Fdd's overnight brief

January 14, 2019

In The News


President Trump’s National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with military options to strike Iran last year, generating concern at the Pentagon and State Department, current and former U.S. officials said. – Wall Street Journal

Senior Pentagon officials are voicing deepening fears that President Trump’s hawkish national security adviser, John R. Bolton, could precipitate a conflict with Iran at a time when Mr. Trump is losing leverage in the Middle East by pulling out American troops. – New York Times

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare acknowledgment of specific Israel strikes targeting Iranian military assets in Syria, touting the campaign as the U.S. prepares to withdraw troops from its neighboring country. – Wall Street Journal

A U.S. Navy veteran who has been jailed in Iran on undisclosed charges suffers from cancer and may die without access to medical care, according to his mother, who pleaded for his release in a statement on Friday. – Wall Street Journal

Angered by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement that Poland will host an international conference on Iran in mid-February, Iranian authorities on Sunday summoned Warsaw’s top diplomat in the country and called off a Polish film festival. – Associated Press

The head of Iran’s nuclear program said Sunday that the Islamic Republic has begun “preliminary activities for designing” a modern process for 20-percent uranium enrichment for its 50-year-old research reactor in Tehran, signaling new danger for the nuclear deal. – Associated Press

Despite the pair’s disarming appearance, U.S. authorities allege they were operating in Orange County as agents of the Islamic Republic of Iran — an accusation that has alarmed many in the local Persian community because it suggests tensions between the U.S. and Iran have spilled over into Southern California. – LA Times

Hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed Sunday that Israel bombed an Iranian weapons depot in Syria, satellite photos were published showing what appeared to be the demolished storehouse at the Damascus International Airport. – Times of Israel

Editorial: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a fine speech in Cairo on Thursday trying to reassure allies that the U.S. is determined to remain a player in the Middle East and contain Iran in particular. The problem is that this ambition clashes with the reality of his boss’s contradictory message about American intentions. – Wall Street Journal

Bret Stephens writes: “We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit.” So says Gadi Eisenkot about the Jewish state’s undeclared and unfinished military campaign against Iran and its proxies in Syria and Lebanon. For his final interview as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces before he retires next week, the general has decided to claim responsibility and take at least some of the credit. – New York Times


The U.S. military has begun moving equipment out of Syria as it pushes forward on President Trump’s order to withdraw forces, but planners are still working out details of how and when more than 2,000 troops will leave, defense officials said Friday. – Wall Street Journal

Since Trump’s abrupt Syria announcement last month, a tug of war with allies and his advisers has roiled the national security apparatus over how, and whether, to execute a pullout. Netanyahu spoke to Trump two days before the president’s announcement and again a day afterward. French President Emmanuel Macron tried to get the president to change his mind. Even Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who liked the policy, was concerned it could not be safely executed so quickly. – Washington Post

Islamic State militants are “living their final moments” in the last enclave they hold near the Iraqi border, where U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are attacking them, an SDF official said on Sunday. – Reuters

The Syrian government hopes dialogue with Syrian Kurdish groups will intensify, a minister said on Sunday, signaling support for talks the Kurds hope will lead to a political deal between two of the main players in the multi-sided war. – Reuters

Qatar’s foreign minister said on Monday that he saw no need to re-open an embassy in Damascus, nor any encouraging signs for a normalisation of ties with the Syrian government. – Reuters

He has survived eight years of war and billions of dollars in money and weapons aimed at toppling him. Now Syrian President Bashar Assad is poised to be readmitted to the fold of Arab nations, a feat once deemed unthinkable as he forcefully crushed the uprising against his family’s rule. – Associated Press

Aaron Blake writes: The most likely conclusion, from there, is that there is no firm plan at this point, and that the likes of Bolton et al. are still trying to shape a withdrawal that is now already in motion[…]. He described all the above as “just part of an unfolding plan.” But from the outside looking in, it seems a hell of a way to prosecute a hugely significant withdrawal from a fight against terrorists. – Washington Post


President Trump vowed on Sunday to devastate Turkey’s economy if it targets Kurdish populations in northern Syria as the U.S. withdraws its forces, and called for a 20-mile safe zone between the Turkish border and U.S.-allied fighters. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. is working to resolve a dispute with Turkey over its withdrawal from Syria, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Saturday, adding that it is continuing to negotiate the transfer of military responsibility and the fate of its Kurdish allies. – Wall Street Journal

Michael Rubin writes: Turkey’s goal might not only be the empowerment of radical groups to destabilize Libya. […]Turkey’s increasingly destabilizing actions in Africa provide a window into Erdoğan’s thinking and Turkey’s new directions, not as a bridge between East and West, but rather as a catalyst for insurgency and Islamist terrorism. It’s time to recognize reality: Turkey is today what Saudi Arabia was in the decades before the September 11, 2001, that is, a sponsor of radicalism on a global scale. – The National Interest


Israel said Sunday it had uncovered all cross-border attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah from Lebanon and will bring its operation to find and destroy them to an end after more than a month. – Agence France-Presse

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority is threatening to step up pressure on Hamas amid renewed tensions in Gaza, even as Israel allows a lifeline of Qatari aid to flow directly to the Islamic militants. – Associated Press

The Palestinian Authority is set to formally take the helm of the largest bloc of United Nation member states on Tuesday, known as the Group of 77 (G77) and China. PA President Mahmoud Abbas will be in New York for Tuesday’s ceremony and is scheduled to meet with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the UN Security Council president and other world leaders. – Jerusalem Post

Ilan Berman writes: Israel’s emerging China problem is bigger than Haifa. U.S. officials are also carefully watching China’s increasing penetration of Israel’s vibrant high-tech sector. […]the larger risks associated with China’s growing investments in the Jewish state, and their implications for Israel’s security as well as its relations with key international partners, haven’t been sufficiently addressed by policy makers in Jerusalem. They should be, and soon. The long-term dynamism of the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership could depend on it. – Wall Street Journal

Arabian Peninsula

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reinforced support for the U.S. relationship with Qatar on Sunday while promising to renew attempts to resolve a standoff between the tiny Gulf nation and its rivals led by Saudi Arabia that has complicated the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate Iran. – Wall Street Journal

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday arrived in Riyadh, where he is set to press Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to hold the killers of journalist Jamal Khashoggi accountable. – Agence France-Presse

Alia al-Hathloul writes: When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Saudi Arabia on Monday, he is expected to discuss Yemen, Iran and Syria and “seek an update on the status of the investigation into the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” I am struck by what is not included in Mr. Pompeo’s itinerary: the brave women activists of Saudi Arabia, who are being held in the kingdom’s prisons for seeking rights and dignity. Mr. Pompeo’s apathy is personal for me because one of the women detained, Loujain al-Hathloul, is my sister. – New York Times


The Iranian-aligned Houthi group threatened on Sunday to launch more drone attacks after a deadly strike last week on a Yemeni government military parade, stoking tension between the warring parties amid U.N. peace efforts. – Reuters

Yemen’s military intelligence chief died Sunday from wounds sustained in a rebel drone attack on a military parade, the Defense Ministry said. – Bloomberg

The United Nations Security Council has been warned that Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen have violated a UN-brokered ceasefire more than 200 times in less than two weeks, since it went into effect as part of the Stockholm peace negotiations. […] It is time for the UN to finally take the problem seriously — and to recognize Iran’s role in this despicable war. – Algemeiner

Middle East & North Africa

When Turkey, Iran and Russia meet to talk about the end of the war in Syria, they do so without the United States. […]And now, despite conflicting messages about how and when it will happen, the United States is set to withdraw from Syria. The withdrawal, which the military said began with equipment removal on Friday, is just the latest instance of a broader American disengagement from the Middle East that could have lasting effects on one of the world’s most volatile regions. – New York Times

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday an ongoing boycott of Qatar by four of America’s allies in the Middle East “has dragged on too long,” though he gave no sign of any coming breakthrough in the dispute. – Associated Press

Smadar Perry writes: Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah hasn’t been seen in public for over two months, and has been surprisingly quiet about Israel’s mission to destroy his attack tunnels, leading many in the Middle East to wonder if something has actually happened to the terror group’s leader. – Ynet

Haim Malka writes: Turbulence will increase across the North African Maghreb in the year ahead. Elections, public protest, and economic trends all create the potential for crises that will be difficult to solve. […]All of this matters for the United States because increasing turbulence and shifting dynamics in the Maghreb affect a wide range of U.S. interests including counterterrorism, energy, global trade, and Mediterranean security. And yet, the United States is out of position to both protect its interests and benefit from opportunities. China and Russia recognize the region’s geostrategic importance. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Korean Peninsula

More than half a century ago, as South Korea discussed restoring ties with former colonial master Japan, it sought $364 million as compensation for Koreans forced to work in the military, mines and factories during Tokyo’s 35-year occupation of the peninsula. […]That deal now looms large as ties between the U.S.’s closest allies in Asia become more strained than at any point since they re-established diplomatic links in 1965, according to Shin Kak-soo, South Korea’s ambassador to Japan from 2011 to 2013. – Wall Street Journal

Kim Jong Un told the world this month that North Korea took steps to stop making nuclear weapons in 2018, a shift from his earlier public statements. The evidence shows production has continued, and possibly expanded. – Bloomberg

Uri Friedman writes: The decision to pitch denuclearization as if it were a buddy action film is more significant than it first appears; it’s a distillation of what distinguishes the president from his predecessors on international affairs. And there’s a chance, however slight, that the gambit will actually succeed where decades of more conventional methods to prevent North Korea from going nuclear have failed. – The Atlantic

Kristine Lee writes: North Korea will remain a priority of the U.S.-ROK alliance for the foreseeable future, but this should not come at the expense of building out new opportunities for bilateral cooperation between the two countries in the region. Even as pathways for future engagement with North Korea remain uncertain, the United States needs to initiate a discussion with South Korea that clarifies long-term goals for the bilateral relationship beyond the scope of the Korean Peninsula. The durability of the alliance depends on it. – The National Interest


Poland is joining the U.S. in pressing its NATO allies to coordinate efforts to address security challenges from China after Friday’s arrest of two men on charges of spying for Beijing. – Wall Street Journal

China has escalated efforts to repel foreign criticism of its policing, mass detentions and forced-assimilation measures targeting Muslims in the restive Xinjiang region, stepping up diplomacy and public-relations efforts. – Wall Street Journal

A Canadian man faces a new hearing on drug-smuggling charges in China on Monday in an unusually swift retrial that has drawn criticism from overseas legal experts for procedural irregularities, amid tense relations between Ottawa and Beijing. – Wall Street Journal

China’s trade surplus with the U.S. hit a fresh record last year, as robust American demand for Chinese goods undercut the Trump administration’s tariff offensive aimed at narrowing the countries’ lopsided trade gap. – Wall Street Journal

Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, being held in China on suspicion of endangering national security, is not entitled to diplomatic immunity, China’s foreign ministry said on Monday. – Reuters

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson will head to China this weekend for a three-day visit with the military leaders of the rising power. – Navy Times

Chinese technology giant Huawei has fired the Chinese employee arrested in Poland on suspicion of espionage, saying that he had brought the company “into disrepute.” The man’s arrest Friday comes amid mounting concerns across the world that Huawei, the world’s largest maker of telecommunications equipment, might be acting on behalf of the Chinese government to spy on people and governments. Huawei denies the claims. – Washington Post

Andrew Browne writes: In his tariff war with China, U.S. President Donald Trump has some hidden allies. Just about every complaint U.S. trade negotiators raised in Beijing last week — not to mention their doubts about the sincerity of China’s concessions — are shared by Chinese entrepreneurs, who feel as underappreciated and unwelcome as their foreign counterparts. – Bloomberg


Most of the extremist juveniles in Badam Bagh insisted they had been persuaded by counselors to reject the Taliban and support the Afghan government. It is not a conversion their jailers take very seriously. Only one of a dozen boys interviewed said he was still a Taliban supporter; even those convicted of attempting suicide attacks refused to admit to them. – New York Times

International rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged major donors to impose sanctions on Afghanistan’s newly appointed acting defense minister over alleged war crimes and human rights abuses. – Reuters

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday he will visit Fiji and Vanuatu this week as part of a push to offset China’s growing influence in the South Pacific. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia plans to set up a $10 billion oil refinery in Pakistan’s deepwater port of Gwadar, the Saudi energy minister said on Saturday, speaking at the Indian Ocean port that is being developed with the help of China. – Reuters


U.S. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said on Saturday he will force a vote soon on a resolution to disapprove the Trump administration’s decision to relax sanctions on three Russian companies connected to oligarch Oleg Deripaska. – Reuters

The United States has warned German companies involved in the Russian-led Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that they could face sanctions if they stick with the project. – Reuters

On January 10, 2019, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that the project of unifying Belarus and Russia into a single state is not on the agenda. “The Russian president and I have stated explicitly that there is no such issue of unification on the agenda,” Lukashenko said. The Belorussian President further explained: “That’s because these are the fundamental principles of forging any union. If there is no equitable basis, then there is no union.” – Middle East Media Research Institute


Greece’s unlikely governing coalition of left-wing and right-wing populists was thrown into disarray Sunday after the defense minister resigned, adding uncertainty to a deal with Macedonia that could end a decadeslong irritant between the countries. – Wall Street Journal

The Balkan nation Macedonia ratified a U.S.-backed deal with Greece to change its name to “North Macedonia,” opening up a path to membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. – Wall Street Journal

Europe is giving US-led calls for a boycott of Huawei 5G telecoms equipment a mixed reception, with some governments untroubled by spy suspicions against the Chinese giant, but others backing a ban. – Agence France-Presse

The German Cabinet has approved a new, high-level pact with France that calls for a common approach to weapons exports in all joint programs. – Defense News

Anne Applebaum writes: This year, the European elections set for late May have continent-wide themes and a continent-wide significance. Ironically, or perhaps absurdly, that is because this year, the anti-Europeans — the politicians who want to sweep the institutions away altogether — are making a public attempt to work together, across national lines, to achieve common goals. – Washington Post

Daniel Kochis writes: The U.S. National Security Strategy identifies three priorities for Europe: (1) deepening collaboration with allies to advance shared principles and counter outside aggression and subversion; (2) eliminating barriers to trade growth; and (3) fulfilling defense commitments, including bolstering deterrence in Eastern Europe. In an important year, U.S. leadership is crucial for continuing to advance these key priorities. Following are six recommendations for President Donald Trump and Congress in 2019 which will further that goal. – Heritage Foundation

The Americas

President Trump spent the week visiting the U.S.-Mexico border and hinting he might declare a national emergency to build his long-discussed wall. On Friday, he put the idea on hold, strongly counseling congressional Democrats to rethink opposing the wall’s funding. – Washington Post

In his political fight for a border wall, President Trump has enlisted a new group of surrogates to join conservative talk show hosts and Republican allies in making a public case — Border Patrol agents. – Washington Post

The head of Venezuela’s legislature was briefly detained Sunday by the country’s secret police, as international pressure mounts on authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro. – Wall Street Journal

On Thursday, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was inaugurated for another, much-disputed six-year term even as his country grapples with a massive humanitarian disaster that has prompted millions to flee. Washington responded to Maduro’s inauguration by talking a tough game: U.S. officials have called Maduro illegitimate and a dictator. Vice President Pence said this week that the Venezuelan leader’s swearing-in was “a sham.” – Washington Post

Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes: While President Trump has been tangling with Congress over security solutions along the U.S. southern border, the United Nations has provoked a political crisis in Guatemala. The U.S. is unlikely to make progress on the former without paying attention to the latter. – Wall Street Journal


The Navy is planning to expand its role in the Arctic as climate change opens up more ocean waterways and the U.S. vies with great-power rivals Russia and China for influence in the far north. – Wall Street Journal

A scathing internal Navy probe into the 2017 collision that drowned seven sailors on the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald details a far longer list of problems plaguing the vessel, its crew and superior commands than the service has publicly admitted. – Military Times

In a first for the Navy, SEAL Force Master Chief Derrick Walters was selected to become one of the service’s four fleet master chiefs. Walters is set to be the next Fleet Master Chief for U.S. Naval Forces Europe and U.S. Naval Forces. – USNI News

Tobin Harshaw writes: I spend a great deal of my life thinking about nuclear weapons. You can imagine I’m murder at a cocktail party. As the Cold War faded, and the possibility of a nuclear holocaust with it, people like me were considered yesterday’s news. Now, as the world enters a renewed era of great-power competition, I like to think we were simply prescient. – Bloomberg

Jeffrey A. Green writes: Despite stark political divides in the 116th Congress, industrial-base policy offers one of the most fertile areas for bipartisan cooperation. […] In the new Congress, Democrats and Republicans should seek out opportunities to work together in advancing mutually sought-after goals in this critical policy area. – Defense News

Trump Administration

President Trump’s efforts to hide his conversations with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and new details about the F.B.I. inquiry into his ties to Moscow have intensified debate over his relationship with Russia, adding fuel to Democrats’ budding investigations of his presidency and potentially setting up a clash between the White House and Congress. – New York Times

President Trump didn’t have official note takers present in his introductory meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and many top administration officials never were briefed on the discussion, according to several officials familiar with the matter. – Wall Street Journal

William Barr, President Trump’s pick to be the next attorney general, this week will face a group of ambitious senators in both parties whose questions may reveal more about their views of Mr. Trump than Mr. Barr. – Wall Street Journal

New revelations about Paul Manafort’s interactions with a Russian associate while he was leading President Trump’s campaign provide a window into how extensively the special counsel has mapped interactions between Trump associates and Russians in his 20-month-long investigation. – Washington Post

National Security Adviser John Bolton named former defense contracting executive and Reagan administration official Charles Kupperman as deputy national security adviser on Friday. – Wall Street Journal