Fdd's overnight brief

January 10, 2020

In The News


Iran’s missile strikes on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops were the first stage of a major regional operation aimed at expelling U.S. forces from the Middle East, the Iranian commander responsible for the attack said Thursday. – Wall Street Journal

U.S., Canadian and U.K. officials believe that a Ukrainian commercial aircraft that crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran on Wednesday, killing all 176 people on board, was downed by a missile system fired by Iran, possibly by mistake. – Wall Street Journal

Pope Francis urged the U.S. and Iran to practice “dialogue and self-restraint” to defuse recent tensions between them. – Wall Street Journal

An Iranian military commander said Thursday that missiles fired at bases used by U.S. troops in Iraq were not intended to inflict casualties, in the latest sign that Iran was seeking to avoid further escalation of hostilities with the United States. – Washington Post 

New evidence indicating that an Iranian surface-to-air missile caused the plane crash this week that killed 63 Canadians is likely to undermine Canada’s already acrimonious relationship with Iran. But the disaster also threatens to damage Ottawa’s crucial but fraught partnership with Washington. – New York Times 

Iran has invited Boeing to take part in the investigation into a Ukrainian jetliner that crashed earlier this week at a time of soaring tensions between Washington and Tehran, killing all 176 people on board, state media reported Friday. – Associated Press

President Trump said Thursday that the U.S. killed a top Iranian military commander in Iraq because Iran was “looking to blow up” the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. – The Hill

The U.S. Navy’s statement is aimed at any number of troublemakers who operate here, from modern-day pirates to Houthi insurgents from nearby Yemen.  But really its intended audience is Iran. – USA Today

With the possibility of a major conflict brewing with the United States since the killing of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, the capabilities of the Iranian military are being sharply scrutinized. So just how strong are the Islamic republic’s armed forces? The answer to that question hinges largely on what strategic goals Iran pursues. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

David Ignatius writes: Back in 2017, the administration began preparing a legal case for last week’s targeted killing. The problem, officials said, is that although the evidence of Soleimani’s long-term threat was rock solid, the “imminent” mass-casualty attacks on Americans that triggered last week’s strike may have been only contingency plans, not yet activated. There’s an Iran strategy in here somewhere, lurking under the mess. After more than 40 years of undeclared U.S.-Iranian war, it’s time to clear away the debris and make a new start. – Washington Post 

Peggy Noonan writes: So far our recent encounter with Iran looks as if it ended pretty well, or as well as it could have. At the moment it looks like we’re more or less where we were before Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani was killed, only he’s gone and that’s good. There is no particular reason to believe Iran has been chastened, but it might have been tempered, reminded that there are limits. For the first time in 40 years, since the hostages were taken in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, the Iranian government took a hard jab from America right in the face. This appears to have left them surprised, rocked back on their heels.- Wall Street Journal

Eyal Tsir Cohen and Eliora Katz write: Iran realizes that other countries will not rally behind it. China and Russia so far have shown no appetite for entangling in this conflict, which means Tehran is at it alone, except for its proxy militias. While Soleimani’s death is a major tremor, setting the stage for a more precarious and combustible Middle East in the foreseeable future, in the long term, without Soleimani, Iran’s playbook is significantly downsized. – The Hill

James Stavridis writes: At the more risky — and therefore less likely — end of the spectrum would be a NATO special-forces deployment against the remnants of the self-proclaimed Islamic State along the Iraq-Syria border. Another possibility is stepped-up cooperation with the U.S. in cyber-operations countering Iran, conducted from the NATO cybersecurity center in Tallinn, Estonia. – Bloomberg

David Patrikarakos writes: We are at a fragile, and dangerous, stalemate. What Iran does next with its nuclear program will determine how the standoff evolves from here. One thing is for sure: Tehran will not abandon enrichment without major concessions from the U.S. or the re-establishment of the JCPOA — neither of which Trump will countenance. Don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. The matter at the heart of this dispute — Iran’s nuclear program — means that a return of the conflict is all but guaranteed. – Politico

Uri Friedman writes: But one potential knock-on effect may not come into clear view for some time: the emergence of Iran as the next nuclear-weapons state, at the very moment when the world appears on the cusp of a more perilous nuclear age. It’s possible that the Reaper drone hovering over Baghdad’s airport last week destroyed not only an infamous Iranian general, but also the last hope of curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. – The Atlantic


Unidentified planes struck targets in Syria near the border with Iraq on Friday, reports said, triggering “a huge explosion” amid soaring tensions in the region between the U.S. and Iran. – Associated Press

A six-year-long United Nations operation delivering aid across the Syrian border to millions of civilians will expire at midnight on Friday if a deadlocked U.N. Security Council cannot reach a last-minute deal to extend its authorisation. – Reuters 

An imam in Michigan eulogized Qassem Soleimani, praising him for propping up the Assad regime against what he called efforts by the United States and the “Zionists” to destabilize Syria. – Times of Israel

Josh Rogin writes: The Soleimani strike, if combined with more economic pressure on Iran and its proxies and partners, could seriously diminish Iran’s ability to project power in the region and threaten Israel. It might also provide new leverage for the United States to push forward a political solution in Syria that stops the ongoing slaughter. – Washington Post


Israel on Friday released two prisoners, including one jailed for spying for Syria, in what it called a goodwill gesture for the Russian-assisted repatriation of the body of a long-missing Israeli soldier last year. – Reuters 

Republican and Democratic U.S. senators introduced legislation on Thursday to provide $3.3 billion (£2.53 billion) in annual aid to Israel, seeking to put into law an aid agreement between the two countries reached in 2016 amid concern over rising Middle East tensions. – Reuters 

US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN) condemned on Wednesday President Donald Trump’s imposition of new sanctions on Iran, calling them “economic warfare,” despite supporting similar measures against Israel. – Algemeiner 

The IDF announced on Friday that it has notified the families of several terrorists responsible for fatal attacks that their houses are going to be demolished. – Jerusalem Post


The blasts late Wednesday caused little damage, but they appeared to be a sign that Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran could still play spoilers in the volatile conflict between Washington and Tehran. The groups have made clear they still want to exact revenge on America for last Friday’s drone strike in Baghdad. – Wall Street Journal

President Trump and his senior national-security advisers waited anxiously in the White House Situation Room Tuesday night after intelligence warnings that Iranian missiles would hit two bases the U.S. military uses in Iraq. When it became clear Iran had inflicted no casualties, there was relief, according to administration officials. – Wall Street Journal

One day after the Iranian missile strike against U.S. military bases in Iraq, Iraqi media reported that caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi appears to be attempting, along with the support of pro-Iran lawmakers, to win the parliament’s blessings to stay in his position, or to head the upcoming government. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Karl Kaltenthaler and Munqith Dagher write: There are now reasons to believe that the United States and Iran may be headed toward a period of deescalating tensions and efforts to arrive at some sort of accord. Yet until such an accord is created, Iraq will unfortunately continue to suffer from forces outside of its control. These are the most perilous times Iraq has faced since the invasion of 2003, and a caretaker government is faced with the country’s need for steady and capable leadership to guide the country through them. – Washington Institute

David Pollock writes: In contrast, if the United States upped its game in Iraq—not just militarily but also politically and economically—then burden-sharing with allies would likely be enhanced. Moreover, the broader goal of the Western military presence in Iraq is to tackle some of the issues that laid the groundwork for the Islamic State’s emergence: namely, insecurity, Sunni marginalization, and absence of economic development. This helps explain why European capitals have reacted so cautiously to Soleimani’s assassination, pointing out his initial responsibility for the escalation while also calling on all parties to de-escalate going forward. – Washington Institute

Robert Bryce writes:  That sentiment was reinforced last Sunday when the Iraqi parliament approved a non-binding resolution to expel American troops from the country. In short, the killing of Soleimani, against the backdrop of Iraq’s desperate need for reliable energy, could further weaken America’s political influence in Iraq and assure that the country’s electric grid relies on Iran for years to come. – The Hill


Libyan military commander Khalifa Haftar rejected an offer by Russia and Turkey for a cease-fire in the country’s nearly nine-year conflict as his forces make new advances. – Bloomberg

Italy scrambled to salvage diplomatic credibility on Thursday after its bid to play a central role in resolving Libya’s long-running conflict came off the rails, revealing failures at the heart of the government. – Reuters 

A fresh attempt to sue Libya for supplying the IRA with the plastic explosive Semtex during the Troubles is being launched by victims and the bereaved in Northern Ireland. – The Guardian

Forces loyal to Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar said they would not halt their campaign to drive the UN-backed government from Tripoli amid calls from Russia and Turkey for a cease-fire in the war-torn North Africa nation. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Middle East & North Africa

President Donald Trump said that NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg was “excited” by the president’s suggestion that the alliance become more involved in the Middle East as tensions in the region flare. – Bloomberg

A business executive accused of financial crimes in Kuwait is getting support from an all-star cast of famous Americans, including a son of the U.S. president who liberated the Gulf nation and several of President Donald Trump’s allies. They’ve helped generate a torrent of sympathetic media coverage from the Middle East to Washington. – Bloomberg

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is proceeding as planned with a trip to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman from the weekend, ahead of dispatching a warship and patrol planes to the Middle East and despite heightened tensions in the area. – Reuters 

The Obama administration decided to prioritize Iran nuclear deal negotiations ahead of anti-Hezbollah narcoterrorism operations, a decision former anti-terrorism insiders say reverberates today. – Washington Examiner 

“The use of weapons must stop now to give space for dialogue,” the European Commission president said in a brief statement following a special meeting of her College of Commissioners about the crisis in the Middle East. She appeared with Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief. – Politico

The articles explain how Soleimani managed and equipped fighters to confront the U.S. forces in Iraq; how he turned Syria into a center for coordination between the various resistance forces in Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine, with the cooperation of Hizbullah military chief ‘Imad Mughniyeh; how he helped the Assad regime deal with the protests against it and persuaded Russian President Putin to intervene in Syria; and how he oversaw the arming of Gaza via many channels, and even on occasion mediated among the Palestinian factions.  – Middle East Media Research Institute


When President Trump travels to China later this year to begin phase two of trade talks with Beijing, there’s one thing that a lot of people are hoping to see come out of the negotiation: clarity on what happened in phase one. – Washington Examiner 

President Donald Trump may not reach the second part of a trade pact with China until after the 2020 election, he said Thursday. – CNBC

A Republican congressman from Arkansas introduced a bill that seeks to deter American allies from utilizing Chinese company Huawei’s super-fast 5G internet network. – Washington Examiner 

Michael Sobolik writes: Because Xinjiang represents a vital hub in China’s larger OBOR framework, the CCP is distinctly vulnerable to pressure in this area. Congress should use the opening not only to target a subset of goods originating in Xinjiang, but to sanction commerce passing through the region. This move would ratchet up the costs to Beijing of its domestic policies, and in the process the United States can take a stand against the OBOR — and in support of millions of Chinese citizens now living in terror. – The Hill


Further deadlock and heightened pressure from China is the likely outcome if Taiwan’s independence-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen wins a second term this weekend, as is widely predicted. – Associated Press

Hong Kong activists and budding pro-democracy politicians have flocked to Taiwan to observe its elections, aiming to bolster exchanges and galvanise an alliance against China’s influence. – Reuters 

The U.S. State Department has approved the sale of up to 12 F-35 fighter jets and related equipment to Singapore at an estimated cost of $2.75 billion, pending approval from Congress, Washington’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said on Friday. – Reuters 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Kazakhstan of “improperly” prosecuting two ethnic Kazakhs for crossing the border from China as they seek asylum in the former Soviet republic. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Editorial: The outcome of America’s geopolitical competition with China’s Communist Party will hinge in part on the nations of South and East Asia. Will they accede to Beijing’s bid for domination of the region or rally to remain independent? […]A DPP victory would vindicate the U.S. message of independence for Pacific states and provide an opportunity for the two democracies to strengthen their partnership to counter China’s imperial ambitions. – Wall Street Journal

Sadanand Dhume writes: As demonstrations against a divisive new citizenship law roil India, one thing protesters don’t need is support from Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. […]Mr. Khan’s ill-advised broadsides do India’s protesters no favors. He heads a country with an official state religion, the death penalty for blasphemy and one of the world’s poorest records on minority rights. […]If India’s protesters want one thing, it’s this: to stop their country from becoming more like a Hindu version of Mr. Khan’s Pakistan. – Wall Street Journal

Gregory B. Poling writes: Without the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or some undiscovered (and unlikely) stand-in, U.S. forces would have little choice but to concede the waters and airspace of the South China Sea to China in the opening stages of a conflict. […] So long as the United States lacks ground-based combat aircraft and fire bases along the South China Sea, American planning needs to acknowledge that reality. – War on the Rocks

Seth Cropsey writes: The PRC’s increasingly menacing policy toward Taiwan and its steady growth in both military capability and capacity underscore the U.S. administration’s need to continue assisting Taiwan’s ability to defend itself—in 2020 and the coming years. – Real Clear Defense


Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday watched a naval exercise involving multiple missile launches in the Black Sea. – Associated Press

A Russian court has extended the house arrest of U.S. investor Michael Calvey and his partner, French national Philippe Delpal, until February 13. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Political scientist and journalist George Bovt wrote a column titled “They wanted him dead and killed him.” for the Gazeta.ru outlet in which he debunked the thrust of many official Russian articles and reactions in response the assassination of Qassem Soleimani by the Americans. […]Those wanting to shake off American supervision should ponder whether they would prefer Chinese domination over American intervention, despite the mistakes that the US, like everybody else has committed in the international arena. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Much of Putin’s foreign-policy activity this year will be directed toward trying to rebuild a more Russia-centric concept of the victory over the Nazis. This is territory where Putin isn’t prepared to give ground, and given the enormous complexity of the historical material as well as the cross-currents of Israeli, U.S. and European memory politics, he can put up quite a diplomatic and propaganda fight. – Bloomberg


Britain’s Parliament took an important step toward taking the country out of the European Union at the end of January, as lawmakers in the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to back the Brexit agreement Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated with the bloc last year. – Wall Street Journal

Ukraine’s leader pleaded Friday for Western leaders to share with him intelligence that they said suggested Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was brought down by an Iranian missile, possibly fired by mistake. – Washington Post

Croatia aims to revive the European Union membership prospects of North Macedonia and Albania over the coming four months by assuaging French objections to EU enlargement, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic said. – Bloomberg

With the Middle East in meltdown and fears of “World War III” trending on social media, the leader of the EU’s new “geopolitical Commission” was nowhere to be geo-located. – Politico

The EU is out of the game. European Council President Charles Michel appeared to admit as much anyway, in a series of comments on Thursday about the recent crisis in the Middle East in which he insisted the EU would seize a bigger role on the world stage. He just didn’t say how. – Politico

A court in Kosovo has ordered a woman accused of inciting terrorism on social media be remanded in custody for one month after she praised a top Iranian general killed in a U.S. airstrike. – Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty

Therese Raphael writes: Ultimately, how quickly this can get done will be a political decision. “You can put an awful lot into an EU-only agreement,” White adds. Cooperation has always seemed a lot to ask when it comes to Brexit. Everything depends now on whether Johnson and Barnier can live up to their reputations for getting things done. – Bloomberg


An attack by suspected Islamist militants on motorbikes killed at least 25 soldiers Thursday in the West African nation of Niger, adding to a death toll that has surged in recent weeks as troops struggle to contain violent extremism in the region. – Washington Post 

Twenty people were wounded on Thursday in northern Mali’s restive Kidal region, including 18 U.N. peacekeepers from Chad, in a rocket attack on a military base for U.N., French and Malian forces, a U.N. spokesman said. – Reuters

Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan remained deadlocked after two days of talks in their disputes over a giant hydropower dam on the Nile though Cairo said it hoped the issues would be resolved by Jan. 15 in line with a deadline agreed with Washington. – Reuters 

Latin America

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido on Thursday urged the European Union to officially label as “blood gold” the precious metal informally mined in the country’s southern jungles as he seeks to increase pressure on the government of President Nicolas Maduro. – Reuters 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday called for an end to the political crisis currently gripping Venezuela, saying that leaders there should clear the way for free and fair elections at the end of 2020. – Reuters 

Jorge G. Castañeda writes: Submitting to Washington’s diktat is no minor affair in Latin America. Among Mr. Fernández’s Peronist supporters and colleagues, it can be seen as heresy or betrayal. […]For Argentina, defending a lost cause in Bolivia, where few principles are involved, and helping Cuba and Venezuela perpetuate the misery of their people at the cost of American support where it really counts are simply not worth it. – New York Times


The CEOs of the three largest U.S. voting equipment companies on Thursday supported more disclosure requirements, marking a major step for an industry that has come under close scrutiny in recent years due to election security concerns. – The Hill

The U.S. Army will expand efforts to counter China by deploying a specialized task force to the Pacific capable of conducting information, electronic, cyber and missile operations against Beijing. – Bloomberg

A fake text message scam telling recipients they had been drafted into the military for deployment to Iran could be part of a cyber campaign launched by the theocratic regime. – Washington Examiner 

After the U.S. military killed an Iranian general in a Jan. 2 drone strike and after national security experts said they expect Iran might take some retaliatory action through cyber operations, the specter of increased cyberattacks against U.S. networks puts Cyber Command and its new approach front and center. – Fifth Domain


A U.S. Army general refused a request by an officer who was pardoned by President Trump to have his Special Forces tab reinstated. – The Hill

The U.S. Army has picked winners to build base platforms for its light- and medium-class robotic combat vehicles, according to a service statement released Jan. 9. – Defense News

The U.S. Army has decided to field an Israeli-made, long-range precision munition on attack helicopters as an interim solution to get after greater stand-off and long-range engagements. – Defense News

Legged robots have value for infantry because they allow machines to traverse inclines and rough terrain that’s ill-suited for wheels. In addition, legs can carry robots up ladders and over walls. It’s one reason the United States has pursued multiple iterations of robot dogs for military use. – C4ISRNET

Trump Administration

The House voted Thursday to prevent President Trump from taking additional military action against Iran, an opening move in a Democratic-led campaign to reassert congressional authority over the use of force abroad. – Washington Post 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Thursday that the House will soon vote to repeal a 2002 resolution that empowered the Pentagon to conduct military operations in Iraq. – The Hill

Rudy Giuliani called for the Supreme Court to invalidate President Trump’s impeachment as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi continues to hold onto the impeachment articles. – Washington Examiner