Fdd's overnight brief

February 4, 2020

In The News


Iran said Tuesday that its top court confirmed a death sentence for an Iranian man convicted of spying for the CIA, with state media alleging that he had shared details of the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program with the American spy agency. – Associated Press

Two college students from Iran have filed civil rights complaints with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, saying they were mistreated and illegally denied entry into the country by federal officials at Boston’s Logan International Airport. – Associated Press

Two people working for a charity have been sentenced to jail on charges of spying for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Iran’s judiciary spokesman said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Three leading members of an Iranian Arab opposition group have been arrested in Denmark and charged with spying for Saudi Arabia. The three, who live in Denmark, were long suspected of links to rebels who attacked an Iranian military parade in September 2018, killing 24 people. – BBC 

Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Monday that the spread of China’s new coronavirus had hit oil demand and called for an effort to stabilize oil prices, Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported. – Reuters

A top commander in Iran’s Quds Force who was close to its slain leader, Qassem Soleimani, has died in battle in Syria, according to multiple reports in Iranian and Arab media. – Times of Israel 

Hassan Rahimpour Azghadi, a member of Iran’s Supreme Council for Cultural Revolution, said in a January 23, 2020 lecture aired on Ofogh TV (Iran) that Jihad and violence are a form of mercy to the world. Explaining that mercy for mankind had been the heart of Prophet Muhammad’s mission, Azghadi said that bloodshed through Jihad is merciful in the same way that surgery is merciful when compared to execution. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Turkey launched ground and air attacks on Syrian troops after eight of its military personnel were killed in Syrian shelling in the north of the war-torn country, jeopardizing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s fragile security pact with Damascus’s main ally, Russia. – Wall Street Journal

Syrian state TV reported early on Tuesday that shelling hit a natural gas plant in the south-central area of the city of Homs as well as the Ebla gas plant there. – Reuters

Daphne McCurdy writes: Finally, the United States should be a consistent, reliable ally to its counterterrorism partners while still holding them to international human rights and democratic standards when governing. In Syria, the United States somehow did the opposite — ignoring the concerns about inclusive governance while also serving as a fickle partner. As the recent fallout in Syria has shown, that approach has had devastating consequences and may well ultimately render the defeat of ISIL elusive. – War on the Rocks

Noah Rothman writes: America’s political class has never had enough faith in the voting public to level with them about what’s at stake. But Western interests in Syria did not cease to exist. Indeed, those interests seem increasingly imperiled by unabated violence and political chaos in the Levant. If Syria’s trajectory continues along its present course, Americans are going to be hearing a lot more about it. And soon. – Commentary Magazine


Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to make Syria “pay” for the death of eight Turkish military personnel in Idlib as he accused Russia of turning a blind eye to escalating violence in the province. – Financial Times

Suleyman Ozeren, Suat Cubukcu, and Matthew Bastug write: However, as Erdogan runs into more challenges and loses his popular support, he will likely resort to more authoritarian measures to keep a grip on power. He may also double-down on the AKP’s revolutionary Islamist agenda—with disturbing implications for the search for order in the Middle East, for the security of Europe, and for the future of Turkey itself. – Hudson Institute

Kayla Koontz writes: Despite the introduction of a new assembly in 2018, Turkey’s October invasion of northeast Syria provided ample incentives for the launch of new investigations into HDP members protesting the operation. The targeting of the HDP has set new legal and political precedents that could undermine the political capacity of the opposition coalition as a whole and create ideological divisions over the so-called “Kurdish Question.” – Middle East Institute


Supporters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have grown increasingly frustrated at White House pushback over plans to immediately annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank as envisioned in the Trump peace plan, with their ire focused on presidential adviser Jared Kushner, according to Israeli media reports. – Washington Post 

The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Monday slammed the head of the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA for attacking US President Donald Trump’s recently-unveiled peace initiative, calling the criticism “unacceptable” and contrary to UN values. – Algemeiner 

Israel some three months ago thwarted an attempt to smuggle weapons from Sinai into the Gaza Strip via the sea, the military announced Tuesday. – Times of Israel 

At least nine balloons suspected of carrying explosives and incendiary devices from the Gaza Strip were found Monday in Israeli communities near the restive frontier. – Times of Israel 


A month after a U.S. missile killed him, Qassem Soleimani looms as large over Iraq’s fractured democracy as he ever did alive. The death of the Iranian general removed a shrewd guiding hand on the pro-Tehran Shi’ite militias who revered him, setting off a menacing new instability in Iraq’s fragile political arena. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: Yes, while they’re welcoming his premiership at the moment, Iran and its proxies will offer Allawi maximal opposition to any serious reform. He may fail and find himself forced out of office as a result. But if Allawi proves himself a man of his word, then he deserves international support as he seeks to stabilize his nation and secure a better future for its people. – Washington Examiner

Kathy Gilsinan writes: Trump’s stance on Iraq embodies many of the tensions in his worldview. He hates wars, but he loves killing terrorists. He claims that he never wanted to get into Iraq, but he condemns the way Obama got out. And he dislikes the expense of staying in Iraq, but more than that, he hates being told what to do. If he can’t leave Iraq on his own terms, he doesn’t want to go at all. – The Atlantic

Eric Bordenkircher writes: The developments of the last weeks demonstrate that the United States must seriously consider saying goodbye to Baghdad and hello to a more committed embrace of military cooperation with the Kurdish Regional Government. This strategic re-adjustment—representing the middle ground between staying in Baghdad and getting out—is likely to be of the most benefit to U.S. interests in the Middle East writ large, and help maintain stability within the region as well. – Washington Institute

Khairuldeen Al Makhzoomi and Minatullah Alobaidi write: The overwhelming discontent felt by the Iraqi people, demonstrates how Iran’s regional influence campaign is facing widespread backlash. Iraq must handle this situation with caution, as the expulsion of U.S. troops will only deepen Iran’s hold on Iraq, intensify the existing economic crisis, increase external and internal strain, and diminish Iraq’s security posture. – Washington Institute

Brandon Wallace writes: Allawi is unlikely to gather the political capital necessary to execute reforms or fair elections. Indeed, Iraqi political parties may have agreed to his premiership precisely because they would prefer a weak caretaker prior to elections. Political elite are more likely to repress protesters with a weak PM in office. However, the designation of Allawi furthers the very conditions that protesters are demonstrating against. – Institute for the Study of War

Middle East & North Africa

But the protests have forced many Lebanese Shiites into a dilemma: How can they square their loyalty to Hezbollah with its support for the status quo? And will Hezbollah keep trying to extinguish the rebellion, or listen to it? – New York Times

A United Nations plane carrying seven seriously ill Yemenis took off from the rebel-held capital, Sana, on Monday, what aid officials hope is the start of an ongoing humanitarian airlift to save the country’s most desperate citizens. – New York Times 

Months of talks between Saudi Arabia and an Iranian-allied rebel group in Yemen have led to rare goodwill gestures between the bitter battlefield adversaries and presented what Western diplomats hope might be a long-awaited opportunity to resolve Yemen’s nearly five-year war. – Washington Post

Israel and the U.S. have been discussing a deal that would see the U.S. recognize Moroccan sovereignty in the occupied Western Sahara and Morocco take steps to normalize relations with Israel, according to Israeli and U.S. sources. – Axios

President Donald Trump’s senior adviser, Jared Kushner, will brief U.N. Security Council ambassadors on Thursday about the Middle East peace plan that Trump unveiled last week, a U.S. official said on Monday. – Reuters

The Islamic State extremist group said on Monday that it blew up a gas pipeline in Egypt’s restive Sinai Peninsula, claiming it was connected to Israel. – Agence France-Presse 

Osama Al Sharif writes: For now Jordan is hoping that the four-month hiatus concerning the implementation of the plan will change the current dynamics. The Israeli elections are less than a month away and the U.S. is now entering its own presidential elections season. Israel itself is divided over the plan and there is a chance that the outcome of the elections could bring good news for the Palestinians and Jordan. – Middle East Institute


Chinese leader Xi Jinping described the coronavirus outbreak rampaging through central China as a major test of the country’s system of governance, and vowed consequences for officials who shirk responsibility in tackling the crisis. – Wall Street Journal

One nation after another is closing its doors to most Chinese travelers, as the death toll from the novel coronavirus continues to rise[…]. China’s increasing isolation threatens to turn this new epidemic into a geopolitical conflict, intensifying preexisting tensions between China and the United States and having potentially significant impacts on the global economy. – Washington Post 

The rapidly spreading coronavirus could claim one more victim: the United States-China trade deal. – New York Times 

A group of House Republicans on Monday introduced a resolution condemning the British government’s decision to allow Chinese telecommunications group Huawei limited involvement in its 5G networks despite pressure from the Trump administration to ban the company. – The Hill 

Walter Russell Mead writes: So far, the 21st century has been an age of black swans. From 9/11 to President Trump’s election and Brexit, low-probability, high-impact events have reshaped the world order. That age isn’t over, and of the black swans still to arrive, the coronavirus epidemic is unlikely to be the last to materialize in China. – Wall Street Journal


North Korea’s already tenuous economic lifelines to the outside world are now nearly severed as it seals its borders with China and Russia to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. – Reuters

The countries Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited on a five nation-tour over the last week varied from longtime ally Britain to ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia. But the message he conveyed to his hosts stayed the same: Beware of China. – Associated Press

Taiwan dramatically escalated its war of words with Beijing on Tuesday over the island’s exclusion from the World Health Organisation, saying “vile” China was preventing Taiwan from getting timely information about the coronavirus outbreak. – Reuters

Joseph Bosco writes: Allowing Taiwan to participate fully in the World Health Organization would afford Xi the opportunity to make a badly-needed demonstration of statesmanship and meet China’s obligation to the international community. Trump should encourage his Chinese friend to act responsibly and respond to the wake-up calls he is receiving from Congress and the global community. – The Hill


Russia and China pose the greatest threats to national security of Lithuania, according to an intelligence report published by the Baltic nation on Tuesday. – Associated Press

Russia’s geographic position has already made the country a major player in the Arctic. Russia is now reasserting its claim to a share of the pie in Antarctica, in the event that it will cease to be an area owned by all mankind. Alexander Tsyganov in an article for the conservative Tsargrad.tv website titled “Russia, so be it, will not take the Baltic states, Turkey and Alaska. But for Antarctica, the battle will be in earnest” where he recounted Russia’s discovery of Antarctica in 1820 as the basis for Russia’s claim. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Jeffrey Mankoff writes: Disinformation and disruption are secondary in part because Russia has many other avenues for projecting influence in Germany. Despite tensions over Ukraine, migration, and other topics, many German officials, businesspeople, and others recognize that some degree of Russian influence is a price Berlin must pay to fulfill its economic ambitions and aspirations for stability at the heart of Europe. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Days after the U.K. left the European Union, both sides set the stage for what are likely to be difficult negotiations over their future relations. – Wall Street Journal

Police shot and wounded a man armed with a knife after he attacked officers inside a police barracks in eastern France on Monday. Shortly before the knifeman struck the police facility in Dieuze, near Metz, the local police operations center received warning that an atrocity was to be committed in the name of Islamic State, French news agency AFP quoted the local prosecutor as saying. – Reuters

Following the London Bridge attack, in which two people were killed, Egyptian liberal journalist Khaled Montasser published an article titled “Can a Terrorist Repent.” In it, he wrote that terrorists are incapable of repenting since they are motivated by extremist ideas such as a rejection of nation-states, isolation from society and a desire to establish the Islamic Caliphate, and they rejoice at terror attacks perpetrated by Muslims in the West. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, who rose to power promising to end tribalism and corruption and to make his country a Cold War bulwark against communism but who brutally crushed political opposition, deepened ethnic tensions and enriched himself at the public’s expense, died Feb. 4 at a hospital in Nairobi. He was 95. – Washington Post 

Israel and Sudan have agreed to move toward forging normal relations for the first time, Israeli officials said on Monday after the leaders of the two former foes met in Uganda. – Reuters

Caleb Slayton writes: China has been known to course-correct and respond to Africa’s growing demands. If the United States, in the name of great power competition, continues to pursue information warfare ineptly and overlook “peripheral” regions of the world, it risks losing influence and credibility in Africa. – War on the Rocks

Latin America

One of the world’s worst humanitarian crises is about to get worse — and that was not the conclusion Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó intended to be drawn after his two-week tour of Europe and North America. – Financial Times

As President Donald Trump tightens the trade embargo on Cuba, some members of the United States’ largest Cuban-American community are once again taking a hard line on performers from the island who support its communist government or don’t speak out against it. – Associated Press

The murders of nearly 200 former fighters from the FARC rebels pose a difficulty in implementing Colombia’s peace deal, an official said on Monday, but he insisted the government is committed to providing security and criticized complaints leveled by the FARC party leader. – Reuters


The U.S. military has deployed a new addition to its nuclear arsenal — a long-range missile armed with a nuclear warhead of reduced destructive power. The so-called low-yield missile joins other, more powerful weapons aboard stealthy submarines prowling the oceans. – Associated Press

The Marine Corps’ first squadron of F-35C Joint Strike Fighters will reach an initial operating capability next month ahead of future carrier deployments, officials said Friday – USNI News

The Navy’s plans to get to 355 manned ships by 2030 will rely on new classes of ships that don’t exist yet – including new kinds of amphibious and supply ships as well as “lightly manned” ships – the acting Navy secretary told USNI News. – USNI News

After more than two years of repairs, guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) left the Mississippi coast for sea trials in the Gulf of Mexico, Navy officials announced on Monday. – USNI News

The Marine Corps is creating new network battalions and companies in an effort to improve oversight and the command and control of its network. – C4ISRNET

The Air Force could declare initial operational capability for its newest and most advanced radar used to track objects in space later this month, according to a report from the Department of Defense’s chief weapons tester. – C4ISRNET

After an F-22 Raptor nearly collided with a cheap drone in 2017, the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command received permission to shoot down unmanned flying objects that get too near its airbases. But shooting down drones over cities is a less-than-ideal solution to a growing problem. So the U.S. military is trying a new tack: spending millions of dollars on defensive drones armed with nets. – Defense One

Long War

The British government said it would introduce emergency legislation to prevent the automatic early release of people convicted of terror offenses, a day after police shot and killed a man recently freed from jail who wounded two people in a knife attack. – Wall Street Journal

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a London stabbing attack that wounded two and ended in the shooting death of the attacker. – Washington Examiner

The United Nations’ top humanitarian official in Mali urged more engagement with armed groups including jihadists, and more aid and development funding, saying on Monday that extra troops would not help to stabilize the country. – Reuters

Trump Administration

House managers said President Trump was a threat to American democracy, while his defense team countered that Democrats were trying to undermine two elections, in their final arguments in his Senate impeachment trial on Monday. – Wall Street Journal

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s top adviser pointed to his forceful dismissal of a question from NBC’s Savannah Guthrie as evidence that he’s willing to fight against accusations of corruption from the media and President Trump. – Washington Examiner 

Rep. Adam Schiff insinuated that President Trump could sell Alaska to the Russians in exchange for electoral support if acquitted in his Senate impeachment trial for abuse of power. – Washington Examiner