Fdd's overnight brief

January 29, 2019

In The News


Iran is likely to expand its cyber espionage activities as its relations with Western powers worsen, the European Union digital security agency said on Monday. – Reuters

Iran on Tuesday dismissed calls from the United States and Europe for curbs on its ballistic missiles, but said it had no plans to increase their range. – Reuters

Iranian officials continued their anti-Israel rhetoric on Tuesday, threatening to improve the accuracy of their country’s missiles and warning that terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah were prepared to unleash an “inferno” on the Jewish state. – Times of Israel

Iran struck economic and trade deals with Syria on Monday, as it widens its role there after helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reclaim most of his country. Tehran has reached “very important agreements on banking cooperation” with Syria, Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said in the Syrian capital Damascus. – Reuters

A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander on Monday threatened Israel with destruction if it attacks Iran, state media reported. The comments by Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami, deputy head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), followed an Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria last week — the latest in a series of assaults targeting Tehran’s presence there in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government. – Reuters

Iran’s foreign minister says the United Arab Emirates has adopted an “unacceptable approach” toward Iranian businesses operating in this Gulf Arab state. – Asscociated Press

The European Union is on the verge of launching an alternative channel to send money to Iran that would sidestep U.S. sanctions against the Islamic republic, Germany’s foreign minister said Monday. – Associated Press

Shut out of the global financial system, Iran is inching closer to a workaround to US sanctions with the possible unveiling of its first state-backed cryptocurrency in the near future. – Al Jazeera

Ishaan Tharoor writes: It has been 1,110 days since Jason Rezaian, then The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tehran, was released from Iran’s notorious Evin prison. […] He also wrote a book about the 544 days he endured in captivity. “Prisoner,” published earlier this month, is a gripping, moving and sometimes absurd recounting of his prolonged detention. – Washington Post

Emil Avdaliani writes: From the Iranian perspective, the growing military cooperation between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan could pose a problem similar to that posed by the expansion of NATO, primarily in Georgia. Russian thinking could well align with Iranian thinking here, as both fear Western military encroachment in their spheres of influence. Both also loathe Turkish influence in the region. – Algemeiner


Ankara is aiming to form safe zones in northern Syria so that Syrian refugees hosted by Turkey could return to their home country, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. – Al Jazeera

Former Israel Air Force Chief Amir Eshel said on Monday that despite Israel’s great military strength, “it’s not military capability that is going to get the Iranians out of Syria.” – Haaretz

Hundreds of people have fled the Islamic State group’s last major stronghold in Syria, including fighters who tried to sneak out among civilians, Syrian opposition activists said Monday. The Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S-backed and Kurdish-led group, has intensified its offensive in the last area held by the extremists since U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to withdraw American troops last month. – Associated Press

Lara Seligman writes: Russia is emerging as the unrivaled powerbroker. The Kurds are facing an existential threat. And Iran is solidifying its position in a country far from its borders. Those are just some of the unintended consequences of the hasty decision last month by U.S. President Donald Trump to withdraw American troops from Syria, a decision that triggered broad opposition in Washington and prompted the departure of his defense secretary and another top official. – Foreign Policy


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he would eject a foreign force set up to help safeguard Palestinians in a flashpoint city in the occupied West Bank, accusing the observers of anti-Israel activity. – Reuters

The Palestinian ambassador at the United Nations said Monday that the day will come when “obstacles” in the Security Council to full UN membership for Palestine will be removed “but that day is not today.” – Associated Press

After Iran marked International Holocaust Memorial Day by once again threatening the Jewish state with a war of “elimination,” Israel’s United Nations envoy said on Monday he “expected more” from the UN’s member states when it came to condemning the Tehran regime’s rhetoric. – Algemeiner

Iran will continue to intensify its fight against the Jewish state, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin warned on Monday. Speaking at an Institute for National Security Studies conference in Tel Aviv, Rivlin stated, “I would choose two words to describe Israel’s strategic position in the near future: escalation and complexity. Escalation and intensification on one hand, complications and growing complexity on the other.” – Algemeiner

Gulf States

Saudi Arabia has stepped up efforts to woo investors spooked by the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as it seeks more than $426 billion in private capital to help reshape its oil-dependent economy. – Wall Street Journal

The United Nations envoy for Yemen on Monday urged the warring parties to withdraw their troops from the port of Hodeidah quickly, and international aid agencies said conditions for thousands of starving people were deteriorating fast. – Reuters

The United Arab Emirates has filed a complaint against Qatar at the World Trade Organization saying Doha has imposed a ban on Emirati products, UAE state news agency WAM said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

A United Nations investigation team arrived in Turkey on Monday to start an inquiry into the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi three months ago inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Agnès Callamard, the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, met with the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in Ankara at the beginning of the planned weeklong visit. – New York Times

A top judge in one of the United Nations’ international courts in The Hague has quit over what he termed “shocking” political interference from the White House and Turkey, the Guardian reports. The judge, Christoph Flügge, alleged that Turkey used its veto to end the tenure of a Turkish judge in one of the U.N. courts, setting a dangerous precedent for intervention. – Time

The leader of one of the most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq said Monday that he expects a vote in the coming months by Iraq’s parliament calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, underscoring the jostling for power between Iran and the U.S. in this key Middle Eastern country. – Associated Press

Seth J. Frantzman writes: The KRG can’t force the Turkish army to leave. Baghdad has summoned the Turkish ambassador in the past and complained again this week, but Iraq has no power to control its own airspace or to keep Turkey from hunting the PKK in Iraq. The KDP and PUK – the leading parties of the KRG – have difficult relations with the PKK, but they are against an internal Kurdish conflict. – Jerusalem Post

Korean Peninsula

The trial of two women accused of murdering the North Korean leader’s half-brother was adjourned Monday until March, and the case will now drag on until at least mid-2019. – Agence France-Presse

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sees coal as a key way to boost the economy, but burning more coal may worsen pollution in a country already choking on some of the world’s most toxic air. – Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin has joined President Donald Trump in inviting North Korea leader Kim Jong Un to meet with him, although the precise dates of the meetings have not yet been determined, according to officials. – Newsweek


The Trump administration unveiled a sweeping set of criminal charges against China’s Huawei Technologies Co. in its latest salvo against the telecom giant, with authorities unsealing a pair of indictments just days before U.S.-China trade talks are set to resume. – Wall Street Journal

‘Cabinet-level delegations from the U.S. and China will resume trade negotiations here Wednesday, but early indications are that the two sides remain sharply divided, suggesting a hard slog ahead for a deal to be cut before a March 1 deadline. – Wall Street Journal

China’s top trade negotiator arrived in Washington as the world’s top two economies prepare for high-stakes trade talks, Chinese state media said Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

Last year marked a “significant deterioration” in reporting conditions for foreign journalists in China, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said on Tuesday, with no reporter saying in a new survey that conditions had improved last year. – Reuters

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Monday the United States expects significant progress this week in trade talks with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, but the two sides will be tackling “complicated issues”, including how to enforce any deal. – Reuters

China’s government called on Washington on Tuesday to “stop the unreasonable crackdown” on Huawei following the tech giant’s indictment in the U.S. on charges of stealing technology and violating sanctions on Iran. – Associated Press

Daniel H. Rosen and Scott Kennedy write: If China wants maximum engagement with the United States, it needs to make substantial economic governance changes so that the division of benefits is far more symmetrical. If China prioritizes political engineering of its economy and firms, there is less scope for linkage with the United States. Beijing will do what it thinks is right for China, and Washington must be prepared for either outcome—or something in between. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Michael Schuman writes: The Trump administration is, rightfully, demanding a slew of reforms to Chinese practices it considers “unfair.” Washington wants Beijing to cut back on the subsidies and other financial support it lavishes on favored industries, to stop compelling U.S. firms to disgorge their commercial secrets, and to widen access to China’s lucrative home market for foreign companies. – The Atlantic


U.S. and Taliban negotiators have forged a preliminary deal on two vital points to end the war in Afghanistan, the special U.S. envoy said Monday, as the Afghan president urged the insurgents to negotiate directly with his government. – Wall Street Journal

A giant H has been painted on the broad boulevard in front of the American Embassy in Kabul, creating a new helipad that so far, embassy officials say, has only been used by Zalmay Khalilzad, the special United States diplomat who has been talking with the Taliban. President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan usually uses the roads, moving in armored convoys that snarl traffic in the gridlock-weary capital. – New York Times

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said on Monday he was encouraged by U.S. peace talks with Afghan Taliban insurgents but added he had not yet been tasked with planning a full withdrawal of troops from the more than 17-year-old war. – Reuters

Mark Landler, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt write: James Dobbins, a former top Obama administration official for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said it was imperative that the United States remain in Afghanistan while the Taliban and Afghan government enter into talks and reach any agreement, and leave only when a deal is implemented. – New York Times

Fawzia Koofi writes: Finally, the U.S. should understand that the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan won’t go away soon, even if there is a political settlement with the Taliban. For too long, Pakistani madrassas have inculcated the ideology of violent extremism. These extremists will continue to fight to maintain their footprints in Afghanistan. For this reason, America should continue to support the Afghan security forces. – Wall Street Journal



Denmark’s foreign minister called on Tuesday for European Union-wide sanctions on Russia over a stand-off with Ukraine in the Azov Sea. Anders Samuelsen will meet Ukraine’s foreign minister, Pavlo Klimkin, on Tuesday and Wednesday and visit the city of Mariupol by the Azov sea, the foreign ministry said in a statement. – Reuters

A second referendum on Brexit looks increasingly likely, German Justice Minister Katarina Barley told German broadcaster SWR on Tuesday, hours before British lawmakers debate and vote on the next steps for Brexit after previously rejecting the Prime Minister’s plan. – Reuters

Lawmakers will on Tuesday debate and vote on British Prime Minister Theresa May’s response to the overwhelming rejection of her Brexit plan earlier this month. The vote is not a rerun of the Jan. 15 vote on whether to approve the exit deal she had negotiated with the European Union, which she lost by 432 to 202. – Reuters

The Netherlands refused on Monday an Italian request to take in 47 migrants on a humanitarian ship that is being blocked from Italian ports, saying there was a need to distinguish between genuine refugees and economic migrants. – Reuters


Gunmen killed four Burkina Faso soldiers and injured five others near the Malian border on Monday, a day after 10 civilians were killed nearby in a separate attack, the army and security officials said. – Reuters

A legal case against Nigeria’s top judge which raised fears of interference in next month’s presidential election was adjourned indefinitely on Monday, days after President Muhammadu Buhari suspended the chief justice. The European Union and the United States voiced concerns after Buhari suspended Walter Onnoghen from the position where he would have a key say in resolving any disputes after the Feb. 16 election. – Reuters

A French judge has questioned former French President Francois Hollande as a witness as part of the investigation into the assassination of two journalists in Mali in 2013, a member of Hollande’s staff said on Monday. – Reuters

The Americas

Several prominent veteran Democrats, alarmed by the party’s drift from its longstanding alignment with Israel, are starting a new political group that will try to counter the rising skepticism on the left toward the Jewish state by supporting lawmakers and candidates in 2020 who stand unwaveringly with the country. – New York Times

The Senate voted Monday to advance legislation affirming the right of local and state governments to break ties with companies that boycott or divest from Israel, as Republicans try to drive a wedge between the Democratic Party and its traditional allies in the American Jewish community. – New York Times

When a delegation of high-profile donors, boosters and board members from the National Rifle Association traveled to Russia in 2015, they visited a gun factory in Moscow, took in a ballet and met with members of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. But now the N.R.A. is seeking to distance itself from the trip, after revelations that a Russian woman who helped arrange it, Maria Butina, was conspiring to infiltrate the organization. – New York Times

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said on Monday that Canada’s former ambassador to China had been fired because his comments on an extradition case involving an executive of telecommunications firm Huawei had made it untenable for him to stay in the job. – Reuters


The U.S. imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state-owned oil giant in a dramatic move designed to empower the opposition and cripple the government of President Nicolás Maduro by preventing the proceeds of U.S. crude sales returning to Caracas. – Wall Street Journal

Russia’s support for embattled Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro is opening a new geopolitical front between Moscow and Washington right on the U.S.’s doorstep, but the Kremlin’s will and ability to compete appear limited. – Wall Street Journal

Canada will host a meeting of the Lima Group regional bloc on Feb. 4 to discuss what to do next about Venezuela, where opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, a top official said on Monday. Most members of the 14-nation bloc do not recognize President Nicolas Maduro as Venezuela’s legitimate leader. – Reuters

Walter Russell Mead writes: In the short term Mr. Trump stands to benefit politically from the crisis in Venezuela. The administration handled the early stages decisively. The decision to recognize an alternative legitimate president based on a plausible reading of the Venezuelan constitution surprised Mr. Maduro and his cronies, united and encouraged the Venezuelan opposition, and won widespread support from democratic countries in the region and beyond. – Wall Street Journal

Charles Lane writes: President Trump has launched a new push for democracy in Venezuela, and, for once, he enjoys support from governments in Europe and Latin America. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada — who’s hardly a Trump acolyte — and even a significant number of Democratic lawmakers in Congress are also on board. – Washington Post

Eli Lake writes: For the last year and a half, a second Venezuelan Supreme Court has presided over the country’s laws through the miracle of cloud computing. Its 33 jurists live in the U.S., Panama, Colombia and Chile. […] On Jan. 11, it urged Juan Guaido, the leader of the National Assembly, to assume the interim presidency. And just as many democratic nations now recognize his legitimacy, there is momentum to recognize the exiled court, too. – Bloomberg

Cyber Security

Apple Inc. scrambled to fix a bug in its FaceTime video-chat system that lets callers eavesdrop on users of iPhones, iPads, and Macs, an embarrassing setback for a company that has touted its commitment to privacy. – Wall Street Journal

French engineering consultancy Altran Technologies was the target of a cyber attack last Thursday that hit operations in some European countries, it said on Monday. – Reuters

Robots can be built and trained to outpace and wipe out the majority of cyber criminal’s capacity to harm society, a former chief of IDF Unit 8200 (the “Israeli NSA”) said Tuesday.IDF Brig. Gen. (ret.) Ehud Schneorson made the statement in a speech at the Cybertech TLV 2019. His speech focused on the role of robots in cyber security. – Jerusalem Post

Joseph Marks writes: Thousands of federal cyber workers are returning to their posts after more than a month on furlough today. And they have a big to-do list. The first priority: Looking for evidence of any major hacks that wormed through government defenses the past 35 days while agencies were working with a skeleton crew of security pros. It will take them days or weeks to pore through security logs to assess how much damage the shutdown did to the security of government computer networks and the sensitive data they hold. – Washington Post


The Navy’s top officer stressed the importance of his personal relationship with his Chinese Navy counterpart and in continuing a dialogue to minimize the risks from the obvious tensions between the two most powerful Pacific naval forces. – USNI News

Naval Surface Forces is continuing its push for an experimental squadron that would help figure out how to best leverage new platforms such as the Zumwalt-class destroyers and unmanned surface ships. – USNI News

The Army’s little-known but sizeable maritime fleet may be facing cuts, as the service considers eliminating dozens of boats and forcing hundreds of reservists out of their jobs in the next two years. – Military.com

Two years after the first major special operations raid under the Trump administration, the airmen, part of the 67th Special Operations Squadron at the time, received Distinguished Flying Crosses last week for their actions in support of various tasks against terrorist operations under Operation Inherent Resolve, according to the Air Force. – Military.com

A new low-yield nuclear warhead, created at the behest of the Trump administration, has officially entered production. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy is zeroing in on a cost and the shape of its new frigate as it prepares to launch an open competition this summer. – Defense News

A new report warns Poland against the temptation of relying on a “Fort Trump” to guard against the threat of Russian aggression. – Defense News

Rachel Olney writes: There remains no shortage of hand-wringing over the state of engagement and collaboration between Silicon Valley and the Department of Defense. This was front and center at the panel I appeared on at the Reagan National Defense Forum in December. From advisory boards like the Defense Innovation Board and the Section 809 Panel to entire organizations like the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) Outpost, there has been great effort to close the gap between the Valley and the Pentagon. – War on the Rocks

Mike Holmes writes: The U.S. Air Force’s pilot training system has long been the envy of air forces around the world, but for the past several years it has failed to keep pace with increasing production requirements. Furthermore, the current training model is facing a widening gap between the capabilities of our primary training aircraft and the advanced fighter aircraft our pilots now employ. – War on the Rocks

Trump Administration

Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer, will testify behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee on Feb. 8, the panel said Monday—the first of a series of expected hearings for Mr. Cohen in the weeks before he is scheduled to report to prison. – Wall Street Journal

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia in the 2016 presidential election is close to being wrapped up, Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said Monday. – Agence France-Presse

President Donald Trump on Monday accepted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s invitation to deliver his State of the Union speech on Feb. 5, a week later than originally scheduled because of the partial government shutdown. – Associated Press