Fdd's overnight brief

February 28, 2019

In The News


Two days after saying he intended to step down, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, returned to his post after President Hassan Rouhani rejected the resignation. – New York Times

Iran is smuggling upgrades for Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal through Syria in suitcases, two recent reports based on Israeli intelligence reveal. – Haaretz

The international community must take steps to halt Iranian violations of human rights and its support for terror militias, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir said, as he addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

IRGC Deputy Commander General Hossein Salami said in a speech that aired on February 19, 2019 on IRINN TV (Iran) that Iran’s sword has been “drawn out of its sheath” and that Iran has plans to break the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and their allies and cleanse the world of their filth. He said that the Saud regime is awaiting death and that America is distressed and defeated. Salami added: “We will never lay down our weapons… This is who we are. We were not created for this world. We were chosen to wage jihad.” – Middle East Media Research Institute

A Greek court has refused to extradite to Iran an Iranian political dissident and Christian wanted in her country for alleged drugs-smuggling, citing fears that she might face torture if returned. – Associated Press


Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Wednesday with Russian President Vladirmir Putin in Moscow. The meeting was the first between the two leaders since the downing of a Russian military aircraft by Syrian air defenses in September. The Russian defense ministry blamed Israel for the incident. – Arutz Sheva

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel will continue to take action against Iran in Syria, in the first significant meeting between the two since a major spat developed over a downed spy plane last year. – Times of Israel

Russia and Syria have called on the United States to leave Syria and to allow people inside a refugee camp in the southeast of the country to be evacuated by Russian and Syrian forces. – Al Jazeera


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Wednesday with Jared Kushner for talks focused on the Trump administration’s planned but as-yet unveiled Middle East peace initiative. – Associated Press

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he does not believe the United States will take back weapons from Kurdish militias in Syria. – Reuters

Erin Dunne writes: Turkey is an important ally occupying a key geographic position at the crossroads of Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. That has made the country a strategic ally hosting airbases and missiles and serving as a launch point for U.S. and NATO operations in the Middle East. Those same strategic considerations have also made Turkey a prime target for other foreign powers, Russia chief among them. Increased relations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin is a clear blow to Washington’s interests, threatening to block U.S. access to the Middle East and cut its regional influence. – Washington Examiner


President Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner on Thursday was wrapping up a Middle East tour to raise support for an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, a swing that included his first meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. – Wall Street Journal

United Nations investigators reported on Thursday that Israeli forces who fired on Palestinians during the mass demonstrations on the border with Gaza, killing more than 100 people, may have committed war crimes. – New York Times

A Canadian attorney says he appears to have been targeted by the same undercover operative unmasked by The Associated Press at a New York hotel last month , drawing a line between the man and the notorious Israeli intelligence firm Black Cube. – Associated Press

Republican Congress members introduced companion bills in the Senate and House of Representatives this week calling for US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. – Algemeiner

In his November 14, 2018 column in the Al-Riyadh daily, Saudi writer ‘Abdallah Bin Bakhit wrote sarcastically that whoever wants to understand “the Jewish conspiracy against the world” must acknowledge the reasons for the Jews’ success in the West and the reasons for the Arabs’ backwardness there. – Middle East Media Research Institute

IAF airplanes and helicopters attacked a number of terrorist targets in a military compound belonging to the Hamas terrorist organization in the central Gaza Strip on Wednesday evening, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said. – Arutz Sheva

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, spokesman for Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas, said on Wednesday that Abbas is ready for a three-way meeting with Israel in Moscow if Russian President Vladimir Putin calls for one, reports the PA official news agency Wafa. – Arutz Sheva

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara on Wednesday evening met with Russian Jewish community leaders in Moscow. – Arutz Sheva

The family of a Palestinian lawmaker says Israeli authorities have released Khalida Jarrar after 20 months of holding her in detention without raising charges. – Associated Press

Middle East

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with the Saudi king and crown prince during a tour of the Middle East to try to build momentum for his long-awaited plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, the White House said in a statement on Wednesday. – New York Times

Michael Rubin writes: Kurdish officials like to distract from accountability for their own management failings by blaming Baghdad, unfriendly neighbors, a lack of recognition for their ills, or any other bogeymen real or imagined. Perhaps it is time for Kurdish residents, diplomats, and potential investors to question just how a region like Somaliland with a similar history, equivalent population, and the same geopolitical problems has emerged from war and destruction not only as a democracy, but also with a far healthier and more reform-minded economy than Iraqi Kurdistan’s. – 1001 Iraqi Thoughts

Elisa Catalano Ewers and Nicholas Heras write: H.J. Res. 37 is a rebuke of the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition’s prosecution of the war – which has caused the world’s worst current humanitarian crisis – and the U.S. role in supporting the coalition’s military activities. […]Beyond the serious undertaking of addressing the U.S. role in the Yemen conflict, the resolution has other strategic potential if Congress pursues it constructively. Review of this legislation and continued oversight work may succeed in sparking a sustainable debate on the future role of the United States in Yemen’s conflict, the U.S.-Saudi and U.S.-U.A.E. relationships, and more broadly, on the proper role of the United States in the Middle East and its conflicts. – Center for a New American Security

Korean Peninsula

President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to reach an agreement at a second summit aimed at curbing North Korea’s nuclear-weapons programs, as Pyongyang pushed for sanctions relief in exchange for reciprocal steps that Washington said it viewed as inadequate. – Wall Street Journal

The White House abruptly banned four U.S. journalists from covering President Trump’s dinner here Wednesday with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un after some of them shouted questions at the leaders during their earlier meetings. – Washington Post

In a 20-second exchange on Wednesday, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did something he’s never had to as the head of the world’s most closed society: Answer a question from a foreign journalist. – Washington Post

As President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un shook hands to mark the start of their second summit, they were immediately peppered with a torrent of questions from the journalists present. All of them, that is, except for eight men, dressed identically in black suits, who kept silent. It’s just another day for members of North Korea’s state-controlled media, whose singular job is to chronicle Kim’s every move — to make him appear wise, statesmanlike and generally infallible. – Washington Post

Vietnamese air carriers signed more than $21 billion in airline orders and service contracts with U.S. companies Wednesday on the sidelines of this week’s summit between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. – Wall Street Journal

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said on Thursday he would not be in Vietnam meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump if he was not prepared to pursue the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. – Reuters

President Trump is pursuing the same “sad and dangerous” foreign policy that led to the Holocaust and the Second World War, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told Congress as the president conducts a second round of talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam. – Washington Examiner

Adam Taylor writes: Trump may be looking for a short-term success, but what will be more important — and much more difficult — will be to avoid a long-term failure. The president may be realizing this: he has shifted the goal posts several times in his negotiations with Kim, contradicting his own claims that there was no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea and suggesting that he was in no rush to force North Korea to give up its nukes. But Kim the dictator is all but certain to stick around longer than Trump the term-limited president.  – Washington Post

Erin Dunne writes: Since then, tit-for-tat retaliation has most recently resulted in the Pakistani air force claiming it shot down two Indian warplanes and captured a pilot. […]This should come as a wake-up call for Trump. Nuclear arms must not be treated like just another deal. Indeed, if the precipitous spiral of events between India and Pakistan is any indication, the spark of a conflict with an even less stable state like North Korea could just as easily escalate to a real threat of a nuclear strike. – Washington Examiner

Thomas Spoehr and Megan Roh write: Trump’s first meeting with Kim in June 2018 was a step in the right direction for diplomatic relations between the two nations. However, in the months since, as national intelligence director Dan Coats has reported, North Korea has not made any concrete steps towards denuclearization. […]Make no mistake, successful denuclearization is hard. Agreeing to these conditions represents a degree of relinquishment of state sovereignty.  But given the right mixture of incentives and relief from sanctions, it could be in the best interest of all parties. – Heritage Foundation


A powerful Senate panel recommended abolishing more than 600 Chinese government-funded cultural and language programs at U.S. schools and universities unless Beijing provides equal access for American public diplomacy efforts in China, as U.S. officials escalate calls for a level playing field on issues from trade to the treatment of journalists. – Wall Street Journal

In the strongest sign yet that an accord is near, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said Wednesday that the U.S. was abandoning for now its threat to raise tariffs to 25% on $200 billion of Chinese goods. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. is pushing for a trade deal with China that includes “significant structural changes” to the Asian nation’s economic model, as well as provisions that ensure Beijing keeps its promises, President Donald Trump’s top trade negotiator said. – Bloomberg

Security experts say the U.S. government is likely exaggerating the threat it says the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei poses to the world’s next-generation wireless networks. – Associated Press

Senate investigators are warning that China has opened government-run centers at more than 100 American college campuses, pouring over $158 million into Confucius Institutes that spread Chinese influence while going largely unmonitored by the U.S. government. – NBC News

Tom Rogan writes: China’s regime knows it is caught between a rock of authoritarian necessity and a hard place of its own foreign policy. Put simply, Xi knows his power model requires both authoritarianism at home and seizure of market access abroad, but the two are coming into conflict in the eyes of democratic nations, and Xi finds himself stuck. Again, he cannot alter China’s political identity without sacrificing the Communist Party’s total domestic power, but neither can he give up on the means of his ambition for global hegemony: stealing and securing unfair market domination and militarizing the Indo-Pacific. – Washington Examiner


Taliban and American officials holding talks in Qatar on ways to end the war in Afghanistan have held “extensive” discussions on how foreign troops could be withdrawn and on how to guarantee the country would not be used again by outside forces to attack other countries, the Taliban said in a statement on Thursday. – Reuters

Afghanistan has been a central U.S. foreign policy concern since 2001, when the United States, in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led a military campaign against Al Qaeda and the Taliban government that harbored and supported it. In the intervening 17 years, the United States has suffered around 2,400 fatalities in Afghanistan (including 2 in 2019 to date) and Congress has appropriated more than $132 billion for reconstruction there. – USNI News

Tufail Ahmad writes: The objective of the talks is to find a political settlement on the future of Afghanistan, which could facilitate the withdrawal of the U.S. and other foreign soldiers while incorporating the Afghan Taliban in any administrative setup in Kabul that is agreed upon. Some discordant notes in these talks indicate that a lasting role may be emerging for Iran and Turkey in Afghanistan. Such a role for Turkey and Iran may be partly supported by the U.S., while some may not be to its liking. – Middle East Media Research Institute

South Asia

Officials around the world urged restraint after military clashes on Wednesday between India and Pakistan sparked concerns over a possible escalation. Pakistan said it had shot down two Indian aircraft that had entered its airspace, while India claimed that its military had also downed a Pakistani jet. – Washington Post

As hostilities escalate between India and Pakistan, the world is getting a taste of what a limited war between two nuclear-armed rivals might look like. Both countries are aware of the risks. On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan explicitly referred to both countries’ nuclear arsenals. – Washington Post

Two nuclear-armed siblings with a long history of armed conflict. Two prime ministers facing public pressure for military action. And a snowy, mountainous region that both nations have coveted — and occupied with troops — for more than 70 years. It was almost inevitable that fighting would break out again between India and Pakistan. – New York Times

The United States, Britain and France proposed on Wednesday that the United Nations Security Council blacklist the head of Pakistan-based militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad, which said it attacked an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir. – Reuters

India and Pakistan exchanged gunfire through the night into Thursday morning in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, a day after Islamabad said it shot down two Indian warplanes and captured a pilot. – Associated Press

Tom Rogan writes: Pakistan’s downing of at least one Indian air force jet on Wednesday should not be viewed as a random crisis incident. Instead, it reflects a new period of escalating tension between the two nuclear powers. The root of this tension is clear: Pakistan’s support for terrorist groups targeting India, and India’s increasing unwillingness to accept these attacks without military reprisal. – Washington Examiner

Simon Henderson writes: Welcome to South Asia, where the rival militaries have gamed for years a nuclear war that isn’t quite Armageddon — the war to end wars — but an exercise in bravado, national pride and humiliating the other side. […]The conventional wisdom is, or certainly was, that nuclear weapons create a balance of terror between rivals. That logic may have applied in the days of the Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union, but it no longer is valid — at least between India and Pakistan. – The Hill

Sadanand Dhume writes: For now the path out of the current crisis appears straightforward: Pakistan should return the captured Indian pilot and take concrete steps to rein in jihadist groups like JeM and Lashkar-e-Taiba that target India. For its part, India needs to ensure that its official rhetoric remains measured, and that its next steps are not driven primarily by domestic political considerations. With domestic passions running high, the margin of error for both India and Pakistan is extremely limited. – American Enterprise Institute


European Union lawmakers are devoting tremendous energy to combating Russian efforts to subvert their political systems. And so finding the daughter of one of President Vladimir Putin’s top aides in their midst has come as something of a surprise. – Washington Post

A Russian military court convicted a former senior counterintelligence officer and a cybersecurity firm executive of treason Tuesday, concluding a case that initially aroused speculation of a manufactured effort to punish the source of leaks about Russian campaign hacking. – Associated Press

Convictions handed down this week in a high-profile treason case in Russia have reopened questions about the Russian hacking of the 2016 US presidential election. – CNN

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman says that websites in the country are constantly under cyberattack by the United States, and that shows why Russia is pursuing an autonomous Internet. – NPR


The Spanish authorities announced on Wednesday that they had begun an investigation into a possible attack at the North Korean Embassy in Madrid, after one of the embassy employees said she was assaulted. – New York Times

Plans by a major sporting goods company in France to sell a hijab designed for runners have incited yet another debate over what Muslim women wear, exposing once again the tensions between secularism and religion in the country. – New York Times

With just 30 days to go until Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union, Parliament on Wednesday endorsed Prime Minister Theresa May’s concession that if the lawmakers cannot agree on a deal to sever ties with the continent, Brexit might have to be delayed. – Washington Post

At an event in Berlin on Tuesday evening, German Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined how European governments can stand up to the financial muscle of China by offering more support to companies.  – Bloomberg

The Americas

Venezuela, under U.S. embargo, has shifted some crude exports from American refiners to India and Europe, according to the country’s oil minister and ship-tracking firms. – Wall Street Journal

Venezuela’s opposition, stung by recent setbacks, is grappling for its next move to try to unseat President Nicolás Maduro. But first, its leader Juan Guaidó has to safely get back into Venezuela, where the government is threatening to jail him. – Wall Street Journal

Forcing a possible United Nations showdown with Russia over the Venezuela crisis, the United States distributed a resolution on Wednesday calling for “free, fair and credible presidential elections” in the impoverished Latin American country and unfettered distribution of humanitarian aid. – New York Times

A U.S. agency that broadcasts news and other programs into Cuba says it is seeking to fire a total of eight reporters, editors and anchors following an internal investigation into anti-Semitic segments last year that disparaged philanthropist and prominent Democratic donor George Soros. – Washington Post

Lawmakers on Wednesday grilled Pentagon officials about the president’s plans to repurpose military construction dollars for his controversial southern border wall by use of his national emergency declaration. – Defense News

Cyber Security

U.S. Cyber Command, as part of a new public-private partnership with and run by the Maryland Innovation and Security Institute, recently concluded an insider-threat detection competition at the DreamPort facility. – Fifth Domain

With our growing reliance on cyber infrastructure across all sectors, the risks and dangers of DDoS attacks are greater than ever. For government, DDoS could be particularly harmful as mission operations increasingly depend on reliable network access. We’ve seen DDoS attacks hit political campaigns and the Pentagon has faced attacks of 600 gigabits per second (Gbps), a figure that was unheard of a few years ago. – Fifth Domain

The Czech telecoms regulator CTU aims to launch an auction of next-generation 5G frequencies in early November, seeking to attract a fourth new operator to boost competition in a market among the most expensive for customers in Europe. – Reuters

The security of next-generation 5G networks has dominated this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, with conflicting views on the risks of moving to the new technology being debated on stage and in backroom meetings. – Reuters


Boeing Co. BA 2.03% has teamed up with Australia’s military to develop a combat drone almost as big as a fighter jet, intensifying a global arms race that has seen China and Russia add new stealth and uncrewed aircraft to their fleets. – Wall Street Journal

After eight months at sea with a squadron of F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters, the Marines and the Navy are seeing how the next-generation aircraft will expand the effectiveness of U.S. amphibious forces. – USNI News

The Marine Corps will field its first 55 vehicles to support units at training locations across the country – including the School of Infantry West, School of Infantry East and the Motor Transport Maintenance Instructional Company – by the end of May, Andy Rodgers, Marine Program Manager for Light Tactical Vehicles, told reporters in a call today. Beginning in July, operational units will begin receiving their first vehicles that will eventually replace the legacy Humvee fleet. – USNI News

The Corps has been making steady upgrades to one of its oldest tactical vehicles ― the light armored vehicle, or LAV ― over the past several years. Now the Corps wants to boost the aging vehicle’s firepower with long-range precision fires capabilities, by using either loitering munitions or missiles that could have swarming attributes. – Marine Corps Times

Lockheed Martin and U.S. Air Force officials may be downplaying the prospect of an upcoming budget battle surrounding the F-15X and the F-35 fighter jets, but influential F-35 supporters in Congress and around the Capital Beltway are mounting an offensive against Boeing’s new F-15 variant. – Defense News

The Army and Defense Logistics Agency will both seek reimbursement on millions of dollars from contractor TransDigm, following an Inspector General report into the company’s contracts with the Pentagon. – Defense News

Long War

An appeals court in Belgium ruled Wednesday that the Belgian government is not obligated to repatriate from Syria two Belgian women who joined the Islamic State or their six children. – Washington Post

A Coast Guard lieutenant accused of planning a domestic terrorist attack illegally possessed silencers among the arsenal of weapons prosecutors contend he stockpiled for his plot, according to new court filings. – Washington Post

Matthew Levitt and Aaron Y. Zelin write: The challenges posed by detained IS members are both complicated and time sensitive. Unfortunately, the president’s handling of the issue—from his premature Syria withdrawal to his insistence that European partners repatriate their citizens even as Washington declines to do the same—has exacerbated transatlantic tensions at a time when cooperation is sorely needed. […]To mend this rift, the administration should help European authorities create new legal regimes or alternative methods of prosecution, while also minding the lessons learned from past jihadist flows and ineffective detention policies.  – Washington Institute

Trump Administration

President Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer accused him on Wednesday of an expansive pattern of lies and criminality, offering a damning portrayal of life inside the president’s orbit where he said advisers sacrificed integrity for proximity to power. […]Mr. Cohen said he had no “direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia.” But, he added, “I have my suspicions.” – New York Times

Michael Cohen told Congress a lot— and much of it wasn’t good for Donald Trump. In matter-of-fact testimony, the former Trump lawyer drew a troubling picture of his former boss, implicating the president in lies big and small to the American public. But Cohen stopped short of saying he had direct evidence that Trump or his campaign conspired with the Kremlin to sway the 2016 election. – Washington Post

Michael Cohen’s testimony is just the beginning. The House oversight hearing with President Donald Trump’s former attorney, coming in advance of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, heralds what Democrats in Congress view as the long days ahead providing checks and balances on the Oval Office. – Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump said his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had lied “a lot” in testimony to a congressional hearing in Washington, but Cohen had told the truth when he said there was had been no collusion with Russia. – Reuters

Gregory Ballard writes: Whoever is nominated as the next secretary of defense, it is important to recognize that collaboration is key to a robust national security strategy. By cultivating relationships with key partners at the State Department and other organizations, and matching our military strength with our civilian tools of diplomacy and development, we can keep our nation safe while advancing American leadership around the world. – Washington Examiner