Fdd's overnight brief

March 19, 2019

In The News


The United States’ attempts to isolate Iran, including by punishing Iraqi militias and politicians who are supported by Iranian officials, has deepened tensions not only between Washington and Baghdad but also within the Trump administration. – New York Times

Hours after Turkey’s interior minister was quoted as saying that a joint operation against Kurdish militants was launched together with Iran, an Iranian official denied any role. – Radio Farda

Iran and Syria on Monday demanded the United States withdraw its troops from Syria, and the Damascus government threatened to defeat Washington’s Kurdish allies by force if they did not submit to the return of state authority.  Reuters

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that the government would file a legal case in Iran against U.S. officials who imposed sanctions on the country as a precursor to action in international courts. – Reuters

Iranian leaders announced on Monday the construction of two new nuclear plants, and it remains unclear if the Trump administration views this as crossing a red line since its abandonment of the landmark nuclear deal, which included provisions permitting Iran to work on heavy water nuclear reactors that could provide a plutonium-based pathway to a bomb. – Free Beacon

All of Israel is within range of Hezbollah’s missiles, Commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari said in an interview with Iranian media on Sunday. “The current status quo and the current capabilities of the Resistance Front of the Islamic Revolution are all the unique accomplishments of the Islamic Revolution which cannot be verbally described and they rather should be sensed,” he said in an interview with the Persian-language Soroush Magazine. –  Jerusalem Post

Iran’s president on Monday urged Iranians to put a curse on the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia, reiterating his long-standing charge that the U.S. and its allies are responsible for the country’s ailing economy. – Associated Press

Jonathan Spyer writes: Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq are growing more powerful and confident as they operate with increasing impunity. […]These events, among others, demonstrate that Iran’s Shiite militia allies are beginning to constitute a second power in Iraq, within and beside the official state. Confrontation with the 5,200 U.S. troops in the country is inevitable. – Wall Street Journal

Zach Dorfman writes: Iranian espionage is nothing new, but the charges against Doostdar, and other recent court cases, including the indictment of a former Air Force linguist who defected to Iran in 2013, highlight what the U.S. intelligence community sees as an increasingly worrying part of Tehran’s covert strategy. […] While it is common practice for intelligence services to create target packages — detailed dossiers “assembled to enable an intelligence or military unit to find, fix, track and neutralize a threat,” according to the indictment of Monica Witt, the American defector — Iran is unique in using them to plan terrorist-type attacks, in case overt hostilities were to break out between Washington and Tehran, say these former officials. – Yahoo News


General Joseph Votel, the departing U.S. commander in the battle against Islamic State, warned  this month that the apparent surrender of thousands of fighters and their followers in Baghouz was in fact a “calculated decision” by the group to preserve its capabilities and rebound. – Wall Street Journal

Iraq plans to open a vital border crossing with Syria in the coming days, allowing for the increased flow of goods to Syria from Iran along a route the U.S. worries would ease Tehran’s transport of weapons to its allies. – Wall Street Journal

As he climbed in, he became the latest victim in a new campaign by the Islamic State. Driven out of most of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria, the group has gone underground, its remaining fighters in Iraq carrying out sporadic attacks. […]The kidnappings are a way for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, to raise money and signal to the civilian population it remains a potent force. Some 5,000 to 6,000 Islamic State fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, according to Iraqi officials, who consider the group a manageable threat. – New York Times

A shroud of black smoke covered the Islamic State group’s last redoubt in eastern Syria on Monday as US-backed forces battled holdout jihadists after a night of shelling and heavy air strikes. – Agence France-Presse

O. Peri writes: In the recent weeks, as the eighth year of the Syrian war drew to a close and with the Assad regime in control of most of Syria’s territory, media associated with the Syrian opposition has been reporting that popular and armed opposition against the regime and its allies has resumed in the south of the country, especially in the Daraa Governorate, where the protests first broke out in 2011. […] However, beyond the popular protests there were also armed operations, such as assassinations, shootings and bombings against targets of the regime and the militias aiding it, including Hizbullah. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Charles Lister writes: Just two weeks after President Donald Trump triumphantly declared the “100 percent” defeat of ISIS’s caliphate, his national security advisor, John Bolton, admitted on television that “the ISIS threat will remain” and that this explained why a small “observer force” would now stay in Syria. Next, senior administration officials announced that 200 U.S. troops are set to stay in northeastern Syria as part of a “multinational observer force,” […]. This is the hopeful story that hawks within the Trump administration are selling. – Politico


As Israel braces for the first anniversary of deadly protests along the fence separating it from Gaza, a United Nations commission on Monday urged Israeli authorities to step up their inquiries into shootings by Israeli troops of Palestinian demonstrators during the protests, which investigators say may have constituted war crimes and crimes against humanity. – New York Times

Israel is depriving millions of Palestinians of access to a regular supply of clean water while stripping their land of minerals “in an apparent act of pillage”, a United Nations human rights investigator said on Monday. – Reuters

In Gaza, it is no surprise to hear complaints about the terrible living conditions – after all, the World Bank describes a local economy in “free fall” with 70% unemployment among young people. However, what has been extraordinary in recent days is that large crowds of Palestinians have been turning out on the streets to voice their frustration and even criticise Hamas – the militant Islamist group which rules the strip with an iron fist. – BBC

Killer on the loose: A manhunt is ongoing Monday morning for a Palestinian suspected of killing a soldier, stealing his gun and opening fire on others in the area before fleeing to a nearby village. – Times of Israel

To apply one standard to Israel, and another to the rest of the world – as the UN Human Rights Council does – is to be antisemitic, US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell said on Monday in Geneva. – Jerusalem Post

New Zealand Shooting

Accused Christchurch shooter Brenton Tarrant, who police have concluded was the sole perpetrator in attacks Friday that left 50 people dead, was a licensed gunowner who bought firearms and ammunition online—an indication of the challenges ahead for lawmakers seeking stricter gun-control in New Zealand. – Wall Street Journal

As authorities in New Zealand and companies such as Facebook were furiously scrubbing online footage of a shooting rampage that killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand, the same disturbing footage was being shared with thousands of Turkish citizens — by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. – Washington Post

New Zealand’s coalition government plans to announce gun law changes within the next week in response to Friday’s deadly shooting rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday. – Washington Post

New Zealand firms are considering whether to pull their advertisements from social media following last Friday’s terror attack on two mosques. – Washington Post

The spokesman of the Islamic State emerged from nearly six months of silence on Monday to mock America’s assertion of having defeated the group and to call for retaliation over last week’s mosque attacks in New Zealand. – New York Times

On the surface, New Zealand and the United States appeared to have a relatively similar approach to guns until Friday morning. Both are among the only nations without universal gun registration rules, and both have strong gun lobbies that have stalled previous attempts to rein in gun owners’ liberties. […] But unlike the NRA, New Zealand’s interest groups have predominantly lobbied the government quietly, rather than threatening politicians with the scorn of its powerful voter base. The perceived silence of those lobbying organizations led to some calls from gun enthusiasts for a bolder and more vocal stance. – Washington Post

Pressure is building on Facebook Inc. and other social media platforms to stop hosting extremist propaganda including terrorist events, after Friday’s deadly attacks on two mosques in New Zealand were live-streamed. – Bloomberg

“He sought many things from his act of terror, but one was notoriety – that is why you will never hear me mention his name,” Ms Ardern said in an emotional address at New Zealand’s parliament. – BBC

Facebook has said a live broadcast of last week’s Christchurch attacks was viewed fewer than 200 times, as the firm faces growing criticism for failing to block the footage. – BBC

Police have raided two homes in Australia as part of the investigation into the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. – BBC

Pankaj Mishra writes: The Australian-born gunman who killed 50 people at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, last week cited U.S. President Donald Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” with his murderous white-supremacist cause. […] But a rush to blame Trump for inciting racial hatreds obscures the enduring power of historical Australian white supremacism. For the settler colony, whose unparalleled “whites only” policy restricted non-European immigration from 1901 until the late 1960s, has defined a global culture of besieged whiteness. – Bloomberg

Korean Peninsula

International journalists’ organizations are criticizing South Korea’s press freedoms after the country’s ruling party singled out a Bloomberg reporter with South Korean nationality over what it claimed was a “borderline traitorous” article insulting President Moon Jae-in, resulting in threats to the reporter’s safety. – Associated Press

As talks between Washington and Pyongyang on denuclearization appear to have stalled after last month’s summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ended without agreement, South Korea is looking for ways to end the impasse. – Politico

Two senior U.S. senators called on Monday for the Trump administration to correct a slowing pace of U.S. sanctions designations on North Korea, saying there had been a marked decline in the past year of U.S. engagement with Pyongyang. – Reuters


To counter China’s squeeze on Taiwan’s few remaining diplomatic partners, the self-ruled island’s leader is expected to offer more aid and investment as she embarks on a tour of Pacific countries. – Wall Street Journal

Top Democrats in Congress want the FBI to investigate a Chinese American business executive accused of using her access to President Trump to facilitate opportunities for Chinese executives, activities that came to light after a Florida massage parlor she founded was linked to a sex trafficking and prostitution ring. – Washington Post

China played a “constructive role” in reducing tension between Pakistan and India, the foreign ministry said, after the nuclear-armed rivals almost came to blows last month following an attack on an Indian paramilitary convoy in disputed Kashmir. – Reuters

The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, said on Monday it was possible that once he dies his incarnation could be found in India, where he has lived in exile for 60 years, and warned that any other successor named by China would not be respected. – Reuters

China’s foreign minister lashed out Monday at what he called “abnormal, immoral” attacks on Huawei amid growing concern, led by the US, that the telecom giant poses a security risk to the West. – Agence France-Presse

Israel’s exports of computer chips to China soared last year as Chinese companies bought more semiconductors made at Intel’s Kiryat Gat plant. – Reuters

Joseph Bosco writes: No one has met with Tsai; Trump is the only one even to talk with her on the phone. Now he needs to be the first to meet with her. As for Trump’s commitment to notify Xi before talking with Taiwan’s president again, he can certainly inform him — just this once —  of what he is doing, and then do it. Xi hardly can walk away from trade talks and bring on the higher tariffs Trump has held in abeyance. If Beijing threatens to undermine North Korea sanctions even more than it already is, secondary sanctions on China are already overdue. The United States has the cards to ensure stability in East Asia. It should play them. – The Hill


Excluded from peace talks with the Taliban, estranged from Washington after sharply attacking its peace envoy and under growing pressure to postpone July elections, the Afghan government is running short on time, friends and options. – Washington Post

In fallout from a feud over U.S.-Taliban peace talks, a senior U.S. diplomat has told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that U.S. officials will no longer deal with his national security adviser, four knowledgeable sources said on Monday. – Reuters


A Russian court on Monday sentenced a human-rights activist who investigated some of Chechnya’s most heinous abuses to four years in a penal colony for drug possession. – Wall Street Journal

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law a set of bills that will make it illegal to spread “fake news.” The legislation seeks to punish the distribution of information that “exhibits blatant disrespect for the society, government, official government symbols, constitution or governmental bodies of Russia.” – Washington Post

President Vladimir Putin led thousands to chant “Russia!” on a visit Monday to Crimea marking the fifth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine, as NATO and the European Union once again strongly condemned the land grab by Russia. – Associated Press



This week, President Xi Jinping of China arrives in Rome for a state visit in which Italy is expected to become the first Group of 7 nation to participate in China’s vast One Belt, One Road infrastructure project. The symbolism is striking — a powerful China drives a crack in the economic alliance that once dominated the globe and delivers a major blow to a Trump administration that has been critical of the Belt and Road Initiative. – New York Times

The speaker of Britain’s House of Commons, famous for his erudite put-downs and booming calls for “Order!” in Parliament, threw Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to attempt to pass her Brexit deal again — on a third try, probably this week — into doubt Monday. – Washington Post

The German government is poised to renege on its pledge to raise military spending, the latest gesture of defiance by Chancellor Angela Merkel toward President Donald Trump.- Wall Street Journal

Germany launches its auction Tuesday for the construction of an ultra-fast 5G mobile network as a transatlantic dispute rages over security concerns surrounding giant Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei. – Agence France-Presse

French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said on Monday that Europe was concerned about the United States’ long-term commitment to NATO and implicitly criticized President Donald Trump’s approach toward the military alliance. – Reuters

Norway has electronic proof that Russian forces disrupted global positioning system (GPS) signals during recent NATO war games, and has demanded an explanation from its eastern neighbor, the Nordic country’s defense minister said on Monday. – Reuters

Britain on Monday reached a deal with Iceland and Norway to allow trade to continue unchanged if it leaves the European Union without a deal, trade minister Liam Fox said. – Reuters

Defence lawyers for a Syrian man on trial in Germany insisted Monday he is innocent of a knife killing that sparked racist street violence and far-right protests in the eastern city of Chemnitz last year. – Agence France-Presse

Berlin’s controversial Jewish Museum, which has served as a location for BDS against Israel and hosted Iran’s antisemitic regime earlier this month, is sparking widespread criticism from groups and critics seeking to end Tehran’s denial of the Holocaust and lethal Jew-hatred targeting the Jewish state. – Jerusalem Post

Andrew Davies writes: In the three big votes, Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal for leaving the European Union lost again. The delay voted on by Parliament requires all of the 27 EU nations to agree to grant that extension and Parliament still has to pass legislation to amend the current Withdrawal Act. Both of these could prove problematic. This is a historic, pivotal moment for the House of Commons. For Brexit to work out, MPs will need the courage of their convictions to stand up for the people who put them there. – Washington Examiner

Latin America

As an embattled Nicolás Maduro clings to power in Venezuela, the Trump administration has deadlocked over one of its remaining options for bolstering the opposition and pressuring Mr. Maduro, according to American officials and an administration email exchange. – Wall Street Journal

As the United States makes its biggest diplomatic push in Latin America in years to try to oust Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the U.S. military is zeroing in on a byproduct of the crisis: a strengthening of Colombian rebels on both sides of Venezuela’s border. – Reuters

Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, on his first official visit to Washington, declared himself an unabashed admirer of the United States and said he was seeking a new era of close relations after what he called decades of anti-American leaders. – Reuters

Representatives of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido have taken control of three of the country’s diplomatic properties in the United States, Guaido’s U.S. envoy said on Monday, as the opposition presses its bid to oust socialist President Nicolas Maduro. – Reuters

U.S. and Russian officials are meeting in Rome this week to discuss the crisis in Venezuela. The U.S. State Department says Elliott Abrams, the U.S. special envoy for Venezuela, will hold talks with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and other Russian officials on Monday and Tuesday. – Associated Press

Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes: China used its United Nations Security Council veto in February to knock down a resolution condemning the fraudulent May 2018 Venezuelan presidential election and calling for new elections and international humanitarian aid for the country. The resolution was backed by France, the U.K. and the U.S., but the veto was especially painful for the Venezuelan people and their South American neighbors. – Wall Street Journal


Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan identified all of the projects that could possibly be affected by President Trump’s decision to use emergency authorities to take up to $3.6 billion in military construction funds for his border wall. – Washington Post

The U.S. and India are working on development of a small, air-launched unmanned system that could be launched from cargo aircraft, according to Pentagon acquisition head Ellen Lord. – Defense News

The information domain requires a level of speed significantly faster than the traditional domains, so the Army to rapidly integrating these capabilities into formations and even organizational changes, according to a top service official.Army Cyber Command, despite its name, is responsible for integrating and conducting not only cyberspace, but also electronic warfare and information operations. – Fifth Domain

Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said Monday that her department may have been founded to combat terrorism, but its mission is shifting to also confront emerging online threats. – Associated Press

The Army is beginning a pilot this year to outsource enterprise network modernization, mimicking similar efforts from the Navy and Air Force. The effort, Enterprise IT as a Service, was taken directly from an Air Force program, Lt. Gen. Stephen Fogarty, commander of Army Cyber Command, told an audience at the AFCEA Army Signal Conference March 12. – C4ISRNET

The Pentagon wants to increase its black budget for intelligence programs for a fifth straight year. The Department of Defense has requested $22.95 billion for the top-line budget of the Military Intelligence Program, the DoD announced Monday. While the overall fiscal 2020 budget request was released last week, the MIP request typically comes days or weeks afterward. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy is eyeing canceling six planned service-life extensions on its oldest cruisers, meaning the Navy will be short six of its current 22 largest surface combatants by 2022, according to defense officials who spoke to Defense News on background. – Defense News

David I Goldman writes: In a meeting at his Florida retreat, the president was clearly annoyed at what he saw as the U.S. allies’ failure to pay their fair share of the defense burden. He told his senior military and defense advisors that it almost seemed that Europe was getting a “free-ride,” and that on both the political and defense side this situation with the NATO allies had to be changed this year. – War on the Rocks

Long War

A man opened fire Monday on a tram in the Dutch city of Utrecht, killing three people and injuring five in a shooting that authorities said may have been motivated by terrorism. – Washington Post

Several dozen civil liberties groups are pressing the House Judiciary Committee to hold hearings about a domestic surveillance power that Congress authorized in 2015 to end U.S. intelligence agencies’ bulk collection of Americans’ data. The groups want Congress to investigate whether the government has exceeded the limits imposed by lawmakers on the use of what is known as Section 215 of the Patriot Act. – Washington Post

Years after the death of his father at the hands of a U.S. Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan, it is now Hamza bin Laden who finds himself squarely in the crosshairs of world powers. In rapid succession in recent weeks, the U.S. put a bounty of up to a $1 million for him; the U.N. Security Council named him to a global sanctions list, sparking a new Interpol notice for his arrest; and his home country of Saudi Arabia revealed it had revoked his citizenship. – Associated Press