Fdd's overnight brief

July 26, 2019

In The News


And Iran is far from the only nation that has, within its borders, substantial capacity to wage Russian-style influence operations in the United States ahead of next year’s election. That means American voters are likely to be targeted in the coming campaign season by more foreign disinformation than ever before, say those studying such operations. – Washington Post 

The British navy has begun escorting vessels traveling through the Strait of Hormuz after the seizure of a British-flagged tanker by Iranian forces. – Washington Post 

Nations that register vessels under so-called “flags of convenience” allowing them to sail legally have de-listed dozens of tankers owned by Iran in recent months, tightening the economic noose around it. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday he was willing to go to Iran for talks amid tensions between Tehran and Washington, but also called on Japan, Britain and other nations to join a maritime force to guard oil tankers sailing through the Strait of Hormuz. – Reuters

Brazil’s top court on Thursday ordered state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA to refuel two Iranian grain vessels stranded on the Brazilian coast due to U.S. sanctions holding up sales of fuel needed for their return trips. – Reuters

Iran successfully test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile Wednesday which flew more than 600 miles from the southern part of the country to an area outside the capital, Tehran, in the north, a U.S. official told Fox News. – Fox News 

That hasn’t stopped Iranians from accessing such sites through virtual private networks, or VPNs, and other services. It also hasn’t prevented a number of top Iranian officials from using the sites to broadcast the official line. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif frequently tweets in English, and accounts believed to be run by the offices of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani regularly post on their behalf. – Times of Israel

America’s top diplomat went on to say that the U.S. had a role in policing the Strait of Hormuz, but that “the world has a big role in this, too, to keep these sea lanes open,” he continued. “I’m convinced we’ll do that.” It was a loaded answer, and the subtext wasn’t missed in the United Kingdom: The U.K. has the responsibility to protect its own ships, but doesn’t have the Navy it needs to do it. – Defense News 

Andrew J. Stanley writes: The possibility of Iran successfully closing off the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period remains highly unlikely. Iran itself, albeit at significantly reduced volumes, is still exporting through the strait. And regardless of the comments made by President Trump questioning the need for the United States to protect these waterways—any immediate and significant drawdown of U.S. military presence appears improbable given the goals of the current national security strategy. […]Iran knows full well that it would be no match and as such, its tactics to date have leaned toward plausible deniability of causing disruptions or confrontation rather than brazen violations of international law. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 

Maysam Behravesh writes: As the Islamic Republic shifts to a more muscular foreign policy in the face of mounting external pressure, its defense and security apparatus is also undergoing key changes. This includes a reshuffling within the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the creation of a separate “air defense force” within the regular Army (Artesh). These discreet yet significant changes reflect the growing anticipation in Tehran of a highly confrontational phase in relations with the United States and its allies over Iran’s nuclear program. – Middle East Institute


A top Justice Department official made it clear Thursday that combating Hezbollah is a top priority for the department, a move that puts pressure on the terrorist organization’s sponsor, Iran. – Washington Examiner

It’s been a hot summer in the Golan. And it’s not only the weather. The past week alone saw two deadly attacks against Iranian proxies in southern Syria attributed to Israel. Earlier this week an explosion killed Hezbollah operative Mashour Zidan in southern Syria and a few days later a rocket struck the strategic Tel Haraa site not far from where Zidan was killed. – Jerusalem Post

Mystery has swirled over the killing of an alleged Hezbollah operative near Syria’s demarcation line with Israel, with local sources blaming Israel and telling The National he was assassinated in an aerial strike. – The National 


Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar met military officials on Thursday to discuss a possible offensive east of the Euphrates River in Syria as Ankara ramped up warnings of a cross-border operation. – Reuters

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is deliberately starving thousands of displaced citizens taking refuge in the Rukban camp in the southern part of the country, hoping to force them to flee with no guarantees for their safety, according to U.S. officials and a new report by a Syrian-led research organization. – Foreign Policy

David Ignatius writes: The U.S. diplomatic approach, with the Kurds participating through some cut-out, would be an ideal solution because it might begin to ease the poisonous feud between Erdogan and the Kurds. […] The United States has made so many blunders in the Middle East over the past few decades that it’s worth celebrating two successful military missions here in Syria — the partnership with Mazloum and the SDF in northeast Syria, and a much smaller alliance with a Sunni tribal force known as the Maghawir al-Thawra in the south. – Washington Post 


U.S. lawmakers say they are unhappy about Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system but are unsure what President Donald Trump – or Congress – should do next, suggesting efforts to impose sanctions were on the back burner for now. – Reuters

As the mood sours toward Syrians, the Turkish government has repeated it is working to help Syrians cross back into Turkish-controlled parts of northern Syria. President Tayyip Erdogan said last month that around 330,000 had returned since Turkey launched military operations in Syria three years ago. – Reuters

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called Turkey’s foreign minister on Wednesday at President Trump’s behest amid ongoing tensions over Ankara’s decision to buy a Russian antimissile system, the senator said Thursday. Graham said he delivered a message to Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu about a “win-win” situation for Turkey and the United States if Ankara reverses course on the Russian S-400. – The Hill 

Russia has completed delivery of the first shipment of its S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems to Turkey and a second shipment is now being planned, Turkish military officials said on Thursday. – Reuters

Michael Doran and Peter Rough write: What is also clear is that Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 is not the whimsical move of a mercurial leader. Erdoğan means for this to register in the West as a turning point, one that did not arrive out of the blue but came after a long and steady deterioration in ties. He is playing Moscow off against Washington so that Turkey can no longer be taken for granted by either. The move is designed to increase Turkey’s options. Germany has been wrestling with these questions for years, if not decades. The idea that the Turkish alliance is dispensable is not shared by official Germany. […] Germany is prepared to support a sustained American effort to understand and ameliorate Turkey’s key grievances—an effort, if conducted thoroughly, that may yet bear fruit. – Hudson Institute 


Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Thursday he has decided to stop implementing agreements with Israel amid worsening relations between the two sides. – Agence France-Presse

Social media posts from years ago by a CNN photo editor and writer reveal that he called Jews “pigs” and praised their deaths. – Washington Examiner 

Former Jordanian education minister Ibrahim Badran said Hitler killed many people in one time period, but Israel kills many slowly with Western support.  Badran made the comments in a July 7 interview with the official Palestinian Authority television channel, Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) reported on Thursday. Badran called Israel a “racist state” which rejects the other in a “Nazi, Hitlerian manner.” The Jewish State, he said, “is a barbaric, racist state that has outdone what Hitler did.” – Jerusalem Post

Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley blasted a UN council on Thursday for singling out Israel for alleged violations of women’s rights. – Algemeiner

Middle East & North Africa

President Béji Caïd Essebsi, Tunisia’s first popularly elected head of state, who steered the country through a democratic transition after an uprising that set in motion the Arab Spring of 2011, died Thursday morning in Tunis. He was 92. – New York Times

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran are complicating the Iraqi prime minister’s efforts to bring the country’s paramilitary forces under government control, including several militias with close links to Tehran. […] In trying to bring them to heel, Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has been forced to navigate the clashing interests of Iraq’s two chief allies. – Wall Street Journal 

Algerian interim president Abdelkader Bensalah has set up a six-member panel to oversee a national dialogue and hold a presidential election aimed at ending months of political crisis, the presidency said on Thursday. – Reuters 

Saudi-led coalition forces trying to restore Yemen’s government intercepted a drone launched by Yemen’s Houthi militia toward the kingdom on Thursday, the state news agency SPA quoted the coalition’s spokesman as saying. – Reuters

Sarah Feuer and Reda Ayadi write: The United States has a clear interest in helping Morocco preserve its relative stability, particularly given the uncertainties gripping Algeria next door. That stability largely depends on Rabat’s ability to continue implementing reforms in a way that reduces the drivers of social unrest while avoiding the chaos and authoritarian regression seen elsewhere in the region. Washington can boost the kingdom’s chances of success by more actively engaging it in the development arena. – Washington Institute

Roie Yellinek writes: At the heart of the divide between the two groups is the issue of Iran and the different perceptions of the threat it poses. For the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain Iran is a major threat, and this has only been exacerbated by recent attacks on Gulf shipping and pipeline infrastructure thought to be carried out by the Islamic Republic or its proxies. This is not the case for Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman, however, and as a result they have less desire to deal with Iran and would prefer to remain focused on the long-standing Palestinian issue. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

Analysts at the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency say North Korea’s scientists may have produced 12 nuclear weapons since the first Trump-Kim meeting in Singapore last year. In total, Pyongyang could currently possess between 20 and 60 nuclear bombs, according to estimates by various security analysts. – Wall Street Journal 

The two projectiles North Korea launched off its east coast on Thursday were a new type of short-range ballistic missile, the South Korean government said, acknowledging that the North was expanding its ability to deliver nuclear warheads as President Trump’s efforts to bring the country to the negotiating table remain stalled. – New York Times

A trade feud between Japan and South Korea, two of the world’s leading tech producers, has prompted groups representing Silicon Valley giants to warn an escalation could wreak long-term damage across an already-buckling global supply chain. – Wall Street Journal 

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has said two missiles fired under his supervision were newly designed tactical weapons that sent a “solemn warning” to the South over plans to hold military drills with the United States. – Agence France-Presse

North Korea’s economy shrank in 2018 for a second straight year, and by the most in 21 years, as it was battered by international sanctions aimed at stopping its nuclear program and by drought, South Korea’s central bank said on Friday. – Reuters

The wedge of sea between Japan, Russia, and the Korean peninsula became a new flashpoint this week, with a regional airspace dispute, a seized fishing boat, and missile tests by North Korea aggravating longstanding tensions. – Reuters

Evidence from the past couple of months seems to suggest that North Korea is also strengthening its arsenal to counter regional threats to its offensive capabilities — some of the most important cards it holds in ongoing nuclear negotiations. […]One official revealed that North Korea appeared to be decreasing the time it takes to launch missiles, thus reducing the time the US and its allies have to detect a launch. – Business Insider 

Tom Rogan writes: That said, Trump must make clear that Kim’s escalation is unacceptable. He must remind the North Korean despot that diplomacy is America’s distinct preference, but also that America won’t resort to appeasement. – Washington Examiner

John Lee writes: The latest incident should not be dismissed as an isolated event. It is further confirmation that a military quasi-alliance between China and Russia is emerging where both countries assist each other in undermining the U.S. and its allies despite the absence of formal commitments to defend each other against attack. […]The important lesson is that Tokyo and Seoul should be drawing closer together in response to the emerging military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow. – Nikkei Asian Review


The Chinese government is forging ahead with official efforts to create a national social credit system, even as several academic analysts doubt whether authorities can ever reach that goal. – CNBC

Daniel W. Drezner writes: It’s okay if elites have a different foreign policy approach toward grand strategy than the vox populi — after all, elites are ostensibly supposed to be paying closer attention to these issues. That said, it is worth noting that the elite consensus primarily consists of foreign policy experts rather than China experts. […]Some foreign policy analysts do not agree with going full hawk on China, but they also seem to think that the prior status quo was blinkered as well. Those advocating for continued trade and exchange with the People’s Republic of China also need to say what the benefits have been from this approach to date, and what the benefits will be in the future. – Washington Post 

Kathy Gilsinan writes: The United States knows a lot about China’s capabilities, but discerning its intent is another question. John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA who now teaches at Johns Hopkins University, notes that Chinese officials have said they aim to be a global power, but what that really means is not clear. Are they trying to build a defensive buffer zone around their borders? A lot of countries do that. Or is their intent something more sinister? – The Atlantic

South Asia

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani have agreed that it was time to “accelerate efforts” to end the war in Afghanistan, a joint statement issued by the U.S. State Department said. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

Islamic State claimed responsibility for two blasts in the Afghan capital Kabul on Thursday, the group’s Amaq news agency reported. – Reuters

Sadanand Dhume writes: Unfortunately for Pakistan, charm and diplomatic agility go only so far. The U.S. may need Islamabad’s help to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but this is rooted in fatigue with a war that has dragged on for 18 years rather than in any newfound love for the bearded militants long nurtured by Pakistan’s military intelligence and given sanctuary on Pakistani soil. Political compulsions set the president’s timetable in Afghanistan, but they don’t magically erase Pakistan’s culpability in the deaths of more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers. – Wall Street Journal 


As Hong Kong convulses amid weeks of protests, demonstrators and the police have turned identity into a weapon. The authorities are tracking protest leaders online and seeking their phones. Many protesters now cover their faces, and they fear that the police are using cameras and possibly other tools to single out targets for arrest. – New York Times

Hong Kong authorities have struggled to quell protests in recent weeks, which were originally sparked by a controversial bill to legalize extradition to China. […]After protesters defaced a Chinese government office in the city on Sunday, Hong Kong authorities said they would use all necessary measures to safeguard the city. – Wall Street Journal 

This summer, however, after weeks of antigovernment demonstrations and some incidents of violence, questions about the military have been revived. […]Here is a look at the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, what it does and whether it might be called to the streets. – New York Times

Several hundred protesters calling for democracy and some chanting “free Hong Kong” converged on the Chinese-ruled city’s airport on Friday as neighboring Singapore advised its citizens to avoid parts of the territory. – Reuters

The deployment of a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) platoon to Australia has helped the Marine Corps reach the 2,500-Marine presence in Darwin that U.S. and Australian leaders promised in 2011. […]Though the rotations of forces in and out of Darwin have grown in size, the Marines are just now reaching that 2,500 figure – though the next rotations may not be as large, the service said. – USNI News 


So, while the Chinese timber rush has stimulated local economies in Siberia, it has also stirred resentment, underscoring the promise and pitfalls of an economic experiment with implications far beyond one remote region. The governments of Russia and China, each with its own dispute with Washington, are vowing to get along in a common front against the United States. – New York Times

The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded Thursday that election systems in all 50 states were targeted by Russia in 2016, an effort more far-reaching than previously acknowledged and one largely undetected by the states and federal officials at the time. – New York Times

In a move likely to further ratchet up tensions between Moscow and Kiev, Ukraine seized a Russian tanker that it said was used during a naval confrontation last year to block passage through a disputed waterway linked to the Black Sea, Ukraine’s security service said on Thursday. – New York Times

Russia said on Thursday it was preparing to ban the Atlantic Council, a think-tank formerly run by the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, which Russia’s prosecutor general described as a security threat. – Reuters

The Senate Intelligence Committee outlined the dire need for the U.S. to better defend elections against attacks such as the massive campaign Russia carried out to disrupt the 2016 vote. – Politico


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson laid out a hard-line negotiating stance with the European Union, setting the stage for fraught Brexit talks before the U.K.’s scheduled departure from the bloc on Oct. 31. – Wall Street Journal 

In an unusual flexing of diplomatic muscle, President Trump lashed out on Thursday at the prime minister of Sweden over what he said was the unfair treatment of the rapper ASAP Rocky, who was charged with assault earlier in the day after nearly three weeks in Swedish custody. – New York Times

EU Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has told Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the bloc’s member nations will not give in to his demand to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal treaty. – Associated Press 

Israel’s ambassador to Finland expressed frustration with local law enforcement agencies on Thursday in a media interview regarding a spate of antisemitic vandalism targeting the Israeli Embassy in Helsinki. – Algemeiner

The Simon Wiesenthal Centre is calling on the European Coalition of Cities Against Racism (ECCAR) to compile and maintain a watch list of “notorious racist bigots who hold municipal standing or platforms” after a member of the city council posted a photo celebrating his birthday with a Nazi cake. – Jerusalem Post

The UN however cannot stay forever in Cyprus and are weighing up their options at present. If they do leave the buffer zone will be up for grabs . Turks will have foreseen a possible UN withdrawal and will be prepared and ready to grab most if not all of the buffer zone. This will be particularly dangerous as there are a number of Greek Cypriot villages in the buffer zone. The UN needs to give its position serious consideration in the absence of any settlement. – Cyprus Mail

Fareed Zakaria writes: The main challenge to global stability and order is obvious. It is the assertiveness of powers such as Russia and China. In such a world, Europe, which has an economy second only to that of the United States, could play a crucial role in helping to preserve the rules, norms and values that have been built up since 1945. But Europe would need to harness its power and act with purpose. In fact, it is moving in the opposite direction. – Washington Post 

Jason Rezaian writes: The fact that Johnson enjoys a good relationship with the Trump administration is something few of his European counterparts can claim. […]If the prime minister can use that opening to get the West and Iran talking again, the resulting momentum could boost his term in office, restore Britain’s waning credibility as an international player — and just possibly help to avoid a war. – Washington Post 

Yasmeen Serhan writes: In a show of unity across the bloc’s 27 other member states, European leaders responded to Johnson’s elevation to the premiership with muted optimism.  […] But behind the canned congratulations was a more familiar message: that when it comes to Brexit, nothing has changed.- The Atlantic


A rare female suicide bomber deployed in the deadly al-Shabab attack in the office of Mogadishu’s mayor was aiming for the American who is the new U.N. envoy to Somalia and had left the office just minutes earlier, the extremist group and officials said. – Associated Press

Islamic State’s West Africa branch on Thursday claimed responsibility for kidnapping six aid workers in northeast Nigeria. – Reuters 

Deployed in one of the world’s most dangerous conflicts, Somali soldiers risking their lives daily against Al-Shabaab insurgents were growing weary of being paid months late and shortchanged by their superiors. – Agence France-Presse

Sudanese protest leaders and their rebel partners have ended their differences over a power-sharing deal signed with the country’s military rulers, vowing to work jointly for peace, a leading protest group said Thursday. – Agence France-Presse

United States

Nation of Islam leader and notorious antisemite Louis Farrakhan has blamed “Talmudic, satanic Jews” for the sex scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, claiming the Talmud makes such conduct “lawful to them.” – Algemeiner

A poster denying the Holocaust was placed outside a Jewish museum in suburban Cleveland, Ohio. – Algemeiner

Antisemitic posters, flyers and graffiti have littered different parts of the United States over the past week, with most stating Holocaust denial and preaching neo-Nazi sentiments. – Jerusalem Post

Democratic Congresswoman Rep. Rashida Tlaib on Tuesday pointed to the examples of boycotts against Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa as justification for maintaining the individual right to boycott Israel. – Times of Israel

Editorial: The explosive growth of world trade that began with the rise of China was bound to cool somewhat; it reflected the creation of what is now a mature global supply chain. […]The deal is, indeed, far from perfect — it’s not even a free-trade deal, strictly speaking, because it creates new protections for the U.S. auto industry. Democrats are understandably loath to give Mr. Trump a political victory for essentially reassembling the status quo he shattered. Given the warnings from the IMF and others, though, the only thing worse than ratifying his deal might be rejecting it. – Washington Post

Latin America

The U.S. indicted a Colombian businessman and sanctioned his firms over accusations he ran global money-laundering operations that diverted hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds into overseas accounts for the Venezuelan regime, including through an emergency food program. – Wall Street Journal 

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro on Thursday called on Colombia’s military to “disobey orders to disrupt Venezuela’s peace,” in the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the neighboring South American countries. – Reuters

The U.S. on Thursday imposed sanctions on three stepsons of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, accusing them of forming part of a sophisticated scheme that stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food import contracts at a time of widespread hunger in the crisis-wracked South American nation. – Associated Press


Faced with a rising backlash over the spread of disinformation in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, Facebook last year came up with a seemingly straightforward solution: It created an online library of all the advertisements on the social network. […]The problems raise new questions about Facebook’s commitment to battling disinformation, and reflect the struggles of big tech firms and governments across the world to counter it. – New York Times

The world of Internet trolls — the gaslighting, the fabrications, the nastiness — is now a fact of life in the Web ecosystem nearly everywhere. […]It is also showing signs of going global — with the Philippines as a hub — as the United States and countries across the world move into another election cycle in the troll age. – Washington Post  

Australia’s competition watchdog on Friday recommended tighter controls on the use of personal data and measures to ease Facebook and Google’s dominance of online advertising among a slew of measures to better police the internet giants. – Agence France-Presse


The House passed a sweeping two-year budget deal Thursday that increases spending for military and domestic programs and suspends the debt ceiling through mid-2021, sending the White House-backed legislation to the Senate. – Washington Post 

The U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to confirm four-star Army General Mark Milley as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, President Donald Trump’s most senior uniformed military adviser. – Reuters

Cyber Command’s mission and portfolio has expanded and evolved. The nature of cyberspace means the Department of Defense’s cyberwarriors are facing new challenges every day. But the future of Cyber Command, an organization whose workforce and capabilities have grown rapidly, remains uncertain. – Fifth Domain 

Boeing has announced its withdrawal from the $85 billion Ground Based Strategic Deterrent competition, potentially leaving Northrop Grumman as the only contender vying to replace the Air Force’s Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles. – Defense News 

The Air Force’s Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system will consist of five satellites providing advanced warnings of missile attacks on the United States, its deployed forces and its allies. OPIR will replace the Space Based Infrared System to provide better missile warning capabilities and increased survivability. – C4ISRNET 

Brian Radzinsky writes: This security environment would eventually lead the United States, once again, to lean on nuclear deterrence. As the United States is (re)learning in Asia and the Middle East, regional powers will continue to resist their own nuclear disarmament so long as American military superiority is seen to serve political orders that are perceived as threatening. – War on the Rocks