Fdd's overnight brief

January 3, 2019

In The News


A senior Israeli official on Thursday reportedly criticized US President Donald Trump for appearing to give Iran free rein to further entrench militarily in Syria. The US president, on Wednesday, said of Iranian forces in Syria: “They can do what they want there, frankly,” while suggesting Tehran was removing its troops from the country. – Times of Israel

Authorities in Iran announced on Wednesday that they would ban photo sharing app Instagram, citing national security concerns, The Telegraph reports. – Arutz Sheva

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani met with the Secretary General of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad Ziad al-Nakhala in Tehran on Tuesday, according to a report by the Iranian network PressTV.  “The Zionist regime, thanks to support from the new rulers of the White House, is seeking to assert control over the entire region; and Palestine is a part of such a complex plot,” – Jerusalem Post

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Washington has a problem. It has thought that investing in a strong central government in Baghdad would reduce Iran’s role. That has not happened yet – instead US investment may have inadvertently benefited Iran. The US is also concerned about showing too much support for the Kurdish region, thinking that it has to balance Baghdad and Erbil in the Kurdish region, as opposed to simply embracing its allies in northern Iraq. – Jerusalem Post


Two days of fighting in rebel-held parts of northern Syria killed dozens of people as al-Qaida-linked militants press their offensive against Turkey-backed rebels, a war monitor and activists said Wednesday. – Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday the United States would get out of Syria slowly “over a period of time” and would protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in the country as Washington draws down troops. – Reuters

A convoy of Syrian Kurdish fighters has pulled out of the flashpoint area of Manbij in northern Syria, close to territory controlled by Turkey, Syria’s defense ministry said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The Bashar Al-Assad regime responded to U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement of the U.S. pullout from Syria with satisfaction over the “American defeat,” but also with skepticism regarding the sincerity of the announcement and apprehension that it is merely a ruse. […]This report reviews the reactions to Trump’s decision in the Syrian government and pro-regime press, and by Hizbullah members. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Editorial: If Mr. Trump has quietly changed his mind in the face of such assessments, that would be welcome. But that is not clear, either. In public, Mr. Trump continues to defend the withdrawals, though without offering substantive arguments. Instead, he says he is fulfilling campaign promises and renouncing a U.S. role as “the policeman of the world.” […]If he believes the United States should no longer fight the Islamic State in Syria, or the Taliban and Islamic State in Afghanistan, he should deliver a substantive address to the country laying out why. – Washington Post


Israel’s regional cooperation minister said Israel is ready to move ahead with a multibillion dollar project with Jordan to pipe water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, an idea that’s been on the drawing board for years. – Bloomberg

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu helped squeeze the president of Honduras into Secretary of State Michael Pompeo’s crowded schedule in Brazil, betting that the Latin American leader will move his embassy to Jerusalem ahead of April elections where the premier is fighting to keep his job, according to a senior Israeli official. – Bloomberg

Tensions between Hamas and Fatah have intensified in the past few days as the two Palestinian rival parties continue to exchange allegations and insults. Now, Hamas and Fatah are accusing each other of being “spies” for Israel. – Jerusalem Post

HSBC’s decision to divest from Elbit Systems was a statement against the production of cluster bombs and had nothing to do with the BDS movement, the global banking giant said on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

Daniel J. Arbess writes: The true-state solution would be innovative and elegant—worthy of “Deal of the Century” designation. If it materializes, Barack Obama will ironically deserve some of the credit. His cultivation of Iran’s Ayatollahs stimulated the Arab states’ recent cooperation with Israel. And Donald Trump will have proved instrumental in helping Israel fully attain its potential as a “light unto nations,” for all its cultures and inhabitants—Christians, Druze, Muslims and Jews—and as a beacon of democracy, prosperity, peace and stability in the Middle East and beyond. – Wall Street Journal

David Makovsky and Dennis Ross write: With the Russians now adopting a tougher policy toward Israel’s freedom of action in Syria and Lebanon, how do Netanyahu and other candidates propose to deal with them? The challenge is especially acute because the Trump administration with its withdrawal from Syria is signaling to everyone, including the Russians, that it sees no interests in Syria regardless of whether Israel and Jordan are likely to face Iranian-backed threats from there. – Ynet

On Christmas, December 25, 2018, the Palestinian Authority (PA) daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida published two articles linking Jesus to the Palestinian national struggle against Israel. One of the articles described Jesus as a Palestinian hero who was crucified for defending his rights in the face of “fanatic Jews” who distorted Judaism, just s the Zionists have “hijacked” Judaism with the support of “the capitalist West.” The second article described Jesus as a martyr and as the first fidai (fighter who sacrifices his soul), who gave his life for the homeland. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Arabian Peninsula

Saudi Arabia denied Wednesday that it had issued American-made weapons to Sudanese soldiers in Yemen, disputing statements made by five of the soldiers and reported last week in The New York Times. – New York Times

Yemen’s government and its two main allies have written to the UN Security Council accusing rebels of failing to comply with a hard-won ceasefire agreement in the vital port city of Hodeida, an Arab diplomat said Wednesday. – Agence France-Presse

Netflix faced criticism Wednesday from human rights groups for pulling an episode in Saudi Arabia of comedian Hasan Minhaj’s “Patriot Act” series that criticized the kingdom’s powerful crown prince. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

A U.S. delegation is scheduled to visit Ankara this week to discuss Turkey’s request for the extradition of a self-exiled cleric it says instigated a 2016 coup attempt, according to two Turkish officials. – Bloomberg

Algeria has barred all Syrians from entering the country via its southern border with Mali and Niger to keep out members of defeated rebel groups from Syria deemed to pose a security risk, a senior official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The powerful Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah believes a solution to be “very close” for the country’s impasse over forming a new government, one of its senior officials said on Wednesday, following nearly eight months of political wrangling. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

It has become a favorite parlor trick of President Trump’s, and on Wednesday, he was at it again, brandishing his latest letter from the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. […]What makes Mr. Kim’s letters different, analysts said, is that they are key to a highly sensitive diplomatic negotiation over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. – New York Times

President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he has received a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and will be setting up a meeting with Kim “in the not-too-distant future” to restart talks about the North’s nuclear programs. – Associated Press

North Korea’s top diplomat in Italy has sought asylum, a report said Thursday, in what would be another high-profile defection bid by one of Pyongyang’s envoys. – Agence France-Presse


When China announced on Thursday that it had successfully landed on the far side of the moon, it wasn’t just a scientific breakthrough. To Beijing, its expanding space mission also carries an increasingly powerful symbolic message. […]“Today’s announcement was a clear statement about the level of maturity that China’s technology has now reached. Beijing’s longer-term goal to match U.S. capabilities could now become reality within two decades, and on the moon within perhaps only one decade.” – Washington Post

China has built the world’s most extensive and sophisticated online censorship system. It grew even stronger under President Xi Jinping, who wants the internet to play a greater role in strengthening the Communist Party’s hold on society. More content is considered sensitive. Punishments are getting more severe. – New York Times

The leaders of China and Taiwan sparred over the prospects of unification, showing the decades-old split remains potentially volatile under intensifying pressure from Chinese President Xi Jinping to change the status quo. – Wall Street Journal

The social media accounts and messaging apps of a Canadian businessman detained in China have been active since he was arrested in December on suspicion of being engaged in activity that endangered China’s security. – Reuters

China’s top prosecutor said he was certain two Canadian citizens detained in the country violated local laws and regulations and that both men remain under investigation. – Bloomberg

The odds of a U.S.-China trade deal are rising because both sides have a clearer sense of each other’s goals and intentions, a former Chinese trade official said ahead of negotiations in Beijing next week. – Bloomberg

Mustafa Akyol writes: China’s “re-education” policy is a major attack on Muslim people and their faith, Islam, yet the Muslim world has remained largely silent. While the policy has been condemned by human rights groups and the liberal news media in the West, along with Uighur organizations themselves, only a few Muslim leaders[…] have raised some public concerns. – New York Times

Robert E. Rubin writes: The arc of human history is one of frequent conflict. Unless you believe human nature is likely to change, that suggests a serious risk that nuclear arms will be used at some point by state or nonstate actors. United States-China cooperation to limit nuclear proliferation among states, the diversion of nuclear material to terrorists and other risks would make us all safer. – New York Times

Erin Dunne writes: The Trump administration has made a point of backing Taiwan, the self-governing island claimed by China but effectively independent since World War II. Trump was the first president since 1979 to speak directly with the president of Taiwan[…]. But Trump has also embraced Chinese President Xi Jinping and, as he looks to make a deal to end the trade war, seems more willing to mix politics into an economic agreement. For Taiwan, the result is uncertainty about just where U.S. policy stands when it comes to supporting its democracy and independence. – Washington Examiner


President Donald Trump has called for Russia and others to take a more active role in the conflict in Afghanistan after claiming that involvement there was responsible for the collapse of the Soviet Union. – Newsweek

An Afghan official says the Taliban killed eight police in an attack on their post in the provincial capital of the northern Baghlan province. – Associated Press

South Korean plaintiffs in a World War Two forced labor court case against Japan’s Nippon Steel & Sumitomo Metal Corp have applied to seize some of Nippon Steel’s Korean assets, their lawyers said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: Supporting the U.S.-led international order, Britain will establish a new naval base in Southeast Asia. To be most effective, the Royal Navy should use that base to facilitate submarine operations. […]Britain faces compelling economic reasons to ignore China’s aggression in the South China Sea in favor of Beijing’s economic patronage. But choosing to stand alongside America in support of the U.S.-led international order, London proves its continuing worth as our closest ally. – Washington Examiner


The Trump administration raised questions about Russia’s detention of an American citizen as the U.S. ambassador to Moscow visited him on Wednesday. Russia’s main security agency, the FSB, detained Paul Whelan of Novi, Michigan, on Dec. 28 while he was “carrying out spying activities,” the agency said, providing no further details. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. ambassador to Russia was allowed to meet Wednesday with a Michigan man imprisoned in Moscow on suspicion of espionage, the first contact U.S. officials have had with him since he was arrested last week at a hotel. – Washington Post

Henry Miller writes: A report from the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence implicated RT in Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential election. It found that the network uses the Internet and social media to conduct “strategic messaging for the Russian government” and that its programming aims “at undermining viewers’ trust of U.S. democratic procedures” and U.S.-dominant technologies. […]The actions of the Russians and their American “ useful idiots” are bringing us back to the brink of another Cold War. – Washington Examiner

Stanislaw Zaryn writes: Hostile influence is a dangerous weapon that Russia has been using for years in order to meet its strategic goals in foreign and internal policy. Both Russia’s neighboring countries and those farther away have fallen victims to such influence. Given the current setting, the use of hybrid activities against other countries becomes an increasingly dangerous political phenomenon. The West must beware, lest it be defenseless against the Kremlin’s creeping aggression. – Washington Examiner


The European Central Bank took control of a troubled Italian bank Wednesday, an unprecedented step that spotlighted the risks to the eurozone’s financial system from political chaos in Rome and a sputtering economy. – New York Times

Pristina badly needs a new mosque – but Turkish attempts to court the young Balkan state with investment and advocacy is making some uneasy. – The Guardian

Editorial: Britain faces momentous Brexit decisions this spring, and as if on cue U.S. officials have piped up in recent weeks to clarify the stakes for our British friends. The overarching message: A trade deal with the U.S. could be a Brexit lifeline—if Britain wants to grab it. […]This is candid advice from a friend that Britain does have a choice. The U.S. is open for business if the U.K. is ready to open itself to a broad and deep trade agreement. – Wall Street Journal

The Americas

President Trump and Democratic congressional leaders dug in Wednesday for a lengthy partial shutdown in a newly divided government after a White House meeting — the first in 22 days — could not break an impasse over Mr. Trump’s demands for billions of dollars for a border wall. – New York Times

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed supporting a return to democracy in Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua with Brazil’s new right-wing government on Wednesday, in a joint effort against what he called authoritarian regimes in Latin America. – Reuters

The United States is deeply concerned about an increase in coca cultivation in Colombia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday, but will work with the Andean country to cut production of the raw material for cocaine in half by the end of 2023. – Reuters

Cyber Security

A popular weather app built by a Chinese tech conglomerate has been collecting an unusual amount of data from smartphones around the world and attempting to subscribe some users to paid services without permission, according to a London-based security firm’s research. – Wall Street Journal

Hacker group the Dark Overlord claims to have stolen 18,000 documents from business insurer Hiscox and several other law firms involved in litigation surrounding the September 11 attacks. The hacker group, previously responsible for the theft of Netflix episodes and several other cyberextortion attacks, is threatening to release the documents unless a ransom is paid in bitcoin. – Newsweek

Notorious hacking group The Dark Overlord is threatening to leak what it claims are highly-sensitive documents relating to the 2001 September 11 attacks. It says it will publish the material capitalizing on various conspiracy theories around the 9/11 attacks unless its ransom demands are met. – Forbes


Marines will deploy soon for a unique expeditionary mission: Three months on rugged Santa Catalina Island, off California’s coast, building a concrete runway at a small, cliff-top airport. – USNI News

The clock is now counting down for the Navy to award Newport News Shipbuilding a two-aircraft carrier contract, after the Pentagon formally notified Congress on Dec. 31 that it wanted to pursue the first dual-carrier contract since the late 1980s. – USNI News

Due to poor planning and a lack of centralized management, it will take more time than originally expected for the U.S. Air Force to procure “base in a box” kits and forward deploy them in Europe, the Defense Department’s inspector general found in an investigation. – Defense News

The US Air Force (USAF) is adding both US Navy (USN) and UK Royal Air Force (RAF) students to its next PTN class to better measure how students learn and potentially apply those findings across the service. – IHS Jane’s

Elisabeth Braw writes: The nature of warfare is changing. In addition to preparing to fight conventional battles, Western militaries now must find ways to combat hybrid warfare—disinformation campaigns, cyberattacks, election interference. An adversary can inflict enormous harm through such attacks without deploying a single soldier. […]the threat from hybrid warfare neither recognizes nor respects such walls. For our own safety, we need to tear them down. – Wall Street Journal

Trump Administration

President Trump criticized former defense secretary Jim Mattis on Wednesday, as acting Pentagon chief Patrick Shanahan stepped into his new job and the military tried to make sense of the president’s plans for the wars in Syria and Afghanistan. – New York Times

Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s first full day at the Pentagon’s helm was overshadowed Wednesday when President Donald Trump attacked his predecessor Jim Mattis. […]The drama came after Shanahan sought to lay out his priorities for America’s massive defense department and how he intends to deal with an urgent list of geopolitical to-dos – Agence France-Presse

Romney’s Washington Post commentary denouncing Trump — published just a day before he takes the oath as a new U.S. senator — was presumably intended as an act of political and moral leadership. Perhaps in due course, events will reveal Romney as the vanguard of a new willingness by Republican traditionalists to confront and defeat a president who so flagrantly offends their values. – Politico