Fdd's overnight brief

March 16, 2020

In The News


When the coronavirus hit Iran in February, it presented its leaders with a choice: Close the country down to contain the outbreak and risk the wrath of a population already fed up with economic hardship, or try to keep the economy ticking over and risk the outbreak spiraling out of control. Tehran chose the latter. – Wall Street Journal

The voices rose angrily and a knot of people gathered on the Iraqi side of the border crossing with Iran. Two Iranian diplomats were trying to get relatives out of Iran, where the coronavirus is rampant, and into Iraq. – New York Times

President Hassan Rouhani said Iran’s fight against the coronavirus was being “severely hampered” by U.S. sanctions, as state television reported that the death toll from the illness rose on Saturday to 611, up nearly 100 from a day earlier. – Reuters

Security forces will empty the streets of cities across Iran in the next 24 hours in a drive to fight the spread of the new coronavirus, state television reported on Friday. – Reuters

A United Nations Human Rights Council report on the human rights situation in Iran was sharply criticized over the weekend by a leading watchdog agency. Hillel Neuer, the head of NGO UN Watch, said in a statement, “When the UN helps gross abusers like Iran act as champions and global judges of human rights, it’s an insult to their political prisoners and many other victims — and a defeat for the global cause of human rights.”. – Algemeiner

A 78-year-old member of the Iranian clerical body that chooses the country’s supreme leader has died from the illness caused by the new coronavirus, news agencies reported Monday. He was the latest of several senior Iranian officials to have been infected in the worsening outbreak. – Associated Press

A top Shi’a cleric in Iran has denied approving the purchase of a possible anti-coronavirus vaccine from Israel, which Islamic Republic considers as its top enemy. – Radio Farda

Iran’s second largest city and a pilgrim destination, Mashhad, is facing the threat of turning into a new coronavirus (COVID-19) hotspot if immediate measures including a lockdown are not put into effect, local officials warned on Saturday. The situation seems critical enough to have forced the powerful ultraconservative religious and political establishment of the city to capitulate and shut down the city’s shrine for three days. – Radio Farda

The deadly novel coronavirus outbreak in Iran has exposed a long-suspected attribute of an outspoken Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) General and former mayor of Tehran, who has is set to preside over the newly elected parliament on May 28. – Radio Farda

A long-serving, senior Revolutionary Guard general has died of coronavirus in Iran on Friday, March 13. – Radio Farda

Even as Iran’s coronavirus epidemic has become a severe crisis, impacting every aspect of life in the country, the Iranian government is continuing to summon and arrest its critics as usual. Mehdi Hajati, a former member of Shiraz City Council, was arrested for tweets in which he had criticized the decision to not quarantine the city of Qom where the epidemic started. – Iran Wire

Editorial: Tehran is dealing with its own coronavirus outbreak, and perhaps its terror masters figured they could get some propaganda gains from the deaths of Americans in Iraq. The U.S. response this week was important and necessary to send a message of deterrence against more such attacks. But if the regime continues to kill Americans using proxy fighters, Mr. Trump will have to consider a more serious military response. – Wall Street Journal

Rahim Hamid and Yasser Assadi write: Unfortunately, this is the reality for many Ahwazi children—not even 13 years old, compelled to work late nights in cemeteries and left to suffer from endless nightmares. […]The lack of education and socialization among the young threatens to create a lost generation that will propagate a cycle of poverty that could last for generations. The region, already stressed, does not need the added pressures of poverty, disease and hopelessness to become embedded in another minority. – Washington Institute


Syria’s brutal conflict enters its 10th year Sunday with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime consolidating its hold over a war-wracked country with a decimated economy where foreign powers flex their muscle. – Agence France-Presse

“There’s nothing now. Nothing at all,” said Yasser Aboud, as he looked away from his family’s few remaining belongings, dumped on the floor of the bare single room that would now be their home in the northwest Syrian city of Idlib.[…] The city of Idlib is the last urban area still under opposition control in Syria, located in a shrinking rebel enclave in the northwestern province of the same name. – Associated Press

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad is allowing a “disastrous” coronavirus outbreak to fester due to his dependence on stricken Iran to win the long-running civil war, according to local reports and international observers. – Washington Examiner

Turkish and Russian troops began joint patrols Sunday on a key highway in northwestern Syria, Turkey’s Defense Ministry said, while both the Russian government and Syrian opposition activists said the patrols were shortened because of protests. Patrols on the highway known as the M4, which runs east-west through Idlib province, are part of a cease-fire agreement between Turkey and Russia signed earlier this month. – Associated Press


Turkey has signaled that it is winding down its two-week operation to aid the movement of tens of thousands of people toward Europe, following a tough on-the-ground response from Greek border guards and a tepid diplomatic reaction from European politicians. – New York Times

Three Turkish men were sentenced this week to 125 years in jail for their part in the drowning of a boy whose death in 2015 became a worldwide symbol of the suffering caused by the Syrian war and the European refugee crisis it triggered. – New York Times

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and his Azeri counterpart Ilham Aliyev agreed in a phone call on Saturday to temporarily halt air and land travel between the two countries, excluding cargo, Turkey’s communications directorate said. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: Fifteen years ago, diplomats and analysts denied Erdoğan sought anything more than to imbue democracy with some Islamic trappings. Perhaps fifteen years from now, the same analysts will question how they could have been blind to Erdoğan’s ultimate agenda. It is fine to quibble over the five end goals voiced above, but now is the time to discuss openly how Erdoğan visualizes Turkey fifteen years from now. – The National Interest


Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin will give opposition leader Benny Gantz the first chance to form a government in a blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking to hold on to the country’s top office while facing charges of corruption. – Wall Street Journal

Israel plans to deploy electronic counterterrorism measures to track the movements of people who might be infected with the coronavirus, officials said, a confluence of crime fighting and public health that could become more common even as it sparked civil liberty concerns. – Washington Post

As the coronavirus crisis intensifies around the world, Israel is preparing for the possibility that it may mobilize the army to help combat the disease. – Algemeiner

Dalia Ziada writes: To make this peace a reality, Hamas must be forced to fully demilitarize and give up its armed militias in Gaza. The United States must also pressure Qatar, one of its closest allies, to cut funding to Hamas and other terrorist organizations in the Gaza strip. The use of violence to protest peace must be internationally condemned, not just for Israeli interests, but for Palestinians as well. – Washington Institute


Rockets struck an Iraqi base housing American troops on Saturday, lowering any expectations of de-escalation after U.S. strikes on an Iran-backed militia in response to the killing of two of its troops at the same base this week. – Wall Street Journal

Iraqi officials reacted angrily on Friday to American airstrikes against an Iran-backed group on Iraqi soil, contributing to increased U.S.-Iraqi tensions as the two countries attempt to jointly defeat terrorist groups operating there. – Wall Street Journal

Bilal Wahab writes: Another item that should be high on the agenda is something the United States is capable of doing quite well when sufficiently focused: rallying international support for credible Iraqi elections. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) remains a legitimate, effective channel for helping Baghdad reform its election law, conduct proper redistricting, and orchestrate international monitoring. To stave off further disappointments, it is crucial to improve security and increase free political space between now and the next election. – Washington Institute

Michael Knights writes: In parallel, the U.S. should toughen its mindset, quietly bringing the force protection assets into Iraq that it needs (i.e., Patriot missiles and anti-rocket close-in defenses) without further consultation with an Iraqi government that would rather adopt a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach.  And finally, the U.S. should let the militias keep over-reaching, keep showing their hand as would-be dictators under Iran’s control, while the U.S.-led coalition keeps helping Iraq to defeat the Islamic State. This is a game we can win. – Politico

Yesar Al-Maleki writes: Iraq’s politics are complicated, but its economic prospects are attractive. The U.S. should support the development of an economically strong and politically independent Iraq. It is the sole successful model of America’s presence in the region. The administration’s short-to-medium-term strategy in Iraq will determine whether the U.S. is interested in sustaining a stabilizing role that is beneficial to both nations. Alternatively, there is a risk of throwing away years of involvement by reducing Iraq to a pawn in a larger geopolitical game with Iran, one which will likely have no winners. – Middle East Institute

Saudi Arabia

Saudi authorities have detained 298 government employees, including military officers, and will indict them on crimes, including abuse of power, bribery, money laundering and corruption, according to an anti-corruption body called Nazaha. – Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia has abandoned efforts to support crude prices and is now preparing to flood global markets with huge volumes of cheap oil, a stunning shift in strategy that has pushed oil futures into a dramatic tailspin and set the stage for a battle royale with rival producers including Russia and the United States. – CNN

Jackson Diehl writes: Donald Trump made one of the biggest mistakes of his presidency in the spring of 2017, when he offered an unconditional embrace to the then-emerging 31-year-old ruler of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and adopted his agenda of aggressively confronting Iran. Three years later, as Trump grapples with the greatest crisis he has faced, that choice is costing him dearly. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

A fear among key members of the UN security council of taking on the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt has allowed the three countries to carry out a wholesale breach of the UN weapons embargo to Libya, one of Libya’s most senior ministers has warned. – The Guardian

Yemen’s third-largest city was once known as its capital of culture. […]Now it is known as Yemen’s longest-running battlefield, the most heavily bombed by blistering Saudi airstrikes, the deadliest governorate in Yemen’s devastating war. The conflict, which enters its sixth year this month, pits the Houthis aligned to Iran against Yemen’s government backed by a Saudi-led coalition supported by western military powers. – The Guardian

Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah movement, which has strongly opposed foreign interference in the country’s crisis-hit economy, said Friday it could accept Beirut receiving an International Monetary Fund financial rescue package under “reasonable conditions”. – Agence France-Presse


Some United States politicians are using coronavirus as a weapon to smear China, the Xinhua official news agency said on Sunday, as a war of words escalated between the two countries over China’s handling of the epidemic. – Reuters

An influential former Chinese property executive who called President Xi Jinping a “clown” over a speech he made last month about the government’s efforts to battle the coronavirus has gone missing, three of his friends told Reuters. – Reuters

Tom Rogan writes: After all, the coronavirus has proved Xi only for his cowardice and capricious self-regard. The Party’s response to the epidemic has been one of denial and deception, marked by the littered bodies of the people. Those who raised the alarm were imprisoned then left to die. And the world, for all the insufferable idiocy of many Western writers, was refused the most basic information on the virus outbreak — information that might have prevented this, now, global pandemic. – Washington Examiner


A single block near the presidential palace, bristling with guns, has become ground zero in a surreal war of nerves between two civilian politicians both claiming to be the country’s legitimate leader […]But as the standoff drags into its second week, many Afghans fear the slightest incident could ignite a violent conflagration between rival camps, plunging the country into chaos and dooming planned negotiations between the government and the Taliban to end Afghanistan’s 18-year war. – Washington Post

Plans for the Afghan government to begin releasing Taliban prisoners were stalled on Saturday over disagreements on the number of detainees to be released and guarantees that they will not return to fighting, a government security spokesman said. – Reuters

The fragile peace deal taking shape in Afghanistan could spell the end of an era of for the U.S. military, one marked by efforts at nation-building and winning hearts and minds. It appears that the Pentagon is also intent on ending a research program from that era–to fund social science for the military. – NPR


Nearly 9,000 miles from President Trump’s border wall with Mexico, Pakistan has quietly been building its own version to try to control what has long been one of the world’s most porous and lawless frontiers. The Pakistani Army credits the fence with helping to transform security in the country, sharply cutting terrorist attacks after a sustained army offensive pushed many militants — and tens of thousands of civilian refugees — into Afghanistan.  – New York Times

Hong Kong democracy activist Chan Kin-man walked free from prison on Saturday saying he had no regrets for his leading role in the 2014 “Umbrella” civil disobedience movement and that sacrifice was needed to achieve universal suffrage. – Reuters

Akanksha Singh writes: Given the divisive turn India has taken under Modi’s leadership, Trump’s support for Modi — offered, as it is, without much qualification and without any criticism — sends a dangerous signal that the US doesn’t have any problems with his ethno-nationalist politics. – CNN


Russian President Vladimir Putin has formally asked the country’s constitutional court if it is legal for him to change the constitution, the Kremlin said on Saturday, a move that could allow him to remain in power until 2036. – Reuters

Valentina Tereshkova was hailed as a hero when she became the first woman in space in 1963. Now 83, she has became a hate figure for some Russians after this week putting forward a constitutional amendment that could allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036. – Reuters

Russian maritime reconnaissance aircraft are really interested in an ongoing U.S. submarine exercise near Alaska known as ICEX — the spy planes have been intercepted three times this week by U.S. and Canadian aircraft, according to the U.S. military. – Military Times

On March 2, Russian President Vladimir Putin, prior to the second reading to the new amendments bill to the Russian Constitution filed a series of amendments. The amendments ran to 24 pages. Inter alia, the amendments contain a reference to the deity, enshrines traditional family values and names the Russians as a state-forming nation. – Middle East Media Research Institute

David Satter writes: If Mr. Putin were to lose power, new leadership could reveal vast amounts of information about the crimes of the past two decades, with devastating consequences for him and all who supported him. Ms. Tereshkova said that allowing Mr. Putin to run again will have a stabilizing effect on Russian society. She is right in one sense. It will certainly prolong the present stagnation. The only question is for how long. – Wall Street Journal

Thomas Rid writes: The Covid-19 pandemic in the United States has three features beyond fear that make it highly attractive raw material for disinformation: The coronavirus is sweeping right into campaign season, it is already flanked by polarizing conspiracy theories and the president’s response to the emergency is hotly contested. The virus is exposing a range of contradictions ready for sharpening — for example, a simmering generational conflict spurred by skewed fatality rates. To reach their disruptive goal, Russian planners may well calculate, as they did in 2016, that helping Mr. Trump weakens America. – New York Times

Jeffrey Mankoff and Andrey Kortunov write: The 2020 elections in the United States represent a massive uncertainty and the stakes will appear much higher than in the recent past, which will impact policies, particularly with the centrality of Russia in U.S. politics. This situation may be an opportunity for more sober discussion about Russia in Washington, even if it is unlikely that the United States—under Trump or a new Democratic leader—will be able to develop a new approach to Russia that enjoys bipartisan consensus and is capable of informing U.S. policy over the longer term. – Center for Strategic and International Studies



Germany’s government accused the Trump administration of trying to lure a local biotech company working on a vaccine for the novel coronavirus to relocate to the U.S. – Wall Street Journal

After years of urging its terrorists to attack major European cities, ISIS is now telling them to steer clear due to the coronavirus – New York Post

Europe’s financial regulation chief has rejected calls from the UK for the City of London’s future market access to be settled by the end of June, warning that Brussels’ decisions will be guided by how far Britain wants to deviate from EU rules. – Financial Times

As one of the three Baltic nations, Estonia represents NATO’s front line in any potential conflict with Russia. And while each of the Baltic states has its own individual defense priorities, it is widely accepted that any conflict would involve all three — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. – Defense News

Rebecca Hersman writes: There is a growing recognition that the P3 must engage in a broader discussion and a genuine substantive, well-informed debate on nuclear weapons. Moreover, the P3 governments need to do more to develop and communicate a broader narrative on the value of their responsible possession of nuclear weapons and their support for nuclear deterrence policies, as well as an approach to nuclear arms control that is verifiable, enforceable, and contributes to security and stability. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


A Canadian woman and an Italian man who were abducted 15 months ago in Burkina Faso have been released in the neighboring country of Mali, a United Nations official confirmed Saturday. – New York Times

Ethiopia refuses to be pressured by the United States into signing a deal with Egypt and Sudan over its controversial dam on the Nile River, says Ethiopia’s foreign minister. – Associated Press

In recent weeks, several local leaders have been assassinated for co-operating with the UN and France, whose combined 20,000 troops are in the west African country to keep the peace and fight terrorists respectively. – Financial Times

United States

According to Alex Friedfeld, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Center on Extremism, extremists began promulgating the notion in January that the coronavirus was created by a cabal of Jews, around the time the virus was first being detected. – Times of Israel

President Donald Trump declared a national emergency Friday in what critics say was a long-delayed admission of the gravity of the coronavirus crisis that’s triggered the shutdown of schools, sporting events, offices and travel in the world’s richest country. – Agence France-Presse

Patrick M. Cronin, Michael Doran and Peter Rough write: The coronavirus is both a public health and global financial crisis. But it is also a geostrategic challenge to America’s power and influence in the Indo-Pacific. Without knowing the full impact of the virus, it seems probable that the shock will amplify several existing economic, technological, and security trends already underway in the region. – Hudson Institute

The Americas

Even as governments around the world struggle to contain the coronavirus pandemic, many officials are themselves falling victim to the pathogen, undermining global efforts to address the crisis. – New York Times

Guyana’s electoral authorities set the stage for the re-election of the country’s president late Friday, when they declared the country’s ruling party the winner of the capital region, in a widely denounced process that threatens to isolate the small South American nation and new oil producer. – New York Times

A parliamentary committee on Thursday warned that China and Russia are threatening Canada’s national security and democracy by stepping up “clandestine and coercive” efforts to influence politicians, students and the media. –  Agence France-Presse

Cuba released dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara from jail overnight after dozens of prominent artists, including those traditionally supportive of the Communist government, as well as international rights groups criticized his arrest 13 days ago. – Reuters


The US Department of Defense said Thursday it wants to reconsider its decision to award a multibillion-dollar military cloud computing contract to Microsoft in a bidding process Amazon claims was tainted by politics. – Agence France-Presse

Following a months long battle, the White House has made available to members of Congress classified documents that describe the approval process for conducting offensive cyber operations outside the United States. – Fifth Domain

Iran, the leading designated state sponsor of terrorism, along with its top regime officials – political, religious, and military – continue to freely use Twitter, despite the removal of some of them from other social media platforms. The regime’s use of Western social media is all the more notable since it does not accord the same freedom of expression to Iranian citizens; for example, Internet access is often blocked during times of unrest. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Hundreds of thousands of federal workers and congressional staff may soon be asked to work remotely full time as the coronavirus spreads, putting reams of sensitive government data at higher risk of hacking and threatening to overwhelm outdated government computer systems. – Stars and Stripes

James Andrew Lewis writes: Cyber Solarium was an immense effort that builds upon its predecessors and moves the debate significantly forward. If we strip out the recommendations motived by a desire to deter catastrophic attacks, there is much of value. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The 1st Space Operations Squadron recently completed a major overhaul of the ground system for the U.S. military’s Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, which uses satellites to collect space situational awareness data about other objects on orbit. – C4ISRNET

Amidst a grueling round of congressional hearings last week, Murray sat down with me for an impromptu interview. We began by going into detail on Iron Dome, the Israeli-built anti-rocket system that Congress pressed the Army to buy, but which the service is struggling to make compatible with its own Integrated Air & Missile Defense Battle Command System, aka IBCS. – Breaking Defense

But the service still awarded nearly $1 billion in contracts during a virtual version of its event held March 12, which included keynotes from Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, a “Pitch Bowl” where companies delivered short pitches in the hopes of receiving small contracts from the Air Force, and other events meant to deepen the Air Force’s connection to small commercial tech firms. – Defense News

A joint exercise launched March 8 and 9 in the Persian Gulf involving the Cyclone-class Monsoon and the two aircraft was designed to see how well a surface patrol ship and a long-range spy plane could select targets in the Persian Gulf for a Special Operations Command Central gunship to blast to bits. – Navy Times

Long War

In fact, U.S. allies are increasingly worried that America’s commitment may be wavering when wide swaths of Africa face a surging threat from militants affiliated with al Qaeda and Islamic State. – Wall Street Journal

Australian police charged a man with alleged neo-Nazi interests on terrorism offenses, officials said Monday, just weeks after the country’s top spy warned of the growing danger of far-right militants in the country. – Agence France-Presse