Fdd's overnight brief

February 7, 2020

In The News


The U.S. plans to renew a waiver allowing Iraq to import natural gas and electricity from Iran without risking sanctions, U.S. and Iraqi officials said, as Washington and Baghdad move to ease tensions after diplomatic ties nearly unraveled last month. – Wall Street Journal 

Iran’s unsold oil stockpile stored on land, floating in the Persian Gulf and on high seas at the end of January has remained unchanged since September 2019, as it has curtailed production. – Radio Farda 

 In 2018, President Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal — a pact known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) penned in 2015 with other countries that promised to ease sanctions on Tehran in exchange for the country curbing its nuclear enrichment. Since then, Iran has repeatedly breached the amount of enriched uranium it was allowed under the accord. […]The following is a condensed history of U.S. sanctions against Iran. – Fox News

The new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has warned Iran there will be serious consequences if there is any repeat of last year’s detention of an IAEA inspector. – The Guardian

Britain’s ambassador to Tehran has returned to Iran, he announced in an online posting on Thursday, after his departure last month following a brief arrest by Iranian security forces fuelled speculation that he may not be coming back. – Reuters 

Iran and North Korea are updating their aging fleets and building new and more advanced submarines in order to counter their adversaries in open waters. – Newsweek 

David Ignatius writes: But beware: The one sure way to poison the Iranian labor movement would be heavy-handed U.S. government support. Instead, this is a challenge for labor unions globally. […]Angry workers drive political change in Iran, China and even Donald Trump’s America. When you see a wave of strikes spreading across Iran, despite brutal crackdowns, you’ll know that Iran may finally be entering a new era. – Washington Post 

Ruthie Blum writes: Khamenei’s typical battle cry against the “Great Satan,” America, and the “Small Satan,” Israel, may be reverberating among Iran’s terrorist proxies in Judea, Samaria, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, which receive funding, training and weapons from Tehran. But it’s a sign that the aging ayatollah is either out of touch with, or purposely ignoring, the focus of his people’s mass protests. – Jerusalem Post 

Ian Williams writes: Almost no one in the United States, including President Trump, wants a war with Iran. Yet had Iran killed U.S. troops in its attack, the pressure on the president to escalate further might have been considerable. Both the United States and Iran have little to gain from war. In that sense, both sides are lucky that there were no fatalities. Should there be a next time, that luck may not hold. – Center for Strategic and International Studies  


An Airbus A320 jet carrying 172 passengers was nearly shot down on its approach to the Syrian capital, Damascus, shortly after 2 a.m. Thursday after Syria fired anti-aircraft missiles in response to an attack, according to a Russian Air Force spokesman, RIA Novosti reported Friday. – Washington Post 

An independent investigation into leaks that raised questions over the global chemical weapons watchdog’s conclusion that chlorine was used in a notorious 2018 attack in Syria has criticized two former officials responsible for releasing classified information, the organization’s chief said Thursday. – Associated Press 

Israeli warplanes carried out airstrikes targeting Syrian army positions near the capital and Iran-backed fighters Thursday, killing 23, according to a monitoring group. – Fox News 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Iran exploits this to entrench in Syria and threaten Israel. […]Iran wants to have a free hand in southern Syria. While the Syrian regime – which lacks soldiers and has fought an exhausting nine-year war against rebels that has seen 10 million people driven from their homes – focuses on the north, Iran will run its weapons through southern Syria. – Jerusalem Post 

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi writes: During the war years in Syria, the northwest, specifically Idlib, has become a site of heavy internal displacement. […]In this Policy Note filled with local insights, jihadism expert Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi presents the current scene in and around Idlib province, the last Syrian outpost still run by independent rebels. Absent an intervention by Turkey, the Assad regime will likely prevail in a campaign that quashes the insurgency at a high humanitarian cost. – Washington Institute

Rawan Osman writes: When Syrian communities throughout Europe come to recognize this reality, there is the remarkable potential for fostering a conducive environment for Jews and Syrians to respect one another, encouraging understanding and cooperation between neighbours and mutual support of minority communities throughout Europe. However, getting to this point will require a lot of effort and determination, both on the side of the German government and among Syrian communities themselves. – Washington Institute 


At least three Palestinians were killed during clashes with Israeli security forces in the West Bank on Wednesday and Thursday, and an Israeli soldier was seriously wounded in a car ramming in Jerusalem overnight, in a surge of violence following the release of the long-awaited — and highly contentious — American plan for Middle East peace. – New York Times

It might have seemed to be one of the more innocuous elements in President Donald Trump’s deeply divisive Middle East peace initiative: the suggestion that a densely populated Arab region of Israel be added to a future Palestinian state, if both sides agree. – Associated Press 

The chief architect of the U.S. blueprint to resolve the decades-old conflict between Israelis and Palestinians on Thursday blamed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for soaring tensions and violence in the occupied West Bank since the plan’s release last week. – Associated Press 

So Israel has come a long way and is facing off against some different enemies trying different tactics. The one thing that has stayed the same is that without the constant vigilance of the Israeli navy, a group of Palestinians in Gaza could bring new methods of terrorism to bear against Israel. – Jerusalem Post 

The Israel Defense Forces on Thursday announced it was sending additional troops to the West Bank in light of the increase in violence in the region. – Times of Israel 


Iraq’s Defense Ministry says it has discussed the possibilities for deepening military cooperation with Russia, as ties between Baghdad and Washington fray following a U.S. air strike that killed a top Iranian general in the country. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Iranian proxies in Iraq are training  for war against the US and will continue to fire rockets at US forces in Iraq until the US leaves, a new report says. […]There are so many US concerns about Iran’s role in Iraq and Syria that the number of mentions of Iran run to almost 150 and an entire classified appendix is devoted to “Iranian activity in Iraq.” – Jerusalem Post 

After followers of a populist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric who had once supported anti-government protests attacked sit-ins this week, some activists are looking to one last vestige of the establishment for support: their ayatollah. – Reuters 

The prominent Qom, Iran-based cleric’s recent moves could signal a new turn in his political career; he has shifted from routine nationalist rhetoric to showing allegiance to Iran, possibly to strengthen his grip on the evolving formation of Iraq’s new government and the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). However, this may have backfired, and there are indications that his credibility among Iraqis, including among his supporters, is declining. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said Washington was “outraged” by violence against protesters in the Iraqi city of Najaf and he urged Baghdad to “immediately address legitimate grievances.” – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Aramco has seen an increase in attempted cyber attacks since the final quarter of 2019, which the company has so far successfully countered, the state oil giant’s chief information security officer told Reuters on Thursday. – Reuters 

News of the February 3, 2020 meeting between Sudanese Sovereignty Council Chairman ‘Abd Al-Fattah Al-Burhan and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sparked criticism in the Palestinian and Arab media. Responding to this criticism, Saudi journalist ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed. formerly the editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and the director of Al-Arabiya TV, expressed understanding for Al-Burhan’s motives in forming ties with Israel. – Middle East Media Research Institute

There’s also deeper historical symmetry to what’s happening — one embedded in the five-decade struggle between Russia and Saudi Arabia for supremacy in the global oil market. […]The world’s energy markets will change drastically over the coming decade. This is no time for two of the biggest producers to be consumed by a decades-old rivalry. – Bloomberg


The U.S. has killed the leader of al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, who was also a deputy to al Qaeda global leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, President Trump said Thursday. – Wall Street Journal 

The world’s biggest humanitarian aid operation will be scaled-down next month in Houthi-controlled Yemen, because donors and aid workers say they can no longer ensure that food for millions of people is reaching those who need it. – Reuters 

After a year and a half of negotiations, five-year-old Manal was among eight children to be evacuated from Sana’a this week for medical treatment in Jordan on the first civilian flight permitted to leave the Yemeni capital in three years. – The Guardian

Middle East & North Africa

The United Nations expects eastern Libyan tribal leaders to submit by Thursday their list of conditions to reopen blocked oil terminals, UN envoy Ghassan Salame said. – Reuters 

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Thursday Gulf Arab states — some of the world’s richest countries — could see their financial wealth depleted in the next 15 years amid lower hydrocarbon revenues if they don’t step up fiscal reforms. – Reuters 

Azriel Bermant writes: In the cases of Callaghan, Thatcher, and Blair, the United Kingdom could at least claim that its influence counted for something, that its close relationship with the United States was taken seriously in the Middle East, and that its position in Europe gave it heft. Today, in the wake of Brexit, Britain’s international standing is further diminished. The country continues to express public support for a viable two-state solution, but its backing of the Trump administration’s Middle East plan undermines this position. Indeed, in 2020, the United Kingdom’s alignment with the United States appears to be more an expression of its diminished power than its ability to play a constructive role on the world stage. – Foreign Policy

Edmund Fitton-Brown writes: The fight against extremism is a generational problem. […]Unfortunately, I believe the underlying conditions exist for this strain of jihadist terrorism to be with us for a long time, whether in the form of ISIL (under its more or less effective new leader), al-Qaeda (sooner or later under a successor to Zawahiri), mutations like jihadi nationalism, multi-group coalitions like JNIM, or a new brand as little known now as ISIL was before 2014. – Washington Institute 


The extended shutdown of Chinese factories from the coronavirus outbreak is upsetting supply chains as manufacturers feel the pinch from shortages of material and travel restrictions on staff. In Vietnam, which shares an 800-mile border with China and is home to many businesses that export to the United States, companies say the squeeze is compounding pressure caused by President Trump’s trade war with Beijing. – Washington Post 

Taiwan and China are embroiled in a new dispute over the fate of Taiwanese stranded in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicentre of a coronavirus outbreak, after Taiwan said a citizen sent back on the first flight was infected with the disease. – Reuters 

Following the spread of the coronavirus in China and other countries, several writers in the Arab press wrote that this virus and others, such as the SARS and swine flu viruses, were deliberately created and spread by the U.S. in order to make a profit by selling vaccines against these diseases. Others wrote that the virus was part of an economic and psychological war waged by the U.S. against China with the aim of weakening it and presenting it as a backward country and a source of diseases. – Middle East Media Research Institute 


The following report compiles all significant security incidents confirmed by New York Times reporters throughout Afghanistan from the past seven days. – New York Times

Considering he is a fugitive Afghan warlord, Nizamuddin Qaisari has done little to conceal himself. […]Warlords and their militias have been tolerated by Kabul for years — even sometimes funded by the U.S. military — as a stopgap measure for providing local protection while Kabul focuses its security resources on fighting the Taliban elsewhere. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 

The fatal shooting of two men in the heart of the Afghan capital Kabul – a city unfortunately used to violence – went almost unnoticed. […]One of the dead men was Sheikh Khalid Haqqani, who held a key position in the Pakistani Taliban’s leadership council, and formerly served as the group’s deputy leader. – BBC 

Emran Feroz writes: “These abusive forces, which are backed by the CIA, have routinely disregarded protections to which civilians and detainees are entitled,” Patricia Gossman, HRW’s associate Asia director and the report’s author, told Foreign Policy. “These are not isolated cases but illustrative of a larger pattern of serious laws-of-war violations—even war crimes—by these paramilitary forces. […]The U.S. and Afghan governments should end this pathology and disband all irregular forces.” – Foreign Policy 

Javid Ahmad and Husain Haqqani write: Even though Soleimani’s death has affected Iranian subversive activities across the greater Middle East, its Afghanistan portfolio might actually get a boost because the man who managed it as Soleimani’s deputy is now his successor. […]These efforts pose another complication for American priorities in Afghanistan, including potentially allowing the Islamic State an opportunity to regenerate. Instead of surrendering to temptations to leave Afghanistan, U.S. policy should be focused on countering Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan. – The Hill 


Despite not publicly acknowledging any confirmed or even suspected cases, North Korea has been uncharacteristically transparent regarding its efforts to combat the virus. […]Clamping down on its borders could have an unintended economic effect. North Korea’s economy is heavily reliant on trade with China, as most other countries will not trade with Pyongyang due to international sanctions. – CNN 

The South Korean government said on Friday it has asked Chinese regional governments for help in resuming production at South Korean auto parts suppliers’ factories in China. – Reuters 

Sadanand Dhume writes: When American and Indian leaders meet, they often talk up ties between the world’s oldest and largest democracies. […]In the end, reasonable people can disagree about whether Indian democracy has the strength to survive Mr. Modi’s tenure. But we ought to be able to do this without dragging Mr. Trump into the debate. – Wall Street Journal 

Aparna Pande writes: Indians often like the comparison that many around the world make between India and China. The two Asian powers have the world’s largest populations and have great potential as global powers. But they forget that China maintained a laser-eyed focus on building its economic and military capability for over two decades before it projected itself as a world power. – The Print 


In the year since the Trump administration declared what amounted to economic war against the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro — an oil embargo that cut it off from its biggest petroleum buyer, the United States — the move has yielded some clear losers, including U.S. investors now shut out of the market. – Washington Post 

Russia supports a recommendation to deepen OPEC+ global oil supply curbs to compensate for a drop in demand caused by the coronavirus, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday. – Reuters 

The latest Senate report on Russian interference in the 2016 election, released Feb. 6, contained several broad recommendations for how the government can improve effectiveness in securing American elections. – Fifth Domain 


Dozens of migrants, trapped in Serbia, set out in freezing and windy weather on Thursday to walk about ten kilometers to the Hungarian border, demanding free and secure passage toward Western Europe, police said. – Reuters

Counter-terrorism chiefs ordered a formal assessment of whether Extinction Rebellion was a national security threat one year ago and then sent a secret report about the group to police forces, the Guardian has learned. – The Guardian 

EU Commissioner for Neighborhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi is visiting Montenegro for talks with Prime Minister Dusko Markovic. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty 

The Trump administration is withholding approval of close to $30 million worth of arms and ammunition sales to Ukraine. After millions of dollars in down payments, Kyiv has requested the money back. – Washington Examiner 

Dame Karen Pierce will be the next British ambassador to Washington, according to a senior official in London, filling the void left by Sir Kim Darroch when he resigned after comments critical of President Trump were leaked. – Washington Examiner 

Tom McTague writes: No one can know whether Britain will rejoin or remain outside forever. […]In Johnson’s view, Brexit without control is not Brexit at all. While this makes him master, it also comes with the chance of an economic fallout that will undermine the very project he seeks to bring about. The flip side of choosing the political battles you want to fight is that you must own both their victories and their defeats. – The Atlantic 


The Trump administration said it would launch negotiations toward a possible trade agreement with Kenya in what would be the first such pact with a sub-Saharan African nation. – Wall Street Journal 

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves for Africa on Thursday to revive what diplomats say is a faltering bid for a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council. – Reuters 

With the German chancellor by his side, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Thursday his country hopes to learn from Germany’s experience of transitioning from coal to renewable energy to deal with climate change and a local electricity crisis. – Associated Press 

International Criminal Court judges should scrap conditions of release imposed on Ivory Coast’s former president, his lawyers argued Thursday in a move they hope will free Laurent Gbagbo to return home during a tense election year. – Associated Press 

Judd Devermont writes: The international community and the region must confront some of the political realities that have undermined efforts to advance peace in Mali in particular and the Sahel in general. While not as easy as dispatching envoys and distributing resources, there are opportunities to influence domestic politics and grow local and regional champions to press for a robust response. Below are four recommendations for reshaping the domestic political calculus and reestablishing a more effective security partnership. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Yossi Melman writes: It is certainly still a defense and security win that the leader of a state as overtly hostile as Sudan was, only a few years ago, has divested from Iran and Hamas, and is interested, however cautiously,in accommodation with Israel. […]The jagged and inconsistent history of relations between Israel and Sudan suggests this particular change might not be so smooth, or sustained. – Haaretz

Latin America

Venezuelan authorities rounded up U.S. oil executives held under house arrest in Caracas Wednesday night and moved them to a prison, the top U.S. envoy to Venezuela told reporters on Thursday. – Wall Street Journal 

A federal judge indicted a group of Brazilians accused of hacking the phones of prosecutors in the country’s biggest corruption case on Thursday, but held off accepting charges against U.S. journalist Glenn Greenwald, who published leaked information. – Reuters

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday denounced U.S. foreign policy in Venezuela, criticizing U.S. “provocations” and attempts to create what he called a pretext for military intervention. – Reuters 


Technology trading startups may be exempted from current securities law restrictions to raise capital using digital currencies or “tokens,” a top U.S. financial regulator proposed on Thursday, but a transition plan would be required after three years. – Reuters 

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said on Thursday the United States and its allies should consider the highly unusual step of taking a “controlling stake” in Finland’s Nokia (NOKIA.HE) and Sweden’s Ericsson (ERICb.ST) to counter China-based Huawei’s dominance in next-generation 5G wireless technology. – Reuters 

U.S. President Donald Trump was “apoplectic” with Boris Johnson during a phone call to discuss the British prime minister’s decision to allow Chinese firm Huawei a role in Britain’s 5G mobile phone network, the Financial Times reported on Thursday. – Reuters 

Chinese telecom giant Huawei is suing Verizon, the second-largest telecommunications provider in the U.S., over allegations that it infringed on Huawei’s patents, setting up a showdown between the two tech powerhouses trying to lead the race to implement the next generation of wireless networks. – The Hill 

If the U.S. military introduced a fifth generation network into its C4ISR systems, decision-making in high profile military operations would improve because critical information would arrive faster, according to a Jan. 31 Congressional Research Service report. – C4ISRNET 

James Yeager writes: Federal leaders looking at artificial intelligence offerings to strengthen the cybersecurity of their systems are often met with a confusing array of hype that leads to misunderstanding – and all too often – to inertia. […]In just the same way, some federal agency IT experts, even in the face of rising threats to their systems, remain reluctant to examine the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) applications using AI at scale. – Fifth Domain


The Pentagon is banking on agile software development to keep the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter capable of evolving to beat looming threats, but a new report questions the department’s ability to keep on top of continual software updates. – Defense News 

The Army is gearing up for a second try at an initial operational test for its new Joint Assault Bridge (JAB) in June after struggling through its first attempt in April 2019 due to issues related to the hydraulic system and training. – Defense News 

An experimental Air Force navigation satellite has passed its preliminary design review, continuing a path to launch in 2022, the program’s primary contractor L3Harris Technologies announced Feb. 5. – C4ISRNET 

As the military adopts tools like ATAK, the Android Team Awareness Kit, for tracking and coordinating movement in a virtual environment, planners and commanders should be aware of the possibility that additional, misleading information is pumped into the same system. – C4ISRNET 

In 2019, 47 active-duty Marines committed suicide – 11 fewer than in 2018 – while the Navy reported 72 suicides, four more than a year earlier, according to preliminary totals from both services. […]Responding to the increase in 2017, the Navy instituted several initiatives to address the rise in suicides among active-duty personnel, USNI News previously reported. – USNI News 

Ahead of next week’s release of a Fiscal Year 2021 budget request that is widely feared to cut Navy spending, a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee is proposing legislation that would protect shipbuilding plans. – USNI News 

Todd Harrison and Seamus P. Daniels write: Analysis of the FY 2020 Defense Budget and Its Implications for FY 2021 and Beyond from the CSIS Defense Budget Analysis program provides an in-depth assessment of the Trump administration’s request for national defense funding in FY 2020. Characterized as a “masterpiece,” the analysis discusses the budget’s alignment with the 2018 National Defense Strategy. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Kathleen H. Hicks et al write: The Minimal Exposure Strategy holds that the United States is generally quite secure. Its geography is advantageous, and its nuclear weapons serve as a credible deterrent to attacks against it. […]Nevertheless, adherents of the strategy see Chinese and Russian nuclear capabilities as posing existential risks for the United States. Accepting spheres of influence for major powers, such as China and Russia, while ensuring a strong deterrent to strategic attacks against U.S. territory, will provide the United States its greatest opportunity for peace and prosperity. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Trump Administration

A bipartisan Senate report released on Thursday criticized the Obama administration for failing to react quickly or thoroughly enough to counter Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. – Reuters 

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, suggested during an FBI oversight hearing on Wednesday that Russia is responsible for the vote-reporting issues from Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses. – Washington Examiner 

Mackenzie Eaglen writes: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper is smartly trying to prep the political battlefield by getting in front of emotional reactions to defense cuts with thoughtful analysis and rationale. Last night, the Pentagon sent a short report to Congress previewing controversial changes in the budget due to Capitol Hill on February 10. […]Whether or not Congress approves these changes, the Pentagon has signaled in this report even more aggressive reforms and cuts are ahead. Combatant commands and the military services are already undergoing the same level of inspection. – American Enterprise Institute