Fdd's overnight brief

March 13, 2019

In The News


Iran is discreetly scouring the globe for second-hand oil tankers to replace its ageing fleet and keep crucial crude exports flowing as U.S. sanctions start to bite, Iranian and Western sources said. – Reuters

Iran will respond firmly to any Israeli naval action against its oil shipments, Iran’s defense minister said on Wednesday, in comments that came a week after Israel’s prime minister said its navy could act against Iranian oil “smuggling” to evade U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

Iraq and Iran signed several preliminary trade deals on Monday, Iraqi officials said, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani began his first visit seeking to bolster Tehran’s influence and expand commercial ties to help offset renewed US sanctions.  Reuters

Hardline cleric Ebrahim Raisi has swiftly emerged as one of Iran’s most powerful figures and a contender to succeed Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Last week, he was named chief of the judiciary and on Tuesday he was elected deputy chief of the 88-member Assembly of Experts, the clerical body responsible for choosing the supreme leader. – Reuters

A senior Iranian security official on Wednesday accused regional powers of spending money on “suspicious nuclear projects”, and warned that such threats would force Tehran to revise its defence strategy. – Reuters


Israel said a Hezbollah operative accused of killing U.S. troops is establishing a terror network in the disputed Golan Heights, spotlighting threats the militant group poses to its security as the Netanyahu government pushes for sovereignty over the strategic area. – Wall Street Journal

Hezbollah has recruited dozens to hundreds of men to fight Israel from villages on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, and local people have begun gathering intelligence for the effort, Israeli defense officials said Wednesday. – Haaretz

Acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz met on Monday with Norway’s Foreign Minister, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide. During the meeting, the two discussed the potential for cooperation between the two countries, including in research, technology, oil and gas, and the fight against terrorism. Minister Katz stressed the need to increase the pressure on Hezbollah and declare its political wing as a terrorist organization that should be outlawed. – Arutz Sheva


The boy looked like all the other ragged children emerging from the last scrap of territory controlled by Islamic State. But unlike them, eight-year-old Maher is a Yazidi—kidnapped more than four years ago by the militants during a genocidal campaign against his community. He is one of several dozen members of the Yazidi minority to surface among tens of thousands of people escaping the battlefield in eastern Syria as U.S.-backed forces try to dislodge the militants from the remnants of their caliphate. – Wall Street Journal

Around 3,000 Islamic State members have surrendered from the group’s last holdout in Syria, Kurdish-led forces said Tuesday, as air raids and shelling resumed after a brief lull. – Agence France-Presse

Besieged in their last foothold in eastern Syria, Islamic State militants issued a defiant message calling on supporters around the world to carry out attacks in their defense. The once mighty group tried to enshrine an image for the future after defeat, depicting its crumbling domain as the one place ruled by “God’s law” and promising it would one day be victorious. – Associated Press

While the final battle to retake the Islamic State group’s last pocket of territory rages in eastern Syria, violence is escalating in the country’s northwest, pitting al-Qaida-linked militants against Syrian government forces. – Associated Press

Elizabeth Dent writes: The SDF is now holding thousands of Iraqi and Syrian fighters, as well as over a thousand foreign ones. The ultimate disposition of these fighters is a grave challenge. One has only to look at Iraq to see how prison breaks and an incapacity to deal with terrorist detainees can cause an insurgency to spread like wildfire. This paper lays out the problem and explores possible options for what to do, from repatriating the foreign fighters to their country of origin and housing them in Guantanamo Bay to trying them at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and turning them over to the Iraqi government.  – Middle East Institute


Turkey is discussing with Russia and the United States a potential military offensive in a region of northeast Syria controlled by Kurdish fighters, a Turkish defense official was cited as saying by state media on Tuesday. – Reuters

A Twitter battle erupted between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and spokespeople from the Turkish government representing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday night, after the prime minister called the president a “dictator” and a “joke.” But the battleground was laid days before. Erdogan’s spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that he condemns Netanyahu’s “blatant racism and discrimination,” referring to Netanyahu’s comments from March 12 that Israel is “a nation state not of all its citizens but only of the Jewish people.” – Jerusalem Post

Aaron Stein writes: The S-400 saga is a microcosm of broader, structural changes driving the United States and Turkey apart. Beyond personality politics, it is now simply a fact that Washington and Ankara have different interests in the Middle East and view one another as hindrances to realizing national goals. Given this reality, it would be imprudent for the United States (and European F-35 operators) not to study its options, and start looking at ways to mitigate the risk to the F-35. – War On The Rocks


Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian man after he ran toward them with a knife in the West Bank on Tuesday, the military said. In the walled Old City of Jerusalem, Israeli police said a firebomb was thrown at a police post, damaging the structure in a sacred compound revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount. – Reuters

Hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel was in contact with half a dozen important Arab and Muslim states, a minister of a country believed to be one of those states – the United Arab Emirates – slammed Netanyahu for his comments about Israel being the nation-state only of the Jewish people. “Not only are PM Netanyahu’s comments that ‘Israel is not a state for all its citizens’ repugnant, but they provide vindication sought by extremists,” Anwar Gargash, the UAE minister of state for foreign affairs, tweeted. – Jerusalem Post

Peace can only be achieved “through strength,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted on Tuesday. Speaking at a state memorial ceremony in Jerusalem for the late former Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Netanyahu — the Likud leader who is seeking a fifth term as prime minister in April’s Knesset elections — stated, “Only when our neighbors are convinced that our strength and our presence here are irrefutable facts, only then some of them will be persuaded to make peace with us, and we are fully advancing this recognition and agreement process with our remaining neighbors, not with all of them, but with most of them.” – Algemeiner

Middle East & North Africa

The five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council urged Yemen’s warring parties on Tuesday to implement a peace deal in the port city of Hodeidah, a move they hope will lead to an end of the four-year-old conflict. – Reuters

A U.N. humanitarian agency warned Tuesday that thousands of Yemeni civilians caught in fierce clashes between warring factions are trapped in an embattled northern district, an area that has become another flashpoint in the country’s bitter civil war. – Associated Press

The U.S. Senate will vote on Wednesday on a resolution to end Washington’s support for the Saudi Arabia-led military campaign in Yemen, as lawmakers push President Donald Trump to toughen his policy toward the kingdom. – Reuters

Ever since Egyptian President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi came to power, the Egyptian regime has maintained a tough policy and an aggressive stance toward its opponents among social activists and journalists,[1] and mainly toward the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) organization. In line with this policy, the MB has been designated a terror organization and outlawed, and many of its members have been arrested on charges of planning and involvement in terror attacks. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat writes: With the BRI serving partly as “oil roads,” the flow of energy resources between China and the Gulf can be expected to be expedited and expanded as needed. […]With the expected increase in energy deals and the completion of large-scale energy projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, many of which are still under construction or yet to be built, the BRI can ameliorate China’s energy anxieties, in turn helping sustain the country’s economic growth. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea must not use a possible rocket launch as leverage in negotiations with the U.S, a South Korean presidential adviser said Tuesday, saying such a move could be “catastrophic” for global diplomacy on its nuclear program. – Associated Press

Just when it looks like North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may restart his ballistic missile testing program, U.S. President Donald Trump has proposed trimming the missile defense budget, as one set of deterrents is delayed by two years. – Reuters

Japan has decided for the first time in years not to submit to the United Nations a joint resolution condemning North Korea’s human rights abuses, given U.S. efforts to end North Korea’s weapons program and other factors, Japan said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Uri Friedman writes: In holding out for a Big Deal with North Korea, Trump is banking on the country’s leaders deciding to do what his own intelligence officials (and top advisers, such as Bolton) say is highly unlikely: fully give up a nuclear program they have invested heavily in for decades and come to consider essential for the survival of their regime. What the United States is now angling for, a year into its diplomacy with North Korea, is to have it all: breakthroughs in negotiations at both the leader and lower levels, an indefinite and unrelenting pressure campaign that produces a swift grand bargain on peace and denuclearization. – The Atlantic


A new front has opened in the battle between the U.S. and China over control of global networks that deliver the internet. This one is beneath the ocean. While the U.S. wages a high-profile campaign to exclude China’s Huawei Technologies Co. from next-generation mobile networks over fears of espionage, the company is embedding itself into undersea cable networks that ferry nearly all of the world’s internet data. – Wall Street Journal

The European Union moved Tuesday to recalibrate ties with China, promising to address growing threats to trade, economic growth and security posed by Beijing’s global assertiveness. – Wall Street Journal

When China on Monday became the first country to order all Boeing 737 Max 8 planes grounded in the aftermath of an Ethiopian Airlines crash Sunday, its aviation regulator sent an unmistakable signal: The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is no longer the only authority in civil aviation worldwide. – Washington Post

China’s is using “pay-day loan diplomacy” to exert influence in the Pacific, the new U.S. ambassador to Australia said on Wednesday, comments that threaten to inflame regional tensions. – Reuters

The United States and China may be in the final weeks of discussions to hammer out a deal to ease their tit-for-tat tariffs dispute, U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Weifeng Zhong and Julian TszKin Chan write: The slowdown of China’s economic growth has little to do with the trade war. It’s a consequence of China’s development model that took shape during Former President Hu Jintao’s administration. The structural issues on which America is demanding change are essential components of this model, and there’s no sign that China will deviate from it anytime soon. We make these claims not as China watchers—although we are—but as developers of a machine learning algorithm that’s able to analyze the Chinese government’s agenda and predict its future direction. – The China Business Review


A prominent Vietnamese historian who criticized his government for not doing more to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea has been ousted from Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party over comments he made on Facebook. – New York Times

U.S. and Taliban negotiators wrapped up their longest round of peace talks on Tuesday with progress made but no agreement on when foreign troops might withdraw, officials from both sides said. – Reuters

Taliban fighters have stepped up pressure on Afghan forces in the western province of Badghis, killing 20 soldiers and capturing 20, an official said on Tuesday, as the militants make advances even as they hold peace talks with U.S. officials. – Reuters

Patrick Gerard Buchan and Benjamin Rimland write: Sino-American competition roiling the Indo-Pacific today has generated a need to re-examine the ANZUS alliance. China has keenly and skillfully exploited the wedge within ANZUS by deploying economic firepower and exploiting the openness fundamental to liberal democracies[…] New Zealand’s stepped-up participation in Australia-U.S. exercises and its nascent steps to combat Chinese technological influence point to a foundation that can be built upon for the sake of rebirthing an ANZUS to confront the realities of the Indo-Pacific competition that we face today. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


Mikhail Lesin, 57, was no ordinary tourist on a drinking binge. He was one of Vladimir Putin’s top lieutenants during Putin’s rise to power in Russia. Speculation he was murdered has continued to this day. Now a recent court ruling could shed light on the case. […]Above all, there is a long history of high-profile Russians turning up dead or seriously ill in foreign countries.  – Associated Press

The Kremlin on Tuesday shrugged off talk of a possible boycott by U.S. companies of Russia’s showcase International Economic Forum over the arrest of prominent U.S. investor Michael Calvey, saying such boycotts had come to nothing in the past. – Reuters

U.S. lawmakers have passed a measure that sharply criticizes Vladimir Putin for what it says is the Kremlin’s involvement in the killing of opposition activist Boris Nemtsov and the targeting of other political opponents. The House of Representatives passed the nonbinding resolution 416-1 on March 12. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Andrea Snyder writes: Russia will likely gain political ground in Ukraine regardless of the outcome of the upcoming 2019 Ukrainian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections scheduled respectively for March 31 and October 27. The majority of the leading presidential candidates are amenable in some degree to the Kremlin. […]Ukraine’s Western-oriented political reformists are active and still have a chance to make progress in the 2019 Ukrainian Parliamentary Election. The U.S. should engage with and support these reformists, who are facing pressures in advance of both elections, in order to counter Russia. – Institute for the Study of War


Britain hurtled into unknown political territory on Tuesday when Parliament, for the second time, rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to quit the European Union, leaving her authority in tatters and the country seemingly rudderless just 17 days before its scheduled departure from the bloc. – New York Times

If you watched Theresa May closely in Parliament on Tuesday, hours before a critical vote on her Brexit plan, there were signs that she knew her deal was close to extinction. – New York Times

The police in Britain said on Tuesday that they were investigating a claim that packages containing explosives sent to London and Scotland last week came from a group calling itself the I.R.A., an abbreviation for the Irish Republican Army. – New York Times

The Anne Frank Education Center in Frankfurt, Germany, has drawn a parallel between Jews stripped of their German citizenship under Adolf Hitler and Islamic State fighters. At the center of the citizenship debate in Germany is a proposed government plan for withdrawing German nationality narrowly to dual citizens who join ISIS. Weighing in on the proposal, the Anne Frank Education Center took to Twitter, writing in German that “there has been a lot of protest, among other things with reference to the Third Reich.” – Washington Examiner

The European Union will not negotiate Brexit again, it said on Tuesday, after Britain’s parliament rejected the divorce package for a second time in a vote that made a chaotic no-deal scenario more likely. – Reuters

European Union governments adopted a broadened blacklist of tax havens on Tuesday, adding the United Arab Emirates and British and Dutch overseas territories in a revamp that tripled the number of listed jurisdictions. – Reuters

The European Commission set out a 10-point plan on Tuesday for more balanced economic relations with China, urging EU leaders to back its ideas to curb Chinese state-owned enterprises and increase their guard against cybersecurity threats. – Reuters

The Netherlands on Tuesday became the latest European country to confirm a steep rise in antisemitic incidents over the last twelve months, following similarly alarming data released this year by Jewish organizations in France, the UK and Germany. The Center for Information and Documentation Israel (CIDI) — a Dutch Jewish NGO that combats antisemitism and anti-Zionism — said in its annual report that antisemitic incidents in the country increased in 2018 by 19 percent on the previous year. – Algemeiner

Editorial: For the embattled prime minister and other responsible actors, the central challenge in any election or further parliamentary debate is overcoming the demagoguery of those on the Conservative right and Mr. Corbyn’s left who insist, against all evidence, that Britain can make a clean break with the continent while simultaneously preserving its economic health and the fragile peace in Northern Ireland, which depends on an open border with the Irish republic. The refusal by Conservative ideologues and left-wing opportunists to abandon those unsustainable positions explains most of what has gone wrong in British politics during the past several years. – Washington Post

Editorial: With just 17 days remaining before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union, almost nothing has changed. Last-minute talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker yielded additional obfuscation but little of substance. One way or another, a new vote would give businesses some clarity about where Britain is headed. With luck, it might even bring this whole egregious misadventure to an end. – Bloomberg

Amr Adly writes: EU leaders expect their Arab counterparts to do a great deal, in return for nothing. The EU should accommodate the development needs of the Middle East and North Africa, instead of forcing those regions to accommodate those of Europe. That should be the basis of a new Barcelona Process. Revise the bilateral trade agreements between the EU and their Arab partners in a way that acknowledges explicitly the development needs of the latter, especially regarding technology-transfer, job-creation and diversification away from raw materials. – Bloomberg

Matthew P. Goodman writes: More broadly, the existing rules of the liberal order are under challenge from new players who clearly want more voice in the international system but may also advance lower standards to gain commercial or geopolitical advantage. While making room at the table of global governance, as they have by supporting China’s leadership in the G20, Britain and the United States share an interest in upholding the rules-based order that has brought such broad benefits to the world for over 70 years. From a Washington perspective, one of the biggest questions about the Brexit vote is whether London can still be counted on to help defend that order or whether the “Little England” mentality prevails. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


United Nations investigators said on Tuesday that hundreds of men, women and children were slaughtered and thousands driven from their homes in attacks by one ethnic group on another in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year, and that the assaults may have amounted to crimes against humanity. – New York Times

The US military conducted an airstrike in Somalia on Monday after a Somali-led force and its accompanying US military advisers were attacked by Al-Shabaab militants. The strike killed eight Al-Shabaab fighters, US Africa Command, which oversees US military operations on the continent, said Tuesday. “US service members were present during the ground operation in an advisory capacity. All US service members are accounted for and are unharmed,” the statement added. – CNN

More than 500 men, women and children from the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Banunu community were killed in attacks by Batende villagers in December, some beheaded and many slain as they tried to flee across a river, U.N. investigators said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Latin America

The United States said Tuesday it would pull its remaining diplomatic personnel from Venezuela this week, rupturing relations as the socialist South American country plunges deeper into chaos. – Washington Post

In a reversal that seemed unimaginable just a few months ago, Guatemalan lawmakers are moving forward with a proposal to grant amnesty for war crimes committed during the country’s brutal 36-year civil war. – New York Times

Hours before he pulled American diplomats from Venezuela, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confronted the growing crisis in the country by blaming not only its embattled ruler, but also a broader menace: socialism. His diagnosis echoed President Trump’s line of attack against potential Democratic rivals in 2020, and there is little question that the far-left ideology of Venezuela’s government shares some responsibility for the dysfunction that has thrown the country into chaos. – New York Times

Paula J. Dobriansky writes: Brazil’s newly-elected President Jair Bolsonaro upcoming visit to Washington, D.C., could mark a significant step forward in relations between the Western Hemisphere’s two largest democracies. In February, Brazil’s Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo’s trip to Washington previewed a broad reorientation of his country’s foreign policy that could bring Brasilia into much closer alignment with the United States in Latin America and the rest of the world. – Miami Herald

Cyber Security

The Navy and its industry partners are “under cyber siege” by Chinese hackers and others who have stolen tranches of national security secrets in recent years, exploiting critical weaknesses that threaten the U.S.’s standing as the world’s top military power, an internal Navy review has concluded. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese and Russian hackers are attacking Indonesia’s voter data base in a bid to disrupt the country’s upcoming presidential election, according to a senior election commission official. – Bloomberg

A top Google executive faced tough questions from a Senate committee on Tuesday about the company’s data collection practices as lawmakers vow to impose tougher privacy regulations on tech giants. – The Hill

Claude Barfield writes: Underscoring that the US is serious about the consequences of allies utilizing Huawei equipment for 5G rollout, the US Ambassador to Germany on Friday sent a letter to the German government warning (“threatening” in some headlines) that US-German intelligence sharing would be substantially curtailed if this occurred.  […]The hardened US stance puts the Germans — and other European governments — in a bind. […]We have potentially entered uncharted territory in the world of cybersecurity alliance policy. – American Enterprise Institute


The U.S. Army has proposed a 2020 budget plan that would eliminate or scale back some of its most enduring and best known equipment programs to free up money for investing in the weapons and hardware of the future. – Wall Street Journal

The Pentagon on Tuesday unveiled details of the $750 billion national defense budget that the Trump administration has asked Congress to pass, calling it an example of how the military is shifting its emphasis from counterinsurgencies to competition with China and Russia. – Washington Post

The Defense Department’s fiscal year 2020 budget asks for $306 million to overhaul its space enterprise, standing up the headquarters of the Space Force, establishing a U.S. Space Command and creating a Space Development Agency geared toward acquiring cutting edge space tech more rapidly. – Defense News

The Air Force’s light attack experiment isn’t dead yet, with the service requesting $35 million in its fiscal year 2020 budget to continue the effort with a more expansive set of airframes that could involve drones and jets. – Defense News

The U.S. Air Force is requesting $165.6 billion in fiscal 2020, an increase of about $10 billion more than FY19 that the service intends to use to fund gains in readiness as well as spearhead technology development. – Defense News

The U.S. Army’s budget request of $182 billion in fiscal year 2020 holds steady with last year’s top line, but is geared toward a “modernization renaissance” the service began with the 2018 establishment of a new four-star command dedicated to building a modern force by 2028. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy will pass the 300 ships mark for the first time since 2002, according to its fiscal 2020 budget submission, a big step toward its current goal of 355 ships and a sign the service, after decades of contracting, is growing yet again. – Defense News

The Navy is budgeting $1.3 billion in Fiscal Year 2020 to purchase its first-in-class guided-missile frigate and associated engineering costs as part of an aggressive push to buy nine FFG(X) hulls by FY 2024, according to a Tuesday Navy budget overview. – USNI News

The Pentagon is taking steps to develop new missiles, following the Trump administration’s decision to suspend the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, a 1987 arms-control agreement that the Trump administration has said it plans to exit due to Russian violations. – CNN

Mark Esper writes: In this era of great power competition, we cannot risk falling behind. If left unchecked, Russia and China will only continue to erode the competitive advantage our military has held for decades. The Army has a clear vision and a sound strategy to maintain battlefield overmatch. We are making the tough choices. We need the support of Congress to modernize the force, and it starts with the fiscal 2020 budget. We owe it to our soldiers to provide them the weapons and equipment they need to win decisively in future battles. The American people should not accept anything less. – The Hill

Andrew Philip Hunter and Maura Rose McQuade write: There is truth to the argument that defense acquisition must change in the face of a new national security environment, but many current acquisition critiques are strangely incomplete. […]Success will ultimately depend on DoD’s ability to rapidly adjust to uncertainty in threats—nimble adversaries, new domains, and unanticipated applications of technology utilization. Our current acquisition debate fails to directly address the changing nature of what we need to be buying, and as a result, we may be heading towards another round of acquisition reform recriminations in a few years. Center for Strategic and International Studies

Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr. writes: This study finds that changes in the geopolitical and military-technical environments are eroding the effectiveness of strategies based on deterrence. Moreover, relatively recent revelations of Cold War history and advances in the behavioral sciences raise important concerns regarding our understanding of how deterrence has worked in the past, as well as its limitations going forward. In brief, the efficacy of deterrence is being challenged across multiple fronts. – Hudson Institute

Long War

A French-Algerian man found guilty last week of murder in a terrorist shooting at the Jewish Museum of Brussels was sentenced to life in prison, concluding the first conviction of a European who joined Islamic State in Syria and returned to stage attacks. – Wall Street Journal

A Georgia woman who allegedly was a member of an online group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and distributed “kill lists” identifying Americans they wanted their members to target has been charged with conspiring to provide material support to the ISIS. – Washington Examiner

Clay R. Fuller writes: Transparency is fundamental to protecting the rule of law at home. But too often today, we lose sight of the fact that financial transparency issues carry important geostrategic implications. As former US Army general David Petraeus stated in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, “corruption is not only one of the most potent weapons wielded by America’s authoritarian rivals, it is also, in many cases, what sustains these regimes in power and is their Achilles’ heel.” The sooner we realize this, the better prepared we will be to confront the threats posed by corrupt authoritarians and terrorist groups alike. – American Enterprise Institute