Fdd's overnight brief

January 3, 2020

In The News


A U.S. airstrike killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad late Thursday, the Pentagon said, a dramatic escalation of tensions between the two countries that could lead to widespread violence in the region and beyond. – Washington Post

Iran on Friday vowed “severe revenge” in response to the U.S. airstrike which killed Tehran’s most powerful military commander, Qasem Soleimani, and dramatically sharpened tensions across the Middle East. – Washington Post

As leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, the 62-year-old bore responsibility for Iran’s clandestine operations abroad, quietly extending the military reach of Iran deep into foreign conflicts such as those in Syria and Iraq. In the process, he earned himself near-mythical status among his enemies and idolization by his Iranian hard-line supporters. – Washington Post  

The actions of an Iranian-backed militia have moved the U.S. and Iran into direct confrontation in Iraq, in a test of whether the two nations can settle their differences short of war. – Wall Street Journal 

Oil prices surged, global stocks faltered and gold rallied after a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad killed an Iranian military leader, recharging tensions in the oil-rich Middle East. – Wall Street Journal  

Iran’s top security and intelligence commander was killed early Friday in a drone strike at Baghdad International Airport that was authorized by President Trump, American officials said. – New York Times

Global powers are warning that the world has become a more dangerous place after U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the targeted killing of Iran’s top general and are urging restraint on all sides. – Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidates warned Thursday that the killing of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani could prompt a violent escalation in the Middle East, and that Iran is likely to respond in turn. – Politico

The U.S. may conduct preemptive strikes against Iranian-backed militias, Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned on Thursday, adding that he expects those groups are planning further attacks against U.S. bases in Iraq. – Politico

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff responded late Friday to the U.S. airstrike ordered by President Trump that killed Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and six others at Baghdad’s international airport. “Soleimani was responsible for unthinkable violence and world is better off without him,” Schiff tweeted hours after the strike. – Fox News

Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., called on members of Congress late Thursday to join her in putting a stop to President Trump from starting a war as a “distraction” in Iran following the U.S. airstrike that killed the notorious Gen. Qassim Soleimani. – Fox News

Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani’s death in a U.S. airstrike deprives the regime of the man who orchestrated a years-long hybrid war against American allies that has ranged across the Middle East. “He’s irreplaceable for Iran,” a senior U.S. official familiar with Iran policy told the Washington Examiner after the Pentagon announced Soleimani’s death. – Washington Examiner

A leader of the Iranian-backed siege of the US Embassy in Baghdad visited the White House with other Iraqi officials in 2011 during the Obama administration, according to a report on Thursday. – New York Post

Editorial: But with this strike, Trump has shown he is not going to stand by idly and allow this to happen. The mullahs should be on notice that every time their officers or agents harm or seriously threaten U.S. citizens, they will pay an outsize price for it. Facing unprecedented unrest at home, Iran’s leaders can ill afford a showdown with America. The U.S. must remain resolute. – Washington Examiner 

Marc Thiessen writes: When President Trump came to office, Iran was on the march across the Middle East, its expansionism fueled by cash it received from the Obama nuclear deal. As a result of Trump’s decision to pull out of the deal and impose the most crippling sanctions ever on Tehran, Iran’s economy is contracting, inflation is spiraling and the regime has been forced to cut funding for its terrorist proxies. […]The Trump administration is succeeding in its efforts to destabilize the regime in Tehran. For Obama officials to actively undermine those efforts is disgraceful. – Fox News

Christian Whiton writes: Trump has hardly acted in haste. He canceled an attack on Iran last June because he thought the possible cost in human lives would have been disproportionate to the provocation. And he has prioritized financial sanctions over military force in trying to get Iran to abandon its nuclear weapons program. Trump finally had enough only after Iran was caught once again plotting American deaths and attacked our embassy in Baghdad. – Fox News

Ray Takeyh writes: To be sure, the staged protests around the American embassy in Baghdad have gotten their share of attention. Iran has long been adept at staging such demonstrations, which are small in comparison to those who have revolted against the Islamic Republic. The Iraqis do not wish their country to be the battleground between the United States and Iran, and all this may press them to further cut their ties with a theocracy that has divided their nation and corrupted its politics. In the end, the recent American strike may yet embolden the voices calling for the eviction of Iran from Iraq. – The Hill 

Michael Knights writes: The United States is betting that there are still more reasonable nationalist actors in Iraq’s leadership than pro-Iranian stooges. The coming day—when the blockade of our embassy must be lifted, and the coming months, when the de-legitimized government may be replaced—will settle whether that is the case. – Washington Institute


Once touting its image as an incorruptible resistance to the “Zionist enemy,” Hezbollah has come to be viewed by many Lebanese—including Shiites—as just another of the greedy Lebanese political factions responsible for the dysfunction of Lebanon’s state institutions. […]Even before Gen. Soleimani’s killing, government officials in the Middle East believed that sooner or later Iran would strike somewhere in the region to regain the strategic initiative[…]. – Wall Street Journal 

Lebanon’s Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Friday his powerful Shi’ite militia group would continue the path of Iran’s Major-General Qassem Soleimani after his death in a U.S. airstrike, broadcaster Al Manar reported. – Reuters 

As Israel moves toward a ceasefire agreement with Hamas in Gaza, the head of Israel’s Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), Nadav Argaman, has warned the Security Cabinet against allowing Hamas to turn into the second Hezbollah by not limiting the terror group’s military buildup as part of the arrangement. – Jerusalem Post 


U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan agreed on the need to de-escalate tensions in Idlib, Syria, the White House said on Thursday, a day after eight people were killed in a Syrian missile strike in the province. – Reuters 

Israel has struck 54 targets in Syria and 900 in the Gaza Strip over the last year, which has also seen a decrease in attacks in the West Bank, data released by the IDF has shown. – Jerusalem Post  

Syrian government artillery fire killed nine people, including five children, in opposition-held Idlib province on Wednesday, first responders say. – BBC 


Turkey’s parliament has authorized the government to dispatch troops to Libya, highlighting Ankara’s increasingly assertive policy in the Mediterranean region. – Wall Street Journal   

Turkey’s bill allowing troop deployment in Libya marks a dangerous escalation in the North African country’s civil war and severely threatens stability in the region, a joint statement by Greece, Israel and Cyprus said late on Thursday. – Reuters  

Egypt condemned in the “strongest terms” the Turkish parliament’s decision to authorize the government to deploy troops to Libya. – Bloomberg

President Donald Trump on Thursday warned his Turkish counterpart against sending troops to fight in Libya hours after the Turkish Parliament voted to authorize such a move. – Politico


Israel’s defense minister summoned the country’s military and security chiefs to Tel Aviv on Friday in the wake of the U.S. air strike that killed senior Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani. – Reuters 

Thousands of Palestinians celebrated the 55th anniversary of the founding of the Fatah party in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip this week, with rallies featuring music, speeches, and occasional displays of armed force. – Algemeiner 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed solidarity with the US on Thursday amid heightened tensions in the Middle East following the storming of the US Embassy in Baghdad earlier this week by a pro-Iran mob. – Algemeiner 


The U.S. presence in Iraq must end as a result of the American killing of the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units, a senior Iraq militia leader was cited as saying by Lebanon’s Al Mayadeen TV. – Bloomberg 

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a veteran Iraqi militant who was closely allied with Iran and rose to be a senior militia commander during the war against the Islamic State group, was killed overnight Friday in a U.S. strike that also felled Iran’s top general. – Associated Press

The U.S. is ready to deploy more force in Iraq if needed to defend or prevent more attacks by Iranian-backed militias, Pentagon leaders warned Thursday. – Bloomberg 

The State Department issued a security alert early Friday morning urging Americans in Iraq to leave the country immediately. – Fox News

Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, tweeted a video that he claimed showed Iraqis taking to the streets to celebrate the death of Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani. – Fox News

Qassim Soleimani, the Iranian military general who was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Iraq on Thursday, was responsible for the deaths of over 600 U.S. soldiers in Iraq. – Washington Examiner

Adam Taylor writes: Tensions between the United States and Iran have escalated dramatically over the past week, culminating in the shock assassination of a revered Iranian military leader in Iraq just days after pro-Iran militias staged a dramatic storming of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. The location of this round of violence shows how Iraq is again stuck in the middle of the dispute between the United States and Iran — a dangerous place to be for a country still reeling from years of dictatorship, war and extremism. – Washington Post 

Tallha Abdulrazaq writes: Rather than curbing Iranian influence, the United States helped facilitate Tehran’s inroads to eclipse Washington all while pouring billions of dollars into supporting a government already compromised, as the recent leaked Iran spy cables show. What the siege showed was that the United States has no friends in Iraq, or at least none that are effective. – Washington Post

Michael Pregent writes: It’s clear the Iraqi government and its security forces are incapable of dealing with the Iranian-backed militias that now wield enormous influence in Iraq. Those militias will now try to force the Iraqi government to demand a total U.S. troop withdrawal. We must not let that happen. If U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq we can expect to see Iraq change sides and end its status as a U.S. ally to become an Iranian puppet that would not just oppress the Iranian people, but would endanger our national security and the security of the entire Middle East. – Fox News

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Finally, the U.S. does not need a “normal embassy” in Iraq; it needs a stable mission that can help Iraq address both its civil and security needs. It needs a U.S. effort that provides consistent support and help, and that does not consistently express indecision and change it course. The U.S. must adapt to circumstances, but it needs plans based on levels of aid it can continue to provide over time, it needs to maintain a level of presence that provide the support that is actually needed, and it needs to demonstrate over time that it is acting in the interest of every major element in Iraq. – Center for Strategic & International Studies  

Michael Knights writes: Washington should smartly employ tougher love in the coming months, working with other nations and Iraqi moderates to improve the country’s chances of recovery from militia rule. – Washington Institute 


If Carlos Ghosn thought he would be safe in Lebanon, he may have been very wrong. A group of lawyers on Thursday lodged a complaint with Lebanon’s judiciary charging that visits he made to Israel in his position as chairman of Renault and later Nissan constitute a crime under laws forbidding citizens from interacting with Lebanon’s arch-foe, which has been in a state of war with Lebanon for the past 60 years. – Washington Post

New clues emerged on Friday on how Carlos Ghosn pulled off his audacious escape from Japan, as a Turkish charter jet company said its planes were used illegally to pull off the plan, while the Japanese news media reported that surveillance camera footage showed the disgraced auto industry mogul leaving his Tokyo home on Sunday by himself. – New York Times

Interpol issued a wanted notice Thursday for former Nissan chairman Carlos Ghosn, who jumped bail in Japan and fled to Lebanon rather than face trial on financial misconduct charges in a dramatic escape that has confounded and embarrassed authorities. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

Turkish police detained seven people Thursday, including four pilots, on suspicion of having helped former Nissan executive Carlos Ghosn escape Japan and transit through Istanbul on his way to Lebanon, Turkey’s state news agency reported. – Washington Post

That is the bleak reality facing Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents as they approach a new year and new decade: still stuck living in a place the world has already deemed uninhabitable in perhaps the most surreal of 2020 predictions. – Washington Post

The United States military will pre-emptively strike Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria if there are indications the paramilitary groups are planning more attacks against American bases and personnel in the region, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said Thursday. – New York Times  

Flights were suspended until further notice at the only functioning airport in Libya’s capital Tripoli on Friday due to rockets falling nearby, an airport official said. – Reuters 

Korean Peninsula

President Trump’s decision to engage directly with Kim Jong Un was premised on the bet that three decades of U.S. policy failures to contain North Korea’s nuclear program could be reversed by skipping over lower-level diplomatic talks and starting at the top of its authoritarian regime. – Washington Post

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday said the United States still sees a political agreement on denuclearization as the best path forward on North Korea, but that American forces remained prepared to fight if necessary. – Reuters 

Joseph Bosco writes: It is even possible that Trump decided to let Xi know that the double-game Communist China has been playing on North Korea must end in 2020, that the economic masters in Beijing no longer will be allowed to leverage their “cooperation” on the nuclear and missile threat against other Western interests (Taiwan, South China Sea, cyber theft and, as Xi is already discovering, on trade). By making clear he is able and willing to play naughty as well as nice, Trump may have persuaded Kim that a vase is a better idea after all. – The Hill 

Christian Whiton writes: In light of Kim’s announcement this week, Trump should adjust his tactics to pressure China more to get North Korea to negotiate seriously, while continuing his own high-level diplomacy. […]A better option is to alter the balance of power in our favor while giving Beijing an incentive to pressure its North Korean ally. Even more than North Korea, China hated the 2017 deployment to South Korea of the U.S.-built Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system. THAAD can shoot down Chinese missiles in addition to North Korean ones, and therefore degrades China’s offensive and deterrent capabilities. – Fox News


Beijing has halted a high-profile project letting Chinese companies list in London, people familiar with the matter said, in a move that could signal chillier financial relations with Britain. – Wall Street Journal 

China appears to have been destroying traditional Uyghur cemeteries for several years as part of what critics describe as a broader, coordinated campaign to control Islamic beliefs and Muslim minority groups within its borders. – CNN 

With a new decade of competition looming, Washington is pushing back hard against Beijing across a range of fronts, including trade, military and diplomatic matters. For some the tensions are reminiscent of the Cold War, the almost 50-year conflict between the Soviet Union and the US which defined much of the 20th century. But this is not the Cold War — and the People’s Republic of China is not the USSR. – CNN

Joseph C. Sternberg writes: Financial opening means a lot more than granting a few charters to foreign-owned banks. To start, it requires a wholesale overhaul of Chinese corporate governance to protect foreign investors, and privatization of state-owned and Communist Party-controlled enterprises to give foreigners something to invest in. […]But no one should expect it to be an “easy” win, as Mr. Trump claims for his trade wars. The world’s most populous country and second-largest economy is in for a messy overhaul of its economy and perhaps its regime. – Wall Street Journal 

Nicholas Sargen writes: The pending agreement over USMCA offers insights about what may be in store. Namely, after considerable sound and fury about the shortcomings of NAFTA, Congress and the White House are about to sign a bill that some have called NAFTA 2.0. I believe the struggle between the U.S. and China over the past 18 months makes it more likely that forthcoming changes in trade will entail inevitable compromises, as well. – The Hill 


Months of political turmoil have turned Hong Kong from a city of possibilities into a place of doubt and disillusion. Peaceful demonstrations have turned violent. Its economy is shrinking. Yet China’s leaders seem as determined as ever to do away with the high degree of autonomy they once promised, threatening to put Hong Kong further under Beijing’s authoritarian control. – New York Times

U.K. security giant G4S and South African telecoms provider MTN are among six multinational corporations named in a U.S. lawsuit over alleged “protection payments” to terrorists in Afghanistan. – CNBC 

Taiwan heads to the polls next week in what’s considered one of the most significant elections for the island, as voters closely watch the protests in Hong Kong amid concerns about alleged Chinese encroachment in the elections. – CNBC

Jeremy Butler writes: While IAVA continues to stand up for proper health care, economic opportunity and public perception of our veterans, everyday Americans can simply endeavor to separate their political concerns about the Afghanistan conflict from the honorable service of American veterans who responded to the call of duty. – The Hill 

Zachary Abuza writes: The political situations in both Bangkok and Washington will change in time, hopefully creating an opportunity to revisit shared interests and values. Beijing, too, is likely to change the overall strategic context by over-playing its hand. Moreover, ending the alliance in a public and explicit manner would have a deleterious impact on America’s other alliances in the region, which are already under stress. – War on the Rocks


Exxon Mobil Corp. won’t have to pay a fine for continuing to do business with a Russian state-run oil company amid increasing U.S. sanctions on the country, a federal judge ruled. – Wall Street Journal  

Russia halted crude oil supplies to its neighbor Belarus after the two countries were unable to agree on terms for a 2020 supply contract. – Bloomberg 

As Russian military planners look to the middle of this century, and a possible sixth-generation strategic bomber, could that mean putting a nuclear weapon in the control of a robot? – C4ISRNET

David Ignatius writes: When it comes to international cybersecurity issues, you have to credit Russia for its baldfaced hypocrisy. The fox, as it were, has just managed to get itself elected chairman of the committee to protect the henhouse. […]As I said, you have to hand it to the Russians when it comes to information wars. They are masters of the arts of deception and denial, never more effectively than in the Internet age. They pick your pockets, and then they offer to help you call the police. – Washington Post


Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed a deal Thursday to build an undersea pipeline to carry gas from new offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to continental Europe. – Associated Press

The arrest warrant targeting Carles Puigdemont has been suspended by Belgian judicial authorities because of the Catalan separatist leader’s immunity as a European lawmaker, his lawyer said Thursday. – Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump’s attack on international trade might have been more successful if he’d targeted Europe’s biggest economy rather than China, according to Nobel laureate Paul Krugman. – Bloomberg 

A Catalan separatist party said on Thursday it would abstain during the Spanish parliament’s upcoming vote to confirm Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez as prime minister, potentially ending the prolonged national political deadlock. – Reuters 

Dozens of prominent current and former officials, academics, and cultural figures in the Balkans have joined an online petition warning of regional “threats to peace” from Belgrade amid ongoing fallout from a new law on religion in neighboring Montenegro. – Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty

Croatia will work to restart European Union membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia while the country holds the EU presidency for the next six months. – Radio Free Europe /Radio Liberty


Kenyan officials say four people were killed on Thursday when a convoy of passenger buses was fired on by Islamic extremists in the country’s eastern coastal area. Somalia’s al-Shabab rebels have claimed responsibility for the attack. – Associated Press

Hundreds of mourners and government officials in Mogadishu gathered at the capital’s Police School on Thursday to mourn the 79 people killed by a tragic truck bomb last week. – Associated Press

Emilia Columbo writes: As the United States looks for partners and collaborators in sub-Saharan Africa, it should consider teaming up with the newest member of the policy team, South Korea. Aligning goals, resources, and projects will enable Washington, Seoul, and African counterparts to push forward fresh policies in the upcoming decade. – Center for Strategic & International Studies 

The Americas

U.S. Customs and Border Protection for the first time Thursday began turning around migrants seeking asylum in Arizona and sending them to Nogales, Mexico, to await U.S. court hearings that they now will need to get to on their own. – Wall Street Journal  

The U.S. is warning Argentine President Alberto Fernandez that his early foreign policy moves may jeopardize both support from the International Monetary Fund and American investment in the nation’s vast shale oil and gas fields. – Bloomberg  

Under an expansion of the controversial “Remain in Mexico” program, some asylum-seekers returned by U.S. authorities to northern Mexico will have to travel more than 340 miles by car to attend hearings in an American immigration court. – CBS News

The United States imposed sanctions on Thursday on Cuba’s defense minister, accusing him of human rights violations and supporting socialist Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. – Reuters 


Technology companies such as Facebook and Apple Inc. over recent years have strengthened the security of their systems to the point where even the tech companies themselves can’t provide law-enforcement agencies with messages created on their own systems. – Wall Street Journal 

If the popular ToTok video and voice calling app is a spying tool of the United Arab Emirates, that’s news to its co-creator. Giacomo Ziani defended his work in an interview with The Associated Press and said he had no knowledge that people and companies linked to the project had ties to the country’s intelligence apparatus, despite a recent report in The New York Times. – Associated Press 

The Department of Labor didn’t properly report cybersecurity incidents containing personally identifiable information to the federal emergency response team, the agency inspector general found in its annual review of DoL cybersecurity practices. – Fifth Domain 


The head of the U.S. Navy’s Fleet Forces Command has ordered the service’s surface force to develop a concept of operations for both the large and medium unmanned surface vessels in development, according to a Dec. 19 message obtained by Defense News. – Defense News 

The golden hour, the first 60 minutes after a battlefield wound, is considered the most critical period for soldiers. To maximize that time, a new effort is automating the transmission of medical information of soldiers en route to the hospital. This program, known as Medical Hands-Free Unified Broadcast (MEDHUB), will allow doctors in the operating rooms to be better prepared for the patients coming in. – C4ISRNET  

Eric Lofgren writes: Most importantly, Congress requires detailed justification in the budget for every MTA program. That means the services must start justifying MTAs at least two years in advance of funding receipt. Many of today’s MTA programs spun off existing, budgeted line items. New programs may find a hard time finding funds. – Defense News  

John J. Klein writes: A new U.S. Space Force is an important organizational change within the Defense Department, especially given that the last time a new service was created was the U.S. Air Force in 1947. The current excitement means that many policymakers expect change to be immediate, but the Space Force’s most essential benefits will not be realized until later. – War on the Rocks 

Trump Administration

The year 2020 certainly got off to a bang with tensions between the U.S. and Iran high amid Tehran-backed protests in Iraq and experts believe that geopolitical turbulence is only going to get worse this year, particularly in the run up to the most seismic event of the year — the U.S. election in November. – CNBC

When President Trump returns from his Christmas break at Mar-a-Lago, he’ll face an inbox full of pressing foreign policy problems. There’s the continuing fallout from his decision to pull American troops from the Syrian border with Turkey, North Korea’s accelerating rate of missile tests, and Iran’s continuing meddling in the Middle East. – Washington Examiner

President Trump gave “clear direction” to federal officials to withhold a nine-figure military aid package from Ukraine after asking that nation’s leader to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, according to newly leaked emails between administration officials. – New York Post

William Taylor, who led the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine and was a key impeachment witness, has officially been replaced. – The Hill