Fdd's overnight brief

February 27, 2020

In The News


The Trump administration’s blacklisting Wednesday of several Lebanese individuals and companies for allegedly helping Iran-backed Hezbollah highlights Washington’s strategy to counter a U.S.-designated terror group. – Wall Street Journal

Iranian cyber police have arrested 24 people accused of online rumor-mongering about the spread of the coronavirus in the country, the semi-official news agency ISNA reported on Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

The implications of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak in Iran for Iranian authorities seem to go far beyond only a national health issue. Officials, including the President himself, now allege that the outbreak has become a propaganda tool in the hands of Iran’s enemies, and first and foremost, the United States to bring the Iranian economy to a standstill. – Radio Farda

Parties to Iran’s nuclear deal made little progress on Wednesday towards saving the agreement as Iran is still breaching many of its central terms in response to US sanctions, but efforts to ease Tehran’s economic pain continued, delegates said. – Reuters

Bobby Ghosh writes: If the leadership of the World Health Organization can spare a moment from their genuflecting to Beijing, they should direct their attention to another authoritarian state struggling to contain the coronavirus: Iran. The Islamic Republic’s mismanagement of the contagion represents an imminent threat not only to Iranians but to all of the Middle East and Central Asia — and possibly, given the menacing nature of the microbe, the larger world. – Bloomberg

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: The parties to the Iran nuclear deal met late Wednesday for the first time since several crucial changes have taken place, with the surprising signal being that the trajectory of the US-Iran standoff has cooled off a bit from deterioration to deadlock. This slight cooling off is surprising because it would seem to be the opposite of the worsening deterioration that has taken place over the last two months. […]This does not mean everything will be smooth sailing from now until November. But if from May 2019 until February 2020 were a time of extreme instability in the nuclear standoff, we may have entered a “timeout” and wait-and-see period of sorts pending the big contest in November. – Jerusalem Post


The last month has been especially brutal in Idlib province, with a Syrian government offensive producing a humanitarian crisis almost unparalleled during nearly a decade of war in Syria. As the government seeks to recapture rebel-held Idlib, where children make up a majority of the population, the fighting has chased about 1 million people from their homes. – Washington Post

Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters on Thursday retook a strategic northwestern town in Syria that was recently captured by government forces, and cut the highway linking the capital, Damascus, with the northern city of Aleppo days after the government reopened it for the first time since 2012. – Associated Press

Syrian government forces bombed civilian targets in the northwestern Idlib province Wednesday, pushing ahead with a fierce military campaign that has sent nearly a million people fleeing from their homes and killed hundreds over the past three months. – Associated Press

Syrian rebels backed by the Turkish military have recaptured the strategic town of Saraqeb, the first significant reverse for the Syrian army in a Russian-backed offensive that had made swift gains, the rebels said on Thursday. – Reuters

The American call for a ceasefire in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib has fallen on deaf ears with Russia and Turkey both vowing to continue what appears to be the last battle of the nine-year war, despite the “horrifying” humanitarian crisis unfolding there, as the United Nations has described it. – Newsweek 


Turkey’s Defense Ministry said early on Thursday that two of its soldiers were killed and two others wounded in an air strike on Turkish forces in Syria’s Idlib region. – Reuters

Turkey plans to push Syrian government forces away from its military observation posts in northwest Syria’s Idlib region this week, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday, despite advances by Damascus’s Russian-backed military. – Reuters

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s end-of-February deadline for Syrian regime forces to withdraw from parts of the war-torn province of Idlib is threatening to drag Turkey even deeper into its neighbour’s nine-year civil war. – Financial Times


The United States on Wednesday declared a powerful Iraqi Shiite paramilitary leader to be a terrorist after a series of rocket attacks, vowing to step up pressure on his ally Iran. – Agence France-Presse

Pope Francis indicated on Wednesday he would not be visiting Iraq this year as he had hoped to do. – Reuters

Iraq’s Prime Minister designate Mohammed Allawi vowed on Wednesday that parliament will vote for the first “independent” government this week. Parliamentarians are expected to convene on Thursday to vote on Mr Allawi’s ministerial program and selection for 22 cabinet ministers. – The National


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday Bernie Sanders was wrong to call him a racist during a debate among contenders for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination, but shied away from attacking the senator in return. – Reuters

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Thursday signed an order to seize $4 million transferred from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. – Arutz Sheva

Israel is set to open all crossings on the Gaza Strip border and expand the fishing zone off the enclave’s coast to 15 nautical miles, the military confirmed on Wednesday. – Ynet

The United Nations Middle East peace envoy condemned Israel’s recent advancement of construction plans in the West Bank and East Jerusalem that he said would effectively cut the West Bank in two and isolate some Palestinian neighborhoods. – Times of Israel

The US Treasury on Wednesday lifted its sanctions on a former Israeli general who allegedly supplied weapons and ammunition to both the government and the opposition in South Sudan. – Times of Israel

Judah Ari Gross writes: So long as Hamas — a terror group expressly dedicated to the destruction of the State of Israel — remains in power in Gaza, Israel is also unlikely to dramatically change or reduce its blockade on the coastal enclave. […]Yet without a major change, Israel is liable to go through yet more rounds of fighting any time the PIJ, Hamas or other terror groups in the Strip decide to take issue with the way the IDF responds to rocket fire or an attack along the border. – Times of Israel

Saudi Arabia

The return of the U.S. troops—after maintaining a much smaller footprint for nearly two decades—reflects the alarm of Saudi and American leaders at the current threat posed by another regional power: Iran. – Wall Street Journal

Saudi Arabia’s acquisition of the Rheinmetall Skyguard 3 air defence system was confirmed when the Saudi Press Agency released a photograph showing one deployed at the kingdom’s main naval base on the Gulf. – Jane’s 360

Simon Henderson writes: Going forward, Falih will not only have to help keep Vision 2030 on track, but also prepare the ground for the opportunities that will flow from Saudi Arabia hosting the G20 summit this November. In the meantime, he must cope with continued foreign investor caution stemming from the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the 2017 incarceration of Saudi business leaders and rival princes in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton during a crackdown on corruption. Oil prices were weak even before the economic impact of the coronavirus, which has now reached the Middle East, so Falih’s policy options for overcoming these obstacles will be constrained. – Washington Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Egypt wants to attract investors into backing companies owned by the country’s army to address private sector complaints that they are being crowded out of lucrative sectors by the military. – Financial Times

Rival Libyan politicians met on Wednesday for U.N.-sponsored political talks in Geneva aimed at ending the latest round of fighting over the country’s capital, Tripoli. – Associated Press

Shelling on Thursday morning forced a suspension of flights at Mitiga, the only functioning airport in Libya’s capital Tripoli, airport authorities said in a statement on Facebook. – Reuters


A Chinese ambassador on Wednesday ripped into the U.S. for an “attack” on China’s candidate to head a United Nations agency that monitors and tracks intellectual property like patents, trademarks and industrial designs — a lucrative and crucial part of the growing digital age. – Associated Press

China expects U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to visit this year, including its restive Xinjiang region, its ambassador in Geneva said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Pentagon’s top civilian and military leaders said Wednesday that China has emerged as the most important defense and military challenge faced by the United States. – Washington Times


It is the final days before a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban insurgency is expected to be signed, and the partial cease-fire that was set as a precondition seems to be holding. The police on this remote, southern battlefield suddenly have time for questions they once hardly imagined asking: Could there really be peace? What would that be like? – New York Times

The former chief of staff to first lady Laura Bush on Wednesday said that Afghan women are fearful for their future amid a peace agreement between Afghanistan’s government, the U.S. and Taliban forces due to be signed on Saturday. – The Hill

Fawzia Koofi’s childhood dream of becoming a doctor was dashed when Taliban militants took over Afghanistan in the 1990s. The group, which banished women from public life, imprisoned her husband – and tried to kill her when she later became a politician. But she ended up talking to the Taliban, who are now on the brink of a peace accord with US forces that drove them from power. – BBC

Melissa L. Skorka writes: The episodic Afghan peace process seems like an ideal solution to end America’s longest war. Yet there is a paradox in a political negotiation for peace that results in U.S. withdrawal of troops: A potential Taliban-Haqqani takeover of the Afghan capital would follow that involves rejecting democratic principles and human rights. With this deal between the United States and the Taliban, Washington needs a sober assessment of the Haqqani network as a strategic actor at the center of the world’s largest terrorist sanctuary. – New York Times

South Asia

Two days of communal violence in the northeastern part of Delhi have left at least 17 people dead and 150 injured in the worst such clashes in India’s capital in decades. The violence happened to unfold as President Trump made his first official visit to India and conducted meetings Tuesday in the tony central area of the city home to central government buildings and embassies. – Washington Post

India accused a U.S. government commission of politicizing communal violence in New Delhi that killed at least 30 people and injured more than 200 as President Donald Trump was visiting the country. – Associated Press

Editorial: President Trump’s successful trip to India this week will develop a critical prospective alliance while undermining one of the most common criticisms leveled against this president: that Trump cares little for democratic values or for allies. […]But, ultimately, this trip hinted at the possibilities of a very bright future. If India and the U.S. can form a common bond built on the rule of law, national sovereignty, and democracy, they will be that much more prosperous and safe. This presidential tale is not defined by tweets but by true statesmanship. – Washington Examiner


The South Korean and U.S. militaries announced Thursday that they were postponing their annual joint drills due to concern about a viral outbreak that has infected soldiers in both countries’ armed forces, put many troops in quarantine and closed base facilities. – Associated Press

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday said Filipino forces can fight insurgents and Muslim extremists without American military help, in a defense of his recent decision to terminate a U.S. security pact. – Associated Press

A closely watched independence vote in the Pacific state of Chuuk, part of the U.S.-aligned Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), scheduled for next month has been postponed until 2022, the island told Reuters. – Reuters

Michael Mazza writes: The risk of nuclear escalation is one reason the United States might choose not to intervene in a Taiwan Strait crisis. Taiwan should consider whether it can shape nuclear dynamics in such a way as to make American intervention more likely. – Global Taiwan Institute


A former senior aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that Ukraine will never be able to regain control over the country’s separatist-controlled east, where Russia-backed rebels and Ukrainian forces have fought for almost six years. – Associated Press

Moscow’s military has received its latest anti-air system and tested its ability to take on incoming aircraft at a time when Russia and the United States were competing for cutting-edge warfighting capabilities. – Newsweek

Russia’s Aerospace Forces (VKS) has deployed its first S-350 Vityaz air defence system to a training centre in Gatchina in the Leningrad Region, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced in a press release on 26 February. – Jane’s 360


A lawyer for Julian Assange argued Wednesday that the WikiLeaks founder should not be sent to the United States because a U.K.-U.S. treaty bans extradition for political offenses. – Associated Press

Prime Minister Boris Johnson will put the U.K. on collision course with the European Union on Thursday when he lays out his government’s red lines before talks start on a post-Brexit trade agreement next week. – Bloomberg

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claimed in a British court Wednesday that he is being treated unfairly in his U.S. extradition case because he is being denied sufficient contact with his legal team and because his lawyers have been spied on. – USA Today

Six House Democrats on Wednesday asked World Bank President David Malpass to explain an August meeting with the Ukrainan president amid President Trump’s decision to withhold defense aid from Ukraine. – The Hill

The armed forces of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LPR and DPR, respectively) are preparing for a higher intensity of conflict, according to a 24 February briefing by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence (MoD) on operations of Ukrainian forces. – Jane’s 360

The U.S. president has spent his time in office needling NATO for taking advantage of American largesse (with some validity: the U.S. has borne the largest share of the cost of funding the alliance). And, increasingly, Trump and his aides are dragging the alliance into broader trans-Atlantic tensions. […]The U.S. is frustrated over Europe’s refusal to accede to Trump’s demands for a full ban on Huawei Technologies Co. in the member nations’ 5G networks. – Bloomberg


The Trump administration is split over how to combat terrorists, support allies and thwart global competitors in West Africa. And the mixed messages out of Washington are confusing allies in Europe, who are deeply committed to security in Africa, as well as to military partners on the continent. – New York Times

Ethiopia will skip the latest round of U.S.-brokered talks this week on a disputed Nile dam project with Egypt and Sudan, the country’s water ministry announced Wednesday. – Associated Press

A U.S. air strike over the weekend in Somalia killed an Islamist militant who helped plan last month’s attack on a military base in Kenya in which three Americans died, the U.S. military said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Jacopo Barigazzi, David M. Herszenhorn, and Simon Marks write: In the space of four years, the EU has gone from internal ambivalence over how much attention to pay Africa to making it a top focus for valuable political capital and diplomatic energy. […]Now, faced with a U.S. retreat from multilateralism under President Donald Trump and both China and Russia making firm grabs for global influence, nearly all EU countries — including the Central and Eastern states and the Baltics — seem to be on board. – Politico

United States

President Trump’s campaign filed a libel lawsuit against the New York Times, accusing it of knowingly publishing false and defamatory statements in an opinion piece on the 2016 election and Russia. – Wall Street Journal

Military students from Saudi Arabia have resumed flight training at U.S. bases, nearly three months after a Saudi trainee shot and killed three U.S. Navy sailors at Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida. – Associated Press

The FBI has arrested five people it said are part of a white supremacist group that conspired to intimidate journalists and activists. – Washington Examiner

An Interior Department official defended the Trump administration’s construction of the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico as an environmental good, arguing that erecting that barrier will help at-risk plants, animals and Native American cultural sites from damage even as lawsuits allege otherwise. – Roll Call

Top members of the House Armed Services Committee assailed Pentagon leaders Wednesday, warning that the administration’s reprogramming of $3.8 billion of Defense Department money for a border wall could damage its relationship with Congress. – Roll Call


Fredrick Brennan, who founded but later distanced himself from the 8chan message board that has given encouragement and visibility to violent extremists, is facing arrest in the Philippines in a “cyberlibel” case brought by the site’s current owner. – New York Times

Tech giants including Google are free to censor content as they wish, a US court ruled Wednesday, in a landmark freedom-of-speech case concerning private internet platforms. – Agence France-Presse

The European Union may target a Russian and a Chinese entity, as well as several individuals, with sanctions over cyber attacks, adding to signs of increasing alarm in the bloc over network security. – Bloomberg

Andrew Eversden writes: The year 2019 was a “very bad year” for insider threats causing harm to the intellectual property of the private sector and the government, senior government security officials said Feb. 25. Central to concerns is China, which for years has been infiltrating the networks of defense contractors and tech companies and stealing their technology, and how the country is now going beyond cyberattacks and increasingly relying on insiders to steal IP instead. – Fifth Domain


Secretary of Defense Mark Esper faced sustained bipartisan criticism from the House Armed Services Committee over the Pentagon’s proposed shipbuilding plan during a Wednesday hearing on the Fiscal Year 2021 Pentagon budget. – USNI News

The U.S. Air Force has officially started its search for a “flying car” able to speedily shuttle troops and equipment into war zones. – Defense News

The U.S. Army is working through when it can field an interim active protection system on the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle after fixing several technical problems that cropped up in testing and experiencing budget cuts in the recently passed fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. – Defense News

A Northrop Grumman space vehicle successfully docked with a commercial satellite communications satellite Feb. 25, marking the first time two commercial satellites have docked on orbit, the company announced Feb. 26. – C4ISRNET

The US Marine Corps (USMC) has awarded BAE Systems with a USD113.5-million contract to produce an additional 26 amphibious combat vehicles (ACVs). The company told Jane’s that it had received the additional low-rate initial production buy for the ACV-personnel carrier variant, which brings the USMC’s total ACV buy up to 116. – Jane’s 360

The U.N. disarmament chief warned Wednesday that the specter of an unbridled nuclear arms race is threatening the world for the first time since the 1970s, the height of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. – Associated Press

Joshua M. Pearce writes: The White House’s 2021 budget calls for US$28.9 billion for the Pentagon for nuclear weapons and a 20% increase to $19.8 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration. Yet the U.S. already has over 3,000 nuclear weapons. And my research shows that the U.S. could only safely use a fraction of them without killing Americans with an unintended adverse series of cascading environmental effects. – The Conversation