Fdd's overnight brief

March 11, 2020

In The News


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday called for Iran to release Americans who are being wrongfully detained and warned that the US would hold Tehran responsible if any of them died from the coronavirus. – CNN

At least a quarter of Iran’s oil rigs are out of action as U.S. sanctions strangle the Islamic Republic’s vital oil industry, according to a Reuters review of financial documents and industry sources, dealing a potentially long-term blow to its oil industry. – Reuters

The newly released UN Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran condemned Iran’s lethal homophobia, in connection with a Jerusalem Post exposé on Tehran’s public hanging of man based on an anti-gay charge. – Jerusalem Post

The Chairman of the Medical Council of the Islamic Republic of Iran (MCIRI) and tens of high-profile doctors have in separate letters on March 10 called on President Hassan Rouhani to reassign the management of the coronavirus crisis to a more authoritative council composed of the heads of the three government powers, or take the responsibility himself. – Radio Farda

Victor Davis Hanson writes: In short, never in our long, checkered 40-year shared history with Iran has the U.S. been relatively stronger and Iran abjectly weaker. The ball is in Iran’s court, and the American attitude seems to be “do your worst, and we will do our best in response” — and that reality is a self-made lose-lose dilemma for the theocracy. For the first time in 40 years, there is at least some hope for the Iranian people that the end of their tragic nightmare is on the horizon. – The National Review


A Lebanese national charged with conspiring to export drone parts and technology from the US to the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate US export laws. – Times of Israel

Senior Hezbollah officials have been placed under quarantine after being infected with the coronavirus, Channel 13 reported. They may have been in contact with Iranian officials who also tested positive for the coronavirus. – Jerusalem Post

Ehud Eilam writes: If Hezbollah opens fire first, targeting Israeli cities, it will force Israel to react immediately and in a massive way. An Israeli preemptive strike is unlikely, though surprise is crucial in capturing Hezbollah off guard. The IDF has an overwhelming edge over Hezbollah, but the latter has relative advantages, mainly its missiles/rockets. The two sides will continue to try to avoid a costly war, but a war might still occur — against the will of one or even both of them. – Algemeiner


The first trial of suspected members of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s security services for crimes against humanity, including torturing and killing opposition activists, will start next month, a German court said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Drones are dropping explosives on US soldiers in Syria, and  it’s not clear who’s behind the attacks, the head of US Central Command, which is responsible for the region, told lawmakers on Tuesday. – Business Insider

Turkey’s military will patrol to the north of a security corridor being set up around a highway in northwest Syria’s Idlib province and Russian forces will patrol the southern side, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Keenan Kassar writes: Assad’s troops tossed victims into mass unmarked graves while the Islamic State dominated the headlines. Conveniently for Assad, foreign Islamic State terrorists killed freedom-loving Syrians, too. The consequences of ignoring such a genocide are so large, so severe, that we cannot allow it to persist any longer. Syria must at this moment become the center of the universe. – Washington Post


A Turkish prosecutor said on Tuesday a U.S. consulate employee should be acquitted on charges of espionage and trying to overthrow the government, but should face jail on a lesser charge of belonging to a terrorist organization. – Reuters

The U.S. is discussing with its NATO allies what they can offer Turkey in terms of military assistance in Idlib and discussing measures that may be taken if Russia and the Syrian government breaks a ceasefire, officials said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Nearly 1,000 migrants tried to cross into Greece from Turkey in the past 24 hours despite tight border security, Greek officials said on Tuesday, suggesting little respite in a nearly two-week diplomatic bust-up between Ankara and the European Union. President Tayyip Erdogan, whose decision on Feb. 28 to open Turkey’s border to migrants wishing to leave triggered the crisis at the border, repeated on Tuesday his call for EU member state Greece to let the people through. – Reuters

The European Union should stop “stringing Turkey along” over helping out with the millions of migrants on its territory, the country’s foreign minister said Tuesday, a day after the two sides agreed to review a 4-year-old deal aimed at stemming refugee flows to Europe. – Associated Press


IDF soldiers thwarted an attempted terrorist attack near Route 465 in the Binyamin region on Tuesday night, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said. – Arutz Sheva

The Palestinian human rights Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Al-Haq has called on some of its supporters to launch a ‘Twitter storm,’ according to a recent press release from the organization, in light of the International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to hear briefs submitted by numerous countries regarding its jurisdiction in the Palestinian territories. – Jerusalem Post

Palestinian Authority and UNRWA schools continue to use textbooks that radicalize children against Israel, parliamentarians in the UK, a major donor to the PA, lamented on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia fired another salvo in its oil-market war with Russia on Wednesday, unveiling plans to boost its oil-production capacity to a record 13 million barrels a day. The price of crude oil fell more than 3% after the announcement. – Wall Street Journal

With oil prices plunging and Russian state television blaming Saudi Arabia for the collapse of the ruble, the kingdom on Tuesday signaled what seemed to be an escalation. – New York Times

Simon Henderson writes: It might end tomorrow if Iran were to launch another salvo of missiles against Saudi oil installations as it did last September. But assuming the crisis remains a simple struggle between the rival ambitions of President Putin and MbS, Saudi Arabia’s effective leader, then expect it to be a knife fight. Both men are ruthless and determined. One could perhaps debate who is more cunning. I know where my money is.  – The Hill

Middle East & North Africa

Lebanon will present what it considers a conclusive economic and financial plan to the International Monetary Fund as it prepares for talks with creditors after announcing it would freeze a Eurobond payment, according to Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni. – Washington Post

International powers are increasing deliveries of suspected military supplies to factions in Libya’s civil war, ignoring a poorly enforced UN embargo as the shattered country braces for a new round of fighting. – The Guardian 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Libyan military commander Khalifa Hifter in Berlin on Tuesday in a bid to advance efforts to secure a lasting cease-fire in Libya. – Associated Press

Jordan said it would partially shut down its border crossings with Israel and the West Bank Tuesday as it attempts to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. – Times of Israel


The Afghan government agreed late Tuesday to release 1,500 Taliban prisoners as a gesture of goodwill before starting talks with the insurgent group, putting the commitment in the form of a decree, a spokesman said. – Wall Street Journal

The conditional prisoner release order announced by the Afghan government is against the U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in Doha last month, a spokesman for the group said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The United States began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. military said Tuesday, taking a step forward on its peace deal with the Taliban while also praising Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s promise to start releasing Taliban prisoners after he had delayed for over a week. – Associated Press


Myanmar’s parliament blocked a bid by the party of leader Aung San Suu Kyi to reduce the role of the military in politics on Tuesday, almost a decade into a troubled democratic transition. – Reuters

The jailing of a Vietnamese blogger for 10 years was condemned by rights groups Tuesday as “unacceptable” and an attack on free speech. Truong Duy Nhat, a regular contributor to Radio Free Asia, was found guilty in a brief trial Monday of defrauding the public of $560,000 when he worked for a state-owned newspaper in the central city of Danang in 2004, state media said. – Agence France-Presse

Days before the first anniversary of a shooting in Christchurch that killed 51 Muslim worshippers, a post appeared on an encrypted messaging app showing a balaclava-clad man outside one of the attacked mosques with a threat and a gun emoji.- Reuters

Eli Lake writes: But it’s a mistake to take China’s chest-puffing propaganda at face value. Two things can be true at the same time: The spread of the virus has slowed because the regime has taken draconian measures to isolate millions of people. And the Chinese government’s secrecy and repression are one main cause for the spread of the coronavirus in the first place.[…] But the rest of the world should not forget China’s initial reaction and what it says about the regime: When faced with an outbreak of a new and deadly virus, authorities moved to suppress the information and punish those who discovered it. – Bloomberg

Scott Kennedy writes: With the world appropriately focused on responding to the daunting challenges created by the COVID-19 outbreak, the U.S.-China Phase-1 deal, which seemed so important just weeks ago, has temporarily faded from view. But before long, it will come back into focus, and when it does, we will find implementation, particularly on purchases, to be a tall task. The reason is not simply that the numbers were unrealistic to begin with, even leaving aside the challenges created by the virus, but that they were literally unreal. – Centre for Strategic International Studies


Russia’s parliament offered a path Tuesday for President Vladi­mir Putin to stay in power for an additional 12 years after his term expires in 2024, approving an amendment that would reset his presidential terms. – Washington Post

Dutch prosecutors accused Russia on Tuesday of trying to sabotage the investigation into the downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in Ukraine in 2014, saying this cast “a dark shadow” over the impending trial of four suspects in the crash. – Reuters

The Kremlin said on Tuesday that the United States had told Moscow that U.S. President Donald Trump would not travel to Russia to mark Victory Day on May 9. – Reuters

Two Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaissance aircraft lingered in U.S.-Canadian air defense space Monday for hours after being intercepted by fighter jets, defense officials said. – Military.com

Editorial: Mr. Putin has been lucky in his 20-year reign, not least with a long run of high oil and gas prices. But that era has been challenged by the rise of American shale drilling, which is why he is now hoping to use slumping global oil demand to break the U.S. industry. He is unlikely to succeed even if there is a U.S. recession since American producers that survive will get more efficient. In a country without the rule of law, even seemingly secure leaders can never sleep well. – Wall Street Journal

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. writes: China is dependent on the world to absorb its superfluity of manufactured goods. Russia and Saudi Arabia are economic pygmies that need a fast-growing global economy to buy their oil. A retrenching world would be less prosperous and harmonious but in such a world you would also rather be the United States than anybody else. – Wall Street Journal

Samuel Ramani writes: Despite negative historical legacies and Oman’s close alliances with the UK and the U.S., diplomatic relations between Russia and Oman have advanced considerably over the past 12 months. As Oman seeks to diversify its relationships with non-Western powers and hedge against U.S. President Donald Trump’s inconsistent foreign policy toward the Middle East, relations between Russia and Oman could continue to strengthen in the months to come. – Middle East Institute


Britain wants to end up with no “high-risk” telecommunications vendors, like China’s Huawei, involved in running its 5G networks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said on Tuesday. The spokesman also said the current 35% limit on Huawei’s involvement in the 5G networks would be kept under review. – Reuters

The BBC has won a challenge to identify a London mansion at the heart of the latest Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO). – BBC

The government defeated a rebellion in parliament by lawmakers in the ruling Conservative Party over the role of Chinese technology company Huawei in the development of Britain’s 5G networks. Rebel Conservative lawmakers had proposed a change to the Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill, which would have required Huawei to have been eliminated from the country’s 5G networks by Dec. 31 2022. Parliament rejected the amendment, with the government winning the vote by 306 to 282. – Reuters


South Africa’s High Court on Tuesday cleared President Cyril Ramaphosa of lying to parliament about the source of donations to his 2017 campaign to lead the ruling party, setting aside a potentially damaging report by a powerful anti-graft watchdog. – Reuters

A court in Tanzania convicted nine opposition leaders and legislators on Tuesday of making seditious statements and imposed five-month jail terms or a fine, which could heighten activists’ fears that democratic dissent is being stifled. – Reuters

Sudan’s prime minister said Monday he survived a “terror attack” after an explosion and gunfire targeted his motorcade in the capital Khartoum. – Associated Press

Sudan’s ruling council said on Tuesday it would step up its drive to remove loyalists of former president Omar al-Bashir, a day after the prime minister of the transitional government escaped an assassination attempt unscathed. – Reuters

A series of targeted killings of schoolteachers by a militia group in Kenya has seen an exodus of staff and the closure of hundreds of schools across the north-east of the country. – The Guardian

A Congolese human rights activist has said he was forced to flee the country with his family after being linked to a lawsuit accusing the world’s largest tech companies of being complicit in the deaths of children in cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). – The Guardian

United States

Intelligence officials told lawmakers behind closed doors on Tuesday that Russia was not directly supporting any candidates as it tried to interfere in the presidential race, an assertion that contradicted an earlier briefing and prompted accusations from Democrats that the Trump administration was politicizing intelligence. – New York Times

Jewish and pro-Israel groups on Tuesday condemned Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ decision to hire a radical activist with a long history of vitriolic anti-Israel statements as a senior adviser. – Algemeiner

Joseph Moreno and Keith Gerver write: Counterintelligence surveillance of any American, let alone one connected to a presidential campaign, should have been handled with the utmost precision. Instead, what was possibly the most politically sensitive case of FISA surveillance in history was botched big time. Let us insist on meaningful reforms to restore confidence that our government can protect both our national security and our privacy. Now is the time to finally get this right. – The Hill

The Americas

Gunmen blocked roads with burning vehicles and exchanged fire with security forces in a central Mexican city on Tuesday, while security officials denied that a wanted gang leader had been captured. – Reuters

The head of the Norwegian Refugee Council said Tuesday that the world is not doing enough to help Colombia respond to the influx of migrants from neighboring Venezuela. – Associated Press

The Inter-American Development Bank postponed its annual meeting in Colombia scheduled for next week over coronavirus fears. – Bloomberg


The United States has offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense system if Ankara promises not to operate a rival Russian system, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, in what he called a significant softening in Washington’s position. – Reuters

The United States has completed its second aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam, the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi said on Wednesday, as the former foes mark 25 years of normalized diplomatic relations. – Reuters

Lockheed Martin sailed through its second flight test of its version of the Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM, intended to replace the Army Tactical Missile System, at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, on March 10. – Defense News

The Marines have ditched their plan to field a very large drone on amphibious ships, instead breaking the four-year-old MUX program into a family of systems that will include a very large land-based unmanned aerial vehicle and a medium-sized one for shipboard operations. – USNI News

The Navy’s request to end the F/A-18E-F Super Hornet production line after 2021 instead of signing another multiyear production contract was not to save money, but rather to allow manufacturer Boeing to convert the production line from building new planes to overhauling old ones at a rate of 40 per year. – USNI News

As the U.S. Space Force begins to redesignate Air Force units with a space-only mission and to realign and rename bases accordingly, it will also restart its search for a permanent headquarters for U.S. Space Command, the military’s 11th combatant command, which stood up in August. – Military.com

The Pentagon identified the two Marine Corps Special Forces members killed during a combat operation against an Islamic State stronghold in Iraq over the weekend — the first American combat deaths in the country this year. – Washington Examiner