Fdd's overnight brief

January 31, 2020

In The News


A popular Iranian rapper has been detained in Turkey and faces deportation to Iran after the Turkish police acted on an Interpol red notice to detain him, friends of the rapper and Turkish news media reported. – New York Times

Burning U.S. and Israeli flags is a familiar ritual at state-sponsored rallies in Iran. But in a country that is under U.S. and international sanctions and that bans contact with Israel, finding flags to burn can be a challenge. The solution: a modest factory in Khomein City, southwest of Iran’s capital, Tehran. – Washington Post

The Trump administration on Thursday said it will allow Russian, Chinese and European companies to continue their work at Iranian nuclear sites, arguing that their presence makes it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear weapons. – Reuters 

The U.S. sanctions imposed on Iran’s nuclear organization and Tehran’s nuclear chief shows Washington’s despair, said a spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, adding that the country’s civilian nuclear program will continue with full force. – Reuters 

The United States will likely lift sanctions within days on units of Chinese tanker company COSCO that Washington accused of transporting Iranian oil, two industry sources said. – Reuters 

The U.S. House of representatives has passed a resolution voicing support for the rights of Iranians engaged “in legitimate and peaceful protests against an oppressive, corrupt regime”. – Radio Farda

A close adviser to Iran’s supreme leader on Thursday described the US peace plan as a continuation of the objectives of “crusaders and Zionists.” – Agence France-Presse

When the military carried out President Donald Trump’s order to kill Iran’s top general, some hardened veterans of the decades long U.S.-Iran shadow war were troubled. – NBC


The Kurdish-led administration that runs much of northeastern Syria is planning to organize a local tribunal to try IS fighters held captive in the region, a representative of its foreign relations committee said on Thursday. – Reuters  

An assault on rebel-held northwest Syria by government forces has pushed some 700,000 people to flee toward the Turkish border and raised the spectre of an international crisis, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey said on Thursday. – Reuters

Russian air strikes have killed at least 10 civilians in Syria’s Idlib Province, the opposition’s last stronghold, activists say, an allegation quickly rejected by Moscow. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 


Jimmy Carter said Thursday that US President Donald Trump’s Middle East plan would violate international law and urged the United Nations to stop Israel from annexing Palestinian land. – Agence France-Presse

Israel has postponed a move to annex large parts of the West Bank, a government minister said Wednesday, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to quickly act on the Trump administration’s Mideast plan despite fierce Palestinian opposition. – Associated Press  

Palestinians around the world are uniting to thwart U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said, criticizing Arab governments who supported the plan. – Reuters 

The IDF attacked Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip on Thursday night in response to a barrage of rockets sent into Israel a few hours prior. – Jerusalem Post

Israel will not win the battle against antisemitism until it recognizes the Armenian Genocide, President Armen Sarkissian told The Jerusalem Post. – Jerusalem Post

There is no substantive disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem over Israel’s right to annex the Jordan Valley and other West Bank territories, a senior official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s delegation to the US and Russia said Thursday. – Times of Israel

The Palestinian National Council (PNC), which is the “parliament” of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), on Thursday announced its absolute opposition to what it called the US-Israeli “conspiracy”. – Arutz Sheva

Recently-published accounts reveal that the Palestinian Authority (PA) spent almost $150 million in 2019 on salaries and other benefits for convicted terrorists and their families. – Algemeiner

Bret Stephens writes: For all the talk about Trump’s plan being dead on arrival, it says something that it has been met with an open mind by some Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They know only too well that the Arab world has more important challenges to deal with than Palestinian statehood. […]That ought to go for the Palestinians as well. The old cliché about Palestinians never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity has, sadly, more than a bit of truth in it. Nobody ought to condemn them to make the same mistake again. – New York Times


The Defense Department said on Thursday that 64 troops had sustained traumatic brain injuries after the Iranian ballistic missile strikes on Ayn Al Asad Air Base in Iraq this month, up 14 from an earlier announcement this week. – New York Times

Iraq said Thursday that its military has resumed operations with the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State, after their joint mission was suspended amid calls for foreign troops to leave. – Washington Post 

Iraq’s political factions were in high-stake talks Thursday to name a new prime minister, after the president set a February 1 deadline to replace Adel Abdel Mahdi. – Agence France-Presse

Pentagon strategists want to deploy Patriot missile defenses to Iraq to provide extra protection against Iranian ballistic missile strikes, but the central government in Baghdad isn’t having it, America’s top military leaders said today. – Washington Examiner

It was supposed to be a gesture of goodwill and a good-faith effort to give Iraq the military it needed to defend itself against regional adversaries like Iran and the Islamic State. But some U.S. and Iraqi officials say they are increasingly concerned that Iraq’s F-16 fighter jet program—supplied by the United States and, until recently, secured and maintained by foreign contractors—is vulnerable to seizure by Iranian-backed militias. Foreign Policy

Mohammad R. Kalantari and Ali Hashem write: A free Iraq does not require U.S. and coalition soldiers on its land. A strong Iraq could act as an adept broker between Iran and the United States—and the broader Arab world—should there be any appetite for diplomacy and reconciliation. […]If the U.S. government and Pompeo are sincere in their calls for a peaceful region, they should seize this unique opportunity and follow the advice of a “friend of their enemy.” – Foreign Policy

Arabian Peninsula

A tectonic shift in relations quietly underway for years now was on full display as representatives of Gulf Arab states attended President Donald Trump’s unveiling this week of an Israeli-Palestinian plan that heavily sides with Israel and all but crushes Palestinian aspirations. – Associated Press  

France announced on Thursday the beginning of the European Maritime Awareness mission in the Strait of Hormuz (EMASoH), intended to ensure the freedom of navigation in the Gulf while promoting a de-escalation approach with Iran. – Reuters  

The U.K. Royal Navy is now leading the international effort to protect shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman following a change of command ceremony Thursday. – USNI News 

Fatima Abo Alasrar writes: But it is because the violence has to “end” that the Houthis are intensifying their attacks. They are consolidating their power on the ground and creating disarray among the different Yemeni factions to enable them to have the upper hand in any deal. Any additional territory will need to be secured before an agreement is made, meaning there is no reason for them to stop their violence until then. – Middle East Institute  


A resumption in fighting in Libya is threatening to unravel efforts to end a nearly decade-long crisis in the North African country, less than two weeks after foreign backers of the two main warring factions agreed to support a cease-fire there. – Wall Street Journal  

The hard-won truce in Libya is all but dead as foreign powers ship in fighters and weapons, making a mockery of their commitments to the cease-fire and risking a broader conflict, the United Nations envoy said Thursday. – Bloomberg 

The U.N.’s refugee agency in Libya announced Thursday it is suspending its operations at a jam-packed migrant facility over safety concerns as deadly fighting near the capital intensifies. – Associated Press

Editorial: Europe has every reason to seek stability in Libya – especially so given the way that al-Qaida and Islamic State have benefited from chaos there, and the desperation to halt refugee flows, whatever the human cost. While it should increase pressure on France to rein in General Haftar and his backers, the toothless outcome of Berlin showed that the west has no intention of getting tough. Outside players are escalating their support for the warring parties, who have seized the opportunity to improve their military positions. The conflict will continue to intensify while foreign powers see only commercial and strategic rewards for their interference. The people of Libya will keep paying the price. – The Guardian

Middle East & North Africa

President Kais Saied of Tunisia, an ally of the United States, said on Thursday that the new U.S. plan for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is the “injustice of the century”. – Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted Thursday Jerusalem was “not for sale” in response to a Middle East plan unveiled by US counterpart Donald Trump. – Arutz Sheva

Sevan Araz writes: Jordan’s experience with cyber legislation offers critical lessons, chief among which is the need to embrace adaptation. To remain effective, cyber codes must keep pace with the rapidly evolving threat landscape. […]Other states should take note and perform regular reviews of cyber regulations. Instituting review mechanisms can enable governments to prune pernicious elements and briskly incorporate necessary amendments, both of which are essential to proactive digital governance. – Middle East Institute 

Korean Peninsula

President Trump’s demands that South Korea foot more of the bill to host American troops have created another cost issue: the lack of a deal means the U.S. will soon run out of money to pay 9,000 local workers. – Wall Street Journal 

South Korea’s December factory output exceeded forecasts as soaring chip production fueled industrial activity, but the virus outbreak in China will likely dent demand in January. – Reuters  

North Korea has postponed plans to tear down South Korean-made hotels and other facilities at the North’s Diamond Mountain resort to prevent the spread of a new virus that has reached the South after sickening thousands in China. – Associated Press 

Ariel (Eli) Levite and Toby Dalton write: Given North Korea’s tepid response to recent U.S. overtures, whether it would negotiate with the Trump administration or a potential successor on this basis is highly uncertain. However, ultimately Kim Jong Un wants and needs the U.N. sanctions to be lifted and therefore has motive to negotiate. His December speech clearly left open this possibility. And if and when he chooses to re-engage, asking of him to freeze rather than give up his nuclear insurance policy is a more realistic path to capping the North Korean threat. – War on the Rocks 


When officials at the Texas A&M University System sought to determine how much Chinese government funding its faculty members were receiving, they were astounded at the results—more than 100 were involved with a Chinese talent-recruitment program, even though only five had disclosed their participation. – Wall Street Journal  

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared the Chinese Communist Party “the central threat of our times” on Thursday, even as he sought to talk up the prospects of a United States trade deal with Britain, which rebuffed American pressure to ban a Chinese company from future telecommunications infrastructure. – New York Times

At a time when China’s rise as a global economic and military power has unsettled its neighbors in Asia as well as its rivals in the West, the coronavirus is feeding into latent bigotry against the people of mainland China. – New York Times 

Josh Rogin writes: This is worse than letting the fox into the henhouse. This is akin to choosing a bank robber to be president of the bank. In Beijing’s economic strategy, intellectual property theft is a feature, not a bug. The United States and its partners who believe in rule of law, transparency and accountability in world governance cannot and should not try to thwart every Chinese attempt to lead international organizations. In this case, though, the stakes are too high not to try. – Washington Post

Michael Taube writes: Several prominent members of Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party have argued for compromise with Huawei and Beijing, but the prime minister has stood strong. He fired John McCallum as his ambassador to China when Mr. McCallum publicly contended that Ms. Meng could make a good case against extradition to the U.S. Mr. Trudeau also rejected the idea of a prisoner exchange, put forward separately by his former deputy prime minister John Manley and Eddie Goldenberg, who served as former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s chief of staff. – Wall Street Journal 

Tom Rogan writes: Where the U.S. military and its NATO allies were superior to the Soviet Union in tools, training, and allied unity, that’s not the case with China.[…] The only combat areas where America can overwhelm China are in the cyber, undersea, long-range bomber, and nuclear domains. Ultimately, this leaves us with a simple proposition: If we wish to maintain the American-led international order in the 21st century, we better get serious about the challenge it now faces. – Washington Examiner

Tom McTague writes: First, however much Raab and Pompeo protested, the real story from their love-in was what was not said. On the greatest foreign-policy consideration of all, how to deal with China’s rise, London no longer seems to share Washington’s strategic assessment, but this reality was not addressed head-on. In other words, the two allies don’t share the same analysis of the world and its challenges—not simply regarding means, but ends as well. – The Atlantic


The number of attacks, detailed in the quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a government watchdog formed in 2008, highlights once more the disparity between talking points on suppressing the Taliban and the reality on the ground: Despite a concerted bombing campaign and American and Afghan offensive ground operations, Taliban fighters are still able to attack at levels similar to those a decade ago. – New York Times

Afghanistan will need vast amounts of foreign funding to keep its government afloat through 2024, a U.S. agency said Friday, even as foreign donors are increasingly angry over the cost of debilitating corruption and the U.S. seeks a peace deal with Taliban to withdraw its troops from the country. – Associated Press 

Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, is benefiting from an unexpected windfall in the wake of Iran’s downing of a Ukrainian jetliner in a missile barrage earlier this month. – Bloomberg  

Enemy-initiated attacks in Afghanistan reached their highest fourth-quarter number since a Pentagon watchdog began collecting data a decade ago on what has become America’s longest war and one of its costliest. – Bloomberg


President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has ordered all members of his cabinet not to travel to the United States after Washington blacklisted his former national police chief over the government’s drug war, which has left thousands dead, a top aide said Thursday. – New York Times

Japan’s financial institutions must guard against cyber-attacks ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, with nearly 40% of banks and other firms experiencing attacks over the past three years, the Bank of Japan said on Friday. – Reuters  

Two Pakistani soldiers and five militants have been killed in a shoot-out in the northwestern region of North Waziristan, the military says. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty  

Terror attacks in Pakistan plummeted by more than 85% over the last decade. It’s a welcome statistic for the country, but one that risks being overshadowed by international concern over its efforts to curb terror funding and lingering militant activity that could test any future peace agreement in neighboring Afghanistan. – Associated Press 


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Friday after a meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine that the Trump administration was committed to supporting Ukraine in its defense against aggression by Russia, which invaded and annexed part of the country and is supporting a separatist insurgency. – New York Times

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a quick stopover in Moscow on Thursday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the new U.S. proposal for the Middle East and to bring home an Israeli woman who had been jailed on drug charges. – Associated Press 

The United States’ new ambassador to Russia urged Moscow on Thursday to release a former U.S. Marine accused of spying, and said Russian investigators had failed to present credible evidence to back up their case. – Reuters  

Russia shut its 4,209-kilometer (2,615 mile) land border with China to most passenger travel as the Kremlin seeks to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus from its biggest trading partner. – Bloomberg  


Britain formally exits the European Union on Friday night, casting off from the Continent after nearly half a century and ending a debate that had convulsed the country for more than three years. Yet for all the gravity of the moment, there is a palpable sense of anticlimax. – New York Times

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday that the U.S. and Britain would retain and enhance their special relationship once the U.K. leaves the European Union this week. He also said that American unhappiness with the British decision to allow the Chinese tech company Huawei to play a role in the country’s high-speed wireless network would not affect broader ties. – Associated Press 

The European Union’s top diplomat on Thursday called on Serbia and Kosovo to resume dialogue, saying it’s the only way to normalize their ties and achieve a final agreement. – Associated Press  

Italy has no plan to stop Chinese telecom firms, including Huawei, playing a role in the development of the country’s future 5G network, a junior government minister told Reuters on Thursday. – Reuters 

As jubilant Brexit supporters gather to celebrate the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, Scotland is digging in to its position as the last bastion of political resistance. – Bloomberg   

Joel Gehrke writes: Raab, who unveiled the decision on Tuesday to wary lawmakers, echoed Pompeo’s sentiments about the need for new technology free of Chinese vulnerabilities. […]Raab understands the long-term danger posed by Huawei and similar companies, according to China hawks in Washington. “Their motivation is to gain leverage over you: leverage over your data, leverage over your economy, and leverage over your political decision-making,” Klon Kitchen, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, told the Washington Examiner. “And they’ve just left the door wide open to all of that.” – Washington Examiner


With extremist violence surging across a wide swath of Africa, U.S. lawmakers from both political parties are trying to head off a Trump administration proposal to cut American military forces on the continent. – Wall Street Journal 

In a drastic effort to boost domestic production and stem widespread rice smuggling, Nigeria closed its crossings with Benin and Niger five months ago. Since then, it’s been a bittersweet experience for locals in the world’s second-biggest buyer of the white grain. – Bloomberg 

Ethiopia passed a new investment law on Thursday, part of a bid by Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to transform the Horn of Africa nation’s economy and drive progress toward a middle-income status. – Reuters 

Latin America

Venezuela’s staunchly socialist leaders, battling to stave off economic collapse and hold on to power, are looking for a little help from an unlikely source: the free market. The country’s authoritarian president, Nicolás Maduro, who received political training in Cuba and publicly exalts the glories of socialism, has begun allowing companies to operate with a freer hand, according to business owners and economists. – Wall Street Journal  

Pictures and video of the remarkable smuggling tunnel, the longest ever found at the Mexico-United States border, were released by the American authorities on Wednesday. The shaft stretched some 4,309 feet, nearly a mile, between Tijuana, Mexico, and the outskirts of San Diego. – New York Times

A U.S. law firm that was hired for $12.5 million by a top official in Nicolás Maduro’s government has decided to dump the controversial Venezuelan client amid a major outcry by critics who accused it of carrying water for a socialist “dictator,” The Associated Press has learned. – Associated Press 

Colombia rejected Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s proposal that the two countries resume diplomatic relations on Thursday, amid a dispute over a fugitive former Colombian congresswoman who was captured in Venezuela. – Reuters 


The FBI is investigating the role of Israeli spyware vendor NSO Group Technologies in possible hacks on American residents and companies as well as suspected intelligence gathering on governments, according to four people familiar with the inquiry. – Reuters  

Facebook Inc. will begin removing fake claims and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, stepping up efforts to fight the spread of misinformation about a viral outbreak that’s killed more than 200. – Bloomberg 

On the morning of Jan. 8, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps fired 22 surface-to-surface missiles at two Iraqi airbases. If Americans had died, the Pentagon would have put in front of President Trump options for cyberattacks to disable Iran’s oil and gas sector. Would the U.S. oil and gas industry have been ready for an Iranian cyber counterattack? – Fifth Domain 


The Navy and industry are taking another crack at designing the Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-mission Platform (CHAMP) in the hopes of reducing costs by starting with a commercial hull design as a baseline. – USNI News   

The Pentagon plans to announce Jan. 31 that Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, the Department of Defense’s top artificial intelligence official, will retire from the Air Force this summer, C4ISRNET has learned. – C4ISRNET 

Private investors are not yet lining up to back defense startups, but they are paying close attention. Two factors have created an opening that could lure venture capitalists to defense investments: first, a few select venture-backed technology startups are gaining traction; and second, there’s been a strategic shift in approach to weapons development from the U.S. Department of Defense, focusing more on information warfare and, as such, software. – Defense News 

James Johnson and Eleanor Krabill write: The interaction between AI and cyber technology and nuclear command and control raises more questions than answers. What can we learn from the cyber community to help us use AI to preempt the risks posed by AI-enabled cyber attacks? And how might governments, defense communities, academia, and the private sector work together toward this end? – War on the Rocks 

Trump Administration

President Donald Trump’s defense team, seeking a speedy acquittal at his Senate impeachment trial, resisted Democratic efforts on Wednesday to have former national security advisor John Bolton testify, arguing that it could prolong the divisive proceedings for months. – Agence France-Presse

Congress is once again trying to curb President Donald Trump’s military options, even after tensions with Iran have lessened since the U.S. strike that killed an Iranian general. – Bloomberg  

The Trump administration will propose allocating $115 million in State Department security assistance for Ukraine after seeking to decrease that number in each of its past two budget proposals. – The Hill