Fdd's overnight brief

January 4, 2019

In The News


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran on Thursday to scuttle its plans for satellite launches that the United States says involve technology that could be used in intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. Pompeo stopped short of saying how the United States might react if Iran goes ahead with its announced intention to test three Space Launch Vehicles (SLVs), but his warning suggested that the move could lead to new sanctions. – Washington Post

In his first Cabinet meeting of the year, President Trump stuck a dagger in a major initiative advanced by his foreign policy team: Iran’s leaders, the president said, “can do what they want” in Syria. With a stray remark, Trump snuffed out a plan from his national security adviser, John Bolton, who this fall vowed that the United States would not leave Syria “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.” – Washington Post

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday painted a picture of close Israeli-American cooperation in efforts to stymie Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions, saying US President Donald Trump “is acting against Iran at the economic level and we here in Israel are acting against Iran at the military level.” – Times of Israel

US President Donald Trump’s claim on Wednesday that Iran was withdrawing its forces from Syria because the Tehran regime “wants to survive now” has drawn a concerned response across the region, not least from three normally stalwart allies of the US in the Middle East — Israel, the Kurds and important elements of Iran’s pro-democracy movement. – Algemeiner


U.S. national security adviser John Bolton says he will travel to Israel and Turkey to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and how Washington and its allies intend to counter Iran’s “malign behavior” in the region. In a tweet posted on January 3, Bolton also said he will discuss ways to prevent the “resurgence” of the Islamic State (IS) militant group in the region. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

After President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of 2,000 troops from Syria last month, the US military ramped up its bombing campaign against territory still held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group in the eastern part of the country, according to sources on the ground and photographs obtained in a joint investigation by Al Jazeera and The Intercept. – Al Jazeera

Syria may be set for a return to the Arab League as the war-torn country’s government consolidates military and diplomatic victories coinciding with a U.S. withdrawal. – Newsweek

British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will remain in place for “a while” thanks to support from Russia, even though Britain’s position was still that he remains a block to lasting peace. – Reuters

Thomas S. Kaplan and Bernard-Henri Levy write: The Kurds in Syria could be a case study in the effective implementation of America’s long-standing exhortation that its friends in the region should do more of the actual fighting while the United States trains and assists them. […]With every hour that goes by, the Kurds’ position is materially weakened. It is not too late for Washington to change course, to reaffirm America’s honor and to aid America’s stalwart allies. – Washington Post

Tom Rogan writes: With a mix of CIA officers, realist resolve, and air power, President Trump can mitigate the damage of his withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Syria. That matters because events on the ground prove that Trump’s withdrawal is problematic. […]Trump’s withdrawal is still ill-judged. But it needn’t precipitate disaster. A more-developed variation of the above could preserve key U.S. interests while allowing the president to withdraw U.S. military ground forces. – Washington Examiner

Mark Perry writes: There’s no question that Trump’s withdrawal decision has roiled official Washington, spurring the resignations of Mattis and McGurk, but the end-of-the-world scenario painted by Trump’s chorus of critics—that the Mattis resignation would be followed by many others, for example—has not happened. The reason might well be that there are many more officials in the foreign-policy establishment who agree with what Trump has done—and that, perhaps, the job of “restraining some of Trump’s worst instincts” shouldn’t be left in the hands of America’s generals. – Foreign Policy

David Pollock writes: In short, the United States has indeed largely defeated, if not destroyed, the Islamic State terrorists in Syria. In that narrow sense, U.S. forces can claim victory and go home. But it would be a shameful “win” if Washington now totally turns its back on the allies who most helped in winning that battle. The preceding policy guidelines offer a realistic path to ensure that the United States avoids snatching such a defeat from the jaws of its victory over the Islamic State. – Washington Institute


A U.S. delegation met with Turkish officials Thursday to discuss requests to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who Turkey says plotted a coup attempt in 2016, state media reported. – Washington Post

A group representing German journalists is advising reporters and bloggers against traveling to Turkey, including for private vacations. – Associated Press

Turkey and Iraq will deepen their cooperation in the fight against terrorism, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday. – Reuters


Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro said on Thursday that he would be open to the possibility of the United States operating a military base on his country’s soil, a move that would form a sharp shift in direction for Brazilian foreign policy. – Reuters

President Abdel Fatah al Sisi confirmed Egypt’s military was working with Israel’s to fight the Islamic State in the northern Sinai, on Wednesday during a CBS interview. – Jerusalem Post

Jordan’s Professional Unions Association will place the Israeli flag at the entrance to its offices throughout the Kingdom so that those entering will have to step on it, according to media reports in Jordan. The reports said that the decision was made in condemnation of Israel’s continued occupation of the Palestinian territories and in response to a complaint Israel submitted to Jordan’s Foreign Ministry on the matter. – Haaretz

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Thursday the Trump administration has helped facilitate cooperation between Israel and a number of Arab countries with which it has no diplomatic ties. – Times of Israel

The Palestinian Authority (PA) cabinet on Thursday blasted the Israeli decision to withdraw from the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). – Arutz Sheva

Haisam Hassanein writes: The Egyptian government is still hesitant to fully embrace Israel. […]Given the negative effect that such policies have on Egyptian-Israeli normalization and wider Arab-Israeli peace, U.S. officials should address the issue more frequently and pointedly when engaging with Cairo. Lifting the restrictions for Egyptians traveling to and from Israel may seem like a minor issue compared to the multitude of security and trade matters on the bilateral agenda, but even a small step toward warmer relations would represent great progress. – Washington Institute

Arabian Peninsula

A Saudi court opened the country’s first trial in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi on Thursday, as the public prosecutor formally called for the death penalty for five of the 11 defendants accused of roles in the dissident’s death. – Wall Street Journal

As international pressure builds on the Saudi-led coalition to halt Yemen’s devastating war, deep distrust among residents here is complicating Riyadh’s efforts to build loyalty among locals and keep hostile forces, particularly Iran-backed Houthi rebels, from exploiting Yemen’s chaos and threatening the kingdom. – Wall Street Journal

Noah Smith writes: So despite its appearance of stability, wealth and power, Saudi Arabia could be headed for a building storm of troubles — falling oil revenues, drought and an angry surplus of underemployed youth with frustrated expectations. […]Fear that Yemen’s civil war might touch off rage in Saudi Arabia may also be why the country is fighting so hard to suppress the rebellion in its southern neighbor. – Bloomberg

Middle East & North Africa

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took credit for coalitions formed in the Middle East, stating that they help keep Americans safe, as he talked to Sean Hannity on the Hannity show Thursday morning. – Jerusalem Post

The United Nations said on Thursday it feared for the safety of Syrians barred from entering Algeria from the south, saying some of those turned back were refugees left stranded in the desert and not suspected militants as Algiers maintains. – Reuters

Two militants in Tunisia blew themselves up on Thursday after they exchanged fire with security forces who stormed their hideout and encircled them, the interior ministry said. – Reuters

Katherine Bauer, Michael Knights, and Bilal Wahab write: On January 3, Iraqi foreign minister Muhammad Ali al-Hakim expressed annoyance at U.S. sanctions on Iran[…]. Beyond efforts to bring additional trade financing activity into the formal sector, U.S. and Iraqi authorities should reach out to banks, financial firms, and commercial actors in key sectors, raising awareness about the legal parameters of U.S. sanctions and the potential consequences of doing business with certain Iranian entities. Washington should also offer technical assistance to increase regulators’ capacity to implement counter-illicit finance regulations. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

A North Korean diplomat in Rome has gone into hiding along with his wife, South Korean lawmakers said, citing Seoul’s intelligence agency, a development that presents embarrassment for Pyongyang as it negotiates nuclear disarmament with the U.S. – Wall Street Journal

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono said on Friday he told his South Korean counterpart he wants Seoul to make a firm response in line with international law on South Korea’s claim against a Japanese company over wartime forced labor. – Reuters

Benny Avni writes: By heightening anxieties about a North Korean or Chinese invasion into neighbors’ territories, Trumpian withdrawal signals in the ­Pacific could threaten Asia’s world-leading economies — and have ­extremely negative effects on our economy, as well. […]For too long we have taken a peaceful Pacific region for granted and lost sight of the one force that has made that relative tranquility possible: American military commitments to allies. So Trump better broadcast widely that he doesn’t intend to ­reduce our military presence in Korea or wobble on our vow to defend Taiwan. – New York Post


The United States renewed a travel advisory for China on Thursday that warned American citizens could face arbitrary detention there, a move that came amid tense relations between the countries dominated by trade disputes and the recent American-requested arrest of a high-profile Chinese executive in Canada. – New York Times

Though swaggering U.S. prosecutors sometimes boast to reporters about the strength of their case, their Chinese counterparts typically don’t show their hands. So, the fact that China’s top prosecutor expressed confidence Thursday about the case against two Canadians in detention is unusual — and potentially revealing. – Washington Post

The deputy head of a Chinese military academy told an audience in Shenzhen last month that tensions in the South China Sea could be resolved by sinking a pair of U.S. aircraft carriers, reports said. – Fox News

Canada said on Thursday that 13 of its citizens have been detained in China since Huawei Technologies Co [HWT.UL] Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou was arrested last month in Vancouver at the request of the United States. – Reuters

China’s main intelligence agency, the shadowy Ministry of State Security, has found itself thrust into the global spotlight as political and trade tensions between the U.S. and China flare. Two of its alleged assets have been publicly named in a sweeping U.S. indictment involving hacking on a global scale. […]The ministry’s reach continues to grow as President Xi Jinping strengthens security laws, while limits on its power remain vague. – Bloomberg

Editorial: The point is that President Trump can’t shield U.S. businesses from the collateral damage of his trade brawl with China even if he tried. The two countries’ economies are entwined for better or worse, which is why there’s a political and economic incentive for both sides to cut a trade deal that protects intellectual property, lowers tariffs, and above all reduces uncertainty. – Wall Street Journal

Editorial: The Trump administration can’t dictate what the Chinese government does toward its religious citizens, but it can make sure that the world is fully aware of its abuses — and that at least some of the abusers pay a price. The Beijing regime, meanwhile, ought to consider whether it really wants to be the enemy of those at home and abroad who find meaning and understanding in faith — whether Christian, Muslim or any other. History shows that religions always outlast governments. – Chicago Tribune

Gerard Gayou writes: Perhaps Beijing believes Taiwan’s November 2018 elections—in which Beijing’s preferred Nationalist Party made significant gains—indicated an opportunity to press its case. But the Hong Kong lesson for the Taiwanese is how much their vibrant democracy would dim under “one country, two systems.” – Wall Street Journal

Tom Rogan writes: In a highly aggressive editorial on Thursday, Chinese state media taunted the U.S. with nuclear weapons, threatened U.S. aircraft carriers, and called for preparations to invade Taiwan. […]Ultimately, this editorial is another warning for the U.S. — a warning that challenging China’s island imperialism and its feudal economic strategy is only going to become more complicated. And while growing allied support for U.S. actions in the Indo-Pacific are positive, in the end, China will only be deterred by America. – Washington Examiner

Joseph Bosco writes: No U.S. administration since then has seen fit to disabuse Beijing of the idea that under the “right” circumstances, America would stand by as China attacked Taiwan. […]That is the dangerous legacy that its predecessors have left the Trump administration in the U.S.-China relationship. The president and his national security team have taken a number of laudable steps to affirm the U.S.-Taiwan relationship, but the ultimate deterrence gap remains. – The Hill


Afghan officials on Thursday denounced President Trump’s praise of the 1979 Soviet invasion and occupation of their country, which he described this week as a fight against terrorism, breaking with decades of Republican anti-communist dogma. According to the revisionist historical account Trump delivered during a Cabinet meeting Wednesday, “the reason Russia was in Afghanistan was because terrorists were going into Russia.” He added: “They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight.” – Washington Post

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley made an unexpected visit to Afghanistan’s capital on Thursday, meeting with President Ashraf Ghani to discuss opportunities to end the country’s 17-year-long war. – The Hill

Editorial: President Trump’s remarks on Afghanistan at his Cabinet meeting Wednesday were a notable event. They will be criticized heavily, and deservedly so. […]The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was a defining event in the Cold War, making clear to all serious people the reality of the communist Kremlin’s threat. Mr. Trump’s cracked history can’t alter that reality. – Wall Street Journal


An American detained in Russia and charged with espionage appears to also hold British citizenship, according to correspondence received Friday from the British Embassy in Moscow. – Wall Street Journal

The arrest of US citizen Paul Whelan in Moscow last week prompted intense speculation in national security circles: It came just 15 days after alleged Russian agent Maria Butina pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges in the United States. The timing seemed to raise one possibility — that Russian President Vladimir Putin or his government agencies might be looking to orchestrate some sort of swap. – CNN

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Friday he intends to push forward towards a World War Two peace treaty with Russia, which has been stymied for decades by a territorial row, during a summit in Russia later this month. – Reuters


Now the March deadline for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union is looming, and the chances are rising that no deal will be reached. A “no-deal” Brexit would be a significant blow to the British economy, creating chaos at the country’s ports and even raising the prospect of shortages of medicines and other goods. – Washington Post

A Muslim convert has told how he rebuffed MI5 advances but played along with authorities trying to deradicalise him as he plotted a terror attack on Oxford Street. – The Guardian

The wife of one of France’s most notorious jihadists, Peter Cherif, has been charged and provisionally detained, days after her husband was returned to prison after seven years on the run. – The Guardian

Jochen Bittner writes: Brexiteers claimed that Britain could shake off the union’s principle of free movement of people yet somehow maintain the usual level of free trade with the continent. Those were pipe dreams. So were expectations that as the hour of Brexit approached, the European Union would bow to Britain’s demands. Despite the damage Brexit will cause in the remaining 27 countries of the union, they are unflinching in their message to London: This will be painful for both of us, but we can’t let you change the rules. – New York Times


The U.S. military says it has carried out an airstrike in southwestern Somalia that killed 10 members of the al-Shabab extremist group. – Associated Press

Troops and air strikes have killed more than 280 Boko Haram militants since the Niger government started an operation against the group last week, the defence ministry said. – Reuters

Thirteen civilians have been killed in ethnic violence in central Burkina Faso, the government said on Wednesday, echoing a rise in inter-communal conflicts in neighbouring Mali linked to Islamist violence. – Reuters

The Americas

Brazil’s new President Jair Bolsonaro said on Thursday that he would be open to the possibility of the United States operating a military base on his country’s soil, a move that would form a sharp shift in direction for Brazilian foreign policy. – Reuters

Two major police associations in Georgia issued statements last month in support of an exchange program that has come under criticism from anti-Israel campaigners. – Algemeiner

Jeryl Bier writes: Donald Trump has repeatedly faced calls to disavow anti-Semites, but Democrats have their own anti-Semitism problem. The new House majority leadership includes several lawmakers with ties to the nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan: – Wall Street Journal

Cyber Security

Hackers have posted personal data from hundreds of German politicians from major parties, including credit card details and mobile phone numbers, ARD TV said on Friday. – Reuters

Quantum computing is expected to make existing forms of cybersecurity obsolete, but the coming revolution has not jolted researchers and defense firms to fully invest in the technology, according to the intelligence community, experts and industry officials. – Fifth Domain

For much of its short history, U.S. Cyber Command was thrust into operations without having finalized its organization and force. Now that the cyber mission force has been built, the command is beginning to work out strategic problems and how to employ its capabilities in an environment where operations can change at the millisecond level. – Fifth Domain

The new year will likely bring a new secretary of defense, a renewed emphasis on changing how the Pentagon buys weapons systems and a continued focus on watching technological development by the Chinese government. – C4ISRNET


The Senate Armed Services Committee is welcoming a host of new faces in the new congressional session and losing some familiar faces. – Defense News

The Navy deployed a new ship pairing – a destroyer (DDG-51) and an amphibious transport dock (LPD-17) – to test out a new concept that could supplement amphibious squadrons and surface action groups as a formation in future operations. – USNI News

Taylor Dinerman writes: For the first time in decades, a major political fight is brewing over America’s nuclear deterrent. Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, seems intent on killing several main elements of the Pentagon’s modernization plan—especially two weapons projects intended to deter Russia and China. – Wall Street Journal

Trump Administration

The Trump administration is considering Jim Webb, a former Democratic senator and Reagan-era secretary of the Navy, to be the next defense secretary, according to three officials, potentially bypassing more hawkish Republicans whose names have been floated to replace Jim Mattis. – New York Times

Incoming House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) on Thursday led a group of Democrats in introducing a bill designed to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from being fired by President Trump. The legislation reflects growing fears among the president’s critics that he could try to impede Mueller’s investigation into whether his campaign coordinated with Moscow to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. – The Hill

Jessica Trisko Darden writes: Now is the time to seek a middle ground between the noble principles of humanitarian assistance and the operational realities of the counter-terrorism mission. This requires accepting that, in many conflict-affected areas, the delivery of humanitarian aid is shaped by political realities and not by need alone. The longer that both state and non-state actors are able to manipulate humanitarian assistance — including where and to whom it is provided — the more intractable conflicts may become. – War on the Rocks

William Smith writes: The abrupt announcement by Trump that the military would be leaving Syria, while no doubt a messy decision from a process perspective, is nonetheless a signal that he may be aware that he was elected because of his opposition to ceaseless interventions. If he successfully withdraws American troops from Syria and Afghanistan by 2020, and he faces a traditional Democratic hawk such as Joseph Biden, Trump will be in a position to recreate his 2016 electoral coalition and win reelection. – The Hill

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Secretary Mattis’ resignation, his resignation letter challenging to President Trump, his forced departure, and the resulting uncertainties over the future U.S. role in two ongoing wars – Iraq-Syria and Afghanistan – have been the well-deserved central focus of the U.S. national security community over the past few weeks. They may, however, be only the prelude to a much deeper crisis, and one that will have an impact on every aspect of U.S defense for at least the rest of the Trump Administration. – Center for Strategic and International Studies