Fdd's overnight brief

June 7, 2019

In The News


For two weeks in May, the U.S. military shadowed two Iranian commercial boats sailing around the Persian Gulf as policy makers in Washington and Tehran traded threats and taunts. American surveillance kept constant watch on the two vessels after U.S. officials said they saw Iranian forces load missiles into launchers on their decks, according to U.S. officials. – Wall Street Journal

The top U.S. military commander in the Middle East says Tehran backed off an apparent attack against U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region after the recent bolstering of American forces there, but he added that the threat from Tehran remains “very real.” – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

In the summer of 2010, poet Hossein Jannati was basking in the adulation of the supreme leader. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, a self-professed poetry lover who also has the final say in politics and religion in Iran, was publicly reciting Jannati’s “very fine” verses and using his powerful media team to share that poetry. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Mike Giglio writes: He welcomed the expansion of the U.S. focus to a broader range of threats from Iran. Critics of Obama’s nuclear deal have long worried that it ignores other problems such as Iran’s ballistic missile program and its proxies. “The Iranian issue is much larger than [the nuclear agreement]. You also have the fact that they are the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism,” Hurd said. “For years it was just a focus on the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. And now we’re talking about their entire range of destabilization and asymmetrical activities.” – The Atlantic

Lawrence J. Haas writes: The latest U.S. offer of negotiations with Iran prompts the same question with which every administration of recent decades has grappled: Is behavioral change in Tehran possible without regime change? We Americans want to think so, but the evidence of four decades suggests otherwise. Consequently, President Donald Trump and his team may be headed toward another fruitless U.S. effort to create a better Iran. – The Hill

David Harsanyi writes: For years, the liberal foreign policy establishment presented Americans with a false choice on Iran: surrender or war. President Trump has proved that binary to be a fantasy, squeezing and deterring the Iranians without full-on confrontation. – New York Post


The Syrian government and its Russian backer have turned to a familiar tactic in their assault on Idlib — relentlessly and systematically striking residential areas, hospitals, markets and infrastructure to break the will of the population and pressure people to flee, according to observers, rights groups and residents. – Associated Press

There’s confusion, but no conclusion, so far about whether the Syrian regime on May 19 used chlorine gas yet again against opposition forces. – AlMonitor

She is one of 41 children in this orphanage in northeastern Syria born to ISIS fighters and the Iraqi Yazidi women they enslaved when ISIS ruled over large parts of Iraq and Syria, starting in 2014. – NPR

Sam Dagher writes: Bringing back the statues and the billboards is the Assads’ way of telling once-rebellious communities that any further resistance is futile. Their return affirms the message that the Assad family prevailed despite the enormous cost: more than half a million dead, massive destruction and population displacement, an economy in tatters, a fractured country and society, and a regime that can only survive with the support of foreign patrons like Iran and Russia. – The Atlantic


Iran is working to arm the various terrorist organizations active in Judea and Samaria with the aim of sparking fresh hostilities against Israel, recent remarks by senior officials in Tehran reveal. – Israel Hayom


Israel’s Mission to the UN led a diplomatic effort to prevent a Hamas–aligned group called “The Palestinian Association for Human Rights – Witness” from receiving a prestigious status at the UN. The United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) on Thursday granted a special UN status to several global NGOs, a step that would enable these organizations to advise the UN in various fields and take part in its activities. – Jerusalem Post

The IDF thwarted an attempt to smuggle materials, meant for manufacturing rockets, into the Gaza Strip in early May, The army released for publication Friday morning. Two Palestinian vessels entered the forbidden area in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, in violation of the security regulations and the armistice directives. – Jerusalem Post

The British government on Thursday accused both Israel and the Palestinians of ongoing human rights abuses, in its annual report on the state of democracy and human rights across the globe. – Times of Israel

Matti Friedman writes: For Amir Ohana, the shift that led to Israel’s current political moment — and indirectly, to his own unlikely rise — can be pinpointed to one incident in the fall of 2000. Mr. Ohana, who was just appointed this country’s first openly gay cabinet minister, was then a 24-year-old from a desert backwater making his way in Tel Aviv. The Israeli right, his political camp, was out of power, the public still hoping for peace with the Arab world. – New York Times

Jason Willick writes: With Israel’s diplomatic and military position stronger than ever, its internal identity will also become more contested. In the U.S., religious traditionalists and secularists seem to be seeking each other’s total defeat. Mr. Pfeffer hopes that as Haredi move to engage more in civil society, compromise will be possible. One reason he is hopeful: The Haredim feel they are approaching politics “from a position of strength”—and not, like religious traditionalists elsewhere in the U.S., “from a position of extreme vulnerability.” – Wall Street Journal


Eastern Libyan forces on Thursday conducted an air strike for a second night on the military section of the only functioning airport of the Libyan capital, a statement by the force said. – Reuters

Islamic State claimed responsibility on Thursday for two car bomb explosions that targeted a military unit belonging to the eastern forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Derna earlier this week, the group’s Al-Nabaa newspaper said. – Reuters

President Donald Trump sent a “confusing” message to Libya when he recently praised a military strongman waging war on the country’s internationally recognized government, the Libyan deputy prime minister told NBC News. Ahmed Omar Maiteeg said the president’s phone call in April with Khalifa Haftar — a renegade general whose militia forces are pressing an offensive on the capital, Tripoli — and the White House statement that followed it took his government by surprise. – NBC News

Middle East & North Africa

The United Arab Emirates said Thursday that special forces from a hostile nation likely carried out coordinated attacks last month on four ships near the Strait of Hormuz, but stopped short of directly accusing Iran. – Wall Street Journal

When the Trump administration declared an emergency last month and fast-tracked the sale of more American arms to Saudi Arabia, it did more than anger members of Congress who opposed the sale on humanitarian grounds. It also raised concerns that the Saudis could gain access to technology that would let them produce their own versions of American precision-guided bombs — weapons they have used in strikes on civilians since they began fighting a war in Yemen four years ago. – New York Times

The United States has decided to stop accepting any additional Turkish pilots who planned to come to the United States to train on F-35 fighter jets, U.S. officials say, in a clear sign of the escalating dispute over Ankara’s plans to purchase Russian air defenses. – Reuters

Michael Knights and Alexandre Mello write: The Iraqi army’s efforts to absorb and control militias in the Nineveh Plains may be an early test of success on this front. Learning who pushed the decision to remove Jabbouri—and why—is another important item to track down. Looking closely at the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s role in selecting Nineveh’s new governor may provide further insight on the reliability of U.S. partners. Only by doggedly highlighting negative conduct can Washington hope to prevent slippage in Iraq’s military and civil leadership. – Washington Institute

B. Chernitsky writes: Articles and opinion pieces in the Saudi press stated that Qatar has no policy or position of its own. For example, the Saudi Al-Sharq Al-Awsat daily noted, citing Gulf sources, that it was pressure from Iran that made Qatar back down from its positions on the concluding statements. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Korean Peninsula

Faltering U.S.-North Korean relations have taken another turn for the worse after Pyongyang protested its characterization as a “rogue state” in a recent security report published by the Pentagon. The North Korean foreign ministry said Wednesday that the description was an undignified move of aggression, the Yonhap news agency reported. – Newsweek

The company received a $1 billion contract in May 2017 for the project, which is unsuccessful so far and at least two years behind schedule, the Government Accountability Office said in a report issued Thursday. It’s the watchdog agency’s most detailed assessment of problems for the improved warhead that it said is supposed to respond to “advancements in the North Korean missile threat.” – Bloomberg

David Albright, Sarah Burkhard, Bernadette Gostelow, Maximilian Lim, and Andrea Stricker write: Russia and China are thwarting UNSC sanctions on North Korea with near impunity by operating black and grey market schemes to import or export coal, petroleum, and other goods. The United States and its allies should continue to track North Korean illicit business in or with those countries, including financial activity, and provide evidence of such activity at Security Council meetings and publicly. They should also continue to document illicit ship-to-ship transfers and calls to ports by sanctions-busting ships via satellite imagery and present Russia and China with clear evidence of violations. – Institute for Science and International Security


U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he would decide whether to carry out his threat to hit Beijing with tariffs on at least $300 billion in Chinese goods after a meeting of leaders of the world’s largest economies late this month. – Reuters

Tens of thousands of people are expected to take to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday in a bid to block changes to the Chinese-ruled city’s extradition laws, which could pave the way for fugitives wanted by mainland China to be sent across the border for trial for the first time. – Reuters

More than 3,000 Hong Kong lawyers held a rare protest march on Thursday against a proposed extradition bill that could see individuals sent to China to face trial in what the last British governor said would be a “terrible blow” to the rule of law. – Reuters

There is a stark divide between where the United States and its NATO allies and European Union partners stand when it comes to considering a Chinese company to provide 5G ultra-wideband communications. The EU “is not sure China is a rival,” one of its top diplomats said speaking at the Foreign Policy Defense Forum Thursday. – USNI News

Anti-China sentiment is rising in Washington — and Beijing should not underestimate that, a former under secretary for international affairs at the U.S. Department of Treasury said on Thursday. – CNBC

Hector Barreto writes: The political establishment is a lot like the big-business community—risk-averse and satisfied with a slow, safe pace. As a disrupter, Mr. Trump startles the political and corporate establishments. Those of us in the small-business community recognize the president’s entrepreneurial grit, and his willingness to fight the bullies and the cheaters. That’s why we cheer his tough stance on China. – Wall Street Journal

Josh Rogin writes: That raises the crucial question of whether China can be deterred, and how. Davidson called for more investments in cyber defense, electronic warfare, long-range precision fire, and integrated air and missile defense. Congress also hasn’t funded several other items the U.S. military needs to counter China in the Pacific, including funding for troops, military construction and technology in the region, Davidson wrote in a letter to Congress in April. – Washington Post

Matt Schrader writes: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is applying—with increasing frequency and effectiveness—many of the techniques it uses to manage its domestic information space to the world outside China’s borders. By marrying China’s economic heft and an increasing presence in the world of corporate thought leadership with homegrown information warfare, the CCP has forged a formidable global apparatus for shaping the conversation on China, from the Davos elite to grassroots social media. Nowhere has the growing power and sophistication of this apparatus been more apparent than in the recent trans-Atlantic debate on Huawei. – Foreign Policy

Robert O. Work and Greg Grant write: Now, however, the “rogue” regional powers that have preoccupied U.S. attention for so long have been replaced by two great powers with substantially greater capabilities. A resurgent and revanchist Russia and a rising, increasingly more powerful China are taking aggressive actions that threaten regional security and stability and challenge the existing international order. Without question, of these two great-power competitors, China poses the greater challenge over the long term. – Center for a New American Security


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is embarking on an effort to mediate the dispute between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, a rare international diplomatic move by a Japanese leader. – Wall Street Journal

Three Chinese warships sailed out of Sydney on Friday after an unannounced visit that came amid a tussle for influence between Australia and China in the Pacific. – Reuters

President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia had concerns about Japan’s military cooperation with the United States, but respected Tokyo’s right to defend itself anyway it saw fit. – Reuters

A UN agency is calling on authorities in Tajikistan to free lawyer Buzurgmehr Yorov from prison, saying Yorov’s rights have been consistently violated since the moment of his detention. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

France’s armed forces minister has pledged the country will remain committed to the Pacific region, as she warned of a “global confrontation” emerging there. – Defense News

As pressure grows for a political settlement to end 18 years of war in Afghanistan, the drug trade remains a major threat, leaving the country at the risk of becoming a “narco-state”, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. Congressional watchdog, said in recent report. – Reuters

Reid Standish writes: The most immediate ramifications of Kazakhstan’s experiment may be in Russia, where Vladimir Putin will need to decide on a path forward before 2024, when he finishes his second consecutive term as president, the maximum allowed by the constitution. According to Kendall-Taylor, Putin’s options are to choose a successor, amend the constitution, or abolish term limits altogether, like Chinese President Xi Jinping. – The Atlantic


Russia has welcomed the Chinese telecommunications company Huawei to develop part of its next-generation wireless technology, even as the United States is trying to convince allies that the company poses a prohibitive security risk. – New York Times

China and Russia are being pushed into a closer geopolitical partnership by President Trump’s foreign policy decisions, a diplomat in Beijing argued Thursday. – Washington Examiner

The success of China’s own technology giants has done much to put this attitude to bed, but a true line was drawn this week. Russia and China are now moving forward with the next generation of internet technology, and this time it is the US that is at risk of being left behind. At the heart of this divide is the Chinese firm Huawei, the world’s biggest telecom equipment supplier and undisputed leader in 5G networking. – CNN

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday reaffirmed his staunch denial that his government meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election despite the extensive evidence to the contrary, and insisted Moscow has no intention of interfering in any future votes, either. – Associated Press

A top Russian official tried to set up a video teleconference between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia on the day after Trump’s inauguration, according to a senior FBI agent’s interview notes released on Thursday. – Politico

Timothy Frye writes: Putin’s foreign policy, too, has led to reactions that have ultimately limited Russia’s power. My research shows that the annexation of Crimea brought a four-year surge in support for Putin within Russia but also removed the largest and most pro-Russian voting bloc from Ukrainian politics. The landslide victory of Volodymyr Zelensky in presidential elections in April suggests that the polarization between Eastern and Western Ukraine that served Russia well is far less important today. And China will soon replace Russia as Ukraine’s largest single trading partner – Washington Post


The United States and its European allies on Thursday commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, which freed the Continent from tyranny. But at the same time, the two sides are squabbling bitterly over the future and funding of European defense. – New York Times

Germany’s foreign minister is traveling to Iran next week to discuss the faltering nuclear accord between Tehran and leading world powers, his office said Thursday. – Associated Press

North Macedonia has already changed its name. Now it’s trying to change minds. The Balkan country, along with neighbor Albania, is aiming to get the green light this month to begin EU membership talks. For the second year in a row, the European Commission has recommended the start of talks for both countries. But EU member governments will make the decision, which will reveal a lot about how they envision the future of the Union and its relationship with the Western Balkans. – Politico

President Nicos Anastasiades will meet on Thursday with US State Deputy Assistant Secretary Matthew Palmer who is on the island to discuss the US arms embargo on Cyprus. – Cyprus Mail

Editorial: Hell froze over Thursday, as Donald Trump delivered a speech in Europe that even his critics applauded. His remarks on the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing at Normandy were stirring, and the occasion offers a lesson about the values that unite the Western alliance despite the personal and political feuds of the moment. – Wall Street Journal


Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan said Thursday that he has completed a review of the events surrounding an ambush in Niger in which four American soldiers were killed and that no additional officers will be punished for their roles in it. – Washington Post

Sudan’s pro-democracy movement vowed Thursday to press its campaign of civil disobedience until the ruling military council is ousted and killers of protesters are brought to justice, as security forces fanned out across the capital and appeared to thwart any new demonstrations. – Associated Press

Authorities in Ghana say two Canadians on an exchange program have been abducted. Police and local media say the two were attending Kumasi Technical University in the West African country’s second-largest city. – Associated Press

The African Union (AU) on Thursday suspended Sudan until the establishment of civilian rule, intensifying global pressure on its new military leaders to stand down after the worst violence since Omar al-Bashir’s fall in April. – Reuters

Members of the South African boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel urged local officials in Johannesburg last Friday to rename a street after Palestinian hijacker Leila Khaled, while expressing support for the Lebanese Islamist group Hezbollah. – Algemeiner

Eli Lake writes: If ever there was a moment for some tough love between allies, it is now. America, and most of Europe for that matter, is calling for the generals currently in control of Sudan to cede power to civilians and prepare for elections. Three U.S. allies — Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — back the generals. – Bloomberg

Cameron Hudson writes: But with Bashir’s removal from office, it’s as if the United States has raised the now proverbial “Mission Accomplished” banner over Sudan, when the country’s future now hangs in the balance and U.S. engagement is needed more than ever. – Foreign Policy

Simon Henderson writes: Although the United States and Europe are publicly concerned, China, backed by Russia, blocked moves at the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to condemn the killing of civilians and call for an immediate end to the violence. The African Union said it has suspended Sudan. The person to watch is Dagalo. And, based on the events of this week, he can be ruthless. That doesn’t sound good for the people of Sudan. – The Hill

United States

President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn has fired his attorneys and retained new counsel, according to court filings, as he awaits sentencing for lying to the FBI about his Russian contacts in Robert S. Mueller III’s probe of interference in the 2016 election. – Washington Post

Participants at an upcoming gay pride parade in D.C. will be able to wave the Palestinian flag, but not the Israeli flag or the Jewish pride flag. The D.C. Dyke March will not allow participants to display Israeli or “nationalist” symbols, according to Forward. – Washington Examiner

A suspect described as “a lone wolf” was arrested Thursday in connection with a plan to throw explosives at people in New York City’s famed Times Square, according to reports. The unidentified suspect was taken into custody soon after investigators from the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force learned that he was inquiring about buying grenades, the New York Daily News reported. – Fox News

Latin America

U.S. and Mexican officials are discussing the outlines of a deal that would dramatically increase Mexico’s immigration enforcement efforts and give the United States far more latitude to deport Central Americans seeking asylum, according to a U.S. official and a Mexican official who cautioned that the accord is not final and that President Trump might not accept it. – Washington Post

Russia is ready to send more military specialists to Venezuela if needed, Russia’s foreign ministry said according to state news agency RIA. – Reuters

The last US cruise liner to stop over in Cuba sailed out again Wednesday as stepped-up US sanctions against the Communist-run island came into force. – Agence FrancePresse

A regional bloc of countries in the Americas has called on the international community to put more pressure on Venezuela’s allies, including Russia, to resolve the growing crisis in the South American country and help remove its “illegitimate” government. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The U.S. Treasury Department on Thursday tightened its pressure on Venezuela’s state-owned oil company by making clear that exports of diluents by international shippers could be subject to U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

Mexico will deploy its national guard to its southern border with Guatemala, the Mexican foreign minister said on Thursday, as part of the country’s bid to stem Central American migration that has drawn U.S. President Donald Trump’s ire. – Reuters

Jorge G. Castaneda writes: By the time the higher tariffs come around, some of the countermeasures Mexico’s allies in the United States could undertake may kick in. They could include legal challenges to the president’s power to apply these tariffs, pressure by American exporters hurt by compensatory and electorally motivated so-called Mexican tariffs, and overall political resistance to Mr. Trump’s decision, including from members of this own administration. – New York Times


A top British cybersecurity official Thursday said the concentration of the 5G market in a handful of companies is “insane” and will increase security risks as the superfast networks are installed globally. – Wall Street Journal

Local governments across the country are facing a growing threat of cyberattacks and escalating ransom demands, as an attack in this city has crippled thousands of computers for a month. – Wall Street Journal

Hackers seeking to interfere in Canada’s federal election this October want to undermine trust in voting and the democratic process rather than manipulate the result, says Canada’s chief electoral officer. – Reuters

China’s Huawei Technologies needs to raise its “shoddy” security standards which fall below rivals, a senior British cyber security official said on Thursday, as the company came under increasing pressure internationally. The US has led allegations that Huawei’s equipment can be used by Beijing for espionage operations, with Washington urging allies to bar the company from 5G networks. – Reuters

Arthur Herman writes: Britain is now the pivot point for other countries to acknowledge the same thing. If Britain comes around to the U.S. side, where Australia and Japan already are, this could be crucial for getting the rest of Europe to think twice about cooperating with Huawei, Brexit or no Brexit. A new prime minister such as Boris Johnson would be just the person to put Britain on the right road to the 5G future, as well as to Brexit. – Forbes


Currently, the Navy does not have an aircraft carrier — either Ford-class or Nimitz-class — that can support the service’s most advanced fighters for a full deployment, service officials told USNI News on Thursday. – USNI News

A House panel wants the Army to come up with a plan to get a cheaper missile for the Patriot air-and-missile defense system. – Defense News

With an eye on sophisticated Russian jamming and spoofing technology, the U.S. Army will field test jam-resistant position, navigation and timing gear with the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Germany this September. – C4SIRNET

The Senate has confirmed Lt. Gen. David Berger to serve as the next commandant of the Marine Corps following a hold from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). According to a Senate notification, the current commander of Marine Corps Combat Development Command was confirmed on Wednesday. – USNI News

Mike Turner writes: Russia continues to modernize its nuclear capabilities, and that’s a direct threat to U.S. security. We have already seen Russia’s flagrant violations of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Our ability to get further arms-control deals is weakening as the U.S. nuclear arsenal falls behind. Nor is there a legitimate policy basis for the proposed ban. The only reasoning for it is blind opposition to nuclear weapons. We should not restrict ourselves through unilateral congressional legislation but rather pursue arms-control treaties that restrict all parties. We must operate in the world we live in, not the one we wish for. America’s adversaries possess this low-yield nuclear weapon capability and seem prepared to use them. Recalling our own weapons would be a grave mistake. – Wall Street Journal