Fdd's overnight brief

March 24, 2020

In The News


Iran and the United States traded allegations of coronavirus mismanagement on Monday, accusing each other of endangering efforts to fight the pandemic as Iran intensified a campaign to pressure the United States into easing sanctions. – Washington Post 

U.S. Marines and Emirati forces held a major military exercise Monday that saw forces seize a sprawling model Mideast city, a drill conducted amid tensions with Iran and despite the new coronavirus pandemic. – Associated Press

From Caracas to Tehran, officials are calling on the Trump administration to ease crippling economic sanctions they contend are contributing to the growing death toll caused by the coronavirus pandemic. – Associated Press  

Conspiracy theories pushed by the leader of the Iranian regime about alleged American responsibility for the coronavirus pandemic provoked a flurry of corrective tweets from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday. – Algemeiner

Under pressure from the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) and ultraconservative allies of the country’s Supreme Leader, Tehran has expelled a medical team sent by the renowned international non-governmental group, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) or Doctors Without Borders. – Radio Farda 

Iran is continuing its downward spiral as the coronavirus pandemic ravages its society. All Iranian media are now focusing on the virus, with various reports about attempts to fight it, the weakness of the Iranian economy in the face of the disaster and information for the public about the virus and methods to fight it. – Jerusalem Post

Iran’s Supreme Leader made a claim in his latest speech that left many Iranians baffled, or rather terrorized, that the superstitious man ruling the country with unlimited powers may have lost his faculties. They justly fear that this may inflict even graver calamities on a nation suffering from many hardships, the latest of which is the coronavirus epidemic the country is finding very difficult to manage – Radio Farda

Iranian regime officials stole more than $1 billion in humanitarian funds meant to be used to help the country’s people fight the spread of coronavirus, according to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. – The Washington Free Beacon

Omer Carmi writes: After admitting that harsh sanctions have inflicted “some damage” on the country, he said they also made Iran think about relying on its domestic resources. He then promised that if production moves forward, Iran’s domestic market will help bring an end to the economic problems and increase the country’s self-sufficiency. Such remarks are no surprise given Tehran’s current predicament—Khamenei no doubt realizes that after the pandemic crisis fades away, the regime will still have to cope with a failed economy at a time when popular support is hitting record lows. – Washington Institute


Ramli has described the White Helmets as a “terrorist organization” — echoing unsubstantiated claims made by Assad and his backers in Russia. As honorary consul, Ramli would have authority over renewing passports, notarizing documents and helping Syrians secure legal representation, among other services. – Washington Post

Syria’s president hosted Russia’s defense minister on Monday to discuss a recent cease-fire in rebel-held northwestern Syria, which ended rare direct fighting between Syrian and Turkish troops. – Associated Press 

Syrian air defence said on Monday it intercepted a drone in the vicinity of Syria’s Hmeimim air base near Jableh, Syrian state media reported. – Reuters


The process took more than a year, and the outbreak of coronavirus may have contributed to the outcome, but Israeli prisoner Nati Hadad, who was arrested and imprisoned in Thailand  in July 2017 for operating an illegal medical clinic, and sentenced in 2018 to four years imprisonment, will be coming home to complete his sentence in an Israeli jail. – Jerusalem Post

Israel and the Gaza Strip are once again at war. But this time the enemy isn’t in the form of rockets or airstrikes but rather an invisible enemy. One that has crept into every country across the world, blind to religion and nationality, killing thousands. – Jerusalem Post

The official Palestinian Authority daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida slamming Israel on Sunday for closing mosques during the coronavirus outbreak – while simultaneously slamming Hamas for keeping mosques open. – Jerusalem Post

Hamas has called on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to lift the sanctions he imposed on the Gaza Strip to enable the Palestinians living there to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. – Jerusalem Post


Lebanon will stop paying all maturing Eurobonds in foreign currencies amid a crippling economic and financial crisis and as foreign currency reserves continue to drop, the Finance Ministry announced Monday. – Associated Press 

In a speech he delivered on Friday 13, 2020, Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah rejected the criticism, calling not to politicize the epidemic or use it as an opportunity for political score-settling. He also dispensed advice and instructions to the citizens on how to avoid contracting the virus, while calling on the banks in Lebanon to behave responsibly and on the government to give priority to battling the epidemic. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Lebanon will begin the process of restructuring its roughly $30 billion of Eurobonds with an investor presentation on March 27, despite the coronavirus outbreak roiling global markets and paralyzing travel. – Bloomberg


At least five civilians were killed, including two members of the same family, by heavy shelling in Libya’s capital of Tripoli on Monday, officials in the U.N.-backed government said, despite increased international pressure to halt fighting over coronavirus concerns. – Associated Press 

Libya’s oil company says economic fallout from a protracted blockade of its vital oil facilities has resulted in losses surpassing $3.5 billion at a time when the war-torn country struggles to prevent the new coronavirus. […]Oil, the lifeline of Libya’s economy, has long been a key factor in the civil war as rival authorities jostle for control of oil fields and state revenue. – Associated Press 

Hundreds of refugees forced to leave a UN-run centre in Libya earlier this year, including survivors of the Tajoura detention centre bombing, are among those worried about being cut off from aid in the coronavirus outbreak. – The Guardian 

Tarek Megerisi writes: At its core, Libya’s war has been driven by the aspirations of regional powers, after its transition was hijacked and run aground by them. It is this dynamic that explains why the situation is deteriorating so rapidly and why the west is turning a blind eye to it. […]It is driving a dangerous race to the bottom, at an important intersection between the African and Arab worlds, and should be a wake-up call to those whose interests lie in stability. – The Guardian 

Middle East & North Africa

Tunisia has started negotiations with the International Monetary Fund for a new loan programme, but a plan to issue bonds is on hold because of the coronavirus, the finance minister said on Monday. – Reuters 

Egyptian security forces under President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi have arbitrarily arrested, forcibly disappeared and tortured children as young as 12 while prosecutors and judges turned a blind eye, an international rights group said Monday. Human Rights Watch called on the U.S., France and other European Union countries to halt their support to Egyptian security forces until authorities take measurable steps to end the abuses and hold accountable those responsible. – Associated Press 

The United Nations is preparing to issue a major funding appeal for more than $1.5 billion on Wednesday to prepare for outbreaks of the new coronavirus in areas suffering some of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, including Gaza, Myanmar, Syria, South Sudan, and Yemen, according to diplomatic and relief officials familiar with the plan. – Foreign Policy 

Seth J. Frantzman writes: Taken together, the pandemic arrives in the Middle East at a time of several changing trends. ISIS has been largely defeated. In fact, it is one year since its defeat in Baghouz in Syria. But Iran is rising. The Syrian conflict, as well as fighting in Libya and Yemen, appear to be winding down. […]These are some of the challenges that could result in more peace or conflict, depending on decisions of the major states and substate actors in the Middle East. – Jerusalem Post 

Liam Denning writes: America’s economic identity as primarily a services-led, energy consumer rather than an exporter in the OPEC mold carries a more insidious threat to the well-being of petro-states. Three years on from its first public airing, the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” mantra has aged like a fine wine-cooler. […]Which is why Saudi Arabia and Russia would love America to keep doing just that. A U.S. government explicitly supporting oil prices is less likely to throw its weight behind alternative forms of energy supply (and demand). – Bloomberg  

Korean Peninsula

No matter how you look at the numbers, one country stands out from the rest: South Korea. […]South Korea is one of only two countries with large outbreaks, alongside China, to flatten the curve of new infections. And it has done so without China’s draconian restrictions on speech and movement, or economically damaging lockdowns like those in Europe and the United States. – New York Times 

Experts see three major hurdles in implementing the same measures as South Korea: political will, public will and time. Many governments don’t have the political will to impose burdensome measures before a crisis-level outbreak occurs. When it comes to public will, social trust is a lot higher in South Korea than in Western democracies. – Jerusalem Post 

Images released by North Korea’s state-run media on 22 March show that the country appears to have once again test-fired the same type of short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) – similar in appearance to some of the missiles used by the US Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) – it had launched on 10 and 16 August 2019. – Jane’s 360 

Jessup Jong and Kurt Long write: If the disease develops into an uncontrollable outbreak, then the North Korean regime will likely face one of the most serious challenges to its rule and legitimacy. Sanctions, economic slowdown, and a feeble healthcare system in the face of a global pandemic will likely spur internal changes. – The National Interest 


The publishers of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post on Tuesday released a statement critical of the Chinese government’s decision to bar American journalists for the three publications from working in China. – Wall Street Journal

Several months before the coronavirus pandemic began, the Trump administration eliminated a key American public health position in Beijing intended to help detect disease outbreaks in China, Reuters has learned. – Reuters 

It is clearly not a good time for the world and it is not a good time for relations between the US and China. President Donald Trump has repeatedly chosen to call the coronavirus the “Chinese virus”. His hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls it the “Wuhan virus”, something that causes huge offence in Beijing. – BBC 

An unusual public spat between two top Chinese diplomats points to an internal split in Beijing over how to handle rising tensions with a combative U.S. president. […]The developments suggest that China’s foreign ministry may be having second thoughts about taking a more confrontational approach toward President Donald Trump. – Bloomberg   

Stephen S. Roach and Daniel J. Arbess write: An unprecedented global crisis must be addressed by collective action on a global scale. The United States and China have a common interest and unique opportunity to lead together in a way the world will never forget. If the United States fails to step up right now, many American lives will be needlessly lost, while China’s ascendancy continues on the global stage. – The Hill  

Dr. Mira Rapp-Hooper writes: Finally, the United States ought not simply recommit itself to its capable European and Asian allies, but make allied coordination the basis of its strategy going forward — against traditional military threats, as well as those that may be less visible and just as deadly. […]If China exits this epochal crisis as a confident leader it will not be the ineluctable result of a structural shift; Beijing will have Washington’s calamitous domestic mismanagement and myopic foreign policy to thank for it. – War on the Rocks


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched an urgent diplomatic rescue mission on Monday that failed to produce a breakthrough in his efforts to advance the Trump administration’s fragile, three-week-old deal with the Taliban that sets a timetable for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan by the middle of next year. – Wall Street Journal 

The Afghan government and the Taliban on Sunday held their first discussion on arranging prisoner exchanges, a key step in a broader push for peace, the US special envoy for Afghanistan said on Twitter. – Agence France-Presse

Frud Bezhan writes: For years, U.S. policy was to facilitate an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned peace process between the Kabul government and the Taliban. […]The Taliban has been projecting itself as a more moderate force, pledging not to monopolize power in Afghanistan. But few believe that the militants have changed. […]Many Afghans support a negotiated end to the decades-old war in Afghanistan, but not at any price.- Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Postponement of the Tokyo Olympics appeared increasingly inevitable Monday as a growing number of countries signaled their athletes would not participate if the Games were held as scheduled this summer, the United States advocated for a delay and Japanese officials conceded for the first time that one was possible.’- Washington Post

 The human rights group Amnesty International says many new conscripts in Thailand’s military are physically, sexually and mentally abused, with some cases amounting to torture. – Associated Press  

A dozen countries in the Middle East and Central Asia have asked the International Monetary Fund for financial support in dealing with the coronavirus, and the Kyrgyz Republic is likely to receive the first emergency disbursement, the fund said. – Reuters 

Luke Coffer writes: A pipeline is the only economically viable way to move natural gas across the Caspian Sea. This means that right now there is no profitable way to get Central Asia’s gas to Europe without going through Russia or Iran. […]The Caspian region has been, is, and will continue to be an area of global geopolitical importance and competition. If the U.S. is to have a grand strategy to deal with a resurgent Russia and to improve Europe’s energy security, policymakers in Washington cannot ignore the region. – Heritage Foundation 


Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin on Monday gave the authorities five days to develop a system to track people who have come into contact with anyone with coronavirus by using mobile phone geolocation data. […]The interior ministry, which operates Russia’s police force, among other law enforcement agencies, issued a similar order, a document seen by Reuters showed. – Reuters 

In Russia’s battle for oil market share with Saudi Arabia, a sharp fall in the rouble has handed the Russians one advantage – they can now produce cheaper than the Saudis, according to Reuters calculations. – Reuters 

Russia has settled a months-long oil supply dispute with Belarus, three industry sources told Reuters on Monday, as Moscow seeks as many buyers as possible in a fight for market share after a landmark cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia fell apart. – Reuters  

Russia named McDonald’s Corp. a systemically important business as the government tripled the number of such companies to help brace for a possible recession, according to the Vedomosti newspaper. […]Russia is trying to shore up some of its biggest employers and essential services as the economy is rocked by the twin shocks of coronavirus and the collapse of oil prices. – Bloomberg 

Heather A. Conley, Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. and Matthew Melino write: The Kola Peninsula is the centerpiece of Russia’s military establishment in the western Arctic, and its air and maritime capabilities are essential to homeland defense, Arctic dominance, and global power projection capabilities. The concentration and range of  multi-domain assets— from SLBMs and ICBMs to EW—deployed on and around the Peninsula underscores the Arctic’s strategic value to Russian national interests. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 


The European Union can start membership negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, according to a draft decision by the bloc’s 27 member states seen by Reuters on Monday and due to be finalised this week. – Reuters  

Leaders from the Group of 20 major economies will convene a video conference on Thursday to discuss the coronavirus epidemic, multiple sources told Reuters, amid criticism that the group has been slow to respond to the global crisis. – Reuters  

The United Nations plans to establish a multi-donor fund to help developing countries address the coronavirus pandemic, Norway’s health ministry announced Monday. – The Hill  

U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said on Monday the world body wants $2 billion to help poor countries combat coronavirus and warned that a massive, coordinated package would also be needed to deal with the pandemic’s social and economic impact around the world. – Reuters 


Mozambican troops battled Islamist insurgents in a town in a northern town on Monday close to billion-dollar gas projects being developed by Exxon Mobil and Total, police said. – Reuters  

African finance ministers have called for a $100 billion stimulus package, including a suspension of debt service payments, to help the continent combat coronavirus. – Reuters  

China Molybdenum said on Monday it would place its TFM copper and cobalt mine in Democratic Republic of Congo in isolation beginning at noon on Tuesday in response to the coronavirus, according to a note to employees seen by Reuters. – Reuters 

United States

Major U.S. airlines are drafting plans for a potential voluntary shutdown of virtually all passenger flights across the U.S., according to industry and federal officials, as government agencies also consider ordering such a move and the nation’s air-traffic control system continues to be ravaged by the coronavirus contagion. […]President Trump and his advisers have been reluctant to mandate a cessation of commercial flights nationwide, some of these officials said, partly because passenger jets also carry a large portion of U.S. mail and essential cargo shipments. – Wall Street Journal

An estimated 13,500 Americans abroad have asked the State Department for help returning to the United States as the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in closed borders and suspended commercial flights, two senior officials said Monday. – New York Times

US President Donald Trump – under fire for labelling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus” – has said Asian Americans should not be blamed for the outbreak. – BBC 

White supremacist groups across the United States are promoting their members to spread the coronavirus to members of the Jewish community as well as police officers, according to an FBI report obtained by ABC News. – Jerusalem Post

Paul Romer and Alan M. Garber write: But we cannot afford to wait and hope. John Maynard Keynes famously quipped that in the long run, we are all dead. If we keep up our current strategy of suppression based on indiscriminate social distance for 12 to 18 months, most of us will still be alive. It is our economy that will be dead. – New York Times 

Walter Russell Mead writes: At the level of symbolism, a Trump defeat would signal to politicians around the world that the populist surge might have peaked; we could see a return to more consensus-based centrist politics and policy making in other parts of the West. A Trump win, on the other hand, would be the strongest possible signal to the world that the politics of disruption have not run their course. Mr. Trump’s election was a shock to the old international system; his re-election in the aftermath of the pandemic would be more consequential still. – Wall Street Journal 

Zachary Karabell writes: Should we get through this without total collapse, Trump could well find the ticket to his reelection, as he may well take credit for anything short of the apocalypse. And frankly, if we get through with an economy wounded but not destroyed, perhaps some credit will be due. […]Either way, and regardless of whether our response to this virus in shutting down everything will prove more deadly to our society than the actual lethality of the disease, what we need right now is to spend more than we ever have and have ever believed possible at lightning speed. And Trump is just the man for that job. – Politico 

The Americas

A U.S. military operation rescued an American woman from unspecified danger in Honduras and she has been reunited with her family, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday. – Wall Street Journal  

Residents in the border city of Mexicali voted against the completion of a $1.4 billion brewery owned by Constellation Brands Inc. on grounds that its intensive water consumption was detrimental for the community, a move that risks undermining foreign investment in Mexico as the country faces a deep economic contraction. – Wall Street Journal  

Seven years into an economic crisis, mothers and fathers have been forced to go abroad in search of work, leaving hundreds of thousands of children in the hands of relatives, friends — and sometimes, each other. – New York Times

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the nation’s companies shouldn’t expect bailouts or tax amnesties and that Mexico won’t tap a standing credit line with the International Monetary Fund even as other economies take extraordinary measures to fight a slump in activity. – Bloomberg 


Elite hackers tried to break into the World Health Organization earlier this month, sources told Reuters, part of what a senior agency official said was a more than two-fold increase in cyberattacks. – Reuters  

Misinformation about the coronavirus spread by Chinese government officials does not violate Twitter’s policies, a spokesperson for the company told The Hill Monday. – The Hill  

Hans Vreeland writes: Joint service leadership throughout the U.S. Department of Defense agrees that the United States is competing with Russia and China for global influence. The U.S. military needs to balance this competition with support for ongoing conflicts against nonstate actors who have adopted inexpensive means of lethality, including small, cheap drones. […]Congress and the U.S. Defense Department ought to direct investment to companies that leverage AI processes to create ecosystems of technologies. – War on the Rocks  

J.D. Work writes: The proposed joint task force represents a substantial expansion of U.S. Cyber Command’s existing mission priorities. But the current threat to healthcare infrastructure justifies the kind of mobilization akin to the military escorting medical supply convoys and hospital ships in crisis, and ensuring stability and security for first responders. – War on the Rocks 


The Defense Department’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has expanded to include not only the expected deployment of tens of thousands of National Guardsmen, but also a growing effort to stamp out conspiracy theories that the United States will adopt martial law. – Washington Post 

Defense companies with substantial exposure to commercial markets are taking dramatic measures to limit overhead and preserve cash, with one chief executive calling the new coronavirus pandemic “worse than anything we’ve seen.” – Defense News  

Production of the Air Force’s KC-46 refueling tanker and the Navy’s P-8 maritime surveillance plane will stop as Boeing shuts down all facilities in the Seattle area amid the coronavirus pandemic. – Defense News 

In late January, Arlington, Virginia-based BAE Systems announced two acquisitions to bolster its electronic systems sector, a move that reflected a combined investment of $2.2 billion. – Defense News 

David Helvarg writes: President Trump has finally called in the military in the nation’s war against the coronavirus. But precious time was lost in the weeks since he was warned about the dangers the virus poses. We need to make sure that doesn’t happen again. […]This combatant command is needed now if we’re to have the best chance of responding to the coronavirus crisis, which we have already been too slow to respond to, and to future natural disasters that we know are coming – New York Times

Stanley McChrystal and Chris Fussell write: On Sept. 11, 2001, the job of every leader in the U.S. Special Operations community changed. In the ensuing years of fighting a highly complex, networked enemy, we redesigned how our organization communicated, shared information, made decisions and, most critically, maintained a cohesive culture while operating in almost every corner of the globe. […]We are now weathering a once-in-a-hundred-year event, and Americans are hurt — physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually. Leaders at all levels in society need to embrace the changes this crisis brings rather than struggle against it. – New York Times