Fdd's overnight brief

June 21, 2019

In The News


The U.S. was preparing to launch a retaliatory strike against Iran for shooting down an American reconnaissance drone Thursday, but the mission was called off at the last minute, U.S. officials said. – Wall Street Journal

Major airlines from around the world on Friday began rerouting their flights to avoid areas around the Strait of Hormuz following Iran’s shooting down of a U.S. military surveillance drone there, as America warned commercial airliners could be mistakenly attacked. – Associated Press

The U.S. on Friday barred American-registered aircraft from flying over Iranian-administered airspace in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman over the Revolutionary Guard shooting down a U.S. military surveillance drone, affecting a region crucial to global air travel. – Associated Press

Democrats told President Trump in a situation room meeting Thursday he needs to get congressional authorization before taking military action against Iran, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said. – The Hill

Iran warned on June 17 that it would further reduce its compliance with the landmark 2015 nuclear agreement it made with world powers — which has significantly limited Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

U.S. President Donald Trump played down Iran’s downing of a U.S. military surveillance drone on Thursday, saying he suspected it was shot by mistake and “it would have made a big difference” to him had the remotely controlled aircraft been piloted. – Reuters

Iran showcased its impressive military capabilities on Thursday by downing a sophisticated US drone. It says it used its “3rd Khordad” system, which is supposed to replicate the S-300’s capabilities. Iran has also been highlighting other defense capabilities recently, including precision ballistic missiles, rockets, drones, submarines, limpet mines and cruise missiles. – Jerusalem Post

Editorial: Iran’s attack on a U.S. spy drone on Thursday was a reckless escalation of an already simmering crisis. It was also evidence that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against the regime is working. The question is what the U.S. does next. Thanks to American sanctions, Iran’s economy is hurting: A recession is deepening, inflation is likely to hit 50%, and the rial may never recover from last year’s plunge. Tehran is losing hope that other countries will defy the sanctions and reward it for adhering to the 2015 nuclear deal. – Bloomberg

David Ignatius writes: But how does this end, if not in conflict? That’s the troubling question for strategists in Washington and abroad. The United States has offered negotiations (but not yet sanctions relief) through Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe; Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, spurned the offer. In accepting international mediation to end the Iraq-Iran War in 1988, Khamenei’s predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, may have drunk what he called “the cup of poison.” But Khamenei refuses, so far. – Washington Post

Max Fisher writes: The Trump administration has removed these incentives. It has reimposed sanctions, put pressure on other countries to break from the deal and has increased military pressure on Iran, most recently by deploying an additional 1,000 American troops to the region. The administration has also curtailed Iran’s options for disposing of its excess energy-grade uranium. – New York Times

Erik Lin-Greenberg writes: The loss of a machine rather than American pilots, however, should allow the White House to retaliate with words and nonmilitary actions instead of bombs and missiles. Indeed, Trump’s distinction between drones and manned assets hints that he may limit retaliation and prevent further escalation. Trump has also already suggested that the shootdown might not have been intentional but a “mistake” by someone “stupid.” This is precisely the sort of off-ramp that allows leaders to de-escalate attacks on drones that is not available after manned platforms are downed.- Foreign Policy

James. R Holmes writes: Would such measures bring Iran outright victory? Doubtful. For one thing, the mullahs would be picking a fight with the world. Not only do economies across the globe depend on Persian Gulf oil and gas, some 33 nations take part in a standing Combined Maritime Force founded to keep order at sea in the Gulf region and northern Indian Ocean. Indiscriminate attacks would cry out for multinational countermeasures — and, in all likelihood, render Iranian gains fleeting. – The Hill

Eli Lake writes: It’s not unrealistic; one U.S. national security official told me that Iran has numerous options against U.S. citizens throughout the Middle East and abroad. It could launch more precise rocket and missile attacks at U.S. consulates and embassies in Iraq, direct assaults on U.S. naval vessels or coordinate terror attacks through proxies. – Bloomberg

Michael Rubin writes: Both Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards know that they are largely unpopular inside Iran. But, as Iranians resent the ruin brought to their country by forty years of clerical rule, they remain fiercely nationalistic. Khamenei and the IRGC, therefore, might try to precipitate a crisis with which they can rally Iranians around the flag. That is the dynamic which should most concern the Trump administration now, for it is essential to maintain the pressure on Iran without playing into the hands of a regime that may want conflict. – The National Interest

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: Iran’s mix of fighters and land-based air defenses could be suppressed relatively quickly – leaving it vulnerable to U.S. and partner precision air and cruise missile strikes on all its high value targets. Iran also can do little to retaliate effectively beyond using its limit asymmetric warfare capabilities. Even if Iran fires volleys of its ballistic missiles, they still lack the precision and lethality to do more than hit large area targets like cities or airbases with largely random effects. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, holding a rare meeting with international journalists, said on Thursday that he expected to resolve disagreements with the United States, particularly his purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, in a one-on-one meeting with President Trump at the end of the month. – New York Times

A terrorism court in Turkey sentenced 151 people to life in prison Thursday in one of the most important trials arising from the failed 2016 military coup. Those sentenced included the accused ringleaders — generals and other military officers who seized control of the General Staff headquarters on the night of the coup and took prisoner Gen. Hulusi Akar, who was then Chief of the General Staff and is now Turkey’s Defense Minister. – New York Times

European Union leaders threatened sanctions against Turkey as a fight escalated over offshore energy reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. The unprecedented EU move Thursday came as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan already faced the imminent threat of U.S. sanctions over Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian missile-defense system. – Wall Street Journal

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party is struggling to win over Istanbul’s Kurdish voters, a group it considers a key constituency in the electoral battle for control of Istanbul, despite softening its polarizing rhetoric. – Reuters

Editorial: The showdown raises bigger questions about Turkey’s place in the world. For decades the country was a model of how a Muslim-majority country with a secular government could cooperate with the West. Now Mr. Erdogan is operating in a more ambiguous space: becoming more authoritarian while balancing the U.S. and Europe against Iran and Russia. – Wall Street Journal


The Palestinian militant group Hamas signaled it was only open to receiving humanitarian aid generated by a Trump administration peace effort if the assistance is unconditional and doesn’t come at the expense of a Palestinian state. – Wall Street Journal

The head of Hamas, the militant Islamic group that rules the Gaza Strip, accused Israel on Thursday of “blackmail” and slow-walking the easing of border restrictions under a tenuous cease-fire agreement reached last month after repeated rounds of violence. – New York Times

A highly touted but polarizing American-led summit on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict next week is forcing some Arab allies to make a politically fraught choice, with support of Washington’s effort potentially alienating their pro-Palestinian populations. Israelis want to go but were not invited. Palestinians plan to boycott the summit. A few Arab states — including Lebanon and Iraq — have pledged to follow suit. – Washington Post

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said on Thursday that two industrial zones, a new power line and a hospital would be built for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as part of truce understandings between his Islamist group and Israel. – Reuters

U.S. President Donald Trump’s national-security adviser, John Bolton, will travel to Israel during the upcoming weekend for “regional security talks” with Russian and Israeli officials, the White House says. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addressed on Thursday in Jerusalem the International Conference on Combating Antisemitism and the BDS Campaign. The gathering — organized by the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs — was attended by 350 people from 30 countries, including US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Elan Carr. – Algemeiner

Israel’s domestic security service the Shin Bet has arrested a Jordanian citizen who was allegedly recruited by Iranian intelligence to spy on the Jewish state, it was announced on Thursday. According to the Israeli news site Mako, the Shin Bet believes 32-year-old Thaer Shafut, originally from Hebron, was recruited by the Iranians in Lebanon last year and met with handlers in Syria as well. – Algemeiner

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday called on the international community to support the United States against Iran as tensions between the two countries escalated after the downing of a U.S. drone by Iran. – Reuters

Israel officials are reportedly concerned over the prospect that the US will not response decisively to Iran’s downing of an American drone in the Persian Gulf, with some worried Iran will interpret this as an unwillingness to engage in military operations against it and grow more aggressive in the region. – Times of Israel

Gulf States

Britain will temporarily suspend the approval of any new licenses to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, the government said on Thursday, after a court ruled that ministers had acted unlawfully in allowing the sale of weapons when there was a clear possibility they might be used in violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen. – New York Times

The Senate on Thursday passed three measures to block President Trump from using his emergency authority to complete several arms sales benefiting Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but fell short of the support needed to overcome a pledged veto. Trump has cited rising tensions with Iran as justification for using his emergency powers to complete the deals. – Washington Post

An expert on Iraqi security issues wrote on Wednesday that the latest rocket attacks by Iranian-backed militias are challenging the credibility of Iraq’s prime minister. A rocket fired by an unidentified militia earlier this week struck near facilities housing foreign engineers, including Americans, employed at Iraq’s oil fields. – Algemeiner

Middle East & North Africa

The U.N. food agency has begun a partial suspension of food aid to areas of Yemen controlled by the rebels amid accusations they were diverting aid from the war-torn country’s hungriest people, the group said Thursday. – Associated Press

Lebanese authorities are making their most aggressive campaign yet for Syrian refugees to return home and are taking action to ensure they can’t put down roots. – Reuters

Gregory Waters writes: Development within ES is also visible via satellite. In particular, two large-scale primitive oil refineries have appeared. The rapid creation and expansion of these refineries is just one indicator of the degree of infrastructure material, whether coordinated by Turks or Syrians, flowing into ES from Turkey. Refineries under ISIS control are almost always small and widely dispersed to ensure that no single airstrike can cause too much damage to this crucial revenue source. – Middle East Institute

Haisam Hassanein writes: The U.S. government should not comment on the matter, since that would risk being misinterpreted as pro-Brotherhood sentiment by the majority of Egyptians who hate Morsi and his organization. Morsi was never a friend of America or a believer in Western values; rather, he was bigoted against Coptic Christians and Jews. It is telling that the only regional actors mourning his loss are pro-Iran terrorist groups (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad) and supporters of Islamism (Erdogan, Qatar). – Washington Institute

Przemysław Osiewicz writes: In sum, the EU’s approach to international human rights promotion deserves recognition, but its selectivity and subjectivity are problematic. The body’s monitors should treat all Middle Eastern governments equally and criticize them when it’s warranted. Although it would be unfair to accuse the EU of taking sides in the aforementioned cases, there could be a perception that its officials ignored significant violations in EU partners like Saudi Arabia or Turkey for political or economic reasons, while taking a firmer stand on similar issues in Iran or Syria. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

The South Korean government apologized on Thursday for a security lapse that allowed a North Korean fishing boat to spend two and a half days in its waters without being noticed. “What has been revealed so far is enough to cause deep concern among the people,” Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon said. “We offer our deep apologies.” – New York Times

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, arrived in North Korea’s capital on Thursday to a 21-gun salute at the airport, the release of thousands of balloons and crowds lining the streets, as his car wound its way to the mausoleum where the North’s founder lies. – New York Times

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un signaled a willingness to compromise in stalled nuclear talks with the U.S. during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Pyongyang, a high-profile trip arranged to flex Beijing’s role as a pacifying force. – Wall Street Journal

The Senate is expected to approve tough new sanctions against North Korea with bipartisan legislation that would cut off from the U.S. banking system any person or entity doing business with the hermit kingdom, according to the measure’s authors. – Washington Post

North Korea’s state media on Friday described North Korea-China relations as “invincible” as Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a closely watched two-day visit to the North. Pyongyang’s state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun carried front-page pictures that showed North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju welcoming Xi on Thursday. – Agence France-Presse

Chinese President Xi Jinping offered encouragement for North Korea’s focus on economic development in a speech in Pyongyang, turning to a topic Beijing has long pressed with its communist neighbor amid wider concerns over the North’s nuclear weapons program. – Associated Press

A historic visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping this week may have bolstered Kim Jong Un’s hopes that economic relief may be coming soon, but a new report reveals North Korea’s road to international investment may be blocked by more than sanctions. – Reuters


Pentagon funding helped San Francisco startup Twist Bioscience Corp. get off the ground. Then the maker of synthetic DNA got a partner in China, where it now plans to expand manufacturing and set up a subsidiary with the money from its recent initial public offering. – Wall Street Journal

China should not repatriate the increasing number of North Korean escapees it has arrested in recent months, because severe punishment faces those deported home, a United Nations human rights investigator said on Friday. – Reuters

Beijing on Thursday ordered a suspension of history exams run by a U.S. non-profit for students seeking credit at American colleges, as the ruling Communist Party cracks down on educational material it deems unfriendly. – Reuters

The Manhattan neighborhood, Venice Garden, the Vienna hotel chain — to the ears of the Chinese government, the names are too foreign-sounding and must go. Provinces and cities across China have been issuing notices pressuring both private and public officials to rename businesses, bridges and neighborhoods, reflecting renewed efforts by President Xi Jinping’s government to “sinicize” China. – Associated Press

Former Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Jim O’Neill, said China could use its currency to gain an edge over the U.S. — but not by devaluing the yuan. Beijing can consider expanding the role of the yuan globally to challenge the dominance of the U.S. dollar, he told CNBC’s Tanvir Gill in an interview which aired Thursday. – CNBC

A satellite image obtained by CNN shows China has deployed at least four J-10 fighter jets to the contested Woody Island in the South China Sea, the first known deployment of fighter jets there since 2017. – CNN

Christopher Porter and Brian Finch write: There’s evidence that China is quietly deploying those same surveillance tools and analytics in America. Consider the presence of millions of surveillance cameras made by state-backed Chinese manufacturers like Hikvision. […] The fear is that the cameras could be remotely monitored by Beijing. Accordingly, last year the U.S. government ordered Hikvision cameras removed from sensitive facilities, but untold numbers of cameras remain elsewhere, potentially spying on regular U.S. citizens in addition to traditional intelligence targets. – Wall Street Journal

Claude Barfield writes: While the legislation covers all foreign companies, China and Chinese companies are the real targets. For years, China has thwarted US and other foreign accounting regulators by refusing to allow disclosure of domestic audits, claiming national security (“state secret”) considerations. This lack of transparency has finally resulted in a public warning to investors by the PCAOB and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, stating that it was false to assume that for a listing by a Chinese company on a US exchange, regular “US rules and regulatory oversight apply.” – American Enterprise Institute


Hong Kong’s government closed its central offices on Friday as several hundred demonstrators gathered outside the complex, renewing protests over the government’s handling of an unpopular extradition proposal and earlier demonstrations. – Wall Street Journal

The Philippines rejected China’s suggestion to jointly probe the June 9 collision in the South China Sea involving the two nations’ boats. – Bloomberg

The Japanese military says its fighter jets were forced to scramble after two Russian military aircraft violated its airspace. The Defense Ministry said in a statement on June 20 that two Russian TU-95 bombers approached southern Japanese islands, including Kyushu, from the north before heading north toward the Japanese mainland. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Former Philippine foreign minister Albert del Rosario, a critic of Beijing’s claims to the disputed South China Sea, was denied entry to Hong Kong on Friday and deported, his lawyer said. Del Rosario was behind two prominent initiatives against China, including a 2013 case at an international arbitral tribunal which eventually ruled against Beijing’s claim over most of the resource-rich waterway. – Agence France-Presse

Thousands dressed in black marched in Hong Kong on Friday to press for the full withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill that has triggered violent protests and plunged the financial hub into political crisis. – Reuters


Declaring himself the victim of “an absurd political kidnapping,” an American detained in Russia since December on espionage charges used a brief court appearance on Thursday to appeal to President Trump to “keep American great” by taking robust action to get him released. – New York Times

Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed international sanctions and falling energy prices for declining incomes that have led to a drop in living standards for average Russians and caused mounting social discontent. – Wall Street Journal

Benjamin Jensen writes: Many U.S. competitors use similar hardware and software. In all likelihood, any cyber capability the United States uses to signal to Russia risks jeopardizing its ability to affect Chinese, Iranian, and North Korean computer networks in the future. By entering the Russian power grid, the United States gave Moscow, as well as Beijing, the opportunity to observe technical methods and harden networks against future intrusions – especially now that the story has been leaked. It remains unclear whether the tradeoff was worth it. – War on the Rocks


European leaders have hammered the United States for nearly two decades about the injustice of Guantanamo Bay, where prisoners are held indefinitely at a detention camp outside the normal U.S. justice system. But faced with what to do about European nationals who went to fight for the Islamic State and ended up in Syrian detention camps, the continent’s leaders are proving reluctant to bring their citizens to trial at home. – Washington Post

Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili late on Thursday called Russia “an enemy and occupier” whose fifth column she suggested was behind violent unrest which she warned risked dividing the ex-Soviet state. – Reuters

Crowds angry over the visit of a Russian lawmaker tried to storm Georgia’s parliament building on Thursday evening, pushing against lines of riot police, throwing bottles and grabbing riot shields from some officers and tearing off their helmets. – Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday the three so-called Spitzenkandidaten – or lead candidates – for the European Commission presidency had each failed to receive enough support among European Union leaders in Brussels. – Reuters

European Union leaders agreed on Thursday to prolong until the end of January 2020 economic sanctions against Russia over the turmoil in Ukraine, a spokesman for the bloc said. – Reuters

Blaise Misztal writes: Poland’s eagerness to assist the United States was not matched with a long-term vision of shared strategic objectives or a compelling pitch for what unique role it could play in advancing them. Without a compelling account of what Poland had to offer, when Washington’s original 2003 need for a willing coalition partner ran its course with the change in administration in 2009, so did its partnership with Warsaw. – The Hill

The Americas

President Trump, hosting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House on Thursday, promised to help Ottawa in its tense diplomatic standoff with China and spoke optimistically about the prospects for the ratification of the new United States-Mexico-Canada trade pact. – Washington Post

Pushed by the implosion of top ally Venezuela and sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, Cuba has driven into an economic ditch. The government has tightened state rations. Residents stand in lines for hours to buy scarce basic goods such as eggs, flour and chicken. – Wall Street Journal

The House Judiciary Committee has released a transcript of a closed-door interview with former Trump aide Hope Hicks, showing White House lawyers repeatedly blocking her from answering questions about her work in the administration. – The Hill

President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sought to demonstrate a united front Thursday in the uphill effort to get a replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement over the finish line. – Associated Press

Raul Gallegos writes: We assume that cash-strapped dictators will quickly fall because they can no longer buy people’s loyalty. But we fail to understand that when money becomes scarce, unscrupulous regimes like those in North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela use fear and terror — including jailing or killing dissenters and their families — to enforce obedience. – New York Times


Apple Inc. is asking suppliers to study shifting final assembly of some products out of China, people familiar with the matter said, as trade tensions prompt the company to consider diversifying its supply chain. – Wall Street Journal

A secure messaging app used by protesters to organize in Hong Kong was hit with a massive cyberattack, identifiable from offending IP addresses as coming from mainland China. Protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets in droves in June to decry legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens wanted by the Chinese government to be extradited for trial to the mainland. Using an app called Telegram, which prides itself on its security, protesters were able to coordinate one of the largest demonstrations the city has seen for years. – Washington Examiner

An Ecuadorean judge on Thursday ordered that a Swedish citizen and personal friend of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange be freed, two months after he was detained for alleged participation in a hacking attempt on the government. – Reuters

Tactical commanders should have the power to unleash cyber attacks on an enemy in exactly the same way they can currently unleash an artillery barrage, says retired French Army Lt. Gen. Alain Bouquin. – Breaking Defense


It’s a difficult time for the Pentagon to be without a permanent U.S. defense secretary. The Trump administration is grappling with an escalating crisis with Iran, an unusual and controversial deployment of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border, the nearly two-decade-old war in Afghanistan and stalled talks with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. – Associated Press

Now that Heather Wilson is no longer secretary of the U.S. Air Force, expect service leadership to hew much closer to the Defense Department’s perspective on the overhaul of military space organizations that includes the launch of a Space Force. – Defense News

The Navy released the final request for proposals for its next guided-missile frigate (FFG(X)) today, outlining the program that will get the U.S. Navy into the business of operating high-end small combatants. The service is counting on the new frigate to help the fleet operate in a distributed manner in a contested maritime environment. – USNI News

The Navy is grappling with how to securely share the vast amounts of data ship designers, operators and sustainers collect, a panel of engineers said Wednesday. Shipyards have the design systems they use to transmit plans from engineers to the shipbuilders. Once delivered, modern ships, submarines and even aircraft generate tremendous amounts of data gauging their performance. – USNI News