Fdd's overnight brief

March 3, 2020

In The News


Iran deployed drones to disinfect streets and mobilized tens of thousands of teams to conduct door-to-door coronavirus checks across the country, an indication of the scale of the epidemic here, where it has killed more people than anywhere else outside of China, including a government official. – Wall Street Journal

A website linked to Iran’s judiciary carried a statement on Tuesday saying a man convicted of spying for the CIA would be executed soon. – Reuters

A member of a council that advises Iran’s supreme leader died Monday from the new coronavirus, becoming the highest-ranking official within the Islamic Republic’s Shiite theocracy to be killed by the illness ravaging the country. – Associated Press

Wikipedia’s Farsi-language website appears to be disrupted in Iran after a close confidant to the country’s supreme leader died of the new coronavirus, an activist group said Tuesday, as the Islamic Republic suffers the highest death rate from the epidemic outside of China. – Associated Press

The U.N. atomic watchdog policing Iran’s nuclear deal with major powers plans to issue an imminent rebuke to Tehran for failing to provide access to one or more sites that are of interest to it, several diplomats who follow the agency said on Monday. Reuters 


U.S. military leaders cautioned Monday that some level of violence is likely to continue in Afghanistan despite a major new agreement with the Taliban, as uncertainty about the terms of the arrangement overshadowed efforts to launch political negotiations next week. – Washington Post

Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said on Monday that the United States had begun withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the first steps in what could be a complete exit from the country within the next 14 months. – New York Times

Days into President Trump’s peace deal with the Taliban, there are already signs of trouble. The Afghan government is rejecting a prisoner swap with the Taliban that the deal says is supposed to precede negotiations between Kabul and the Taliban. – The Hill

The United States helped fuel a dispute between the Taliban and the Afghan government over prisoner releases that threatens U.S. peace efforts by using different language in documents it agreed with each side, sources familiar with the matter said on Monday. – Reuters

The Taliban called an abrupt end to a partial truce on Monday, just two days after signing a deal with the United States that was meant to bring peace at last to Afghanistan. In the southern province of Kandahar, considered the Taliban’s heartland, fighting broke out in at least in two districts. – Agence France-Presse

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley predicted more violence in Afghanistan, while Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the road to peace would not be easy, both speaking at the Pentagon a little over a day after the United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban. – Washington Examiner

A blast at a football field in Afghanistan’s southeastern province of Khost killed at least three civilians on Monday, the provincial governor said. – Reuters

The Trump administration is making available to Congress two secret documents related to the United States’ peace agreement with the Taliban, part of the White House’s effort to build support for ending the longest military conflict in American history. – Politico

Charles Lane writes: Just as Trump struck his Taliban deal with little input from Kabul, Nixon negotiated with North Vietnam over the heads of our allies in South Vietnam. Then, as now, the president’s goal was a politically beneficial way out of an “endless war” inherited from predecessors — not a long-term stabilization plan. […]Though we must hope for the best, chances are Trump’s deal won’t prove more workable than the Paris Peace Accords. Afghan allies, including girls and women who enjoyed a measure of human rights in areas liberated from the Taliban, are at risk. – Washington Post


United Nations investigators said on Monday that Russia had committed war crimes in Syria by carrying out indiscriminate airstrikes on civilian targets in 2019, condemning tactics they said the Syrian government and its allies were still using in the northwest province of Idlib. – New York Times

The Kremlin on Tuesday rejected allegations by the United Nations that Russia may have committed war crimes in Syria last year, saying the U.N. investigators are in no position to know what is happening on the ground. – Reuters

Syrian government forces entered parts of a strategic rebel-held town on Monday, and Turkey said it would keep hitting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops after ramping up operations in its biggest intervention yet into the Syrian civil war. Reuters

Turkey’s Defense Ministry said on Monday that one Turkish soldier was killed and another wounded in shelling by Syrian government forces in the northwestern province of Idlib. – Reuters

Turkey shot down a Syrian fighter jet in Syria’s Idlib province Tuesday, marking the third such incident in as many days, as steady clashes between the two national armies appeared to signal a new stage in the nine-year old war. – Associated Press

The United States said on Monday it is considering helping to increase humanitarian aid to Syria as Russian-backed Syrian forces press an offensive that has already displaced 1 million people and drawn in forces from neighboring Turkey. – Reuters 

Michael Land and Blane Wallace write: The Syrian armed opposition insurgency in Dera’a demonstrated its growing strength on March 1 by seizing several Assad regime military positions in the province in reaction to a large regime security operation in the north of the province. […]The coordination demonstrates that the opposition in southwest Syria seeks to link its struggle with rebel groups in Idlib. The Syrian rebel insurgency in Dera’a will continue to pose a significant challenge to the Assad regime and could further metastasize as Assad continues to prioritize the Idlib offensive, thus creating a security gap in southern Syria.  – Institute for the Study of War


The largest exodus in Syria’s nine-year conflict has overwhelmed the ability of aid workers to respond—and has become the focal point of a geopolitical crisis that threatens to spiral out of control. – Wall Street Journal

Greece rushed more soldiers and border guards to its eastern border in an attempt to hold back thousands of migrants after the Turkish government said it would no longer prevent refugees in Turkey from reaching Europe. – Washington Post

Turkish attacks on Russian-backed forces in the Syrian province of Idlib are testing Moscow’s relationship with Ankara as all sides raise the stakes in the latest phase of Syria’s nine-year civil war. – Financial Times

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that Greek soldiers had killed two migrants and severely wounded a third. – Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Monday that “millions” of migrants would soon head for Europe, drawing accusations from EU leaders that he is trying to pressure them into backing his incursions into Syria. – Agence France-Presse

Turkish leaders are trying to persuade Russia not to protect Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s military in a clash with the NATO power, days after an airstrike that killed more than 30 Turkish soldiers. – Washington Examiner

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that he hoped to achieve a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: It is cruel for Erdogan to use refugees as a political or diplomatic chit. European diplomatic demarches will not change Erdogan’s mind, however; Erdogan sees his European counterparts as soft and weak. But if busloads, boatloads, and planeloads of Turks return to Turkey’s shore and the remittances they otherwise send get cut off, Erdogan may realize the price of being a bully can be higher than Turkey can bear. – Washington Examiner


Iraq has held thousands of trials for members of the Islamic State, but until Monday none had sought to bring justice specifically to the thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority who were kidnapped, raped and killed. A soft-spoken 20-year old Yazidi woman changed that when she decided to testify in open court. – New York Times

On March 2, 2020, two missiles struck Baghdad’s Green Zone, one falling near the U.S. Embassy, according to Iraqi security sources. Iraqi media are reporting on a video that has surfaced online that shows the moment before the strikes. In the video, sirens can be heard as well as loud bangs heard in the background.Iraqi security released photos showing the rocket launcher that was used in the attack, saying that it was found in Zayona district of east Baghdad. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Iraq’s caretaker prime minister will begin a “voluntary absence” after parliament failed to approve his designated successor’s cabinet. Adel Abdul Mahdi said he would no longer carry out most of his official duties and urged lawmakers to call early elections in December. – BBC

Brandon Wallace writes: Iran’s inability to contain the Coronavirus allowed the disease to spread to Iraq, whose health institutions are poorly equipped to manage the potential pandemic. Iraq is vulnerable due to the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons, congested anti-government demonstrations, and routine pilgrimages by religious observers across the region, particularly from Iran. Failure to contain the virus could lead to greater anti-Iranian sentiment among Iraqis. Iraq imports billions of dollars in cross border trade from Iran per year. Restricted movement will lead to increased prices on basic necessities. – Institute for the Study of War


Exit polls for Israel’s third national election in less than a year suggested that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was leading challenger Benny Gantz and close to securing a majority in Israel’s parliament. – Wall Street Journal

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday thwarted an attempted sniper attack across the Syrian border on the Golan Heights. – Ynet

In remarks at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, DC, on Monday, US Vice President Mike Pence slammed Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders over his views on the Jewish state. – Algemeiner

The German politician increasingly tipped to succeed Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor pledged to crack down on rising antisemitism in his country during a visit to Israel on Monday. – Algemeiner

Former US vice president and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden told the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC on Sunday that Israel’s annexation and settlement policies are undermining support for the Jewish state among young people. – Algemeiner

The 10th annual Juniper Cobra exercise between the IDF and the United States Europe Command (EUCOM) began on Tuesday, with hundreds of US troops landing in Israel to take part. – Jerusalem Post

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden said a two-state solution “is the best way to ensure a secure and peaceful Israeli future for the Jewish and democratic State of Israel.” – Jerusalem Post

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday put United Nations member states on notice against punishing American companies operating in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. – The Hill

William McGurn writes: Both are dreaming. Mr. Netanyahu was winning at press time, and his policies will continue regardless because this is what Israelis want. And while defeating Mr. Sanders would remove the Democratic candidate most hostile to Israel, the growing progressive distaste for the Jewish state within the party that Mr. Sanders both fed and benefited from isn’t going anywhere. – Wall Street Journal

Herb Keinon writes: The country, it seems, was not convinced that Netanyahu is Erdogan. It was afraid, however, that a vote for Gantz would give Tibi and the Joint List inordinate power. One conclusion from these elections: Tibi scares Israelis more than Erdogan. – Jerusalem Post

Mohammed S. Dajani: The disenchanted response of much of the Arab world to U.S. President Trump’s recently announced Peace Proposal has highlighted the serious need for alternative visions of a peace process, especially from Palestinians. And as an international community, we need to shake the foundations of this conflict to find peace. The reconciliation and peace that will follow will change relations between our conflicting peoples: so many of our concerns that we find pressing in times of conflict will become less pressing or even ameliorated in peace times. – Washington Institute


Libya’s internationally recognized government will soon try to push back Khalifa Haftar’s eastern forces that have been attacking the capital Tripoli for months, its interior minister has told Reuters. – Reuters

The UN envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, has asked to be replaced due to his failing health, delivering a blow to international attempts to end the oil-rich country’s civil war. – Bloomberg

OPEC oil output dropped in February to the lowest in over a decade as Libyan supply collapsed due to a blockade of ports and oilfields and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf members overdelivered on a new production-limiting accord, a Reuters survey found. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

The Trump administration is pressuring the United Nations to scale back vital aid operations in Yemen as Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents seek greater control over how humanitarian assistance is delivered in territory under their control. – Foreign Policy

Hanin Ghaddar writes: To counter Hezbollah’s plan and help the Lebanese people survive this crisis, the United States and its allies should expand the sanctions against corrupt individuals. The group relies on allies from all sects and on the countrywide system of corruption that protects its interests in the seaport, airport, and illegal smuggling routes. The U.S. Global Magnitsky Act is a good tool for tackling this issue and responding to the demands of demonstrators. – Washington Institute

Maher Al-Qudurat writes: The new Prime Minister, Elyes Fakhfakh, has touched on some of these very issues in his first speech in his new office, emphasizing the country’s desperate need for political and economic reform. But implementing these reforms is another matter. The state indeed faces a daunting task; restoring the Tunisian people’s hope and providing reassuring messages about the future, thereby establishing a climate of reciprocal trust. But these are all vital elements necessary in any successful democracy, and Tunisian political elites are responsible for maintaining the legacy of the Tunisian revolution through its first decade. – Washington Institute 

Korean Peninsula

The U.S. indicted and sanctioned two Chinese nationals accused of helping North Korean hackers launder around $100 million in stolen virtual currency, alleging Pyongyang’s hackers are receiving outside help and providing a window into what officials described as an increasingly important revenue stream for the regime’s nuclear weapons program. –Wall Street Journal

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised an earlier live-fire rocket artillery exercise to confirm his military’s combat readiness and “further kindle the flames of training revolution,” state media said Tuesday. – Associated Press

As a new and frightening virus closes in around it, North Korea presents itself as a fortress, tightening its borders as cadres of health officials stage a monumental disinfection and monitoring program. That image of world-defying impregnability, however, may belie a brewing disaster. – Associated Press


In a major escalation of a media war between Beijing and Washington, the Trump administration on Monday ordered four Chinese news outlets operating in the United States to reduce the number of Chinese nationals working on their staffs by more than a third. – Washington Post

China’s foreign ministry said on Tuesday that Beijing reserves the right to take measures in response to Washington’s decision to reduce the number of Chinese nationals permitted to work at U.S. offices of key official Chinese media outlets. – Reuters

The U.S. government has issued a formal protest to China over a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy destroyer shining a military-grade laser at a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft operating in the Philippine Sea last month. – USNI News


The Pakistani doctor who helped the CIA track and kill Osama bin Laden has launched a hunger strike from his prison cell, his lawyer and family said Monday. – Agence France-Presse

China is pressuring Taiwan with “provocative” air force maneuvers near the island and spreading fake news to sow discord during the coronavirus outbreak, security sources and government officials in Taiwan say. – Reuters

Patrick M. Cronin writes: In this decade, the United States Navy may be displaced as the most formidable maritime presence in the Pacific Ocean. China is determined to challenge America’s ability to project military power forward into the Western Pacific […]A comprehensive strategy that understands the unfolding fourth industrial revolution and the Chinese government’s problematic activities will be necessary to deny China’s bid for maritime primacy. – Center for International Maritime Security

Mihir Sharma writes: The irresponsible concessions made by the U.S. in this agreement will likely disrupt South Asia for years to come, and endanger its own relationship with India going forward. But worst of all, this deal abandons those in Afghanistan who, under the shadow of war, tried to develop, for the first time, institutions that work for all Afghans. No amount of sanctimony about “ending America’s longest war” should obscure the danger and immorality of this sort of exit. – Bloomberg


During a testy hearing on Monday, a federal judge set a deadline for a Russian company facing criminal charges related to Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election to explain why it had not handed over documents sought by prosecutors, a step that may lead to it being held in civil contempt. – Reuters

Suzanne Spaulding writes: Americans must understand what Putin hopes to achieve. It’s not just about which candidate Russia may support. Democracy is under attack, and we must all fight to defend it by refusing to give up. Hold our institutions accountable and believe in our power to bring about change. Vote. Know there may be disruptions and claims of corruption. Insist on impartial processes to resolve issues, and, when all is said and done, accept the outcome of the election. That’s the American way of beating Russia at its own game. – Washington Post

David Von Drehle writes: It’s fitting that Putin’s battlefield of choice is the Internet. In geopolitics, as in business, digital communications have upended the distribution of power. When everyone is a potential broadcaster and information spreads instantly, it’s much easier to tear stuff down than to build it up. Putin is a disrupter; he seeks to break the West’s monopoly. […]As we launch fully into the competition over who will lead the nation for the next four years, we have to ask ourselves whether we’re going to resist Putin’s game or play it for him. – Washington Post


As Britain and the Trump administration prepare to launch talks to craft a free-trade agreement between the two close allies, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government revealed Monday that even a super deal won’t be worth that much money to either side. – Washington Post

All told, the ability for NATO to find, track and identify submarines is not just a matter of defense against Russia, but a matter of basic traffic safety on and under the Mediterranean. – USNI News

The trial of a retired Austrian army colonel accused of spying for Russia for decades opened on Monday and was ordered to be held behind closed doors on national security grounds. – Reuters

Simone Rodan-Benzaquen writes: With every exhausting debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism, with every refusal to take into consideration anti-Semitism from the other side of the political divide, with every glance at the overwhelming amount of anti-Semitic hate speech online, and every time I see certain politicians in the U.S. fail to find the courage to speak out clearly and unequivocally and come up with a clear plan to combat this cancer, I get more nervous. We have come to understand that no single country is immune to anti-Semitism. Europe’s experience offers a cautionary tale for the United States. – The Atlantic

Andreas Kluth writes: To get the home countries of economic migrants, from Africa to Afghanistan, to cooperate, the EU should unapologetically use policy sticks and carrots. Participating nations, for example, could get better terms of trade, investment and aid depending on their readiness to repatriate their own migrants from Europe. – Bloomberg 


Fighting erupted in south Somalia on Monday between the national army and regional forces, amid deepening divisions that help Islamist insurgents and may exacerbate regional frictions. – Reuters

An armed gang killed at least 50 people in attacks on villages in the northern Nigerian state of Kaduna on Sunday, Kaduna’s governor said on Monday on a visit to the affected communities. – Reuters

The United States will give Zambia a new one year bilateral grant of $389 million for AIDS relief starting in October after Congressional approval, Zambia’s ministry of health said in a statement. – Reuters

The Americas

The government of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has stepped up extraditions of suspected drug cartel leaders to the United States, official data shows, as Washington presses for increased bilateral cooperation on security. – Reuters

Paris city hall made Brazil’s former leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva an honorary citizen on Monday, in a likely blow to his political enemy President Jair Bolsonaro whose relationship with France has deteriorated. – Reuters

Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli writes: The Venezuelan migration crisis deserves attention and resources. But in providing that assistance, the international community must recognize that it simultaneously needs to pressure Mr. Duque’s administration to protect social leaders. After all, if Mr. Duque’s government can’t commit to protecting the very people it needs to sustain Colombia’s long-sought-after peace, how will it fare in providing for the security of Venezuelans in vulnerable situations? – Washington Post


Protections for this data were mistakenly removed by a Wyze employee in China, allowing the hack. The incident, which put the start-up in a hall of shame with other companies that have fallen victim to big cybersecurity breaches, illustrates the dangers of corporations’ moving operations to the cloud, massive commercial collections of powerful data centers scattered around the world and accessed via the Internet.  – Washington Post

Facebook Inc (FB.O) said on Monday it had removed two networks of fake accounts linked to digital marketing firms in Egypt and India which were pushing dueling narratives about countries in the Gulf on the Facebook and Instagram platforms. – Reuters

The U.S. sued to gain control of cryptocurrency accounts North Korea allegedly used to steal more than $250 million from Bitcoin and Ether exchanges in 2018 in a move that comes as Kim Jong Un’s regime launched one of its biggest military provocations in months. – Bloomberg


The White House on Monday named the first African-American military service chief, nominating a veteran combat pilot and a longtime officer to lead the Air Force, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said. – Wall Street Journal

The House Armed Services Committee is considering clawing back into the Pentagon the money for shipbuilding and aircraft President Donald Trump is redirecting this year to fund border barrier construction. – USNI News

President Donald Trump formally nominated Kenneth “K.J.” Braithwaite, currently the ambassador to Norway, as Navy secretary Monday. – Defense News

Dov S. Zakheim writes: Political partisans will continue to debate whether more funds should be allocated to extending the border wall with Mexico. What should not be a matter of debate, however, is whether DOD budgets should provide a source for that money. At a time when there is widespread consensus that the military faces emerging threats from Russia and China — a development that the United States has not witnessed since the Sino-Soviet split of the mid-1950s — cutting defense programs that have been signed into law is both unwarranted and unwise. – The Hill

John Venable writes: The capabilities that the F-35A provides the U.S. Air Force are vital to the nation’s defense. That fact, coupled with the dramatic drop in price, makes this stealth platform not just more cost-effective than fourth-generation fighters, but actually a cheaper jet to buy while still dominating the field in combat effectiveness. – Heritage Foundation

Trump Administration

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) is preparing to subpoena a witness tied to Ukrainian natural gas company Burisma, in an escalation of the GOP probe of the firm that comes as former vice president Joe Biden’s fortunes are rising in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary. – Washington Post

United States President Donald Trump is reportedly going to drop Vice President Mike Pence to run with former American ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, according to a prediction by CNN political analyst Paul Begala. – Jerusalem Post

GOP senators were treading carefully on Monday over whether they’d vote to confirm Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) to lead the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, with several lawmakers offering tepid praise for the firebrand congressman but refusing to rule out ultimately supporting him. – Politico

Samuel Brannen, Christian Stirling Haig, and Katherine Schmidt write: To date, the U.S. government has failed to develop a systematic response to the rising tide of global protests. The Unites States has thus far treated each as an anomaly rather than a greater trend, failing to scale up U.S. capacity to achieve strategic ends, including by shoring up global democracy and pushing back against the spread of authoritarian tactics. – Center for Strategic and International Studies