Fdd's overnight brief

January 15, 2019

In The News


In a barnstorming tour that took him to eight countries in one week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo burned with one central message: “The need to counter the greatest threat of all in the Middle East, the Iranian regime and its campaigns of terrorism and destruction,” as he put it in Cairo on Thursday. – New York Times

An Iranian military cargo plane crashed at an airport outside Tehran on Monday, killing 15 people and spotlighting again the country’s patchy air safety record. – Wall Street Journal

Iran’s bid to launch a satellite has failed, Telecoms Minister Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi said on Tuesday, after it ignored U.S. warnings to avoid such activity. Washington warned Tehran this month against undertaking three planned rocket launches that it said would violate a U.N. Security Council resolution because they use ballistic missile technology. – Reuters

A British-Iranian aid worker who has been jailed in Tehran is going on hunger strike in protest at her treatment, her employer and her husband said. – Reuters

Editorial: In a December 23, 2018 interview with the French weekly Le Point, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said that no Iranian leader had ever threatened to destroy Israel. […] Zarif’s claim is a blatant lie. The various Iranian regime governments have consistently and explicitly presented the destruction of Israel as an ideological and practical goal of the Islamic Revolution regime. – MEMRI

Jason Rezaian writes: Now on the verge of that revolutionary anniversary comes news of yet another American gone missing in Iran. This one was not a dual national, as many of the recent Americans captured by the regime were, but rather a veteran of the U.S. Navy who was in Iran visiting his girlfriend. – Washington Post


The United Nations’ new special envoy for Syria says he hopes to have constructive talks in Damascus. Geir Pedersen spoke briefly to reporters upon his arrival in the Syrian capital on Tuesday. It’s his first trip to Syria since he took office earlier this year. – Associated Press

The main jihadist group in northwest Syria said on Monday it did not seek to dominate the Idlib region, after it cemented its grip on the last rebel-held bastion, putting a deal to avert a Russian-led army assault on the area at risk. – Reuters

Alex Fishman writes: This decision raises the possibility of an escalation on Israel’s northern front, and even all-out war, which might play into certain political hands in Israel. An assertive security agenda against Syria and the Islamic Republic may be an ace up that same sleeve as Israel prepares to go to the polls on April 9. – Ynet


Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi entered the office of the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff on Tuesday morning in the beginning of a new era. – Ynet

Palestinian Authority (PA) chairman Mahmoud Abbas arrived in New York City on Monday to assume the chairmanship of a major bloc of developing countries at the United Nations, JTA reported. – Arutz Sheva

The Interior Ministry prevented on Monday Garry Spedding, a 28-year-old left-wing British activist, from entering Israel for the second time since his admission was denied in 2014. – Haaretz

Saudi Arabia

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that he pressed Saudi Arabia’s crown prince on Monday on a range of thorny issues — including war, murder, diplomatic rifts and human rights abuses — that have weakened the American-Saudi alliance and increased tensions among Arab nations. – New York Times

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that Saudi leaders assured him everyone responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi would be held accountable, as Riyadh tries to resolve its biggest political crisis in a generation. – Reuters

Editorial: After meeting the king and crown prince of Saudi Arabia on Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he had raised human rights issues, including imprisoned female activists and the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. […] That is the right position; the question is whether Mr. Pompeo and President Trump are serious about it. Unfortunately, all indications are that they are not. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

The U.S. State Department criticized Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group on Monday for digging tunnels into Israel and stockpiling rockets, as Washington steps up efforts to isolate Tehran. – Reuters

Qatar’s foreign minister ruled out on Monday the possibility of re-opening an embassy in Damascus, in line with some other Gulf countries, calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a war criminal. – Agence France-Presse

France is committing $1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) to help Iraq rebuild after its war against the Islamic State group, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Monday. – Associated Press

Turkey ordered the arrest of 192 people over suspected links to the network of the U.S.-based Muslim cleric accused of orchestrating an attempted coup in 2016, the Hurriyet newspaper reported on Tuesday. – Reuters

Authorities in Mosul have begun demolishing a onetime icon of modern Iraqi architecture used by the Islamic State group to throw men accused of being gay to their deaths. Agence France-Presse

Farhad Alaaldin writes: Between both changes, and no matter if the leadership is older or younger, one matter remains constant, which is the ongoing political difference between the KDP and the PUK. These differences will linger on for the foreseeable future and with it, Kurdistan will continue to suffer. The people of Kurdistan have had their trust broken with the ruling elite; they expected far more than what they received and it is the duty of the Kurdish leadership to start delivering on the promises made during the elections. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

The Trump administration has given scant attention to North Korea’s pursuit of living weapons — a threat that analysts describe as more immediate than its nuclear arms, which Pyongyang and Washington have been discussing for more than six months. […] North Korea is collaborating with foreign researchers to learn biotechnology skills and build machinery. As a result, the country’s capabilities are increasing rapidly. – New York Times

The United States and North Korea plan to hold high-level talks in Washington as soon as this week to discuss a second summit of their leaders, following a prolonged stalemate in nuclear talks, South Korean media said on Tuesday. – Reuters

A top North Korean diplomat was travelling to Sweden Tuesday, she told reporters, as speculation mounts over the next summit between the isolated state’s leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. – Agence France-Presse

North Korea is no longer South Korea’s “enemy,” though Pyongyang’s nuclear program still poses a security threat, according to Seoul’s biennial defense document published Tuesday. – Associated Press


China’s diplomatic clash with Canada escalated sharply on Monday, when a Chinese court sentenced a Canadian to death for drug smuggling at a one-day retrial ordered weeks after a Chinese executive’s arrest in Canada. – New York TImes

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday expressed “extreme concern” after a Chinese court sentenced a Canadian man to death in a retrial ordered not long after the arrest in Vancouver of a Chinese technology executive. – Washington Post

Every year, Amnesty International publishes an exhaustive report looking at capital punishment around the world. Researchers from the activist group, which campaigns against the death penalty, sift through court records and news reports to document how many people were put to death in various countries. […] Amnesty explained that the number of executions carried out in China is considered a state secret by its government. – Washington Post

Huawei Technologies has been one of the most successful Chinese conglomerates of the modern era. […] But the company is attracting growing scrutiny internationally. A number of governments are concerned that the company may still have ties with the Chinese security services — prompting a number of those governments to put the company under scrutiny. – Washington Post

The U.S.-China trade war has delayed but not derailed Chinese automaker GAC Motor’s plans to enter the American market, company officials said Monday. – Associated Press

China has asked some of the state-run companies to avoid business trips to the United States and its allies, and to take extra care to protect their devices if they need to travel, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. – Reuters

Huawei founder Ren Zhengfei hit back at claims that his company is used by the Chinese government for spying, using a rare meeting with the media to defend the telecoms group following the arrest of his daughter in Canada last month. – Financial Times

Derek Scissers and Daniel Blumenthal write: The United States economy and its national security have been harmed by China’s rampant theft of intellectual property and the requirement that American companies that want to do business in the country hand over their technology. These actions threaten America’s comparative advantage in innovation and its military edge. […] The United States should make major adjustments to its economic relationship with China. Comprehensive tariffs, which harm American consumers and workers unnecessarily, are not the right reaction. But neither are admonishments to “just let the market work.” – New York Times

Jerome Doyon writes: Beyond domestic mobilization, the terminology of extremism is also used to legitimize the state’s efforts in Xinjiang on the international stage. As a response to the international backlash against its policy in Xinjiang, China draws parallels between its “counter-extremism” campaign and what it sees as similar efforts in the western world. – War on the Rocks


A bomb-laden vehicle detonated in a large explosion heard across Kabul late on Monday, and officials said the blast killed at least four people and wounded 90. […] The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. – New York Times

Accused of helping to carry out an international multibillion-dollar fraud, Goldman Sachs has tried to pin the blame on a few rogue bankers. It is an argument that the government of Malaysia, where the fraud was carried out, is not buying. – New York Times

Pakistan has detained a senior Afghan Taliban member in an attempt to put pressure on the militants amid talks with the US, sources in the group say. – BBC News


Russia has stepped up criticism of U.S. efforts to implement a major strategic arms treaty with an unusual message to lawmakers accusing Washington of undermining the agreement. – Wall Street Journal

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday after meeting his Japanese counterpart that Tokyo must recognise Moscow’s sovereignty over all of the disputed south Kuril islands in order for peace talks to continue. – Agence France-Presse

Konstantin Dobrynin writes: Whether or not a new perestroika is dawning, Russia’s leaders must outgrow power politics and recognize that force can’t secure their position either at home or abroad. They should begin to de-escalate the conflict with Ukraine through simple measures like an exchange of all prisoners of war, including the captured sailors. Moscow must also commit not to interfere with the Ukrainian presidential election in March. – Wall Street Journal


Britain has been buffeted with high-level warnings in recent days of the grave risks of leaving the European Union without an agreement: A million lost jobs. An 8 percent drop in gross domestic product. Idle factories. Insulin shortages. Capital flight. A plummet in the pound. – New York Times

Ahead of a vote on her Brexit plan that could go down to a humiliating defeat in Parliament, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain was fighting on Monday less to avert the loss than to limit its scale. – New York Times

British Prime Minister Theresa May faces a likely heavy defeat in a vote Tuesday on her plan to leave the European Union, setting the stage for further political turmoil that will test the U.K.’s historically stable political institutions and arcane constitution. – Wall Street Journal

In the decade since arriving in Poland, Huawei Technologies Co. has established itself as a pillar of the country’s telecommunications network and one of its most high-profile foreign corporations. But in recent months, Polish authorities had quietly grown concerned that the nation’s deep reliance on Huawei has exposed it to espionage threats from Beijing. – Wall Street Journal

Belarus said it was in talks to boost the U.S. diplomatic presence in the former Soviet republic, a move that could exacerbate tensions between Moscow and Washington. – Wall Street Journal

A Spanish charity boat which rescues migrants at sea has been blocked by authorities from operating in the Mediterranean, the non-governmental organization said on Monday. – Reuters

Croatia’s government has formally canceled a $500 million deal to buy 12 used fighter jets from Israel after it collapsed over US objections. – Associated Press

The French government today signed a €2 billion contract with Dassault Aviation for 28 Rafale aircraft and gave the go-ahead for development of the aircraft’s F4 standard which should be validated by 2024, although some functions will be ready by 2022. – Defense News

As if the relationship between Turkey and Russia couldn’t get any more complex, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced over the weekend that his government will purchase a dozen Turk-made Bayraktar TB2 combat drones for $69 million. – Defense One

Tom Whyman writes: There was a time when Mrs. May felt invincible. The early months of her premiership saw her Conservative Party riding high in the polls; newspapers reported her Brexit plans with jingoistic bombast. Mrs. May, with heaps of political capital to spare, was the new Iron Lady. Not any more. As the final Brexit deadline inches closer, both the prime minister and the process of leaving the European Union seem utterly drained of purpose. – New York Times


Islamic State West Africa (ISWA) insurgents overran the town of Rann in northeastern Nigeria on Monday evening, security sources said, a blow to President Buhari’s efforts to defeat the militants just weeks before national elections. – Reuters

President Ali Bongo returned to Gabon on Monday after a three-month medical leave during which a coup attempt was thwarted, two government sources told Reuters. His return comes a week after a small military group took over the state radio station. The move to grab power was quickly halted but exposed growing frustration in the oil-producing country over Bongo’s secretive absence. – Reuters

Democratic Republic of Congo faced growing pressure from African neighbors and beyond on Monday for a recount of its contested presidential election in a dispute that threatens more violence in the volatile nation. – Reuters

United States

The Pentagon will extend its mission along the southern border for eight months, the department said on Monday, marking a significant lengthening of President Trump’s involvement of the military in his effort to curb migration from Latin America. – Washington Post

These tunnels, which authorities suspect were built to smuggle illegal contraband or people across the border, were found within the past month, as President Trump continues to demand $5.7 billion to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico.  – Washington Post

A sculpture that partly features the Saudi flag is being removed from the site of the 9/11 terror attack. – BBC News

Jonathan S. Tobin writes: Yet if Republican leaders are aware of the danger of letting loose cannons like King tatter their reputation with talk about white nationalism, why aren’t Democrats prepared to police their side of the aisle with respect to anti-Semitism? Unless House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is ready to discipline Michigan’s newly elected Rep. Rashida Tlaib, any talk from Democrats about their opponents tolerating hate from King or President Trump is blatant hypocrisy. – New York Post

The Americas

The U.S. is evaluating whether to impose tougher sanctions against Venezuela’s military and vital oil industry, a senior White House official said Monday, as it seeks to ratchet up pressure on authoritarian leader Nicolás Maduro to hold free and fair elections. – Wall Street Journal

A new caravan of migrants is forming in Honduras, and even ahead of its scheduled departure at dawn on Tuesday, battle lines were being drawn to the north, with some vowing to help them on their journey north, and others to block them. – New York Times

Student leaders at the University of Manitoba have condemned the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) for recently affirming its support for the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. – Algemeiner



The Pentagon said Monday it would extend until September 30 the deployment of active-duty soldiers and Coast Guard members at the US-Mexico border, while expanding the mission to include surveillance and detection. – Agence France-Presse

The Navy is optimistic it will deploy three Littoral Combat Ships by this fall, after not deploying any last year and grappling with significant gaps in manning and advanced training. – USNI News

More than 250 cybersecurity vulnerabilities, some more than a decade old, remain unaddressed in the Defense Department’s networks, according to an internal watchdog. Still, auditors found the agency has made significant strides in locking down its tech infrastructure. – Defense One

Despite high defense spending and stock prices, U.S. defense firms laid off more than 1,400 workers over the past year. On Sunday, Elon Musk’s SpaceX joined the list, announcing plans to cut 577 employees at its Hawthorne, California, headquarters amid a lighter rocket launch schedule in 2019. – Defense One

With the federal deficit expected to top $984 billion this year, the Congressional Budget Office in December published a list of options for reducing the imbalance over the next 10 years, including three suggestions on Tricare and six that address veterans benefits. – Military.com

The Supreme Court is rejecting appeals from military veterans who claim they suffer health problems because of open burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The justices on Monday left in place a federal appeals court ruling that more than 60 lawsuits over the burn pits could not go forward. – Associated Press

Scott Davis writes: The shutdown centers on the fight between the White House and congressional Democrats over funding for the president’s proposed $5.7 billion border wall. As a result of this battle, 800,000 federal employees — including members of the Coast Guard and thousands of federal contract employees — are struggling to make ends meet without a paycheck. The government shutdown is a financial punch in the gut to veteran families because roughly a third of all government employees (640,000) are veterans. – Washington Examiner

Mackenzie Eaglen and Rick Berger write: As negotiations to reopen shuttered parts of the federal government stall, President Trump is considering turning to creative executive authorities as his last best chance of beginning construction of a southern border wall. […] Using either supposed authority would poison the well of whatever goodwill might remain between the two parties, and throw a wrench into next year’s government funding negotiations. – American Enterprise Institute

Trump Administration

William Barr, President Trump’s nominee for attorney general, plans to tell senators during his Tuesday confirmation hearing that it is “vitally important” that special counsel Robert Mueller be allowed to complete his Russia investigation, according to prepared remarks released amid heightened scrutiny over Mr. Trump’s interactions with Moscow. – Wall Street Journal

US President Donald Trump declared Monday that he has “never” worked on behalf of Russia after bombshell reports were published on his alleged ties to the Kremlin. – Agence France-Presse

A White House deputy spokesman who had been tasked with announcing the departure of officials in President Donald Trump’s administration has himself become the latest to move on. – Agence France-Presse

President Trump on multiple occasions last year talked in private about his desire to withdraw the U.S. from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, according to a new report. Senior administration officials told the New York Times that they were initially unsure if Trump was sincere when he first tossed out the suggestion in 2017. But since then Trump brought up the idea repeatedly to his national security advisers, including around the time of the NATO summit last July when he was questioning the usefulness of the alliance. – Washington Examiner

White House senior adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump will help in the process to pick the next World Bank president. According to White House Deputy Director of Communications Jessica Ditto, Trump was tapped by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to “help manage the U.S. nomination process as she’s worked closely with the World Bank’s leadership for the past two years.” – Washington Examiner

Editorial: The FBI probe of Mr. Trump quickly became part of Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation, which began within days. Some 20 months later we’re still waiting for Mr. Mueller to reveal what if anything happened between the President and Russia. Sans facts, the media used the Times report as a peg to reprise the various and sundry Trump-Russia connections that so far add up to pencil dots without a collusion narrative. – Wall Street Journal

Walter Russel Mead writes: A second difficulty with the Trump approach is that relying on such disparate U.S. allies as the Gulf sheikhdoms, Israel and Turkey forces Washington into the Middle East cat-herding business. Over the weekend, Mr. Pompeo found himself embroiled in the Saudi-Qatar rivalry. Meanwhile, national security adviser John Bolton was trying—and failing—to reassure the Kurds while calming the Turks over the conditions of U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria. – Wall Street Journal