Fdd's overnight brief

March 10, 2020

In The News


The U.S. military has begun to draw small numbers of troops out of the Middle East after concluding that the threat of reprisal attacks from Iran or its proxies has subsided, military officials said. – Wall Street Journal

Iran continues to provide international inspectors access to its active nuclear facilities, even after its announcement it was no longer bound by “any restrictions” of the landmark 2015 deal with world powers designed to prevent the country from producing a nuclear weapon, the head of the U.N.’s atomic watchdog agency said Monday. – Associated Press

Exactly 13 years after Robert Levinson was abducted in Iran, a federal judge found the Iranian government responsible for kidnapping and torturing the former FBI agent who, if he is still alive, is the longest-held American hostage. – Washington Examiner

Iran has temporarily freed about 70,000 prisoners to combat the spread of the coronavirus in jails, the head of the judiciary said on Monday, as officials reported hundreds of new infections and dozens more deaths across the country. – Reuters

The Trump administration will soon issue advisories warning shippers, port officials and insurance companies against the practice of storing Iranian oil and avoiding U.S. sanctions on Iran, a senior State Department official said on Monday. – Reuters

Right now Iran is third behind China (80,695) and South Korea (7,314), and just ahead of Italy (5,883). But the official Iranian number is almost certainly an undercount, probably due to the Iranian government’s attempt to hide a desperate situation for which it is partially responsible. – The Atlantic

A March 3, 2020 tweet by the Twitter account associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Qods Force commander Esmail Qaani called on “the government of India to prevent the genocide of its Muslim citizens and to prevent these crimes.” The tweet went on to warn: “The Qods Force defends the Muslims all over the world.” – Middle East Media Research Institute

Masih Alinejad writes: The regime’s dealing with the virus is similar to how it handles other crises—deny the news; blame foreign enemies, especially the United States; admit there’s a problem and then suppress the news. […]Now, ordinary Iranians who are distrustful of official outlets are resorting to social media to spread the news of the coronavirus. As some reports suggest the number of infected could reach as many as 2 million, the arrival of Iranian New Year on March 21, is unlikely to bring much joy. – The National Interest

Mehdi Khalaji writes: In the immediate term, U.S. officials should use government radio and television organs, social media, public statements, and other outlets to disseminate accurate information about the coronavirus situation in Iran[…]. In the longer term, the crisis should help remind Washington that the clergy is completely beholden to Khamenei and, as such, should not be considered as an alternative channel for outreach or a potential independent actor if the Islamic Republic becomes destabilized. – Washington Institute


A Russian military delegation will hold talks with Turkish officials in Ankara on Tuesday to discuss a deal which the two countries reached last week for a ceasefire in northwest Syria’s Idlib region, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Monday. – Reuters

A rare view from inside Idlib, Syria, where a fragile cease-fire is holding so far. One million displaced people have to decide whether they trust it enough to return to what is left of their homes. – NPR

Rep. Ralph Abraham and Nadine Maenza write: Lost in the news of the deteriorating situation in Syria is the story of a burgeoning democracy that promotes freedom of religion and belief. Obviously, this is not the government of Bashar al-Assad but rather the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Most are familiar only with its military arm, the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, this courageous and autonomous people, situated between the southern border of Turkey and the northern border of Iraq, have been instrumental to U.S. strategy, fighting as our “boots on the ground” and sacrificing more than 10,000 men and women in the victory against ISIS. – The Hill


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and top European Union officials began discussions Monday on how to shore up a migration deal from 2016 and stabilize their deteriorating relationship, but there was little narrowing of differences. – Wall Street Journal

The ousted mayor of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish Diyarbakir province was sentenced on Monday to more than nine years in prison for membership of a terrorist organization, a judicial source said. – Reuters

Russia and Turkey following the March 5, 2020 summit in Moscow between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayip Erdogan reached agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib and security measures that will hopefully stabilize it. – Middle East Media Research Institute

In a March 8, 2020 column titled “Destiny Of Islam, Humanity Depends On Turkey” […]Yusuf Kaplan wrote: “Turkey is face to face with two important sieges that will determine the Islamic world’s destiny in particular and the world’s destiny at large… If Turkey is able to overcome the secular shackle siege that has led us to be stopped from within, and the Shi’ite siege from outside, we will start making both our region and the world’s history again within the next century-long timeframe.” – Middle East Media Research Institute

Michael Rubin writes: Erdoğan has always put himself and his family fortune first. To acknowledge the coronavirus outbreak will be to see Turkey return to recession, and condemn its currency to further collapse. Still, coronavirus will hit Turkey and, when it does it, Erdoğan’s early denials will make its impact on the country much worse. And, as with much which Turks have suffered recently due to Erdoğan’s ego—Islamic State terrorism, an embarrassing loss to Russia in Syria, and a decline in the rule-of-law—ultimately Turks will have no one but Erdoğan to blame. – The National Interest


Senior Kahol Lavan member Yair Lapid said Tuesday he prefers a minority government endorsed by Arab-majority alliance Joint List to a fourth election cycle, as Benny Gantz’s party scrambles to secure a breakthrough in coalition talks after last week’s general election. – Haaretz

In a February 7, 2020 statement condemning U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” the central office of the student Basij organization at the universities in Iran’s Hamedan Province stressed that if the U.S. and Israel implemented even one section of the peace deal, it would turn the Tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamedan city, where the remains of the heroes of the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim are believed to be buried, into a Palestinian diplomatic mission. – Middle East Media Research Institute

The Hamas leadership is currently based in Ankara and Doha, however, it has been frequently conducting its operations from Turkey, after Qatar and Lebanon asking the movement to reduce its public presence on their territories, sources from the movement told Asharq Al-Awsat. – Asharq Al-Awsat

David Makovsky writes: Netanyahu’s failure to garner a majority takes some of the pressure off the Trump administration, which was facing the prospect of having to give him the green light to frontload West Bank annexations in order to appease the factions that voted him back into office. Any moves of that sort would likely have sounded the death knell for the Trump plan, perhaps even triggering unrest in the West Bank and difficulties with the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.- Washington Institute

Amos Harel writes: The good news, if there is any, is that the threat of an epidemic has very much strengthened the coordination between Israel and the PA, which over the past year has suffered serious crises over the “deal of the century,” the PA’s assistance to security prisoners and recently the dispute over calf imports. […]One could perhaps derive from this some lessons for the long term: Both peoples are dependent on one another, and there must be vital issues coordinated to ensure their health and security, irrespective of ideological disputes and military tension. – Haaretz


Two American soldiers were killed during a raid on an Islamic State hideout in the mountains of central Iraq, highlighting the continuing security partnership between Baghdad and Washington despite strained relations. – Wall Street Journal

American military commanders are reviewing how their forces conduct missions in Iraq and Syria after the deaths of two U.S. Special Operations troops in northern Iraq on Sunday during an operation against Islamic State fighters, military officials said on Monday. – New York Times

Michael Rubin writes: Iraq will change. With ample U.S. support, that change could be for the better. Iraq is a wealthy country that has suffered more than its fair share of tragedy. The young Iraqi generation seeks to break out of the situation in which they have found themselves. […]Doing nothing would only privilege retrograde forces like Iranian-backed militias or Islamic State-type insurgents. Rather, given Iraq’s tremendous political, economic, and social transformation, it is time to re-engage economically and diplomatically to help Iraq reform its political and economic system to better achieve the stability and prosperity the new generation of Iraqis deserve. – The National Interest

Arabian Peninsula

Yemen’s army said it wrested control of several northern towns from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels Monday, a step toward reversing the rebels’ rapid gains in the strategic area. – Associated Press

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince meant to send a strong message to critics within the royal family by detaining senior princes this weekend: Don’t you dare oppose my succession to the throne. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia and Russia dug in for a long and destructive oil-price war, as Moscow responded forcefully to Riyadh’s opening salvo. – Bloomberg

With the consolidation of power by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 34-year-old son of King Salman, 84, there’s no doubt about who’s tapped to become king. But the crackdown by the prince on his own relatives and other Saudi elites, coupled with last week’s decision to start an oil-price war with Russia, underscores broader concerns about the country’s stability. – Bloomberg

Hamas on Monday criticized the secretive criminal trials in Saudi Arabia of dozens of members and supporters of the militant Palestinian group. – Associated Press

Simon Henderson writes: Riyadh is a longstanding U.S. partner based on oil and security cooperation, but selling that relationship to Congress and the wider American public has been a challenge over the years. […]Now the prospect of Riyadh forcing down oil prices could have catastrophic consequences for the U.S. shale oil sector, potentially making the bilateral relationship a contentious political issue in this year’s heated presidential election. The crown prince’s moves against family rivals are a reminder that his priorities only partially overlap with America’s. But a stable Saudi Arabia remains important to U.S. interests, suggesting that a low-profile, nuanced response to the ongoing turmoil is in order. – Washington Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Morocco has received a rocket launcher from China, Al Watan Voice reported yesterday. – Middle East Monitor

Khalifa Haftar, Libya’s eastern military commander, has told France’s president he will sign a ceasefire and stick to it if militias backed by the internationally recognized government respect it, a French presidency official said on Monday. – Reuters

Lebanon is set to default on its sovereign debt for the first time after the government suspended a repayment, saying foreign currency reserves are critically low and the country cannot afford to pay. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

North Korea has evaded United Nations sanctions for many months by exporting coal, sand and petroleum, and importing luxury goods including armored sedans, alcohol and robotic machinery. The findings are based on an upcoming U.N. report, other assessments using satellite images and shipping data, and interviews with analysts. – New York Times

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised his second live-fire artillery exercise in a week, state media said Tuesday, as the country continues to expand its military capabilities. – Associated Press

North Korea launched multiple projectiles into the sea on Monday as part of firing drills, according to South Korea’s military, drawing U.S. and Chinese appeals for Pyongyang to return to talks on ending its nuclear and missile programs. – Reuters


The spread of the coronavirus and related economic uncertainty is threatening to undermine the “phase one” trade agreement that the Trump administration signed with its Chinese counterparts less than two months ago. – Wall Street Journal

China should replace its ambassador in the Czech Republic after the Chinese embassy sent a threatening letter to Czech authorities, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said, a position that may further strain relations between the two countries. – Reuters

Madison Gesiotto writes: The reason for disengaging from China in the first place was to protect American workers and businesses. While the coronavirus could not have been predicted, there is always a significant risk from overdependence on any single country, especially an authoritarian one that will routinely break the rules in its quest to get ahead. The coronavirus merely happened to be the crisis that demonstrated once and for all why the “free trade” status quo that was rooted in past decades was so dangerous to our country. – The Hill


Just a few minutes and a thin wall apart, both President Ashraf Ghani and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, took the oath of office as the president of Afghanistan on Monday, plunging the fragile country into a new crisis during sensitive peace talks. – New York Times

The Taliban sent vehicles for fighters set to be released by the Afghan government in a prisoner swap expected to be announced on Tuesday, and were ready to honor their side of the deal by handing over 1,000 captured government troops, militant leaders said. – Reuters

The United States opposes any efforts to create a parallel government in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday, hours after the country’s president and his main election rival held competing inauguration ceremonies. – Reuters

Two rival Afghan politicians appointed themselves president on Monday following a disputed election, a stand-off that threatens political turbulence days after the United States and the Taliban signed a deal on the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces. – Reuters

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a rocket attack targeting the inauguration of Ashraf Ghani as Afghan president in Kabul on Monday, the group said in a statement on an affiliated Telegram channel without giving evidence. – Reuters

Editorial: Late last week the ICC revived a more than decade-old inquiry into alleged crimes committed by Americans and the Taliban in Afghanistan. It’s a disgraceful example of moral and legal equivalence that equates Islamist insurgents who have killed thousands of Afghan civilians with the U.S., which ousted al Qaeda from Afghanistan, liberated millions of women, and has sacrificed much to rebuild the country. – Wall Street Journal


A trial of four men with ties to the Russian security services began on Monday for the shooting down of a passenger jet over eastern Ukraine in 2014. – New York Times

The Russian government has stepped up efforts to inflame racial tensions in the United States as part of its bid to influence November’s presidential election, including trying to incite violence by white supremacist groups and to stoke anger among African-Americans, according to seven American officials briefed on recent intelligence. – New York Times

The Trump administration on Monday accused “state actors” of touching off an historic slump in global oil prices, and urged Russia’s ambassador to the United States to consider the importance of calming the markets. – Reuters

Peter Tertzakian writes: The coronavirus preys on the old and frail. Price wars kill off the weak too, in a corporate sense. […]The Russians know this, which is why they pulled the “plus” out of the OPEC+ last week. By breaking rank from the price-protecting cartel, they signalled intent to take down their nemesis: the American oil and gas industry. I can envisage Vladimir Putin opening his desk drawer and pulling out his specially embossed copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. – National Post

Ivana Stradner writes: Putin is using the Balkans as a bargaining chip. […]In the long term, a permanent political solution that provides for economic growth and integration with Europe is needed for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Its fractured politics have left it with a stagnant economy and unresolved ethnic and religious tensions. It is thus ripe for conflict. NATO and the United Nations need to be vigilant about Russian destabilization attempts and coordinate a governance system that enables Bosnia to prosper. The West needs to stop Russia before Vladimir Putin returns Bosnia to the bloodshed of the 1990s. – Real Clear World


Italy on Monday became the first European country to announce severe nationwide limits on travel as the government struggled to stem the spread of a coronavirus outbreak that has hobbled the economy, threatened to overwhelm public health care and killed more people than anywhere outside China. – New York Times

Germans and Americans remain far apart on defense issues, ranging from when to use the military, how much to spend on defense, and which country poses a bigger challenge – Russia or China, according to a new study unveiled on Monday. – Defense News

A Dutch prosecutor on Monday solemnly read out the names of the 298 people killed in the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, at the start of the trial of three Russians and a Ukrainian charged with multiple counts of murder. – Associated Press

A threatened influx of Syrian refugees would force Europe to cope with a population that is poorer, more bewildered by years of war, and more prone to radicalism than the wave of refugees who swamped western Europe five years ago and incited a political backlash. – Washington Examiner


Local vigilantes in Burkina Faso attacked two villages mainly inhabited by ethnic Fulanis, killing 43 people and raising the risk of further inter-communal violence in a country that’s already being destabilized by Islamist militant attacks. – Bloomberg

Concerned about the growing influence of China, Russia and the United States in close neighbor Africa, the European Union on Monday launched what it called a new “comprehensive strategy” for relations with a continent whose population is forecast to double by 2050. – Associated Press

Al Qaeda-linked militants have said they will only attend peace talks with Mali’s government if it expels French and United Nations forces. – Reuters

Twenty people including three soldiers were killed in an attack on an army post in Uganda close to its northwestern border with Democratic Republic of Congo, a military spokesman said on Tuesday. – Reuters


U.S. Cyber Command more than doubled the amount of money it issued in defense contracts between fiscal years 2018 and 2019, according to figures provided in written testimony to Congress. – Fifth Domain

A former CIA software engineer accused of stealing a massive trove of the agency’s hacking tools and handing it over to WikiLeaks was convicted of only minor charges Monday, after a jury deadlocked on the more serious espionage counts against him. – Associated Press

In Lebanon, cyberspace is the new battle ground between protesters and the security services that have increased measures to curb dissent, intimidating and arresting government critics for online speech. – NPR


The Pentagon on Monday issued three contracts to start design work on mobile, small nuclear reactors, as part of a two-step plan towards achieving nuclear power for American forces at home and abroad. – Defense News

The United States was the largest exporter of major arms from 2015-2019, delivering 76 percent more materiel than runner-up Russia, according to a new study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute think tank. – Defense News

The U.S. aerospace and defense sector is feeling the impact of the coronavirus, with companies limiting travel, defense trade events scuttled and contingency planning underway. – Defense News

SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk dismissed concerns that his company’s Starlink satellite constellation would hurt astronomers’ ability to observe the night sky, a concern raised by some scientists when an initial batch of satellites appeared as a line of bright lights in the sky shortly after deployment. – C4ISRNET

The Army is planning to conduct a shoot-off to evaluate the best options for a future indirect fires protection capability to defend against rockets, artillery and mortars as well as cruise missile and unmanned aircraft system threats, according to a report sent to Congress and obtained by Defense News. – Defense News

The future of anti-submarine warfare for countries who can’t afford to invest in top-of-the-line submarines and maritime patrol aircraft could be a netted fleet of unmanned platforms that can create “passive acoustic barriers” at chokepoints or drag towed arrays through a country’s territorial waters. – USNI News

Lockheed Martin and Boeing will build prototype payloads for the Space Force’s Protected Tactical Satellite Communication program, the service announced March 3. – C4ISRNET

By 2016, top Pentagon officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, had honed in on the threat posed by small, commercially available drones to the sites housing America’s nuclear arsenal. […]While the problem hasn’t gone away, security officials at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota believe they at least have a plan in place for dealing with any unmanned intrusion. – C4ISRNET

Randy Schriver and Eric Sayers write: Congress and the administration would be wise to create a new funding mechanism for Indo-Pacific Command priorities, similar to what was launched in Europe for directing funding to these critical yet often overlooked areas. – War on the Rocks

Trump Administration

President Donald Trump and his team are talking up the opportunity to finally achieve stricter border security, wider tax cuts and reduced reliance on Chinese manufacturing amid the spread of the coronavirus throughout the U.S. Some officials see it as a narrow opening to offset the political damage from the coronavirus outbreak and deliver — or at least, talk about — some of the president’s longstanding promises. – Politico

Incoming White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has self-quarantined after he may have come into contact with a person who tested positive for the coronavirus, his spokesman said Monday. – Agence France-Presse

Walter Russell Mead writes: Despite all that, the coronavirus, if it continues on its present course, will soon become the most powerful adversary the Trump administration has yet faced. Mr. Trump’s other opponents, from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer to the Iranian mullahs and Kim Jong Un, have nothing on a disease that can threaten the lives of Americans and bring the economy to a grinding halt. – Wall Street Journal