Fdd's overnight brief

January 8, 2019

In The News


Three years after his release from a Tehran prison, Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian is set to testify in federal court Tuesday that he was taken hostage and psychologically tortured by the Iranian government to extract U.S. concessions before the 2016 implementation of a historic pact limiting Iran’s nuclear program. – Washington Post

Iran has been holding an American Navy veteran in prison on unspecified charges since late July, when he was seized while visiting an Iranian girlfriend, his mother said Monday. The imprisonment of the veteran, Michael R. White, 46, from Imperial Beach, Calif., could further complicate relations between the United States and Iran. – New York Times

Iran’s foreign minister said on Tuesday the European Union was moving more slower than expected in facilitating non-dollar trade with Tehran to circumvent U.S. sanctions, forcing it to explore avenues with other nations. – Reuters

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top security adviser said on Monday that American officials had approached him during a visit to Afghanistan to request talks with Tehran, according to Iranian news reports. – Al Jazeera

Eli Lake writes: “That campaign hasn’t changed one lick,” [Pompeo] told me. “A component of that is being altered, the reduction of the forces in Syria is being changed, but the mission set hasn’t changed a bit.” The U.S., he said, will continue to work to reduce Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Two weeks ago, Pompeo’s comments would have seemed naive. But it turns out the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is not as dramatic as it first appeared. – Bloomberg


President Trump vowed a “prudent” withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, embracing a new, more cautious timeline on Monday while appearing to deny that he had ever ordered an immediate troop departure in the first place. – Washington Post

Turkey will ask U.S. officials in talks on Tuesday to hand over its military bases in Syria to Ankara or destroy them, the Hurriyet newspaper reported, a request that could further complicate discussions over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. – Reuters

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned on Monday that the U.S. withdrawal from Syria must be planned carefully and with the right partners, saying Turkey was the only country “with the power and commitment to perform that task”. – Reuters

President Donald Trump’s shifting timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Syria has left allies and other players in the region confused and jockeying for influence over a withdrawal strategy that appeared to be a work in progress. – Associated Press

Syria’s Kurds are awaiting clarifications from the U.S. over America’s plans to pull out its troops from Syria following comments made by a top White House aide that appeared to counter earlier comments by President Donald Trump, a Syrian Kurdish official said Monday. – Associated Press

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan writes: Turkey is committed to defeating the so-called Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria, because the Turkish people are all too familiar with the threat of violent extremism. In 2003, when I became prime minister, coordinated attacks by Al Qaeda claimed dozens of lives in Turkey. – New York Times

Adam Taylor writes: Any agreement with the Kurds would be a boon for Assad, who has retaken control of much of the country. It would also be a win for Assad’s allies in Russia and Iran. The Trump administration had earlier made countering Iran one of its key goals in the Middle East, but at a recent Cabinet meeting, Trump suggested that he wasn’t worried about Iranian influence in Syria. – Washington Post

Matti Suomenaro, Samantha Leathley, and Aaron Hesse with Christopher Kozak write: The Russo-Iranian Coalition is also using the announced withdrawal to coopt partners and allies of the U.S. in Syria and Iraq. The SDF has recognized that it cannot withstand combined pressure from Russia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey without the support of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. […] It has also called for further pro-regime deployments to secure the Syrian-Turkish Border. – Institute for the Study of War

Eli Lake writes: Amid the shifting contours of President Donald Trump’s Syria policy, one constant has been the role of Turkey. When Trump announced last month the withdrawal of 2,000 U.S. special operations forces from Syria, he did so after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump’s plans undermined the previously stated policy of senior U.S. officials. – Bloomberg


Israeli security forces early on Tuesday arrested a Palestinian man suspected of carrying out a deadly terror attack in the central West Bank last month, ending a weeks-long manhunt. – Times of Israel

Sander Gerber and Yossi Kuperwasser write: Simply put, the Palestinian system governing payments to terrorists is far superior to the regular needs-based welfare system. Perversely, by using its budget to pay terrorists, the Palestinian Authority is depriving those less fortunate members of Palestinian society of their fair share of government aid. – Washington Examiner

Quin Hillyer writes: Control of the heights is tremendously important for the safety of people living in the northern part of Israel. If hostile powers control the heights, they can use the advantages of the elevation to rain attacks on the Israelis below. That’s exactly what Syrian artillery did to Israeli farmers in the 1950s and 1960s. Israel particularly fears Iranian presence on the heights through its proxy, the terrorist organization Hezbollah. – Washington Examiner

Saudi Arabia

Authorities here will not say what became of Saud al-Qahtani, a powerful royal adviser who Saudi prosecutors allege played a major role in the events that led to Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in Istanbul three months ago. – Washington Post

A stand-up comedian and women’s right-to-drive activist, Fahad al-Butairi and Loujain al-Hathloul, were once seen as a groundbreaking Saudi power couple in a country that was rapidly relaxing its strict social rules. Since then, both have been arrested, and a Twitter thread detailing their disappearance has gone viral, keeping alive a debate about the Kingdom’s crackdown on dissidents. – CNN

Matt Peterson writes: The Saudis can’t quit America either. After the murder of the writer Jamal Khashoggi, allies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned that the Saudis could retaliate to any American sanctions. Saudi officials denounced that option though, saying there would be no return to the embargo era. […] However, Saudi Arabia is cutting production again after the United States issued waivers to its Iranian sanctions policy. – The Atlantic

Islamic State

Islamic State said one of its suicide bombers killed some people on Monday at a military base in Syria’s Raqqa city, which is under control of a U.S.- backed and Kurdish-led militia. – Reuters

Less than six years ago, the British-born Muslim Tania Joya was living in Syria with her husband, an American-born convert to Islam who was becoming an increasingly influential figure in the circles of Islamic State. Next week, she will be giving a talk about “countering the forces of violent extremism” at Temple Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Dallas, Texas. – Times of Israel

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said “99 percent” of the Islamic State’s caliphate has been destroyed, reinforcing the Trump administration’s case to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria that have been working to combat the terrorist group. – Washington Examiner

Middle East

President Trump’s national security adviser is likely to face an icy reception in Ankara on Tuesday over his remarks that a U.S. withdrawal from Syria is contingent on whether Turkey can guarantee the safety of the Kurdish forces across its border. – Wall Street Journal

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to meet with U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and used a prescheduled speech in parliament to tear apart American proposals that a U.S.-backed Kurdish group play a key role in Syria after U.S. troops withdraw. – Bloomberg

Visits by Iraqi officials to Israel that were announced by the Jewish state stirred controversy Monday in Iraq, where the deputy parliamentary speaker demanded a probe to identify those who crossed a “red line.” – Times of Israel

The trial has opened of 28 people accused of involvement in the 2016 killing of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, including U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Editorial: There is a mismatch between U.S. objectives for the Middle East and the current level of resources and organizational capacity Washington has put on the table to realize those objectives. At the same time, the United States is mired in an internal debate regarding its appropriate role in working with the governments and peoples of the region, focusing on what we should be willing to invest with our military and assistance dollars and what we can realistically achieve. – Washington Institute

Hugh Hewitt writes: Change is happening rapidly in the Middle East. The past few weeks have been noisy and confusing, but Trump is sending “his two great stars” as he calls them — Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — to blitz the region’s capitals with the key message: We aren’t bugging out again, as President Barack Obama did in 2011. And, please, let’s keep our focus on the malign ambitions of the Iranian mullahs and Revolutionary Guard. – Washington Post

Korean Peninsula

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un arrived in China, North Korea’s main backer, as he sent mixed signals to the U.S. about his willingness to give up his nuclear weapons ahead of a possible second summit with President Trump. – Wall Street Journal

North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday for a four-day visit at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, Chinese and North Korean official media said. – New York Times

South Korean President Moon Jae-in replaced his chief of staff, who played a major role in improving ties with North Korea, with a longtime confidant on Tuesday as part of a shake-up aimed at raising approval ratings amid economic woes and a spy scandal. – Reuters


The U.S. and China opened talks on Monday to resolve a trade fight that is threatening the global economy, with U.S. negotiators focused on a make-or-break issue: guarantees that Beijing will follow through on its offers. – Wall Street journal

The warnings sound like the plot of a Hollywood spy thriller: The Chinese hide malware in a Metro rail car’s security camera system that allows surveillance of Pentagon or White House officials as they ride the Blue Line — sending images back to Beijing. […] Congress, the Pentagon and industry experts have taken the warnings seriously, and now Metro will do the same. – Washington Post

An official Chinese newspaper warned Washington not to demand too much from Beijing as talks on ending their tariff war entered a second day Tuesday with no word on possible progress. – Associated Press

The leaders of Canada and the United States on Monday agreed to continue pressing Beijing to free two Canadian citizens who were detained after the arrest of a senior Chinese executive in Vancouver, Ottawa said. – Reuters

Editorial: The goal, as a state television broadcast put it, is to “rescue ignorant, backward and poor rural minorities.” That description encapsulates the gross bigotry with which Chinese authorities view the Uighurs, against whom they have launched a massive campaign of cultural extermination. – Washington Post

Mike Singh writes: One of the more troubling yardsticks by which to measure President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria was the gratification it seemed to offer American adversaries. […] Conspicuously quiet on the matter, however, was the country the U.S. increasingly regards as its chief rival—China. – Wall Street Journal

Erin Dunne writes: Although not surprising giving China’s heavy militarization of the Spratly Islands and bold claims to the waterway, the aggressive territorial posturing signals clashing regional and global visions that are about much more than intellectual property protections or tariffs on soybeans and cars. – Washington Examiner


Senior Chinese leaders offered in 2016 to help bail out a Malaysian government fund at the center of a swelling, multibillion-dollar graft scandal, according to minutes from a series of previously undisclosed meetings reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. – Wall Street Journal

An Indian Navy UH-3H helicopter touched down on San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock USS Anchorage (LPD-23) in late December, marking the first such cross-decking between the two navies and the realization of an agreement made more than a year ago. – USNI News

Malaysia and Singapore on Tuesday agreed to take steps to de-escalate air and maritime disputes, according to a joint statement issued by their foreign ministries. – Reuters

Thailand’s immigration police chief met Tuesday with officials of the Saudi Embassy in Bangkok, and said the officials told him they are satisfied with how the case of the young Saudi woman who claims to be fleeing her abusive family has been handled. – Associated Press

Afghan Taliban representatives and U.S. officials will sit down to two days of peace talks on Wednesday in Qatar but Afghan government officials will not be involved, senior Taliban members said. – Reuters

Jeff M. Smith writes: But as notable as the balancing we are seeing is the balancing we are not seeing. For most Indo-Pacific capitals, trade and investment ties with China have grown exponentially in recent years, despite aggravated threat perceptions and security-related concerns. Even among the Quad, diplomatic and economic cooperation with China remains remarkably robust; Beijing is the largest trading partner of all four members. – War on the Rocks


The Russian Foreign Ministry says Paul Whelan, the American detained in Moscow on suspicion of spying, may receive visits from diplomats from the three other countries whose citizenship he holds. – Associated Press

Russian authorities prevented U.S. businessman and accused spy Paul Whelan from signing a form that would allow the State Department to discuss his case with his family, according to the imprisoned man’s brother. – Washington Examiner

Amnesty International is calling on Poland not to deport a Chechen video blogger and critic of Chechen authorities who is being sought by Russia. – Associated Press


Amphibious warship USS Fort McHenry (LSD-43) pulled into Romanian port Constanta on Monday, in the first Black Sea visit by a U.S. Navy ship since Russian forces seized a trio of Ukrainian naval vessels in the region. – USNI News

Six Uzbek and Kyrgyz nationals living in Sweden have gone on trial in Stockholm accused of transferring funds to the extremist group Islamic State (IS). – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Theresa Fallon writes: China is pursuing a “China dream” of national rejuvenation and of higher standing on the international stage. It also clearly intended to play a greater military role in Europe’s neighborhood, which included conducting a joint military exercise with Russia in the Black Sea and in the Mediterranean and another one in the Baltic Sea […], which rattled European Member States in the region. –War on the Rocks

Leonid Bershidsky writes: Lukashenko’s alternative to bending to Putin’s pressure is seeking help in the West, but that, in a way, is a less attractive option for him: He suspects the U.S. and the European Union want to undermine his near-absolute power. As many times before in his career, the Belarusian leader is caught between a rock and a hard place. – Bloomberg


The U.N. Security Council has put off a planned session on Congo and its closely watched presidential election as the country continues waiting for delayed results. – Associated Press

The U.S. military killed six Islamist militants in an air strike in Somalia on Sunday in the vicinity of Dheerow Sanle, in the Lower Shabelle region, it said. – Reuters

Judd Devermont wrties: China responded that Bolton should learn not to “blurt things out” about China role’s in Africa, referring to an unsubstantiated accusation that Beijing is poised to take over Zambia’s state power utility. Both sides are likely to indulge in an “us-versus-them” mindset, which will almost certainly alienate African governments and publics. Indeed, African Union Commission chairman Moussa Faki has already accused both sides of “infantilizing Africans.” – Center for Strategic & International Studies

The Americas

A federal judge on Monday sharply criticized the U.S.-based attorney for a Russian company indicted in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, and the attorney fired back that the judge showed “bias” against him. – Washington Post

Mr. Trump will deliver a prime-time address and travel to the U.S. border with Mexico this week to make his case—while also working privately with advisers to find a way out of the shutdown without losing face. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration has claimed that U.S. border officials detained “nearly 4,000 known or suspected terrorists” last year at the Mexican border. But figures from the federal government’s Department of Customs and Border Protection reveal that only six people on a security watchlist were detained over a six-month period, NBC reports. – The Huffington Post

Guatemala said it was withdrawing from a United Nations-backed anti-corruption commission and giving its prosecutors a day to leave the country, as President Jimmy Morales moved to expel a body that has investigated him, his family and top government officials. – Associated Press


The U.S. Senate was poised to take up legislation to impose new sanctions on Syria, boost security assistance to Israel and reauthorize defense cooperation with Jordan. But Senate Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., hope to block it on a procedural vote Tuesday, arguing the chamber should not consider any bills until it votes on House-passed legislation to end the partial government shutdown. – Defense News

President Donald Trump on Monday cited the new Democratic House Armed Services Committee chairman’s own words to support the idea of using military funding to build his controversial southern border wall, twisting his political opponent’s message on the problems with making such a move. – Defense News

As the partial government shutdown moves into its third week, some American defense firms are starting to get multi-million-dollar IOUs instead of payments. – Defense One