Fdd's overnight brief

March 27, 2019

In The News


On the heels of an Iranian military intervention that has helped bring President Bashar al-Assad to the edge of victory in Syria’s eight-year-long war, Tehran is moving to cement its long-term influence in Syria by cultivating goodwill and winning converts to the Shiite Muslim sect. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. blacklisted members of what officials said was a “vast network” operating in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates that helped Iran exchange over $1 billion in currency to finance Iranian military operations throughout the region. – Wall Street Journal

Flash floods in Iran have killed at least 24 people and injured hundreds more after days of torrential rain caused rivers to overflow in various parts of the country, local news media reported on Tuesday. – New York Times

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Tuesday accused his US counterpart Donald Trump of “colonialism” for recognising Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, a border area seized by Israel from Syria in 1967. – Agence France-Presse

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told Iraq’s prime minister on Tuesday that regional countries must unite to fight against U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel. – Reuters  

President Donald Trump’s national security team is deeply divided over whether to let a small group of countries keep buying Iranian oil after a U.S. deadline on sanctions waivers expires in May. Now that fight is getting ugly. The division — primarily between John Bolton’s National Security Council and Michael Pompeo’s State Department — has led to rising frustration and flared tempers. – Bloomberg  

Iran International did not breach the broadcasting code by interviewing a spokesman for a separatist group who praised last September’s terrorist attack in the Iranian city of Ahvaz, the British regulator Ofcom has ruled. – The Guardian

Patrick Clawson writes: The oration delivered by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Nowruz, the first day of the Persian new year as well as the vernal equinox, carries more significance than any other. This year’s speech was strikingly different from last year’s in that it focused on foreign policy, was belligerent to the West, and offered little hope about the country’s economic suffering. By contrast, the 2018 address mostly entailed a recounting of the socioeconomic and other domestic accomplishments of the Islamic Republic. – Washington Institute

Islamic State

Despite the fall of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains at large, having for years evaded a massive manhunt by America’s military and intelligence agencies. […]To elude capture, Mr. Baghdadi, who has a $25 million bounty on his head, has gone low tech, Iraqi officials say, shunning trackable communications devices, moving in a single vehicle to avoid attention and trusting only a small circle of close aides. – Wall Street Journal

Editorial: Trump wisely reversed a decision in December to precipitously pull U.S. forces out of Syria and has said that he will leave 400 there for now. The presence of these troops, working with Syrian Democratic Forces in the liberated region, promotes the kind of rebuilding and return to normalcy that inoculates against an ISIS relapse. […]On Saturday, when the last caliphate bastion fell in Syria, Trump promised to remain vigilant against ISIS. That’s imperative. Eradicating a hateful ideology is even more difficult than liberating territory. – USA Today

Tom Rogan writes: In contrast, trying ISIS fighters in Iraq would be popular with that government. Especially if Iraq was compensated for the cost of detaining ISIS fighters. The measure of public anger in Iraq against ISIS offers Iraqi political leaders great incentive here. Indeed, Iraq has already prosecuted some ISIS fighters detained on Syrian soil. Baghdad’s reaction to this proposal would likely be positive. Yes, ISIS fighters wouldn’t have a particularly pleasant experience in the Iraqi justice system. But international input could help improve protections for basic due process rights. And anything more than basic is something more than ISIS deserves. – Washington Examiner

Brian Robertson writes: “Blood Money” is not only a case study in the corruption of American foreign policy on the part of well-funded foreign interests. It also serves as a warning to conservatives ready to declare victory, both tactical and political, in the war against worldwide terror. This war is not over, and as long as corrupt regimes with big bucks are allowed to treat D.C. as their playground, both the Trump administration and the United States risk defeat in the long term. – Washington Examiner


Exchanges of fire between Israel and Hamas resumed late Tuesday, breaking a fragile calm, as political pressures on both sides threatened to spark a wider conflict. Hamas, the militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, faces tensions at home over a deteriorating economy that triggered recent protests. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is campaigning in a tough re-election battle, aware that a tough stance on security is paramount for voters. – Wall Street Journal

For decades, international law has held that territory seized in war must be returned. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel asserted Tuesday that this was no longer a given. – New York Times

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned home from Washington on Tuesday to a dilemma: how to avoid a confrontation in Gaza that could risk Israeli lives and hurt his election prospects without appearing to acquiesce to Hamas militants. – Washington Post  

The Israeli army on Tuesday bombed several targets in the Gaza Strip and bolstered its forces along the volatile frontier as a truce with the territory’s Hamas rulers showed signs of unraveling. – Associated Press

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights united Washington’s Arab allies and their regional foe Iran in condemnation on Tuesday. – Reuters  

Syria asked the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to hold an urgent meeting on the US decision to recognize the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. – Agence France-Presse

Palestinian militants fired rockets from Gaza into Israel on Tuesday, drawing retaliatory air strikes and breaking a day-long lull in cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas that could impact an Israeli election two weeks away. – Reuters  

The U.S. ambassador to Israel said on Tuesday the Trump administration understands a need for Israel to have “overriding security control” in the occupied West Bank in any future peace deal with the Palestinians. – Reuters  

Israel destroyed “major Hamas terrorist installations on a scale not seen since the end of the military operation in Gaza four years ago,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, in a speech from Tel Aviv to the AIPAC conference here. – Jerusalem Post  

A senior Hamas official, speaking anonymously to Israel Hayom on Tuesday, claimed that the rocket which struck a moshav in central Israel on Monday was ordered by Iran. – Jerusalem Post

New Zealand’s Jewish community is outraged after a prominent mosque leader blamed the Israeli Mossad agency for being behind the terror attack on two mosques in the city of Christchurch, the Newshub news website reports. – Arutz Sheva  

Philip Klein writes: While former President Barack Obama was at odds with Israel for much of his presidency, President Trump has pursued the most pro-Israel policies of any U.S. administration in history. Meanwhile, more and more Democrats have adopted a hostile posture toward Israel, even to the point of normalizing anti-Semitism by dishonestly laundering it as mere criticism of Israel. – Washington Examiner

Michael Rubin writes: The real reason why Israel should possess the Golan is because recent events show the international community is too craven to be trusted to defend it against annihilationist aggression. […]Western diplomats may condemn Trump for his actions, but so long as they repeatedly show the fear of their governments to stand up to principle, such hand-wringing should be ignored. After all, if one day Syria or Iran was in a position to overrun Israel, the only struggle in Europe at least would be how to best kowtow to or profit from the regimes waging genocide. – Washington Examiner  

Middle East & North Africa

A hospital in Yemen supported by Save the Children was hit Tuesday by a deadly airstrike that charity officials blamed on the Saudi-led coalition, an attack carried out on the war’s fourth anniversary. – New York Times

Algeria’s army chief has called for the removal of the country’s ailing president, saying that after more than a month of mass popular protests against Abdelaziz Bouteflika the time had come to trigger a constitutional process declaring him unfit for office. – The Guardian

Five Persian Gulf nations are rejecting President Trump’s proclamation recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, warning that such a move would have “negative effects” on the overall Middle East peace process. – The Hill

Grace Wermenbol writes: Following the liberation of ISIS-held territory in Syria and Iraq, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is re-establishing ties with regional actors as a means to mobilize Arab support for the Palestinian cause. […]The Palestinian Authority’s (PA) increased outreach to Syria, conversely, is primarily aimed at addressing domestic party politics. The PA-led rapprochement with the Syrian regime seeks to preempt Iranian mediation in the Hamas-Syria conflict and, with that, the prospect of a successful reconciliation between Hamas and Syria. – Middle East Institute

Haisam Hassanein writes: Despite their treaty’s rock-solid record on preventing armed conflict, Egypt and Israel still hold fundamentally different views on further normalization. The bright silver lining to this cold-peace model is that Egyptian officials will never seriously consider abolishing the peace treaty, mainly due to strategic reasons. In their view, the international community would deem such a decision an act of aggression. This would in turn pave the way for Israel to attack and seize Sinai and the Suez Canal, greatly harming Egypt’s economic interests while enriching Israel’s own. Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

Members of a North Korean dissident group held staff at Pyongyang’s embassy in Madrid hostage in late February as they tried to persuade a senior official to defect, before escaping with computers and documents, according to a person familiar with the incident and a Spanish court account. […]Cheollima confirmed its involvement in the Madrid incident in a statement and said it shared information obtained in the raid with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It didn’t provide further details and didn’t respond to emails. The group said no violence was used against the embassy staff. – Wall Street Journal

In one of the strangest international incidents in memory, an armed group attacked the North Korean Embassy in Madrid last month and then fled. A Mexican man who lives in the United States led the raid, and later offered material stolen from the embassy to the F.B.I., a Spanish judge investigating the case said. – New York Times

The U.S. government had nothing to do with a raid last month at North Korea’s embassy in Madrid, U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said on Tuesday. – Reuters  

China and Russia have sent home more than half of their North Korean workers, likely tens of thousands of people, according to reports submitted to the UN North Korean Security Council sanctions committee. – CNN  


China’s former internet regulator, Lu Wei, received a 14-year prison sentence after being convicted of corruption, a punishment the court said it lessened because he confessed. – Wall Street Journal

China’s national news agency, Xinhua, accused Vice President Mike Pence of lacking knowledge of China’s past after he complained that Beijing was merely paying lip service to open its economy. – New York Times  

China has revoked the permit for a second Canadian grain handler to ship canola seed into the world’s second-largest economy, reinforcing fears among grain growers that they have become collateral damage in the diplomatic dispute between Ottawa and Beijing over a detained Huawei executive. – Wall Street Journal

Republican and Democratic U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation seeking to boost Washington’s relations with Taiwan and raise the island’s international profile on Tuesday, which could heighten tensions with China. – Reuters  

U.S. and Chinese officials resume high-level trade talks this week as they close in on a deal that could just be the first step in the long road to economic peace. – Bloomberg   

Derek Scissors writes: The near-universal belief that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has already passed or is soon to pass the US in size has multiple distinct flaws. These range from the gross—Chinese government statistics are unreliable—to the subtle—none of the ways economic size is measured are especially reliable. The policies of the two countries matter, especially whether China ever returns to the pro-market reform path. While evaluating the competing development models is contentious and complex, growth arithmetic is simple. – American Enterprise Institute

Joseph Bosco writes: As Nixon said a half-century ago before his historic opening, “China must change.” The Trump administration’s efforts toward that end are the most serious ever undertaken in the areas of trade, Taiwan and maritime security. Moral, political and diplomatic pressure on human rights will go a long way toward encouraging the emergence of the normal China the world and the Chinese people long have been promised. – The Hill



U.S. officials walked out of a meeting here that was attended by the top defense aide of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in the latest sign of fraying ties between Washington and Kabul over negotiations with the Taliban to end the 18-year Afghan war. – Wall Street Journal

American and Taliban negotiators have agreed on the framework of a deal in which American troops would withdraw in return for a Taliban pledge that Afghanistan will not be used by terrorists. But many Hazaras say the Taliban cannot be trusted — and that any peace deal would do little to prevent continued Islamic State bombings of Hazara mosques, shrines and rallies. – New York Times

Washington’s relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears increasingly at risk of permanent damage, the consequence of a U.S. policy shift that has so far excluded his government from talks with the Taliban and of his own determination to retain power and manage peace efforts himself. – Reuters

South Asia

India said it successfully tested a satellite-destroying missile, joining the small group of countries with weapons to carry war into space. – Wall Street Journal

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India had joined the U.S., Russia and China in an elite group of nations that have the capability to target satellites. – Bloomberg  

Harsh V. Pant and Hasan Alhasan write: At present, Modi seems willing to accept these risks. He has replaced India’s cautious “balancing” approach to the region with an aggressive strategy geared toward attracting investments from the Gulf and deepening India’s security partnership with Israel, ignoring Iran in the process. Even a new government in New Delhi if Modi falls in the upcoming elections will find it difficult to change this trajectory, as the premier’s imprint is likely to be longer-lasting than many expected when he came to office. – Foreign Policy


The leaders of France, Germany and the European Union’s executive sought to present Chinese President Xi Jinping with a united front at talks in Paris on Tuesday, pressing him for more reciprocity on trade amid wariness about China’s rising power. But with Europe eager for Chinese business, Mr. Xi’s visit was seen in Beijing as a success. – Wall Street Journal

The Polish government has, very quietly, presided over the largest influx of migrant workers in the country’s modern history — though they are mostly Christians from neighboring Ukraine. – New York Times

With Prime Minister Theresa May struggling to get support for her unloved Brexit deal, Parliament is seeking to exert influence over the Brexit process and break the political deadlock. Lawmakers scheduled several “indicative votes” for Wednesday, designed to assess which way Parliament wants to go and whether there’s a Brexit Plan B or C or D that could command a majority. – Washington Post

British Prime Minister Theresa May will address her Conservative lawmakers on Wednesday, possibly to set out a timetable for her departure in a last throw of the dice to win support for her twice-rejected Brexit deal in parliament. – Reuters  

France’s ambassador to Germany is pushing Berlin to loosen its restrictive stance on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, arguing Europe’s fledgling defense identity depends on it. – Defense News

The Netherlands and Australia confirmed Wednesday that three-way talks with Russia have begun over the ongoing criminal investigation into the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. – Associated Press

The U.S. State Department has given the green light for Belgium to buy MQ-9B Sky Guardian drones from General Atomics, a deal that could be worth about $600 million. The Senate is almost certain to approve the sale of the MQ-9B to Belgium, which is a member of NATO. At that point, negotiations will formally begin, and final quantities and prices may change during that process. – Defense News

John Dalhuisen writes: The conventional wisdom in Europe these days says that the far right has peaked. This view is based largely on the idea that the “refugee crisis” is over. If the populist surge was fueled by a real problem in 2015, when over a million refugees and migrants entered Europe, there is no such problem today. – New York Times

Ilaria Maria Sala writes; As expected, Italy signed a wide-ranging memorandum of understanding, or M.O.U., with China, becoming the first major Western economy to endorse Beijing’s colossal and controversial “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative. Most contentious, perhaps, was the Italian government’s decision to grant a Chinese state-owned company access to two ports, including one used by the United States Navy that is just 100 kilometers from NATO’s largest air base in the Mediterranean region. – New York Times

Desmond Lachman writes: With Italy having entered yet another economic recession and with it being stuck in a euro straitjacket, it is difficult to see how Italy will be able to grow its way out of its public debt and banking sector problems. This makes it likely that sooner or later Italy will succumb to another round of its sovereign debt crisis, which could put Italy in a position where it will need major international financial support. – The Hill   

John Solomon writes: While the 2016 presidential race was raging in America, Ukrainian prosecutors ran into some unexpectedly strong headwinds as they pursued an investigation into the activities of a nonprofit in their homeland known as the Anti-Corruption Action Centre (AntAC). – The Hill


The acting secretary of defense, Patrick M. Shanahan, is reviewing internal awards and punishments that were given to soldiers as a result of last year’s Pentagon investigation into a deadly 2017 ambush in Niger. – New York Times

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday prevented American sailors injured in the deadly 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole from collecting $314.7 million in damages from the government of Sudan for its alleged role in the attack. – Reuters  

Kenya plans to shut a refugee camp that is home to nearly a quarter of a million people, mostly Somalis, in the next few months, according to an internal UN document seen by AFP Tuesday. – Agence France-Presse

North America

A Filipino woman who sheltered Edward J. Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, when he fled to Hong Kong has been granted asylum in Canada, where she arrived on Monday with her daughter. – New York Times

Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar went after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Tuesday night, taking to Twitter to criticize his rebuke of her in a video address he made before the AIPAC Policy Conference. – Haaretz  

Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar took a swipe at Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s condemnation of the BDS movement on Tuesday. The speaker condemned the “anti-Semitic myth of dual loyalty” and told the AIPAC audience on Tuesday morning, “we must also be vigilant against bigoted or dangerous ideologies masquerading as policy, and that includes BDS,” referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. – Haaretz

Steven Emerson writes: It’s clear that people will continue to protect her no matter what Omar says. There are ways to criticize Israel without being antisemitic. Omar, an elected member of Congress, hasn’t figured that out yet. Acknowledging that has nothing to do with how she practices her faith, the color of her skin, her gender, or where she comes from. – Algemeiner

Latin America

President Trump complained in a private lunch Tuesday with Senate Republicans about the amount of disaster aid designated for Puerto Rico, as lawmakers prepare for a standoff over funds for the island that is still struggling to recover in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to officials familiar with the meeting. – Washington Post  

With her youthful energy and globe-trotting, the 26-year-old wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido is emerging as a prominent figure in his campaign to bring change to the crisis-wracked country. – Associated Press

Fabiana Rosales, the wife of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, will meet U.S. Vice President Mike Pence at the White House on Wednesday and first lady Melania Trump in Florida on Thursday, White House officials said. – Reuters  

The World Trade Organization was forced to postpone a regular dispute settlement meeting on Tuesday after the United States refused to recognize Venezuela, diplomats said, potentially putting a long-term obstacle in the WTO’s trade dispute system. – Reuters  

Venezuela’s government told workers and school children to stay home on Tuesday as the second major blackout this month left the streets of Caracas mostly empty and residents wondering how long power would be out amid a deepening economic crisis. – Reuters  

A Russian military contingent that arrived in Venezuela over the weekend, drawing U.S. condemnation, is believed by the U.S. government to be made up of special forces including “cybersecurity personnel,” a U.S. official told Reuters on Tuesday. – Reuters  

A Guatemalan father has alleged in a lawsuit against two nonprofits that his 10-year-old son was drugged and sexually assaulted while in U.S. custody. – The Hill

Ryan C. Berg writes: Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, completed a historic trip to Washington, setting aside the Brazilian tradition of making Buenos Aires the president’s first foreign trip. The outcome has been heavily criticized in Brazil for Bolsonaro’s deference to Trump, his many concessions, failing to insist on a larger role in the partnership, and embracing the moniker “Trump of the Tropics.” However, this criticism largely misses the mark; the Trump-Bolsonaro bilateral, both as an initial meeting and in terms of policy outcomes, was a resounding success.  – American Enterprise Institute


Facebook is taking steps to reduce the spread of false information on its platforms ahead of India’s general election, company officials said Monday. Facebook listed a variety of measures it is taking, from blocking fake accounts to employing third-party fact-checking organizations, through the campaign and voting, with polling scheduled to take place in stages from April 11 to May 19. – Associated Press

The European parliament approved the largest, and most contentious, overhaul of copyright legislation in two decades on Monday. When the directive comes into effect, it will be the biggest change to internet regulation since General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). […]What do the changes mean for the internet? – The Guardian

Facebook Inc said on Tuesday it has removed more accounts from Iran, Russia, Macedonia and Kosovo, citing what it described as “coordinated inauthentic behavior.” – Reuters

It was an arduous task, but the truly hard part will be ensuring the Russians aren’t able to pull that same blueprint off the shelf and use it in future campaigns. A review of court filings and independent studies, as well as interviews with experts, shows that no one should expect that the end of Mueller’s work means an end to Russian political meddling. – LA Times


North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will visit President Trump at the White House next week for meetings to address the evolving challenges the alliance faces. – Wall Street Journal

Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday called for landing astronauts on the moon within five years, an accelerated pace that would aim to put Americans on the lunar south pole. – Associated Press

A competition for material between submarine construction and submarine maintenance is contributing to slowdowns in both, the Navy’s acquisition chief told USNI News today. – USNI News

The Defense Department’s first crack at convincing the House Armed Services Committee to retire an aircraft carrier early to support the development of future weapons systems and unmanned platforms was not well received. – USNI News

As amphibious exercise Pacific Blitz 2019 wraps up today, senior commanders already are reviewing after-action lessons and thinking ahead to future exercises that will help develop, train and prepare forces for fights on the move and close to shore. – USNI News

President Trump tapped Air Force Gen. John Raymond on Tuesday to head the U.S. Space Command that Trump authorized the creation of last year. – Washington Examiner

Trump Administration

The Democratic-controlled House fell short Tuesday in its effort to override President Donald Trump’s first veto, handing him a victory in his drive to spend billions more for constructing barriers along the Southwest border than Congress has approved. – Associated Press

House Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith on Tuesday rejected a Pentagon move to shift $1 billion in funding for more Southern border barriers, and warned Pentagon leaders of stiff budget consequences if it unilaterally shifts the money. – Politico

Mike Pompeo used to be one of the loudest, most partisan Republicans in the House. He called a Democratic senator “narcissistic” for releasing a report on the U.S. and torture. He branded Hillary Clinton’s response to Benghazi as “morally reprehensible” and “worse, in some ways,” than Watergate. But now that he’s secretary of State, Pompeo has flipped the narrative, belittling Congress for “caterwauling” and lamenting how “political” his former colleagues are. – Politico