Fdd's overnight brief

February 7, 2019

FDD Research & Analysis

In The News


Iran hit back at President Trump’s State of the Union address in which he called Tehran the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, saying the U.S. has a history of backing brutal regimes in the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal

The leader of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah said Wednesday the organization would defend Iran in the event of war, saying the Islamic Republic would not be alone in a confrontation with America. – Associated Press

Iran appears to have attempted a second satellite launch despite U.S. criticism that its space program helps the country develop ballistic missiles, satellite images released Thursday suggest. Iran did not immediately acknowledge conducting such a launch. – Associated Press

The leader of Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah said Wednesday that he is willing to ask Iran to supply the Lebanese military with weapons and aerial defense systems to confront Israeli warplanes and called on Beirut to accept the offer. – Associated Press

European security officials have intercepted communications that suggest an Iranian diplomat was not only involved in an alleged plot last year to bomb a meeting of Tehran opponents outside Paris, but coordinated efforts with colleagues back in Iran, a well-placed western official told The Independent. – The Independent

Iran would like to move its weapons supply center for Syria from the Damascus international airport to a Syrian air base located very far from the capital city. Specifically, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which runs this operation, apparently will relocate the center to the Syrian air base known as T4, located between Homs and Palmyra. – Haaretz

Senior Iranian figures said on Wednesday that Syria was a top foreign policy priority and American troops should withdraw, as planned by U.S. President Donald Trump. – Reuters


Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is putting President Trump at the center of his re-election campaign, aiming to leverage close ties with Washington as he faces pressure from political rivals and a possible indictment on corruption charges. –  Wall Street Journal

Palestinians warmed on Wednesday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest election rival, a former top general who said Israel should not maintain its dominion over them. – Reuters

The Senate voted Tuesday to pass legislation that encourages state governments in the United States not to sign contracts with supporters of boycotts against Israel or its settlements in the West Bank. – Haaretz

Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs just released a study called  “Terrorists in Suits,” which documents the ties between the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign and terrorist organizations. – Algemeiner

Alert sirens sounded Wednesday evening in a number of Gaza border communities as a rocket launched from the Strip exploded in an open field in southern Israel. The projectile reportedly fell in the area of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council. There were no reports of damage or injuries in the attack. – Times of Israel

The United States on Wednesday blocked a proposed UN Security Council statement expressing regret over Israel’s decision to end an international observer force in the West Bank city of Hebron, diplomats said. – Agence France-Presse

The Palestinians on Wednesday welcomed remarks made by Benny Gantz, the main rival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming April elections, who earlier seemed to raise the possibility of an Israeli pullback from the West Bank and said Israel should find a way to end its “control” over the Palestinians. – Times of Israel

Arabian Peninsula

The Saudi government is contesting a prominent element of a CIA assessment that concluded Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman likely ordered the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, as Riyadh seeks to mend its reputation after the death of the journalist and political activist. – Wall Street Journal

The United Arab Emirates embassy in London denied Wednesday reports that a British man was arrested in the country for wearing a Qatar football shirt, saying he was in fact held for wasting police time. – Agence France-Presse

The chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee said on Wednesday he was troubled by a report that Saudi Arabia transferred weapons to extremist groups in Yemen and questioned whether Congress should consider more restrictions on weapons sales to the Saudi-led coalition. – Reuters

The United Arab Emirates is recklessly arming militias in Yemen with advanced weaponry supplied by the US and other states, Amnesty International alleges. Armoured vehicles, mortars and machine-guns are being diverted illegally to unaccountable groups accused of war crimes, according to a report. – BBC News

Michael Singh writes: The United States is in the midst of a broad strategic shift, away from a focus on the “global war on terrorism” and toward an emphasis on great-power competition, particularly with Russia and China. While the discrete policy choices attending this shift are often contentious, the change in strategic direction is one which has been pursued by successive administration and reflects a deepening bipartisan consensus. – Washington Institute

Islamic State

Islamic State militants could be completely stripped of their territorial base as soon as next week, President Trump said Wednesday, as he reiterated that U.S. forces fighting the militants in Syria will withdraw from the country. – Washington Post

In the last two weeks, thousands of people have been streaming out of the village of Baghuz, the last speck of land under Islamic State control in Iraq and Syria, an area where the group once ruled a dominion the size of Britain. That state is all but gone. In the last month, the group went from holding three villages to two to just one. – New York Times

President Trump sought to reassure nervous allies on Wednesday that his administration would continue an unrelenting hunt for Islamic State fighters “for many years to come,” even as the United States prepares to withdraw troops from the war zones of Syria and Afghanistan. – New York Times

US President Donald Trump has said territory held by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq could be “100%” liberated as early as next week. […] However, he also cautioned that he wanted to “wait for the official word”. US military and intelligence officials say IS could stage a comeback without sustained counter-terrorism pressure. – BBC News

The Islamic State gunmen came out of hiding in the middle of the night and set up a checkpoint on a rural road in eastern Syria. For several hours, they stopped those passing and searched through their mobile phones to check their allegiances, until they vanished again into the desert. – Associated Press

A day after President Donald Trump defended plans to pull troops from Syria in his State of the Union address, a top Pentagon official said a withdrawal would make the military less effective against the Islamic State group and that he didn’t understand the strategic thinking behind it. – Defense News

In a brief appearance before the ministerial meeting of the global counter-ISIS coalition in Washington on Wednesday, Trump said that he expected to announce the capture of the last two towns currently held by ISIS “probably next week,” adding, “I want to wait for the official word…Don’t want to say it too early.” – Defense One

Tamer El-Ghobashy writes: Iraq’s top Shiite religious authority added his voice Wednesday to the chorus of criticism of President Trump’s plan to have U.S. troops stationed in Iraq “watch” neighboring Iran, raising fresh concerns that the idea is imperiling the fight against the Islamic State. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

A Libyan general has seized the country’s largest oil field, according to officials, cementing control over one of the North African nation’s key economic resources and increasing the likelihood the facility will restart production. – Wall Street Journal

The first place Andrew Brunson went after he was released from imprisonment in Turkey was the White House, where he knelt on the floor of the Oval Office, put his hand on President Trump’s shoulder and prayed. – Washington Post

Work to implement an agreement between Turkey and the United States over the Syrian town of Manbij has recently accelerated, Turkey’s foreign minister said on Wednesday, adding that Kurdish YPG militia remained inside the town. – Reuters

Israel has breached Lebanon’s waters by licensing a company to “exploit an area” for oil and gas near disputed borders, Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Adam Taylor writes: For Trump, U.S. bases in Iraq may seem like a logical place from which to watch or counter Iran. The administration’s Iran policy is, after all, focused on containing a country that is “a source of potential danger and conflict,” as Trump said. But the Iraqi government’s calculations are more complicated. In general, Iraq’s new government has tried to avoid being in the middle of a tussle between Washington and Tehran, its much more powerful neighbor. – Washington Post

Jerome Drevon writes: The seizure of the northern Syrian province of Idlib by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) from other armed opposition groups in early January once again brings to the fore the debate over its ties to al-Qaeda (AQ). – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

A senior American negotiator arrived in North Korea on Wednesday to sort out crucial details for a nuclear summit meeting in Vietnam between President Trump and the North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, with only three weeks to go before the talks take place. – New York Times

The US envoy for North Korea has been holding talks in Pyongyang, paving the way for a second leadership summit. Stephen Biegun arrived just as US President Donald Trump confirmed he would meet North Korea’s Kim Jong-un in Vietnam on 27-28 February. – BBC News

The second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is set to take place in Vietnam at the end of February, Trump told Congress Tuesday, confirming what many had seen as the most likely venue for the talks. – Time

Both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un made the most of the press extravaganza surrounding their choreographed reconciliation at the Singapore summit in June 2018. Perhaps they could just about get away with breaking the ice at that historic meeting. But the vaguely worded statement it produced hasn’t resulted in any concrete action towards the US goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons, and Pyongyang is frustrated by Washington’s refusal to ease sanctions. So the pressure’s on for them to come up with something tangible. – BBC News

Patrick M. Cronin and Kristine Lee write: While the U.S. and North Korea may appear to be set for a protracted stalemate, by the end of next year ties will head in one of two directions: Either sufficient progress is made to justify continuing rapprochement, or frustrations over the lack of substantive progress will terminate the diplomatic opening with the Kim regime. The U.S. should not give up on diplomacy just yet. – Hudson Institute


Australia’s decision to ban a well-connected Chinese businessman for his political activity is being seen as a potential watershed moment, the start of pushback against Beijing’s long-running operations to buy influence overseas. – Agence France-Presse

Zhao Qianli says he’s a musicology student from China who traveled to the United States for a summer exchange program. After he finished his studies in September, he booked a flight to Miami and then headed for Key West. But rather than see the Hemingway House and other sights, Qianli got caught by Key West police for trespassing onto the high-security Naval Air Station. He later told federal authorities that he lost his way on the tourist trail and did not realize it was a military base. – Military.com

Hal Brands writes: Discussions of what China’s rise will mean for the world often take on an abstract, impersonal quality. […] Yet the case of Michael Kovrig, the Canadian ex-diplomat who has been unjustly detained in China for nearly two months, reminds us that the rise of a brash authoritarian power comes with profoundly human consequences. No less, this episode shows how Xi Jinping’s China risks alienating those foreign observers who have worked hardest to build connections and understanding between Beijing and the outside world. – Bloomberg

Gregory C. Allen writes: The distance is large between prevailing views in American commentary on China’s AI efforts and what I have come to believe are the facts. I hope by stating my takeaways directly, this report will advance the assessment of this issue and be of benefit to the wider U.S. policymaking community. – Center for a New American Security


After two days of talks in Moscow, the Taliban and prominent Afghan politicians, many of them former enemies, said on Wednesday that they had charted a broad road map for ending the war in Afghanistan, which is in its 18th year. It is structured around the withdrawal of American forces from the country and the Taliban’s commitment to citizens’ fundamental rights. – New York Times

The Taliban on Wednesday hailed unprecedented talks with Afghan politicians as “very successful”, despite disagreements over women’s rights and the group’s demand for an Islamic constitution in the war-torn country. – Agence France-Presse

A Taliban official said on Wednesday that no timetable had been agreed with the U.S. government for the partial withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, and that negotiations were still underway. – Reuters

The Taliban reiterated on Wednesday their long-held demand that all foreign troops get out of Afghanistan, rejecting a suggestion by U.S. President Donald Trump of a lingering U.S. focus on counter-terrorism after troops are drawn down. – Reuters

The leader of the Taliban’s peace negotiations with the US says the insurgents do not want to seize “the whole country by [military] power”. “It will not bring peace to Afghanistan,” Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told the BBC. However, he said the group would not agree to a ceasefire until foreign forces were withdrawn from Afghanistan. – BBC News

Daniel F. Runde and Earl Anthony Wayne write: U.S. support to Afghanistan can be categorized into three buckets: a) troops and related support personnel on the ground; b) financial support to the Afghan security forces; and c) economic, development, and governance support (e.g., traditional foreign aid). U.S. contributions to all of these buckets have been dropping as Afghanistan’s authorities have assumed greater responsibility of the country’s security and development. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


A Russian court sentenced a Jehovah’s Witness to six years imprisonment for organizing activities associated with an outlawed extremist group, in a case that indicates a widening crackdown on members of the banned faith group and tests Russian tolerance for religious freedom. – Wall Street Journal

The American boyfriend of an admitted Russian influence agent has been indicted in South Dakota for what prosecutors say was an unrelated investment fraud scheme. – Washington Post

It didn’t take long following the United States’ announcement that the country would suspend its participation in a major Cold War arms treaty for Russia to move in kind. Now, freed of its obligations under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Moscow is wasting no time in developing new, once-prohibited weapons systems. – Defense News


More than seven decades after World War II ended, 49 Holocaust survivors are receiving $402,000 each from the French government in reparations for the French trains that deported them to Nazi concentration camps, the State Department said Wednesday. – Washington Post

NATO signaled the U.K. would retain a central role in European security after Brexit as the military alliance announced a summit in London later this year, handing the British government a rare diplomatic win during its fraught departure from the European Union. – Wall Street Journal

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May heads back to meet EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday as she seeks a way to avoid a no deal Brexit in 50 days time. – Agence France-Presse

Last summer, Vitaliy Ustymenko was brutally attacked by two men in broad daylight in an assault he believes was linked to his work as an anti-corruption activist in Ukraine. The number of such assaults on activists has soared, analysts say, as Ukraine struggles to rein in graft five years after a popular uprising partially motivated by rage over corruption. – Agence France-Presse

The French and German defense chiefs announced a contract award to Airbus and Dassault on Wednesday to narrow down the two governments’ vision of a common, sixth-generation aircraft. – Defense News

France has warned Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio not to interfere in the country’s politics, after he met French “yellow-vest” protesters. “This new provocation is unacceptable between neighbouring countries and partners at the heart of the EU,” the French foreign ministry said. – BBC News

European Council President Donald Tusk took a swipe Wednesday at some Brexit-backers in Britain, wondering aloud what “special place in hell” might be reserved for those who had no idea how to deliver the country’s exit from the European Union. – Associated Press

The number of recorded anti-Semitic events rose 16 percent in the last year, to 1,652 incidents around the UK, according to British Jewry’s watchdog and security group. – Times of Israel

Leonid Bershidsky writes: As Prime Minister Theresa May continues to bang her head against a hard Brussels wall, the probability that the U.K. will leave the European Union without an orderly separation agreement increases with every wasted day. The biggest loser if that happens would be the U.K., but the EU countries also have a stake. They haven’t neglected preparations for a no-deal Brexit, but there appears to be a sizable gap in preparedness between governments and businesses, which are still having a hard time believing in a no-deal outcome. – Bloomberg


Venezuela’s opposition leader Juan Guaidó will name a new board for the country’s U.S.-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, (R., Fla.), said Wednesday, in a bid to starve the Maduro government of income from the country’s oil, which provides most of its revenue. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump will welcome his Colombian counterpart to the White House next week to discuss a range of topics, from economic cooperation to the political standoff in Venezuela. […] The election of Mr. Duque, a conservative, last year shifted the political landscape of a country on Venezuela’s doorstep, as Colombia struggles to cope with the exodus of Venezuelans attempting to flee the unrest at home. – Wall Street Journal

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted Nicolás Maduro Wednesday, accusing the Venezuelan president of blocking the path of humanitarian aid into the impoverished country. – Washington Post

An international meeting to negotiate a solution to the Venezuelan crisis was set to open Thursday in Montevideo as President Nicolas Maduro and opposition leader Juan Guaido sparred over allowing humanitarian aid into the crisis-wracked country. – Agence France-Presse

Venezuela’s opposition on Wednesday said it would use a U.S.-based fund to receive some of the country’s oil income in a key step to bankroll its efforts to dislodge President Nicolas Maduro. – Reuters

After pledging full support for the embattled regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Russia is starting to show signs of doubt about his ability to survive an opposition challenge. – Bloomberg

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has demanded Venezuela reopen a bridge on the Colombian border for an aid shipment organised by the opposition. Venezuelan soldiers have blocked the crossing ahead of a delivery arranged by opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who has declared himself interim president. – BBC News

Ciara Nugent writes: By uniting a divided opposition, Guaidó appears to have given Venezuela its first real chance to restore democracy since its socialist experiment collapsed into economic chaos in 2014. “The difference now is there’s absolute hope,” he told TIME a week after the ceremony, his voice hoarse from days of campaigning. “Despair, disillusionment and frustration, have become energy, strength, a determination to fight.” But the fight won’t be easy. Venezuela’s powerful military stands in the opposition’s way, so far refusing to withdraw its support for the regime. – Time


The U.S. Army plans to buy a limited number of Iron Dome batteries, evaluating the option for protecting U.S. military service members against a wide variety of indirect fire and aerial threats. – Defense News

The Air Force has found an architect to run its uber-complicated Advanced Battle Management System program, which will replace JSTARS ground surveillance planes with a network of existing and new air and space-based sensors. – Defense News

The chief of naval operations upped his rhetoric regarding Russian and Chinese “gray-zone” aggression, saying the Navy needed to put pressure on Russia instead of passively reacting to the European competitor and calling for more “muscular” enforcement of rules of the sea when it comes to China. – USNI News

After pulling out of a competition to outfit the Navy’s small surface combatants with anti-ship missiles, Boeing is seeing a warmer embrace of its 40-year-old Harpoon missile from the U.S. Navy’s aviation and surface fleets and from foreign military sales. – USNI News