Fdd's overnight brief

March 12, 2020

In The News


The House of Representatives passed a resolution that would limit the president’s ability to take military action against Iran without approval from Congress. – Wall Street Journal 

This critical link to China, centered in Qom, has helped keep Iran’s  economy alive in the face of American sanctions. And it is now being stress-tested by the coronavirus. The exact route of the virus is unclear. But Iran’s strategic partnership with Beijing has created a constellation of potential contacts that helped unleash the illness, called Covid-19. – Wall Street Journal 

Iran’s aviation authority has agreed to send black boxes from a downed Ukrainian jetliner to Kiev for analysis, Iran’s representative at the United Nations’ aviation agency told Reuters. – Reuters

One of the three sites in Iran about which the U.N. nuclear watchdog says it has raised questions that Tehran has failed to answer may have hosted uranium metal, the United States said on Wednesday, providing new details on the locations. – Reuters

Iran urged the U.S. to ease sanctions hindering imports of medicines and food it needs to fight a major outbreak of the coronavirus. – Bloomberg 

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has written to the World Health Organization suggesting that the worldwide coronavirus outbreak was caused by unidentified laboratories who spread the epidemic as part of a “biological war.” – Newsweek

Aircraft carrier presence allows the top American commander in the Middle East flexibility in being able to maintain a state of “contested deterrence” with Iran, lawmakers were told during a Tuesday hearing. – USNI News 

UN human rights experts have demanded Iran cease harassing and intimidating journalists working for BBC Persian and other Persian-language news outlets. – BBC 

In reaction to recent questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about Iran’s nuclear program the Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Wednesday that Iran has no obligation to answer questions based on “empty claims”. – Radio Farda 


Unidentified jets hit targets south east of the Syrian town of Albukamal along a strategic border crossing with Iraq with only material damage, state media said late on Wednesday. – Reuters

Several clashes between U.S. and Syrian forces have been reported recently. On March 8, 2020, the Syrian regime’s official news agency reported that residents of the Al-Kuzaliya village in the northern Al-Hasakah Governorate, aided by Syrian army troops, had blocked a convoy of seven U.S. armored vehicles from entering the village. According to the report, the villagers threw rocks at the vehicles and forced them to retreat. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Josh Rogin writes: People such as Bhavna and M. Night Shyamalan, who have real relationships and experiences with Syrians under threat, are able to sort through the conflicting news accounts and noise surrounding the Syria issue. […]I couldn’t resist asking him if he was thinking about bringing the tales of Caesar, Alshogre and Moustafa to the silver screen. – Washington Post 

Dana Stroul writes: The convergence of these developments offers the United States, in concert with the United Nations, and European and Arab governments, an opportunity to use the economic pressure and battlefield realities inside Syria to refocus on the political process. […]Leveraging this strategic window, however, will require confidence-building and coordination with Turkey. The goal should be rapprochement on Syria policy and driving a wedge between Ankara and Moscow. – Washington Institute


Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan accused Greek security forces on Wednesday of behaving like Nazis for using force against migrants trying to cross the border from Turkey into the European Union. – Reuters

Turkish and Russian officials have largely reached an agreement on details of a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib region during talks in Ankara, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying by state media on Thursday. – Reuters

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed Wednesday that his military would launch its harshest retaliation yet if the Syrian government breaks a fragile truce in Idlib province brokered last week. – Associated Press

The Pentagon disputed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s observation that Washington has “softened” its stance against Ankara’s purchase of a Russian missile-defense system. – Bloomberg 


The U.S. State Department changed its standard description of East Jerusalem Palestinians from “Palestinian residents” of the city to “Arab residents” or “non-Israeli citizens” in an annual global human rights report released on Wednesday. – Reuters

A report by an intelligence center analyzing an interview by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh implied that Hamas’s and Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s (PIJ) positions on war and peace are closely coordinated. – Jerusalem Post 

On March 1, 2020, the first day of the AIPAC Policy Conference, which took place at the Walter E. Washington Conference Center in Washington D.C., an anti-Israel protest was held outside of the conference. […]The protest was attended by American-Palestinian filmmaker Sabry Wazwaz and by Abbas Hamideh, who has previously expressed support for Hamas and Hizbullah and who is the founder of the Right of Return coalition, Al-Awda, which organized the protest along with ANSWER Coalition, an anti-war group. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

An east Jerusalem terrorist who carried out a vehicular ramming attack on February 6 that wounded 12 off-duty soldiers in Jerusalem was indicted on Wednesday. […]It was believed to be part of a spike in terrorism that occurred after the Trump administration’s “Deal of the Century” for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was rolled out. – Jerusalem Post 


Two American troops and a British soldier were killed in a rocket attack Wednesday that targeted an Iraqi base where coalition troops are stationed, and U.S. officials said they are considering retaliatory options. – Wall Street Journal 

Iraq’s presidency has condemned an attack that targeted Iraqi Taji military camp north of Baghdad on Wednesday, that killed three personnel from U.S.-led coalition, state news agency said on early Thursday. – Reuters 

In a March 3, 2020 tweet, the U.K. Embassy in Iraq welcomed the Iraqi government’s decision to acknowledge the rights of the LGBT community and commended the role of a local human rights organization that contributed to the development. […]The tweet, which was later deleted from the embassy’s Twitter account, came amid a campaign by pro-Iran clerics and militias to discredit the anti-government protesters who took the streets of Baghdad and cities throughout the Shi’ite-majority south of Iraq since October 2019, calling for a new political system.  – Middle East Media Research Institute

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Two Americans were reportedly killed on Wednesday evening when more than a dozen katyusha-style rockets hit the Taji base in Iraq where US-led Coalition troops are based. […]A US response to the killing is expected. The US has responded in the past after the December casualty. Iran government media’s boast that “a dozen US-led Coalition” members were injured appears to implicate Iranian groups. Stars and Stripes and other media have reported the casualty figures of two Americans and one British personnel.  – Jerusalem Post

Saudi Arabia

In just 24 hours, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince launched an oil-price war with Russia and sidelined a domestic rival to cement his power at home. But his surprise actions on the world stage and within his own kingdom were set in motion months ago. – Wall Street Journal 

Saudi cleric Muhammad bin Abdul Karim Issa, the Secretary-General of the Muslim World League, said in a March 4, 2020 interview on France 24 TV’s Arabic-language channel that there is no place for political Islam in France or anywhere else because it does not abide by the values of Islam or by the national values of any country. He said that people must respect the constitution, laws, and culture of the country they are living in, and that they should move somewhere else if they don’t like them. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Ilan Berman writes: That dynamic offers a revealing glimpse into the variable nature of Saudi religious thought today, which is undergoing a metamorphosis that – even if not fully explained by the country’s authorities – is nonetheless profoundly altering the parameters of acceptable religious interpretation among the country’s population. But it is also much more. By its nature, the House of Saud’s success in convincing the most extreme elements of society to moderate their ideological positions will serve as an important barometer of future domestic stability in a rapidly changing Kingdom. – Center for Global Policy 

David A. Andelman writes: The crown prince and Trump are currently facing a very similar set of challenges: The coronavirus threatening Americans at home and Muslims in Mecca and Medina; oil price and supply disruptions affecting the economies of both nations; unresolved and increasingly expensive wars respectively in Afghanistan and Yemen. Perhaps now is the time to begin to break that circle of dependency before an impending crisis becomes a real crisis. – NBC News

Middle East & North Africa

Hamo Bika rose up from the slums of this northern coastal city to become one of Egypt’s most popular musicians. […]The ban is the latest chapter in an ongoing battle for the cultural soul of Egypt and the image it presents to the world. It is also an indicator of how censorship and assaults on the freedom of speech and expression are reaching new heights under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. – Washington Post 

The family of the only man ever found guilty of the 1988 Lockerbie aircraft bombing can appeal against his conviction, an independent Scottish review body ruled on Wednesday, after it concluded there might have been a miscarriage of justice. – Reuters

Sarah Cahlan, Elyse Samuels and Linah Mohammad write: The Fact Checker obtained several videos verified by the human rights lab of Moroccan authorities intimidating, shoving, kicking and throwing rocks at Sahrawis. […]What happened to Elbatal illustrates the extent to which the Moroccan government exerts control over its territories and Sahrawis in Western Sahara. But videos and forensic tools make it harder for governments to continue committing these abuses unchecked. – Washington Post 

David Rosenberg writes: Hezbollah’s view is that it’s better to let Lebanon sink under the weight of debt than accept an IMF austerity plan dictated by Washington. Austerity would spark “a popular revolution,” a spokesman has warned. The problem is that Lebanon faces a bleak future no matter what it does. At least a partnership with the IMF would provide it with badly needed cash and force the country’s leaders to take the measures they have resisted taking for so long and show no willingness to do now. – Haaretz 


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo singled out China’s treatment of religious minorities as one of the world’s worst examples of abuse as he presented the State Department’s annual report on human rights on Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal 

Stopping the Chinese industrial machine was painful for China and for the world — and restarting it may be even harder. Factories are well short of full capacity. Even the most successfully restarted cities are only halfway back. Tens of millions of laborers cannot get to work.Even when workers come back, Chinese businesses may find overseas demand slumping for their exports because of worsening coronavirus epidemics in other countries. – New York Times

Even as the Trump administration pressures European countries to stop using Huawei Technologies Co. gear, the Chinese telecommunications giant is increasing its footprint there, filing more patent applications in Europe than any other company last year. – Bloomberg 

David Ignatius writes: China wages its campaign for global influence stealthily, partly by winning control of little-known but influential U.N. agencies. […]The Trump administration could have taken a pass on WIPO — let the Chinese win the election and then resign from the organization in protest. In that case, “the worst offender would be in charge” of protecting technology, said the senior official. It’s good the administration decided instead to stand and fight. – Washington Post 


The Taliban rejected the Afghan government’s attempt to resolve a spiralling crisis over the release of insurgent prisoners Wednesday, as Kabul warned it was ready to resume offensive battlefield operations. – Agence France-Presse

‘We don’t need to link them’: Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of the U.S. Central Command told Congress yesterday that he’ll be carefully tracking the actions of the Taliban as the United States withdraws roughly 3,400 troops from Afghanistan in the coming months and will recommend ending the drawdown if he doesn’t like what he sees. – Washington Examiner 

Gary Anderson writes: Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Taliban — assuming that a truce with the central government holds — will be holding the loyalty of the burgeoning millennial and Generation Z populations. While some young guns will inevitably drift toward the adventure offered by ISIS, many others will be increasingly lured by the bright lights of the government-controlled big cities, leaving the Taliban to face a brain drain among the population of military-age males. – Washington Times


Australia said it would spend $11.42 billion to try to stave off a recession that would be its first in nearly three decades, as governments globally step up efforts to put together an economic response to the coronavirus pandemic. – Wall Street Journal 

Hong Kong on Thursday dismissed U.S. criticism of its human rights practices, saying the Asian financial hub was “firmly committed” to upholding and safeguarding freedoms. – Reuters

Masashi Murano writes: If China’s military buildup is not a reaction to the actions of the U.S.-Japan alliance, no matter how much diplomatic communication improves, there will be a fundamentally competitive relationship between the U.S.-Japan alliance and China. This is the reality of long-term strategic competition that the alliance partners must recognize. – Hudson Institute 


Russia’s parliament gave its final seal of approval to constitutional changes potentially allowing President Vladimir Putin to stay in power for years to come, removing a key source of uncertainty about Russia’s political future and likely ensuring that Moscow will continue to challenge the U.S. on the world stage. – Wall Street Journal 

Russia put a U.S. student on trial on Wednesday for allegedly drunkenly assaulting two police officers as his father said state investigators had failed to secure basic evidence that could potentially prove his son’s innocence. – Reuters

Isabelle Khurshudyan writes: The constitutional rewrite Putin proposed has been widely interpreted as an attempt by him to ensure his influence after this presidential term ends. But the initial speculation was that Putin would eventually head a beefed-up advisory body, like the State Council, and be a kind of leader emeritus. […]So his apparent shift Tuesday caught Russians off guard. The message now is that Putin could be in the Kremlin until he is in his 80s. – Washington Post 

George Barros writes: Likely Russian actors conducted a disinformation campaign against Ukraine exploiting COVID-19 fears related to the Ukrainian government’s evacuation of its citizens from Wuhan, China. The campaign’s tactics, timing, and nature all point toward Kremlin involvement. […] The campaign is likely part of the Kremlin’s efforts to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for more concessions in the war in Donbas. This campaign may be part of a global Russian information operation on COVID-19. – Institute for the Study of War

Andreea Brinza writes: The memoranda of understanding between the United States and Romania, Poland, and Estonia are an important part of the American strategy to contain Huawei. […]At the very least, however, the memoranda of understanding are proof of the partial failure of China’s Central and Eastern European strategy and its 17+1 mechanism, as Beijing failed to understand how much the region fears Russia and depends on U.S. security guarantees. – War on the Rocks


President Trump announced a 30-day ban on some travel from Europe into the U.S. and said he would act to offer financial assistance to those affected by the coronavirus pandemic rapidly spreading across the country and around the world. – Wall Street Journal 

Britain’s government and central bank announced a rare joint stimulus plan to combat the debilitating effects of the coronavirus on the economy, a bold move that raises questions about whether the broader region can muster a similarly synchronized response to an epidemic that threatens to tip it into recession. – Wall Street Journal 

Britain will start charging a tax on digital services in three weeks despite fierce opposition from Big Tech and the US government. – CNN

The remainder of one major military exercise between the US and several European nations will be canceled as a “precautionary measure,” and US involvement will be reduced in another exercise amid the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, US European Command announced Wednesday. – CNN

When radicalised terror offenders are released from prison, how should they be dealt with? Two recent attacks in London have brought the question into sharp focus because both involved extremist offenders carrying out knife attacks despite being on the radar of security services. – BBC 

Clark Packard writes: A U.S.-U.K. FTA makes sense for both countries. It would join the world’s largest and fifth-largest economies […] Nevertheless, negotiations will be fraught with peril. Extremely sensitive issues will need to be reckoned with or avoided. Transatlantic enthusiasm must be tempered by cold political realities. – Foreign Policy


The U.S. blacklisted two Zimbabwean officials for alleged human rights violations, the U.S. Treasury Department said. – Wall Street Journal

At the heart of the world’s fastest-growing Islamist insurgency, a national force of approximately 12,000 soldiers struggles to defend a population of 20 million. Malian troops are rapidly losing ground, officials in this West African nation say, as militants linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State sweep the rural north and push toward bigger cities. – Washington Post 

A U.S. air strike aimed at Somali Islamist militants killed six civilians instead, a lawmaker and relative of one victim said on Wednesday, raising further questions about the extent of civilian casualties from U.S. military operations. – Reuters

The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation is helping Sudan probe the attempted assassination of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the North African nation said, reporting “many arrests” in connection with Monday’s incident. – Bloomberg 

United States

Swedbank AB said Wednesday that it has notified the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control of potential sanctions violations regarding $4.8 million of transactions following an internal probe. – Wall Street Journal 

The House on Wednesday approved legislation that would institute some changes to the government’s surveillance authority while also imposing new requirements on the way the FBI obtains wiretapping warrants in national security investigations following criticism of its monitoring of a Trump campaign adviser in 2016. – Washington Post 

The State Department announced Wednesday it will host the upcoming Group of Seven (G-7) ministerial meeting by video conference rather than in person amid concerns over the coronavirus. – The Hill 

North America

The World Health Organization on Wednesday declared the coronavirus a global pandemic as countries and municipalities took increasingly dramatic measures to slow the spread of the deadly contagion, including President Trump’s announcement that he is sharply restricting travel to the United States from Europe for 30 days, beginning Friday at midnight. – Washington Post 

The Supreme Court on Wednesday allowed the Trump administration to maintain a program that has forced about 60,000 asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their requests are heard. An appeals court had blocked the program, saying it was at odds with both federal law and international treaties and was causing “extreme and irreversible harm.” – New York Times

Federal authorities launched a broadside against Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation drug cartel on Wednesday, revealing that they had arrested hundreds of those associated with the gang as part of a six-month operation to attack its U.S.-based infrastructure. – Washington Post 

Israel’s Elbit Systems will supply satellite communications on-the-move for Canadian Armed Forces in a deal with Rheinmetall Canada. The company did not release the value of the contract, which is part of the Land Command Support System Life Extension program (LCSS LE) program. – C4ISRNET 

In February 2020, a Telegram channel published a series of images calling for direct action against Arabs, Antifa and black people. These images were later reposted in March by another channel that promotes violent white supremacy in French and English. The former channel also published videos of an armed man, who can be identified, who is now in prison following investigation by authorities for appearing to be planning a violent attack. The videos included a message hoping he will still carry out his plans. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Editorial: Disasters and crises can make or break presidencies—not from the event itself but from how the public judges a President’s response. […]Comparing the U.S. favorably to Europe won’t reassure anyone if the U.S. catches up. Mr. Trump did seem to recognize that the threat to public health is a chance to rise above narrow partisanship and speak for the whole country. His main opponent for re-election now isn’t Joe Biden. It’s the coronavirus. – Wall Street Journal 

Latin America

These are the names of some of the social media groups catering to thousands of Cubans who are using newly available mobile internet to grapple with shortages of basic goods that are worsening under tougher U.S. sanctions. – Associated Press 

When a re-energized opposition leader Juan Guaidó returned to Venezuela from a world tour that saw him meet President Donald Trump, he turned to a well-worn page in the opposition’s playbook for ousting socialist President Nicolás Maduro —- he called a street protest. […]But after only a modest number of supporters showed up Tuesday and they were scattered mid-march, ducking tear gas fired by heavily armed security forces, analysts say it is time for Guaidó and his international backers to refine their approach.  – Associated Press 

The southern hemisphere summer has come to a close, and Chileans say they fear — or welcome — the prospect that the turn of the season could herald a renewal of the vast protests that shook the nation late last year over the government’s failure to channel one of Latin America’s best economies into well-being for the working and middle classes. […]Some said they believed conditions were ripe for a possible new explosion of unrest at any time. – Associated Press 

The United States has released an annual human rights report that criticizes alleged abuses in Venezuela, which is subject to strict U.S. sanctions criticized by the United Nations a day earlier. – Newsweek

Carlos Manuel Álvarez writes: Over the past three years, the young Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has been detained 27 times. […]Otero’s performances also reveal the operational tactics of Cuba’s powerful state. The fact that it has resorted to fabricating charges is what confirms that he is a true artist. The goal of the trial is to give him another identity, turn him into someone else, chip away like a perverse critic at his sense of mission. – Washington Post  


A congressionally mandated commission has proposed a set of recommendations to strengthen the nation’s cyberdefenses against foreign adversaries — and it would like to see them carried out before a cyber-catastrophe forces change. – Washington Post 

The European Union is reviving an alliance formed last year with U.S. tech companies to combat online political disinformation, now focused on false information about the coronavirus. – Wall Street Journal 

Video-sharing platform TikTok said it is opening a new facility in Los Angeles aimed at providing more transparency to outsiders about its operations, another move by the Chinese-owned app to address scrutiny from U.S. officials and lawmakers. […]TikTok’s rapid rise to social-media success has prompted questions from U.S. authorities worried it could pose a national-security threat because it is owned by Chinese conglomerate ByteDance Inc. – Wall Street Journal

A major report by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission wants to position the Department of Homeland Security’s cybersecurity agency as the “key” agency in strengthening cybersecurity efforts within the federal government and the private sector as part of a broader overhaul of the U.S. strategy for securing cyberspace. – Fifth Domain

Federal employees with cybersecurity experience have the opportunity to take their skills temporarily to another agency under a cyber detail program announced by the Office of Management and Budget March 11. – Fifth Domain 

Before automation comes to the battlefield, it will come to the back office. AFWERX, the Air Force’s internal catalyst for incorporating innovation from industry and other places outside the Pentagon, announced March 9 the award of a contract for the next generation of business process workflow automation. – C4ISRNET 

Trump administration officials have postponed for a second time a critical meeting originally set for Wednesday to discuss potential new U.S. restrictions on sales of technology to Huawei and China, people familiar with the matter said. – Reuters 


President Trump’s diversion of $2 billion to fund the border wall will come at the expense of American sea power, putting the United States at least a decade behind China and Russia due to a lack of maritime investments, say a bipartisan pair of House members. – Washington Examiner

The Defense Department (DOD) will implement a 60-day travel ban for service members, DOD civilians and their families to and from countries whose populations have been the most stricken by coronavirus, the Pentagon announced Wednesday night. – The Hill 

Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Joseph Martin took a page out of the commander in chief’s rhetorical playbook while referring to tests to the nation’s improved Paladin: “We’re making artillery great again.” […]Tests sent a 155 mm projectile to an altitude of 50,000 feet and a total distance of over 40 miles. – Washington Times 

Manning forward-deployed ships with fewer sailors, making less carrier strike groups available to deploy and reducing the size of command staffs are moves the Navy is considering as part of its drive to reduce $40 billion from its budget, according to a February memo outlining the cuts under consideration reviewed by USNI News. – USNI News 

Up to 1,000 infants and toddlers of active duty Coast Guard members could lose their places in the Department of Defense-run childcare facilities due to a new policy changing how the Pentagon prioritizes the allotment of care. – USNI News 

The military will have to beef up its space intelligence as it stands up the United States Space Force says the new service’s vice commander. – C4ISRNET 

James Andrew Lewis writes: Drawing from the example of nineteenth-century competition, protecting U.S. interests will require abandoning the passivity of deterrence and using sustained low-level engagement that mirrors the tactics of our opponents, minimizing the risks of escalation without forsaking coercive effect. […]The task is to engage and manage the risk of escalation without denying the need for more assertive strategic actions. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Missile Defense

Navy and Marine Corps leaders are confident a pair of ground-based anti-ship missile programs in support of the Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO) concept is leaving China “just scratching their head” trying to figure out how to counter U.S. naval force advancements. – USNI News 

US Army leaders have cited cybersecurity and compatibility concerns as chief reasons not to move forward with integrating Rafael’s Iron Dome mobile, short-range air-defence system into their Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) architecture. The US Marine Corps (USMC), however, is moving forward with plans to integrate Iron Dome components into its medium-range intercept capability, and said its effort is not being hampered by similar concerns. – Jane’s 360 

Rebeccah L. Heinrichs writes: Adversaries are using various ranges and kinds of missiles to threaten U.S. vital interests abroad as well as the Americans on U.S. territory. Categorizing U.S. defensive systems as “regional/tactical” or “homeland/strategic” does not make sense anymore. Our adversaries do not coordinate their offensive missile arsenal in this way and making these distinctions on our side will hamstring the United States from providing optimal defenses for our nation. – Hudson Institute 

Long War

The U.N. Security Council strongly condemned the increasing threat to peace and security in Africa from terrorism Wednesday and urged all countries “to consider mobilizing more predictable resources and expertise” to strengthen African efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism. – New York Times

A 41-year-old man has been arrested under the Terrorism Act following police searches in the Creggan area of Londonderry. – BBC 

Katherine Zimmerman writes: Where dollars and cents prevail, so, too, must common sense. A small U.S. military investment in Africa provides the support of allies and partners, counterterrorism cooperation, and enough security to use American soft power. All of that adds up to the U.S. being able to compete with Russia, China, and even al-Qaida and the Islamic State, on the African continent. – Military Times