Fdd's overnight brief

January 25, 2019

In The News


The Treasury Department added two private airline companies to its sanctions blacklist on Thursday for allegedly aiding Iran, including ferrying weapons from Tehran into Syria. – Wall Street Journal

An Iranian television journalist with dual U.S.-Iranian citizenship was released from U.S. government custody Tuesday and concluded her testimony a day later to a federal grand jury in Washington, according to a newly unsealed court order. – Washington Post

An American held in Iran faces a complaint filed against him while authorities probe possible security charges against the ex-Marine, an Iranian prosecutor was quoted on Friday as saying, in a case that risks further worsening ties with Washington. – Reuters

The United States has announced new sanctions on two Iran-backed militias fighting in Syria in a move aimed at raising pressure on Tehran and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as Washington prepares for a military withdrawal from the war-torn country. – Al Jazeera

Hours after the US announced on Wednesday that it would no longer recognize the regime of President Nicolas Maduro as the legitimate government of Venezuela, Iran’s leaders rushed to the defense of their key Latin American ally. – Algemeiner

Yonah Alexander and Milton Hoenig write: As the international community marks the 38th anniversary of the Ayatollah’s rise of revolutionary regime, the persistent key question is whether Iran’s regional and global security challenges — ranging from terrorism to nuclear ambitions — will continue to persist for the remainder of the 21st century. Make no mistake. The short answer is potentially yes if the current unfolding Teheran’s intentions, capabilities, and actions are any guidance. – Times of Israel

Yonah Jeremy Bob writes: Observers broadly agree that Iran has stayed in the deal to maintain “the high ground” in any diplomatic conflict with the US, to split the US from its EU allies and to garner financial aid from the EU. Will the EU’s so-called special purpose vehicle (SPV) be a game-changer in the nuclear and sanctions standoffs between Iran and the US? – Jerusalem Post


Along two sharp curves of the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, the Islamic State is fighting to hold on to the last speck of the vast territory it once controlled. […]The two villages still held by the group — Marashidah and Baghuz Fawqani — represent the final 0.01 percent of the caliphate in Syria and Iraq. They sit inside the hook created by two bends in the Euphrates. The terrain is lush near the river and then increasingly desiccated farther out. – New York Times

Members of the Islamic State group failed Thursday to break a siege imposed by U.S.-backed fighters in the last area they control in Syria, leading to fierce fighting that inflicted casualties on both sides, Syrian opposition activists said. – Associated Press

The head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia believes talks with the government over the future of the northeast region will begin in days after a “positive” reaction from Damascus. – Reuters

The European Commission said on Thursday that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad had suspended special visas for European Union diplomats to Damascus, confirming a Reuters report earlier this week. – Reuters

Military operations against the Islamic State group in Syria are wrapping up and the last pocket of the jihadists’ “caliphate” will be flushed out within a month, a top commander said. – Agence France-Presse

Any deal between Syria’s Kurds and Damascus should respect the “special status” of Kurdish-led forces who fought the Islamic State group, a top Kurdish commander of those forces said. – Agence France-Presse

A car bomb exploded in Syria’s capital Damascus on Thursday causing damages but no casualties, state media said, the third such blast in a city under government control this week. – Reuters


Turkey’s foreign minister says the time has come for an international investigation into the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Associated Press

The United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions has said she will travel to Turkey next week to head an “independent international inquiry” into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Al Jazeera

Economic and political ties between Ankara and Caracas have grown stronger, with Erdogan criticising sanctions against Venezuela during a visit there last month, without directly mentioning the United States or President Donald Trump. Erdogan pledged to invest in Venezuelan’s failing economy during the trip, with Maduro claiming that Turkish businesses would pump some 4.5 billion euros into the country. – Haaretz

Editorial: Municipal elections in March will give voters a chance to express their frustrations over the state of the economy, and will be seen as a vote of confidence — or lack thereof — in Erdogan’s presidency. Ahead of that vote, investors need to trust that Erdogan will not put his finger on the scales. To provide this reassurance, Erdogan should appoint independent-minded technocrats to the new financial stabilization committee, ensure that the committee’s deliberations are transparent, and pledge to act on its guidance. – Bloomberg


Gaza’s dominant Hamas group refused to let Qatar send in $15 million of aid on Thursday, part of a tortuous standoff involving Israel and rival Palestinian factions that has left thousands of civil servants there short of pay. – Reuters

Israeli prosecutors indicted a 16-year-old Jewish seminary student on Thursday over the killing of a Palestinian woman, a case that has sparked public recrimination between Israel’s far-right and its usually tight-lipped internal security agency. – Reuters

Israel’s attorney general must announce before the next election whether he intends to press charges against Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the prime minister’s predecessors said Thursday, urging opposition politicians to join forces to unseat the incumbent. – Bloomberg

A plan to stop companies in Ireland trading with firms or people based in Israel’s West Bank settlements moved a step closer to becoming law Thursday, after lawmakers backed it in the latest stage of the nation’s legislative process. – Bloomberg

The Hamas terror organization threatened Israel on Friday, vowing to confront the Jewish state and “immediately retaliate” as a standoff over foreign funds to the Gaza Strip continues. – Arutz Sheva

The Israeli military on Thursday accused the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group of efforts to “destabilize” the situation in the Gaza Strip, as an unofficial ceasefire agreement between Israel and Hamas appeared to be in peril of collapsing. – Times of Israel

Lawmakers in the Republic of Ireland on Thursday voted in favor of a bill that would implement a draconian ban on goods produced by Israeli communities in the West Bank. […]Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated, “Israel is outraged over the legislation against it in the Dail which is indicative of hypocrisy and antisemitism.” – Algemeiner

Cecilia Panella writes: An October 2018 poll of Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem confirms a sharp shift against integration with Israel in the past two years. This surprising result was first reported based on our May 2017 survey, with the trend continuing towards Palestinian nationalism. In stark contrast to previous polls conducted as recently as 2015, the overwhelming majority of East Jerusalem Palestinians would now prefer to become citizens of Palestine even if given the option of becoming Israeli citizens. – Washington Institute

Daniel Gordis writes: Israelis, like the much-missed Amos Oz, who still hold out hope that Israel can revive a conversation about vision know that this election will not accomplish that. Instead, they are holding out hope that this is the last Netanyahu run, and that once the prime minister finally steps aside, a real conversation about the future of the Jewish State can emerge once again. – Bloomberg

Arabian Peninsula

If you somehow missed the news about the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and the global outcry that ensued, you might think Saudi Arabia is the darling of the World Economic Forum in Davos. – Reuters

The German government has approved the export to Qatar of four RAM naval missile systems developed by Germany and the United States, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told lawmakers in a letter seen by Reuters. – Reuters

Matthew Hedges writes: What ensued was a seven-month ordeal, one in which I—a British academic—was kept in solitary confinement by the intelligence service of a friendly government. One in which basic demands, such as access to a lawyer, were denied. And one in which my wife and, eventually, my government had to publicly push for my release before I was finally freed. – The Atlantic

Middle East & North Africa

Like many young Egyptians who camped out for days at Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, the 38-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee expected Mubarak’s downfall to pave the way for more freedoms to allow the country to flourish. Instead, Maher and other activists say things have gotten worse. – Reuters

The head of a United Nations mission tasked with overseeing a peace deal in Yemen’s Hodeidah port city plans to step down next month and will be replaced with a Danish official, U.N. diplomats said on Thursday. – Reuters

Dhia Otay writes: Currently, the Tunisia-Libya border separates a struggling democracy and a country divided between two rival governments, each lacking real control over Libyan territory. The power vacuum within the latter has allowed for a plethora of local and foreign militias along with gangs of contraband smugglers that have flourished since the late 1980s to operate along the Tunisian-Libyan border with relative impunity—involved in drug dealing, human trafficking, and support for terrorist activities. – Washington Institute

Przemysław Osiewicz writes: Since 1993, the EU has not adopted a comprehensive document to form the basis for its diplomatic and economic actions toward the Middle East, one of the world’s most significant regions. While developing a common policy would likely be difficult, given the divergence between Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, it is unlikely to get any easier after Brexit. The main problem, when it comes to the Middle East, is that the EU is simply not proactive. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea must make concrete pledges toward curbing its nuclear weapons program, such as dismantling its main nuclear complex and allowing international inspections to confirm the process, when leader Kim Jong Un meets U.S. President Donald Trump as soon as next month, South Korea’s foreign minister said. – Reuters

The U.S. and Republic of Korea have been working to negotiate a deal regarding how to share the cost of hosting the more than 28,000 American troops based in the country. And while the negotiations have failed to reconcile differences over the past year, the halt in funding won’t impact military operations, though Korean workers on U.S. bases may be put on leave this spring. – Defense News

Soo Kim writes: North Korea’s permutation of negotiating behavior seems once again to be the tried-and-true technique in gradually attenuating its opponents’ determination and thinning their patience through protracted delivery and other time-buying ruses. A couple more gravitational pulls to ultimately attain legitimization as a nuclear state, and then, what next? Wittingly or otherwise, it appears that Washington — enervated and perhaps in want of an “out” — is closer to entertaining greater leniency toward Pyongyang. – The Hill


Authorities in Poland and the U.S. are probing the deep ties Beijing has forged in this strategically important country on NATO’s eastern frontier in the wake of high-profile arrests of a Chinese executive and a former Polish official. – Wall Street Journal

The United States sent two warships through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday in the first such operation this year, the Taiwanese government said, as it increases the frequency of transits through the strategic waterway amid tensions with China. The voyage risks further heightening tensions with China, which considers Taiwan its own and has not ruled out the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control. – Reuters

The United States and China are “miles and miles” from resolving trade issues but there is a fair chance the two countries will get a deal, U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Thursday. – Reuters

Liberal billionaire George Soros on Thursday warned that the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, are locked in a “cold war that could soon turn into a hot one.” – CNBC

Ishaan Tharoor writes: Yet at Davos, China seemed far more an opportunity than a boogeyman. No major conversation on trade, climate change or new technologies seemed worth having without reference to Chinese perspectives or practices. While Chinese companies and business executives were ubiquitous at the forum’s sessions, talk of China’s repression — not least Beijing’s detention of possibly more than a million people in the far-western region of Xinjiang — or its allegedly unfair trade practices was conspicuously absent. – Washington Post

Tuan Pham writes: During the 2018 G20 Summit in Buenos Aires, U.S. President Donald Trump held a much-anticipated, high-stakes meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The leaders agreed to suspend the mutually destabilizing U.S.-China tariff and trade war for 90 days. The arrangement was made after Xi agreed in principle to purchase a “not yet agreed upon, but very substantial” amount of U.S. agricultural, energy, and manufacturing products and to negotiate within 90 days “structural changes” in forced technology transfer, intellectual property rights, non-tariff barriers, and cyber security. – War on the Rocks


American and Taliban negotiators are making headway on a deal in which the United States would withdraw troops from Afghanistan in return for a pledge by the Taliban not to allow the country to host terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, senior Taliban officials and Western diplomats said Thursday. – New York Times

A co-founder of the Taliban who was released from prison in Pakistan in October has been appointed head of the group’s political office in Qatar as it negotiates with the United States over ending the 17-year-old Afghan war, the Taliban said Friday. – Associated Press

Michael E. O’Hanlon writes: There will of course be no outright victory in Afghanistan anytime soon, and any peace deal with the Taliban remains a long-shot. But the United States-NATO mission in Afghanistan can continue to protect the West from large-scale terrorist attacks originating in South Asia, while gradually declining in size in years to come. And Afghans can still sustain the patient hope that their country will stabilize and strengthen over time. Such goals may not sound very Churchillian. But they are what is now realistic in Afghanistan — and for core American national security interests, they may just be good enough. – New York Times


For the first time this year, the United States has sent two warships through the strategic Taiwan Strait, according to the Taiwanese government. – Al Jazeera

Japan has tried to draw the line under its dispute with South Korea over allegations one of the latter’s Navy ship directed its fire control radar against a Japanese patrol aircraft, but the regional allies of the U.S. have almost immediately become embroiled in a fresh controversy, with South Korea accusing another Japanese aircraft at making a “threatening” low-altitude pass over its ships. – Defense News

Sadanand Dhume writes: Here are five words no politician in India dares utter: Quotas are a terrible idea. Seven decades after the country first embraced caste-based quotas in education and government jobs, they have become permanent entitlements that cement social divisions, encourage mediocrity and poison political discourse. It’s a cautionary tale of identity politics run amok. – Wall Street Journal

Howard Schaffer and Teresita Schaffer write: After independence, Bangladesh was expected to be a “basket case.” Relatively successful economically, its political trajectory has been more volatile, albeit more promising than other countries studied for this project. However, many issues that shaped the Bangladesh movement—the second of the country’s two independence movements—still stalk Bangladeshi politics four decades after its bloody creation. – Center for Strategic and international Studies


A top American official today does not expect Russia will meet the demands of the Trump administration before a Feb. 2 deadline, when America will begin withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty. – Defense News

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

The United States has offered to hold arm control talks with Russia during a United Nations meeting in Beijing next week that almost certainly would include a feud over a Cold War-era treaty, a senior State Department official said on Thursday. – Reuters

Russian lawmakers backed a proposal on Thursday mandating jail terms of up to 15 days for insulting authorities online and another prohibiting the spread of fake news, in measures the opposition says are aimed at stifling dissent. – Reuters

Russia’s new heavy attack drone, called the Okhotnik (Russian for “hunter”), just made its visual debut as a flying wing stealth platform intended to fight Moscow’s enemies from the air and inform the next generation of jet fighters. – Business Insider


Former President Viktor F. Yanukovych committed treason by inviting Russia to invade Ukraine and reverse a pro-Western revolution that ousted him from power, a court in Kiev ruled on Thursday, sentencing Mr. Yanukovych to 13 years in prison. – New York Times

Greek lawmakers were expected on Friday to approve a pact changing the name of neighboring Macedonia, despite vehement protests inside and outside the Parliament over a contentious issue that touches on Greece’s history, national identity and unity. – New York Times

A Muslim party said it would launch a legal bid to change the name of Bosnia’s Serb region, enraging all Serbian parties in the volatile country and prompting calls for calm from the European Union. – Reuters

European Union foreign ministers will discuss in February imposing more sanctions against Russia over a stand-off with Ukraine in the Azov Sea, diplomats said. – Reuters

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. – Business Insider

Though 22 House Republicans voted against a bipartisan resolution supporting NATO this week, several said afterward that they actually do support the alliance, but not what they saw as a Democratic effort to tie the hands of President Donald Trump. – Defense News

Daniel Serwer writes: The modern Kosovo state is a product of Albanian nonviolent and violent rebellion, Serbian repression, the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia, state collapse in Albania, NATO intervention, U.S. and EU support, Russian weakness, and UN administration. Without one or another of these ingredients, it might never have occurred, and certainly not in the surprising way that it did. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Peter Rough writes: While President Trump has indeed turned up the temperature on Europe with his brash criticisms of trans­atlantic relations, especially in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the labor pains jolting Europe are not of America’s creation. Instead, the continent is in a political turmoil of its own making — a crisis that is directly linked to, and exacerbated by, aspects of the European Union (EU). – Hudson Institute


Congolese opposition activists fought for years to get Joseph Kabila to do something uncommon among African authoritarians: obey term limits and step down. – Washington Post

America’s shadowy war in Somalia just got a little more shadowy. For more than a year, the U.S. Africa Command has been issuing regular press releases after each U.S. airstrike in Somalia detailing now many strikes were conducted and how many al-Shabaab militants were believed to have been killed. But in the latest release announcing two airstrikes targeting al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, on Jan. 23, 2019, no estimate of enemy dead was included. – Washington Examiner

Richard Downie writes: How did South Sudan, which entered independence on a wave of international support—including the steadfast backing of the United States—fail so fast? Warning signs were present from the outset for anyone who looked past the facile narrative advanced by U.S. advocacy groups and congressional allies that depicted the civil war as a clash between virtuous (mainly Christian) liberation heroes in the south and malevolent (mainly Muslim) oppressors in the north. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The embattled government of Venezuela struck back against its opponents on Thursday, winning strong support from the country’s armed forces and the solid backing of Russia, which warned the United States not to intervene. – New York Times

Venezuela’s military threw its support behind embattled President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday, dealing a significant blow to the U.S. effort to back a parallel government and oust the authoritarian leader. – Wall Street Journal

The United States’ support this week of an opposition leader as Venezuela’s interim president seemed to follow a pattern familiar to Latin America, reawakening suspicions of Washington’s intentions in the region and calling to mind American interventions in recent decades. – New York Times

The United States and Venezuela remained in a standoff Thursday as the Trump administration ordered the evacuation of some embassy staff, but declined to remove all personnel despite a directive from President Nicolás Maduro that they leave, while Russia demanded that the Americans cease “intervention” in the teetering oil-rich nation. – Washington Post

The United States is seeking to ensure that Venezuelan oil revenue goes to opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaido, and to cut off money from increasingly isolated President Nicolas Maduro, a top U.S. official said on Thursday. – Reuters

The U.S. State Department on Thursday ordered some U.S. government workers to leave Venezuela and said U.S. citizens should consider leaving the country, a day after Washington recognized an opposition politician as Venezuela’s president. – Reuters

The German government on Thursday called for democratic new elections in Venezuela, joining forces with the United States in saying it stood with the opposition-controlled National Assembly, not Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. “With regard to #Venezuela, we are not neutral,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said on Twitter. “We support the National Assembly, which is elected by the people. Maduro has no democratic legitimacy as President.” – Reuters

But what has taken shape in recent days is a sharply more aggressive approach based on President Donald Trump’s full-throated backing for opposition leader Juan Guaido and bolstered by a coordinated diplomatic response with many of Venezuela’s neighbors, who rapidly followed suit in withdrawing recognition of Maduro’s rule. – Reuters

The United States has requested a public U.N. Security Council meeting on Venezuela on Saturday and U.N. diplomats said they expected U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address the body. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday urged Latin American governments to recognize Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s interim president and to declare President Nicolas Maduro’s government illegitimate. – Reuters

A top Venezuelan official and close ally to Nicolás Maduro threatened to cut the electricity off the American embassy complex in Caracas as tensions between both countries escalate. – Business Insider

Max Fisher writes: If neither group removes Mr. Maduro and he refuses to step down, it is very hard to say what will happen. History provides few obvious parallels. On one hand, with the situation spiraling out of control, it feels impossible that the status quo could continue. On the other, the same could have been said one, two or even three years ago, and yet Venezuela has continued its steady, tragic decline. – New York Times

Michael Shifter writes: Venezuela should expect some tension between full justice and desirable political change. For Mr. Guaidó, the opposition, the United States and the international community, a peaceful, democratic transition should be the priority. If it’s not, there’s no telling when the nation will be able to emerge from its nightmare. – New York Times

Moises Rendon writes: As I explained in my previous article, according to Articles 233, 333 and 350 of the Venezuelan Constitution, Juan Guaidó is well within his power as president of the National Assembly to assume the presidency of Venezuela on a provisional basis. Not only were the presidential elections held last year unfree and unfair, but more than 50 countries did not recognize their results—leaving Maduro with no domestic or international legitimacy as president. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Tom Rogan writes: Even Maduro can’t be so stupid as to use force against the United States. It would invite the end of his regime. It’s also crucial to note here that the U.S. is giving Maduro an easy way out — an offer of safe passage to a wealthy retirement — if he steps down now. In that offer and the corollary escalation of U.S. pressure, it is clear the Trump administration senses the moment has come to bring matters to a head. – Washington Examiner

Cyber Security

Thailand is expected to soon pass a new cybersecurity law which will create a government agency with sweeping powers of search and seizure, triggering concerns for freedom of expression and data security among civil society and business groups as elections loom. – Al Jazeera

A recent report published by cybersecurity firm Shape Security showed that 80-90% of the people who log in to a retailer’s e-commerce site are hackers using stolen data. This is the highest percentage of any sector examined in the report. […]Here are the consumer and retail companies that suffered a data breach in the last year. – Business Insider

Mark Zuckerberg writes: There’s no question that we collect some information for ads—but that information is generally important for security and operating our services as well. For example, companies often put code in their apps and websites so when a person checks out an item, they later send a reminder to complete the purchase. But this type of signal can also be important for detecting fraud or fake accounts. – Wall Street Journal


The Defense Department is examining whether Amazon Web Services created a conflict of interest by hiring a former Pentagon employee who helped develop a cloud-computing procurement contract. – Wall Street Journal

The Marine Corps wants to spend nearly a third of its Fiscal Year 2020 money on modernizing its equipment and nearly another third on rebuilding readiness, a top officer said. – USNI News

The US Marine Corps is developing a new concept of naval warfare to allow Marines to take South China Sea islands from Beijing in the context of a massive missile fight in the Pacific. – Business Insider

If the U.S. carries out all of its plans for modernizing and maintaining the nuclear arsenal, it will cost $494 billion over the next decade, an average of just less than $50 billion per year, a new government estimate has found. – Defense News

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs writes: The rollout of the Trump administration’s missile defense strategy has long been delayed, but on January 17, 2019, President Trump outlined his vision for missile defense in a speech at the Pentagon. The way the administration introduced the strategy piqued the interest of those tracking the moves of the Defense Department. – Hudson Institute

Marina Koren  writes: If the Lightfoot encounter is any indication, that’s the kind of answer that Trump doesn’t like. But that is the reality of space exploration. They take years, sometimes decades, and delays are common. If technical difficulties don’t derail the schedule, politics will; programs supported by one president can get tossed out by the next. The actual, real work of building missions usually outlasts presidents. The commander-in-chief who will lead the nation to humankind’s first steps on Mars is not in the White House, and may not be for years to come. – The Atlantic