Fdd's overnight brief

January 24, 2019

In The News


An Iranian television journalist with dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship completed her testimony Wednesday before a federal grand jury in Washington and has been released from U.S. government custody, three people familiar with the case said. – Washington Post

Iran arrested more than 7,000 people last year, including dozens of journalists, in what Amnesty International on Thursday called a “shameless campaign of repression” as the U.S. released an American anchorwoman for Iranian state television held for days as a material witness. – Associated Press

The official IRNA news agency reports that an Iranian court has sentenced a prominent journalist to five years in prison. – Associated Press

Iranian authorities arrested more than 7,000 dissidents last year in a sweeping crackdown that led to hundreds being jailed or flogged, at least 26 protesters being killed, and nine people dying in custody amid suspicious circumstances, according to Amnesty International. – The Guardian

Ceng Sagnic writes: Iran’s land bridge to the Levant continues to function without any disturbances, and it is likely to be more functional in the near future as US troops are preparing to withdraw from Syria. The only force that has created obstacles for the Mullah regime’s grand strategic goal of connecting Beirut to Tehran through secure land routes has so far been Israel. The Trump administration’s overestimated confidence in renewed sanctions to curb Iran’s regional capabilities signal that the Jewish state will stay alone longer in being the sole preventative military force against Iran on this matter. – Jerusalem Post


The European Union said Monday that it was adding 11 business executives, as well as five entities, to a growing list of Syrians whose material support for President Bashar al-Assad’s war effort has resulted in travel bans, asset freezes and an end of business activities in Europe.  – Washington Post

North from Syria, along the borders of Eastern Europe and rounding the Arctic Circle to the east, Russia has built a ring of air defenses that threaten the reach of the U.S. military, forcing Washington to rethink its place as the world’s undisputed air power. – Wall Street Journal

Russia’s president and his Turkish counterpart discussed Wednesday how to divide up control of northern Syria when U.S. troops leave, highlighting Washington’s diminished say in Syrian affairs. – Wall Street Journal

Turkey has the capacity to create a “safe zone” in Syria on its own but will not exclude the United States, Russia or others if they want to cooperate, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday. – Reuters

Nicholas Heras writes: The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) on Wednesday claimed the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are getting close to defeating the Islamic State in the countryside of Deir al-Zor. […]It’s unclear what a territorial defeat of the Islamic State in Syria will mean regarding a potential US withdrawal and the ongoing risk of sleeper cells resuming their activities. Former US special presidential envoy, Brett McGurk, in an interview with CBS News on Monday warned that a US withdrawal could lead to a resurgence of the group. – Center for a New American Security

A. Robert Pearson writes: To Ankara, controlling the political future of the Kurds is an absolute priority. Turkey is convinced that any Kurdish political cooperation across borders in the Middle East, e.g., between Syria Kurds and Turkish Kurds, is a direct threat to Turkish existence and a wedge to achieve an independent Kurdish state that would include land from Turkey.  In the war in Syria, therefore, Ankara has concentrated on blocking any Kurdish military or political gains. Fighting ISIS was not Ankara’s priority. – The Hill


An Israeli court has seized a Jerusalem property partly owned by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, holding it as collateral against a civil suit for damages against the Palestinian Authority. – Agence France-Presse

Israel has accused the European Union of financing organizations that promote boycotts of Israel. – Associated Press

A federal judge on Wednesday let stand an Arkansas law requiring state contractors to pledge not to boycott Israel, ruling that such a boycott is not protected by the First Amendment. – Associated Press

Russia has warned Israel from taking military action against suspected Iranian targets in Syria, arguing that such operations have fostered further instability in the war-torn country. – Newsweek

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday vowed a “lethal and very painful” response to any further violence emanating from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. – Algemeiner

The Palestinian Authority spent at least NIS 502 million in payments to terrorist prisoners in 2018, according to a report released Thursday by the Israeli research institute Palestinian Media Watch. – Jerusalem Post

The Israeli military deployed Iron Dome missile defense systems in central and southern Israel in recent days, amid escalating tensions both in Syria and in the Gaza Strip. – Times of Israel

Daniel Pipes writes: This drumbeat of comments—about neutrality, suspicion of Netanyahu and expecting Israel to make the larger concessions—signals a potential crisis in U.S.-Israel relations[…]. So far the administration’s hints have aroused minimal concern in the American pro-Israel community, which blithely but wrongly trusts Mr. Trump as one of their own. But a plan as inimical to Israel as Mr. Trump’s appears to be will have major negative implications not only for the Jewish state but for Mr. Trump’s re-election hopes. – Wall Street Journal

Alan Dershowitz writes: What must be broken is the double standard of those who elevate the Palestinian claims over those of the Kurds, the Syrians, the Iranians, the Chechens, the Tibetans, the Ukrainians, and many other more deserving groups who truly suffer from the silence of the academia, the media, and the international community. The U.N. devotes more of its time, money, and votes to the Palestinian issue than to the claims of all of these other oppressed groups combined. The suffering of Palestinians, which does not compare to the suffering of many other groups, has been largely inflicted by themselves. – Washington Examiner

Saudi Arabia

Satellite images suggest that Saudi Arabia has constructed its first known ballistic missile factory, according to weapons experts and image analysts, a development that raises questions about the kingdom’s increasing military and nuclear ambitions under its 33-year-old crown prince. – Washington Post

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman on Thursday offered his full support for Iraq’s continued security in a phone call to Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi. – Reuters

Clayton Crockett writes: The GCC was an initiative of the Sabah family and a logical step forward for the region of micro-states to ensure security with the backing of a world power, the United States. The reaction by post–invasion Kuwait to seek stability through cooperation should be mirrored by post–Qatari embargo Kuwait and post–Khashoggi affair Kuwait. Even with finite resources and populations unprepared to support post–oil economies, there appear to be multiple ways in which both Kuwait and Oman can forge strategic alliances within and beyond the GCC without tying their fates to the house of Saud. – The National Interest

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un expressed “great satisfaction” after receiving a letter from President Trump, following the return of a nuclear envoy who traveled last week to Washington where the two sides agreed to a second summit in late February. – Wall Street Journal

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered preparations for a second summit with President Donald Trump, saying he’ll “wait with patience and in good faith” to work toward a common goal, the North’s state media reported Thursday. – Associated Press

South Korea’s military accused Japan of a “clear provocation” over what it said was a threatening low-altitude flight by a Japanese patrol plane over a South Korean warship on Wednesday. – Associated Press

A planned second summit next month between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un must “deliver concrete results on denuclearization”, South Korea’s top diplomat said on Wednesday. – Reuters


The Australian government said Wednesday that it is seeking information about why China is holding one of its citizens, writer Yang Hengjun, who friends say is probably in the custody of state security officials. – Washington Post

The chairman of embattled telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co. is pushing back against claims his company conducts espionage for the Chinese government, contending that Huawei is being unfairly targeted without any proof. – Wall Street Journal

China’s Vice President Wang Qishan delivered a thinly veiled rebuttal of U.S. attacks on its technology companies and policies at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal

Canada’s ambassador to China cast doubt on the U.S. legal case to have Huawei Technologies Co.’s chief financial officer extradited, underscoring the growing unease in Ottawa about its role in the geopolitical feud between Washington and Beijing. – Wall Street Journal

China said Thursday that Chinese-Australian author and democracy advocate Yang Hengjun was detained on national security grounds, becoming the latest Western citizen to face such accusations from Beijing. – Agence France-Presse

Doug Palmer and Wendy Wu write: The United States and China have just five weeks to come up with a deal that both nations can hail as “wins” in their closely watched trade war, and they’re each asking the other for major concessions heading into the next round of talks in Washington next week. But what does “winning” actually look like for President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping — assuming neither leader gets everything he wants? – Politico


Afghanistan’s intelligence agency said on Wednesday that the mastermind of a bloody attack on the agency’s base this week had been killed in an airstrike, but residents and local officials in the area said the airstrike had in fact targeted a group of hunters on a hilltop. – New York Times

In 2013, following two militant attempts to kill or capture him, he applied for a special visa for Afghans endangered because of their work for the United States. He spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his life. His plans to settle in Texas have been set adrift amid the Trump administration’s heightened scrutiny for issuing visas. – Washington Post

Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Z. Beale has been identified as the U.S. special operations soldier who was killed in Afghanistan Tuesday. – Washington Examiner


Abe received a warm welcome in Davos as he became the latest world leader to defend globalization as Trump calls for “America First” and sweeping changes to global institutions and norms. The Japanese leader called for free trade, urgent action on climate change and more opportunities for women in an address before many global leaders. – Washington Post

The Muslim cleric poised to become vice president of the world’s third-largest democracy is known for curbing religious freedoms, opposing gay rights, and for his role in the prosecution of a Christian politician for blaspheming Islam. – Wall Street Journal

An Indonesian woman jointly accused of killing the estranged half brother of North Korea’s leader won an appeal Thursday to obtain witness statements given to police as part of her defense. – Associated Press

Matthew P. Goodman and Ann Listerud write: A deal between the world’s first- and third-largest economies—ones with as much historical baggage in their trade relationship as the United States and Japan have—will inevitably be complex and take time. The discussions over auto trade will be especially charged. And now that the door has been opened, other U.S. industries, from pharmaceuticals and medical devices to financial services, are likely to push for more contestable markets in Japan. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Russia’s arrest of ex-Marine Paul Whelan on espionage charges is part of a larger Kremlin scheme to exacerbate partisan divisions in Washington, according to a former top CIA official in Moscow who says President Vladimir Putin likely hand-picked Mr. Whelan as a “pawn” in a much deeper Russian intelligence plot. – Washington Times

Russia made a last-ditch effort Wednesday to counter U.S. accusations that it was in violation of a Cold War-era nuclear missile treaty, showing foreign diplomats some of a disputed missile’s hardware and divulging its purported capabilities. – Wall Street Journal

Russia on Wednesday unveiled a missile system that Washington claims is in violation of a key arms control treaty, in a last-minute bid to counter US criticism and save the Soviet-era agreement. – Agence France-Presse

In a swimming pool in Krasnoyarsk, Russia a robot prototype prepares for an arctic journey. The robot is small enough, the preparations modest enough, that people swim laps as normal in the other half of the pool. This new tethered machine, with a quadcopter-inspired body, is built to scout the waters of Siberia[…]. Russia’s robotics industry has greatly expanded its capability in recent years, and there is a somewhat fluid nature between commercially developed technologies and future military acquisitions. – C4ISRNET

Russian oligarchs and Kremlin apparatchiks may find the tables turned on them later this week when a new leak site unleashes a compilation of hundreds of thousands of hacked emails and gigabytes of leaked documents. Think of it as WikiLeaks, but without Julian Assange’s aversion for posting Russian secrets. – The Daily Beast

Josh Rubin writes: If you haven’t heard of Narva, you might very soon. This small, mostly Russian-speaking city lies along Estonia’s boundary with Russia, separated geographically from its larger neighbor only by a partially frozen river. […]This city is also the epicenter of what could be an epic challenge for Western military alliances—what nato calls the “Narva scenario”—one that would test the foundation underpinning the security partnership. – The Atlantic

Luke Coffey writes: One does not have to look too far from home to see how Russia has employed effective hybrid tactics. […]So while policymakers should look towards NATO to provide a robust conventional and nuclear deterrence for members of the Alliance, only the national capitals can establish the political and economic conditions that can prevent Russia from using hybrid tactics effective. – Heritage Foundation


A group of “yellow-vest” protesters announced plans Wednesday to create a list of candidates for European Parliament elections in May as the antigovernment movement seeks to translate support on the street into lasting political influence. – Wall Street Journal

The transition to the post-Merkel era is under way in Germany at a time when the network of international relationships that have underpinned its prosperity are under threat. Trump’s aggressive stance on trade is forcing the government to reassess business links with both Russia and China, while the pipeline has riled European allies concerned about weakening Ukraine. – Bloomberg

The German navy inaugurated its first-ever class of officers leading the multinational Baltic Maritime Component Command today, providing fresh evidence that military planners here take seriously the possibility of a military confrontation with Russia in Germany’s once-pacified back yard. – Defense News

Ishaan Tharoor writes: While he was absent from the World Economic Forum this week, President Trump and his administration remained the proverbial elephants in the room. […]Of course, the very existence of Davos is built on the assumption that free trade, liberal values and internationalism are the world’s best options. And even as many Davos attendees glide between high-powered CEO dinners and the fancy pop-up storefronts of major tech companies — staged like the pavilions of nations at an expo — there are also many among them earnestly trying to grapple with how to make globalization more equitable for all. – Washington Post

Tom Rogan writes: Recent actions of the Spanish government degrade the notion that Madrid remains a close ally of the United States. In response, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should recall the U.S. ambassador to Spain, Duke Buchan, and deputy chief of mission, Benjamin Ziff, for consultations in Washington. – Washington Examiner

Dalibor Rohac writes: The EU is on track toward disintegrating into a ‘core’, committed to closer integration, and a ‘periphery’; or, worse yet, into a juxtaposition of blocs that do not see eye to eye[…]. Still, if a big push toward US-like federalization ever takes place, it will inevitably involve Germany and France, alongside only a subset of the EU’s current members. As an aside, that means that the UK’s decision to leave, insofar as it was motivated by the fear of being dragged into a pan-European superstate, was premature, to say the least. Unless politics across Europe changes dramatically, it is hard to see the EU becoming a political monolith any time soon. – American Enterprise Institute

The Americas

U.S. President Donald Trump issued a new threat to cut off aid to three Central American countries on Wednesday in response to what he said was a new wave of immigrants headed toward the United States from those countries. – Reuters

Two U.S.-Mexico meetings have been held to work out details of a new plan to return across the shared border migrants seeking U.S. asylum, but Mexico will not accept anybody facing a credible threat back home, a Mexico Foreign Ministry spokesman said. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: The Anti-Defamation League has a new report that suggests far-right violent extremism is now a greater threat to the U.S. than Islamic extremism. That is manifestly untrue. The vast majority of U.S. violent extremist plots are Islamist extremist. Intelligence and law enforcement activities are rightly prioritized on that threat. – Washington Examiner

Alan Dershowitz writes: People who support Farrakhan because of the alleged good he does for the black community and despite his overt anti-Semitism are complicit in bigotry, and those who march under the banner of such bigots are only one degree removed from such complicity. There must be zero tolerance for anti-Semitism by the Left and Right alike, just as there must be zero tolerance for other forms of bigotry. – Washington Examiner


President Trump took on Venezuela’s leftist authoritarian president and his regime’s Russian and Chinese backers on Wednesday by recognizing the opposition leader of the oil-rich country’s congress as its legitimate head of state. – Wall Street Journal

President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday faced the gravest challenge to his authority since assuming power in 2013, as the leader of the U.S.-backed opposition claimed the legitimate mantle of leadership and President Trump and other world leaders promptly recognized him as Venezuela’s interim and rightful head of state. – Washington Post

Russian officials and senior lawmakers have reacted angrily to opposition protests in Venezuela that support opposition leader Juan Guaido’s claim to the presidency. – Associated Press

The Trump administration on Wednesday offered to develop an “exit solution” for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro if the socialist strongman agrees to step down peacefully, a U.S. official said Wednesday. – Washington Examiner

Editorial: The truth is that this revolt is made in Venezuela after two decades of socialist failure and corruption. […]There may be a lot of ruin in a nation, as Adam Smith said, but Venezuela now lies in ruins. It’s tempting to think the U.S. should send in troops, a la Panama in 1989, to assist the rebellion. But Venezuelans have to win their freedom themselves, and if they do they are likely to prize it all the more. – Wall Street Journal

Adam Taylor writes: Recognizing Guaidó as president would have a significant effect on how U.S. officials handle their relationship with their Venezuelan counterparts. In particular, it may mean that Venezuela’s diplomatic presence in Washington would need to change because the accredited diplomats would no longer represent the recognized government. “Presumably, you’d then have the opposition able to designate people,” Bosco said. – Washington Post

Daniel DePetris writes: The issue here is not whether Maduro is a dictator or a bad guy, but what the best route is for democracy to return to this South American country. You don’t have to be an expert on Latin American politics to know about the turbulent and controversial history of U.S. actions in the Western Hemisphere. […]Trump’s recognition of Guaido, while understandable, may simply provide Maduro with the ammunition and talking points he needs to keep the Venezuelan military on his side and his regime from breaking apart. – Washington Examiner

Roger F. Noriega writes: The Trump administration’s unrelenting sanctions and an intense communications campaign — coupled with tough diplomatic pressure bolstered by Brazil’s new government — have ruled out any deals with Nicolas Maduro’s criminal regime. However, a popular uprising is a blunt instrument, and toppling Maduro is only a start. A smart, thorough US strategy is required to prevent wanton violence, uproot a dangerous criminal network, and put Venezuela’s economic recovery on the right track. – American Enterprise Institute

Evan Ellis writes: Leveraging the democratic legitimacy of Guaidó and the National Assembly to bring about a democratic transition in Venezuela will require a carefully orchestrated series of steps, and close collaboration between them, the United States, and other members of the international community. If Guaidó, the National Assembly, and the international community do not rise to the challenge, the opportunity will vanish. […]With respect to upcoming struggles in the region’s institutions, the United States must fully embrace the legal legitimacy of the interim government and use its own influence to promote the acceptance of its designated representatives – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Eli Lake writes: However chaotic Trump’s foreign policy might be in other areas, the president has always been consistent on Venezuela. One of the first actions of his administration was to sanction and freeze the assets of former Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami. Since then, the Treasury Department has placed more and more of Maduro’s inner circle on the financial blacklist. – Bloomberg

Cyber Security

When it comes to cybersecurity, the four-year prognosis laid out by the Untied States intelligence community is stark. “Nearly all information, communication networks, and systems will be at risk for years to come,” the 2019 national intelligence strategy reads. The strategy, which was released Jan. 22 by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, is a four-year road-map for the American intelligence community. – Fifth Domain

The Department of Homeland Security said in Jan. 22 emergency directive that multiple executive agency websites have been harmed by a hacking campaign, although it is not clear what exactly has been affected or which agencies are involved. – Fifth Domain

The Department of Defense, in conjunction with the National Guard, has drafted a plan to allow for better coordination and information sharing to states in the event of a cyber emergency. – Fifth Domain


The House committee that conducts oversight of the executive branch plans a wide-ranging probe into the security-clearance process at the White House, the panel’s chairman said Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal

Armed with a favorable Supreme Court decision, the Trump administration is seeking injunctive relief to clear the last legal impediment to imposing a ban on military service on most, but not all, transgender troops. – Washington Examiner

The weapon, the Sig Sauer Lightweight Machine Gun or SLMG, weighs in at 20 pounds and, with a foldable stock, is significantly lighter than the current M240B, 7.62mm machine gun. In addition to SOCOM, the company also hopes a variant of the weapon will be in the running later this year to replace the Army and Marine Corps’ Squad Automatic Weapon. – Army Times

The Marine Corps is preparing for a high-end distributed fight inside island chains in the Pacific, and the service is pushing the Navy to invest in additional weapons and systems for amphibious ships to support this kind of battle in a contested environment. – USNI News

A military judge has disqualified Director of Naval Reactors Adm. Frank Caldwell from overseeing the upcoming negligence trial of the former USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) commander due to actions Caldwell made during other legal proceedings related to the fatal 2017 collision, according to a copy of a Tuesday ruling obtained by USNI News. – USNI News

The U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation Tuesday evening that seeks to bar President Donald Trump from withdrawing from NATO amid renewed concerns over his commitment to the 29-nation military pact. – Defense News

The National Nuclear Security Administration has completed work on an updated nuclear warhead for the Navy, the first in a series of major life-extension programs for America’s arsenal. – Defense News

Erin Dunne writes: To address those myriad challenges, as a new National Intelligence Strategy report makes clear, the United States must foster innovation and strategy that incorporates new technology. […]In order to maintain our dominant global position, we should heed these warnings. The U.S. is a force to be reckoned with because, along with our allies, we have dominated cutting edge technology development. Resting on our laurels and finding complacency in our current position leaves us vulnerable — and the world will not wait for Washington to catch up. – Washington Examiner

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: The United States has now been continuously at war for more than seventeen years. It is still fighting an active war in Afghanistan, has yet to fully defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq – much less establish a state of lasting security in either country – and is playing a role in low level conflicts against extremist and terrorists in many other parts of the world. The U.S. government, however, has never developed a convincing method of reporting on the cost of the wars[…]. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Trump Administration

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday rescinded her invitation to President Trump to deliver the State of the Union in the House next week — denying him a national platform for the annual speech in an extraordinary standoff between the two most powerful figures in the nation. – Washington Post

These were among the dizzying array of statements and clarifications made in recent days by Giuliani, one of Trump’s lawyers and the public face of the president’s legal team handling the special counsel investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. […]The recent tensions between Trump and Giuliani highlight the unique role he plays for the president. – Washington Post

Michael D. Cohen, the former personal lawyer and fixer for President Trump, indefinitely postponed his congressional testimony set for next month, his lawyer said on Wednesday, depriving House Democrats of one of their first big spectacles in their plans to aggressively investigate the Trump administration. – New York Times

President Trump said he would look for alternative venues for his State of the Union address on Tuesday, appearing to capitulate after Speaker Nancy Pelosi again told him she would not invite him to deliver it at the House until the government reopens. – New York Times