antoun Issa writes: The main implication of low coverage has been a lack of sustained international pressure on Lebanese or Iraqi political leaders to accommodate protester demands for wholesale systematic changes. The risk of keeping the spotlight away is that it allows political actors to push the limits of their response, and in Iraq’s case, violent retribution has resulted in at least 600 people killed since protests began. – Middle East Institute


A Chinese court sentenced a bookseller who was born in China and held Swedish citizenship to 10 years in jail on espionage charges, and said his Chinese nationality had been reinstated, underscoring Beijing’s increasing forcefulness in asserting jurisdiction over foreign citizens. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration is considering punishing Chinese journalists and state-run news organizations — as well as Chinese intelligence agencies — because of China’s decision to expel three Wall Street Journal reporters, American officials said on Monday. – Washington Post 

Sweden’s foreign minister on Tuesday demanded Chinese authorities release Chinese-born Swedish citizen Gui Minhai, a day after he was sentenced to 10 years in jail on charges of illegally providing intelligence to foreigners. – Reuters

China announced Monday it has postponed its most important political meetings of the year because of the outbreak of the new virus, a significant step for an authoritarian government that has always kept tight control over its political calendar. – Associated Press

U.S. government officials are still considering ways to further curb sales to China’s Huawei Technologies [HWT.UL], despite President Donald Trump’s tweets and comments last week in support of sales to China, according to people familiar with the matter. – Reuters


The United States wants Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to defer his second-term inauguration over concerns it could inflame an election feud with his political rival and jeopardize U.S.-led peacemaking efforts, two sources familiar with the matter said on Monday. – Reuters

Over the weekend, the U.S. military officially ceased offensive operations against the Taliban in accordance with the “reduction of violence” agreement that went into effect midnight Saturday morning Kabul time. – Washington Examiner

President Trump has a lot riding on a precarious agreement with Taliban militants to end America’s longest war. But the process, which began over the weekend, is fraught with obstacles that could lengthen the conflict rather than conclude it. – LA Times

South Asia

President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hailed the growing defense ties between the world’s two largest democracies even as they acknowledged that a trade deal between them remains distant. – Washington Post 

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that India will buy $3 billion worth of military equipment, including attack helicopters, as the two countries deepen defense and commercial ties in an attempt to balance the weight of China in the region. – Reuters

But Trump also made some remarks that may not be as well received by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: He highlighted the “very good” U.S. relationship with Pakistan and the importance of unity among India’s various religions. On stage he announced a $3 billion deal to sell American-made military equipment to India, a move he cast as a sign of the deepening ties between the two countries. – NBC 

Henry Olsen writes: India has historical ties to Russia and has long sought to craft an independent course in foreign affairs. Its status as a developing economy means any trade deal would post challenges for the United States, with cheap labor and weaker environmental policies likely to engender opposition from unions and environmentalists. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s embrace of Hinduism as a national unifying force raises questions for many regarding India’s commitment to liberal democracy as well as the nation’s future stability. This doesn’t mean, however, that closer ties aren’t in the United States’ national interest. – Washington Post  


Australia is under an “unprecedented” threat of foreign espionage and interference, one of the country’s most senior spy chiefs said in a rare speech, citing the case of a “sleeper agent” who spent years building business links. – Reuters 

Japan plans to further loosen restrictions on foreign investors seeking to buy shares in companies related to national security, a person familiar with the matter said. – Bloomberg 

When Defense Secretary Mark Esper welcomes his South Korean counterpart Kyeong-doo Jeong to the Pentagon this afternoon there will be heartfelt expressions of the unbreakable bonds between the two countries and America’s “ironclad” commitment to defending the South against the North. – Washington Examiner   

The U.S. and South Korean militaries said on Monday they are considering scaling back joint training because of mounting concerns about the coronavirus, in one of the first signs of the epidemic’s fallout on global U.S. military activities. – Reuters  


The US conducted a military exercise last week which simulated a “limited” nuclear exchange with Russia, a senior Pentagon official has confirmed. – The Guardian

Editorial: The Kremlin is successfully posturing as a legitimate, impartial mediator for the war in Donbas despite being a belligerent in the conflict. Claims that the Kremlin-initiated peace process is stabilizing the war in Donbas misrepresent the reality of the Kremlin’s actions and objectives. The Kremlin exploited Ukraine’s goodwill withdrawal of troops from portions of the front lines and continues to consolidate control over proxies in eastern Ukraine. – Institute for the Study War

Stephen Blank writes: Now, however, it appears that Putin and his inner circle have decisively rejected that trend and are looking to Asia and especially to China. […]Virtually everyone who has studied this alliance concedes that China is the dominant factor here. Putin’s borrowing from Chinese legislation and apparent emulation of Chinese political practices should alert us to the fact that this constitutional reform, whatever its domestic significance and outcome, may have equally profound international repercussions. – The Hill 


Roughly 30 people, including many children, were injured when a car crashed into a carnival procession in a small town near the German city of Kassel, police said on Monday. Local police said they believed the driver rammed his car on purpose into a crowd of revelers in the town of Volkmarsen during the popular carnival celebrations. – Wall Street Journal

Julian Assange put lives in danger when he published a decade ago thousands of classified documents related to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a lawyer representing the U.S. government said at the opening day of a court hearing to determine whether the WikiLeaks founder should be extradited to the U.S. to stand trial. – Wall Street Journal

EU envoys on Monday finalised a mandate for chief negotiator Michel Barnier to lead what promise to be stormy talks with Britain on its future relations with the bloc starting next week. – Agence France-Presse  

A neo-Nazi group is to become the second extreme rightwing outfit to be banned as a terrorist organisation in the UK, the home secretary has announced. – The Guardian


The U.N. envoy for Somalia urged the country’s leaders on Monday to take “bold steps” to ensure that 2020 sets the fragile Horn of Africa country on a trajectory to peace and stability, not more political division and increasing extremism. – Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday appeared open to reinstating $4.3 billion in punitive damages against Sudan in lawsuits accusing it of complicity in the 1998 al Qaeda bombings of two U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people. – Reuters 

Forty-two African military chiefs joined U.S. Army officials in Ethiopia for the African Land Forces Summit that ended Friday, underscoring what generals say is the United States’s edge over China and Russia in the war of influence playing out on the African continent. – Washington Examiner

The Americas

The Mexican government is on track to dramatically increase the number of extraditions of criminal suspects to the United States this year, as the Trump administration has pressured Mexico to step up its fight against organized crime. – Washington Post

Guatemala’s former attorney general and recent presidential candidate Thelma Aldana said on Monday the United States has granted her asylum, days after her successor filed an extradition request for alleged irregularities during her tenure. – Reuters  

U.S. President Donald Trump has decided to step up a sanctions campaign on Venezuela’s oil sector and will be more aggressive in punishing people and companies that violate it, the top U.S. envoy to the Latin American country said on Monday. – Reuters 


Facebook Inc. FB -4.50% in recent weeks investigated suspicious content supporting Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, said people familiar with the matter. But the company was unable to substantiate claims that Trump supporters or Russian actors were involved in any inauthentic activity. – Wall Street Journal

Lawmakers scored another win in their fight against TikTok after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) barred its employees from using the megapopular video app. […]The TSA move came after criticism from Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who along with other China hawks have raised concerns about government employees using the app, which they claim could allow China to access sensitive information about people in the U.S. – The Hill 

Just weeks into this year’s election cycle, Russia already is actively interfering in the U.S. presidential campaign in hopes of reelecting President Donald Trump, and is also trying to help the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, intelligence officials have concluded. The Russian efforts are aimed at undermining public confidence in the integrity of U.S. elections and stirring general chaos in American politics, intelligence experts say. – Fifth Domain


When the Trump administration’s budget request rolled out Feb. 10, eyebrows shot up within the nuclear community at the mention of a previously unknown warhead, listed in documents as the W93. Now the Pentagon is revealing details about the weapon, what it will replace and when it might be deployed. – Defense News

The military wants to experiment with commercial satellites from OneWeb and SpaceX’s Starlink mega-constellations to keep war fighters connected in the Arctic, but it will need extra funding to do so. – C4ISRNET 

The Pentagon is adopting new ethical principles as it prepares to accelerate its use of artificial intelligence technology on the battlefield. – Associated Press 

Battles with characteristics of near-peer combat are raging in Africa — especially in Libya, where high-tech precision strike weapons are flooding the battlefield. And at a time when the U.S. is considering drawing down troops, the conflict in Libya is providing Pentagon planners with an opportunity to better prepare for any future conflict with China or Russia. – Military Times

Trump Administration

Senior U.S. Democrats said on Monday that President Donald Trump’s administration should immediately impose sanctions on Russia after U.S. intelligence officials told members of Congress that Russia appeared to be trying to influence this year’s U.S. election. – Reuters  

Russia’s influence campaign is driven by a desire to “watch us tear ourselves apart,” a senior FBI official said Monday, comments that come after details of a classified briefing to lawmakers became public in news reports, including a claim by the intelligence community’s top election security official that Moscow is interfering with the goal of helping President Donald Trump. – CNN 

In the past week, two senior US officials at the Department of Defence and the White House who deal directly with Middle East issues have left their positions, raising questions about the administration’s policy on regional challenges. The National