Fdd's overnight brief

March 17, 2020

In The News


Days of denials gave the virus time to spread in Iran as the country marked the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution with mass demonstrations and then held a parliamentary election in which authorities desperately sought to boost turnout. – Associated Press

Hard-line Shiite faithful in Iran pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines just closed over fears of the new coronavirus, Iranian state media reported Tuesday, as the Islamic Republic pressed on with its struggle to control the Mideast’s worst outbreak. – Associated Press

The United States is unlikely to ease sanctions on Iran despite an appeal from China that it do so because of the coronavirus pandemic, sources familiar with the matter said, arguing that Tehran continues what Washington regards as its malign behavior. – Reuters

Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners in response to the coronavirus epidemic, a judiciary spokesman said on Tuesday, – Reuters 


Balyoun is one of a line of ghostly, battered towns and villages across the southern half of Idlib Province, emptied of their inhabitants over three months as Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, blasted their way northward in an effort to seize control of the last rebel-held region in Syria. – New York Times

The World Health Organization will start testing for coronavirus in rebel-held northwest Syria later this week, the agency’s regional head said on Monday, adding that he was “very concerned” about the spread of the pandemic to a region where the health system has been wrecked by a long civil war. – Reuters

Elder of Ziyon writes: If these NGOs cared about the welfare of Palestinian women prisoners so much, why has everyone been silent about those imprisoned, tortured, and killed in Syria for the past nine years? Even the worst reports from the biggest anti-Israel liars do not approach the reality of what is happening in Syria. Yet there is silence on Syria and lots of noise about Israel. The double standard needs to be called out for what it is — antisemitism. – Algemeiner 

Neil Hauer writes: There are precedents of Russian behavior in similar scenarios that are worth considering. […]These sorts of provocations and incremental advances are carried out in northeast Syria as well, especially by local proxies. Syrian intelligence agencies have already indicated that they plan to escalate their sabotage activities in the area. U.S. troops have recently come under attack by bombs carried by drones of unknown origin. The drama in northeast Syria is just beginning to unfold. – Middle East Institute

Aaron Stein writes: It is also contingent on taking a longer view of this competition, recognizing that in the near term, the United States has an incentive to try and effectively use resources to its own advantage, as well as try to exploit where Russia may be spending in ways that are less concerning for core American security interests. – War on the Rocks


Members of the Turkish press and public have reacted to the global spread of COVID-19, colloquially known as the Coronavirus, blaming it on Jews and other unspecified political actors and saying that the virus cannot be transmitted in mosques. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Azeri Turkish businessman Mubariz Mansimov Gurbanoglu has been arrested in one of the highest-profile detentions of a crackdown against suspects linked to a network accused of carrying out an attempted coup in 2016, Istanbul police said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Turkey has identified 93 suspects who have made “unfounded and provocative” postings on social media about the coronavirus outbreak and has detained 19 of them, the Turkish Interior Ministry said. – Reuters

Can Dundar writes: For quite some time now, Erdogan has been playing a dangerous game of balancing the West and Moscow against each other. In the end, he seems to have lost both. Perhaps now he will have a fresh appreciation of a famous adage of Turkish diplomacy: “In the Middle East, if you’re not on the invitation list for an important dinner, you should check the menu. Your name might be on it.” – Washington Post

Michael Rubin writes: What Erdoğan really fears is the collapse of Turkey’s tourism industry. […]It seems Erdoğan sought to downplay reports of coronavirus in order to encourage tourist dollars to continue to flow. In doing so, he sought not only to play Russians, Europeans, and Americans for fools, but also endangered their lives. Unfortunately for Turkey, it will be Turks who will most pay the price as Turkey threatens to become the virus’ next big cluster. – The National Interest 


Israel swore in its newly elected parliament on Monday under stringent restrictions because of the coronavirus outbreak, in a surreal ceremony reflecting the country’s unprecedented dual crisis in politics and public health. – Associated Press

There has been a decrease in hostile enemy activity targeting Israel due to the continued spread of the coronavirus, IDF Spokesperson Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman said Monday. – Jerusalem Post  

Fourteen parties including countries, NGOs and leading jurists filed legal briefs by press time on Monday for both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides of the war-crimes contest currently before the International Criminal Court. – Jerusalem Post

Michael Doran writes: Only a few months ago, Netanyahu’s detractors had predicted that his political career was over. Once again, he is demonstrating himself to be one of the most adroit politicians of our time. He is not out of political and legal limbo yet, not by any stretch of the imagination. But his chances today look far better than they have at any time in the last six months. – Eurasia Review


The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State said Monday that it will move hundreds of troops out of bases in Iraq, with most redeployed to other locations in the country, as threats from the militants wane and risks to foreign troops elsewhere in Iraq increase. – Washington Post

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Iraqi prime minister that the U.S. is prepared to act in self-defense if attacked in Iraq, according to a readout of a call between the two officials released on Monday. – The Hill  

Two rockets struck a training base south of Baghdad where U.S.-led coalition troops and NATO trainers are present, Iraq’s military said Tuesday, the third such attack in the span of a week. – Associated Press 

Iraq’s president on Tuesday named a former governor of the city of Najaf as prime minister-designate, following weeks of political infighting and a looming crisis amid a global pandemic. – Associated Press

On March 15, 2020, a group called League of the Revolutionaries claimed responsibility for the March 12 rocket attacks on the Taji military base north of Baghdad that killed three members of the U.S.-led international coalition in Iraq. The formation of this group appears to be part of a new tactic by Iran to distance itself and its Iraqi proxies from the rocket attacks on U.S. targets, and ultimately increase the pressure on U.S. troops in order to ensure their departure. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Hafsa Halawa writes: For most of its modern history, Iraq has been embroiled in sectarianism and conflict, most recently with the rise of ISIS. The country has celebrated its ability to fight ISIS and take back the areas the group controlled between 2013 and 2017, but for those that remain in the most vulnerable liberated areas, life is precarious and dangerous, with underserviced communities living in the most dire of conditions. – Middle East Institute


A military tribunal in Beirut on Monday ordered the release of a Lebanese-American held in the country for nearly six months on charges of working for an Israeli-backed militia two decades ago, Lebanon’s state-run news agency said. – Associated Press

Hezbollah has condemned a Lebanese military court decision to release Amer al-Fakhoury, a former South Lebanese Army member suspected of cooperating with Israel, according to the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation. – Arutz Sheva 

Beirut’s usually congested streets were largely free of cars and pedestrians stayed away from its seafront Corniche as government measures to curb the spread of coronavirus took effect with varying degrees of success on Monday. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

The Middle East is shutting down as the novel coronavirus accelerates its spread across a part of the world where war, famine, financial collapse and political unrest threaten to compound the impact of the disease. – Washington Post

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Monday that he would call in the coming days an extraordinary G20 meeting to tackle coronavirus and its economic impact, Sanchez’ office said. – Reuters

Ali Abusedra writes: Resolving the issue of disputed maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean is vital for regional peace and security. The Turkey/Libya agreement presents another challenge to the already strained relationship between Greece and Turkey. The agreement highlights the need for a more comprehensive approach towards determining a concrete framework for equitable delimitation. – The Hill 

Simon Henderson writes: Even if there is no link between those orders and the latest wave of arrests, both developments are additional moving parts in the already-convoluted machinery of Saudi royal politics, alongside family schisms, coup rumors, an oil price war with Russia, and the looming health crisis posed by the coronavirus, which may have reached the kingdom via its regional adversary, Iran. – Washington Institute

Ibrahim Jalal writes: The present balance of power in favor of rebel groups is unlikely to give Yemenis the kind of peace they deserve, especially when the status quo translates into bargaining chips in any forthcoming peace talks. While the firefights continue in Jawf, Dale, and Sirwah at the time of writing, calls to “silence the guns” under the current conditions will only put the IDPs in Marib at serious risk. – Middle East Institute


As China tries to reshape the narrative of its fumbled response to the coronavirus outbreak, it is turning to a new breed of police that carry out real-world reprisals for digital misdeeds. The internet police, as they are known here, have gained power as the Communist Party has worked to seize greater control over the thoughts, words, and even memories of China’s 800 million web users. Now, they are emerging as a bulwark against the groundswell of anger over governance breakdowns that exacerbated the epidemic. – New York Times

Chinese officials need to stop airing “outlandish” anti-American conspiracy theories about the coronavirus pandemic, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in the latest U.S. rebuke of Chinese diplomats. – Washington Examiner 

A new Chinese medium-lift rocket, part of a family of launch vehicles meant to support most of China’s launch missions in future, failed on its debut flight, the official news agency Xinhua reported. – Reuters

Top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi has told U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by telephone that attempts to smear China’s efforts to control the coronavirus “will not succeed”, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported on Monday. – Reuters

President Donald Trump for the first time on his Twitter feed used the phrase “Chinese Virus,” stepping up friction between the world’s two biggest economies as each tries to deflect blame for a deadly pandemic. – Bloomberg

Walter Russell Mead writes: There are already signs that China hopes to use the crisis to strengthen its global position. […]As the recession hits and the pandemic bites, American, Japanese and European leaders must find ways to respond effectively to problems abroad as well as at home. If the West turns inward until the storm passes, we may not like what we see when the storm clears and we look back out on a changed world. – Wall Street Journal


For the last five years, President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former chief executive officer, had teamed up as uneasy allies in an unity government presiding over a fractured country. Now they operate out of adjacent palaces, vying for influence and international legitimacy in a power struggle that threatens to torpedo the U.S.’s efforts to extricate itself from a long and costly-war in Afghanistan. – Wall Street Journal 

Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents have voiced concern about the coronavirus’s spread in government prisons and are organising monitoring and awareness camps in areas under their control. – The National

Zachary Karabatak writes: As the Trump administration’s peace efforts move to the next stage, the ability of Taliban political leaders to maintain command and control within the group will become more important. In September, Trump invited Taliban leaders to sign a deal at Camp David but called off the meeting after fighters from the group killed a U.S. service member.While the Taliban’s leaders believe that Trump is eager to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, this seems unlikely to happen if Taliban field commanders fail to honor commitments made by their political leaders. – Washington Post

James Dobbins writes: Insurgent wars are endurance tests. So are the negotiations that sometimes succeed in ending them. An agreement is likely to take more than 14 months to reach and even longer to implement. Ending the endless war will require a lengthy peace process and some level of American engagement for its duration. – Foreign Affairs


Taiwan’s air force has again scrambled to warn off approaching Chinese jets, in the latest rise in military tensions during the coronavirus crisis between Beijing and the island its claims as its sacred territory. – Reuters 

Pakistan’s prime minister said Monday he fears the new coronavirus will devastate the economies of developing nations, and warned richer economies to prepare to write off the debts of the world’s poorer countries. In an interview with The Associated Press, Imran Khan criticized recent comments by the president of neighboring Afghanistan, which appeared to reference accusations that Pakistan used militants to further its own goals in years past. – Associated Press

Two bombs exploded in front of a government office in Thailand’s insurgency-hit southern Yala province on Tuesday, wounding 18 people, a security official said. – Reuters

Patrick Gerard Buchan and Benjamin Rimland write: Since its first senior official-level meeting in 2007, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad) among Japan, the United States, India, and Australia has operated both as a meeting format for senior officials to discuss regional security issues and as the basis for a single naval exercise and a single tabletop exercise.  […]However, eight further years of destabilization in the region led to a growing convergence in foreign policies among the four states, with a focus on securing a free and open Indo-Pacific, taking joint action against terrorism, and promoting a rules-based system. – Center for Strategic and  International Studies


The Justice Department on Monday dropped its two-year-long prosecution of a Russian company charged with conspiring to defraud the U.S. government by orchestrating a social media campaign to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. – Washington Post 

Russia’s highest court endorsed President Vladimir Putin’s proposed constitution changes, removing one of the final hurdles to him potentially remaining in power until 2036. – Wall Street Journal

The European Union has slammed Russia for its increasing militarization of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and human rights transgressions six years after its “illegal” annexation. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow has called on the Russian authorities to “thoroughly” investigate the police beating of 78-year-old veteran human rights defender Lev Ponomaryov. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 


The European Union escalated its battle against the new coronavirus by unveiling a plan to ban nonessential travel into most of the bloc, but EU-wide efforts face dwindling support among members more focused on national welfare. – Wall Street Journal

France’s antitrust regulator on Monday fined Apple 1.1 billion euros, or $1.2 billion, putting more pressure on the company as it grapples with the coronavirus outbreak that has threatened its supply chains and closed its retail stores. – New York Times

Dalibor Rohac writes: The EU’s leaders and the European Central Bank’s president in particular face a similar choice today. Either they move boldly to help the periphery, or the periphery is going to help itself in whatever way it can — even if it means the unraveling of the eurozone and the EU. – Politico

Peter Rough writes: As the economies of Europe suffer and the downsides of globalization become apparent, anti-establishment leaders will have an opportunity to seize the advantage. This is the setting in Europe as we barrel toward the high-point of the coronavirus pandemic. – Eurasia Review


A joint UN-African Union report released Monday on Sudan and Darfur called for a political mission to replace the peace operation there, raising fears by rights groups that civilians could lose all protection. – Agence France-Presse 

Zimbabwe’s defense minister has described the coronavirus as God’s way of punishing the United States and other western countries for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe, prompting the president to issue a statement Monday restating his government’s commitment to fighting COVID-19. – Associated Press

Sweden’s government on Monday said it had decided to send troops to Mali to join French-led special forces that are fighting militants linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel region of North Africa. – Reuters

United States

The Trump administration urged Americans to avoid nonessential travel and large gatherings, significantly ramping up its recommendations aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus as leaders around the world moved to close borders and restrict movement.  – Wall Street Journal

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development will step down next month from the nation’s premier arm for humanitarian aid amid a snowballing pandemic. – Washington Post

Smugglers are busing drones in the sky to watch U.S. Border Patrol agents as they work along the southern border while separate drones fly small quantities of drugs into the country, but the government is so far refusing to deploy technology that can take them down. – Washington Examiner  

Silicon Valley executives huddled on a conference call on Friday to discuss ways they can use their money and vast resources to help fend off the coronavirus that’s spreading throughout the United States. – CNBC 

Tim Morrison writes: Just as the United States has fought against fake information aimed at our elections, we should fight back against CCP propagandists. They are not only campaigning against the use of the term “Wuhan virus” (a more geographically accurate description than “Spanish flu” ever was about the 1918 pandemic) but now also promoting the false claim that covid-19 was created by the U.S. Army. – Washington Post 


U.S. Health and Human Services experienced an undefined “cyber incident” over the weekend as the department works to address the growing spread of the novel coronavirus epidemic, according to officials. – Wall Street Journal

An app called “COVID19 Tracker” masking itself as a coronavirus outbreak map tracker is actually ransomware that locks down your phone and demands you pay the hackers $100 in bitcoin within 48 hours, according to Chad Anderson and Tarik Saleh at internet security company DomainTools. – Business Insider 

Javed Ali writes: These recent cyber incidents are an example of why incorporating some of the principles outlined in the Cyberspace Solarium Commission report could deter future behavior if we signal our resolve, protect our systems and respond swiftly and appropriately. Our adversaries will be watching our response. – The Hill 


The Pentagon has rejected proposals from senior U.S. military officials to temporarily halt sending new recruits to training amid the coronavirus pandemic, deciding that the process must continue to avoid harming the military, according to a planning document and three defense officials. – Washington Post  

A second sailor in Italy has tested positive for the COVID-19 strain of coronavirus, U.S. 6th Fleet announced on Monday. – USNI News

U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth is calling on the Trump administration to prepare the National Guard to fight the new coronavirus pandemic. Guard personnel can potentially relieve the burden on civilian hospitals by setting up drive-thru testing sites in communities across the country, she said. – Defense News

Tom Rogan writes: The Navy must soon decide whether to extend that deployment and guard against the next-to-deploy-but-currently-at-port strike group becoming infected. And the Navy, like other forward-deployed elements of the services, must also consider the prospect of a monthslong pandemic. Forward planning suddenly gets very complicated. – Washington Examiner

Thomas G. Mahnken writes: The U.S. national security community has, in recent years, begun to focus its attention on the need to compete with China and Russia. The move to embrace the reality of great power competition, and with it the prospect of great power war, comes after a three-decade respite from serious thinking about what it means to face an economically powerful and technologically sophisticated adversary in peace and in war. – Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments

Long War

When Uzair Paracha was convicted in 2005 in Manhattan of trying to help a terrorist enter the United States, federal prosecutors hailed the verdict as “another victory in the global fight against terrorism.” He was sentenced to 30 years in prison. But now — nearly 17 years after he was first arrested — Mr. Paracha, 40, has been released and flown to Pakistan, the land of his birth, with all charges against him dropped, according to a government court filing on Monday and his lawyer. – New York Times

French judges investigating the 2015 Islamic State attacks that left 130 people dead in Paris have ordered charges against 20 people, including a Belgian accused of masterminding the attacks who was held for years in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq before being freed and returned home. – Associated Press 

Britain’s five-year air war against Isis has quietly come to an end, with official figures revealing no bombs have been dropped since September – yet the MoD still acknowledges only one civilian casualty in the entire conflict. – The Guardian 

The Senate cleared a nearly four-month extension of intelligence programs that expired on Sunday as part of a deal that will also allow for votes on broader surveillance reforms. […]The three provisions of USA Freedom impacted by the Senate extension are a “lone wolf” program, dealing with individuals potentially inspired by but not directly linked to a terrorist organization – The Hill