Fdd's overnight brief

March 4, 2019

In The News


Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei advised the government last July not to rely on European efforts to protect Tehran against U.S. sanctions, months after Washington withdrew from a nuclear deal with Iran and reimposed penalties. – Reuters

Iran is merging four military-linked banks and another financial institution with the country’s oldest bank to boost efficiency and help stabilize the sector, the central bank said on Saturday, as the economy reels under U.S. sanctions. – Reuters

The Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani forewarned Middle Eastern allies of the United States that their countries are facing the likely possibility of an uprising by their “humiliated citizens” if they continue relying on Washington for support. – Jerusalem Post

A young Iranian chess player who refused to play against an Israeli in a recent international tournament has been hailed as a hero in Iranian media, and this week met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. – Times of Israel

The Islamic Republic of Iran’s judiciary charged a female equality activist with violating its national security because she sought to “normalize same-sex relations” in a country that imposes capital punishment for homosexuality. – Jerusalem Post

Gerald F. Seib writes: In the years just after my detention, there actually was reason to believe that U.S.-Iranian relations might start to improve. The Iran-Iraq war finally ended in 1988, removing a giant open wound in the relationship, and many observers thought the strategic logic that had made the U.S. and Iran, under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, partners for decades might slowly start to reassert itself. But it was not to be. – Wall Street Journal


U.S.-backed forces have resumed their assault to capture Islamic State’s last patch of territory in eastern Syria, ending a truce that allowed for an evacuation before an intense final battle. – Wall Street Journal  

Efforts by Arab states to re-engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, now that he has prevailed in the war, have been put on hold after a push by the United States to deter its allies from renewing ties with his government. – Washington Post

The authority that polices the treaty banning chemical arms said Friday it had found “reasonable grounds” that chlorine weapons were deployed in a fatal assault on a rebel Syrian town last year. – New York Times

Islamic State militants are desperately fighting to hang on to the last tiny piece of territory they hold on the riverside in eastern Syria, deploying snipers, guided missiles and surprise tunnel attacks. The resistance prompted a fierce pounding Sunday by the U.S-led coalition and its ground allies in their final push to end the extremist group’s territorial hold. – Associated Press

Nearly 300 Syrians suspected of belonging to the Islamic State jihadist group have been freed because they have “no blood on their hands”, Kurdish authorities who were holding them said. – Agence France-Presse

Michael Eisenstadt and Soner Cagaptay write: Although President Trump was following through on an oft-repeated campaign pledge when he announced a full withdrawal in December, the decision was still viewed by many as a hasty move that could upset the fragile equilibrium created by the U.S. military presence in Syria. […] In the end, President Trump will have to reconcile two incompatible campaign promises—disengaging from the Middle East or defeating IS. Doing so means making hard choices that may not align with his preferences, but could go far toward safeguarding U.S. interests in the region. – Washington Institute  


The United States has officially shuttered its consulate in Jerusalem, downgrading the status of its main diplomatic mission to the Palestinians by folding it into the U.S. Embassy to Israel. For decades, the consulate functioned as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians. Now, that outreach will be handled by a Palestinian affairs unit, under the command of the embassy. – Associated Press

Palestinians deliberately drove a car into Israeli troops in the occupied West Bank on Monday and two of the attackers were shot dead after critically injuring an officer, the Israeli military said. – Reuters

The West Bank-based Palestinian Fatah faction on Saturday accused Hamas of torturing Fatah members in the Gaza Strip. Fatah officials said at least 100 of their members were detained by Hamas in the past week. The crackdown, according to the officials, came in response to demonstrations organized by Fatah to express support for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. – Jerusalem Post

Palestinians on Sunday warned that Washington had ended its role in the Middle East peace process, now that the merger of the United States’ Consulate General in Jerusalem with the US Embassy is expected to go into effect on Monday. – Jerusalem Post

David M. Halbfinger writes: With the corruption case hanging over his head and a stiff challenge from Benny Gantz, a retired army chief of staff whose security credentials rival Mr. Netanyahu’s, Israelis are starting to ask whether Israel can not only survive, but thrive, without the man who has come to dominate their national self-image. – New York Times

Bret Stephens writes: When the final chapter on Benjamin Netanyahu’s political life is written — and it may be a long time from now — he is likely to go down as the Richard Nixon of Israel: politically cunning, strategically canny, toxically flawed. The flaws came further to light on Thursday when Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that he would indict the prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. – New York Times

Natan Sachs writes: Netanyahu has not been indicted, let alone convicted, yet. He could still win the elections on April 9. And he is far too savvy a politician to count out. All else being equal, however, he likely won’t be Israel’s prime minister for very long. – The Atlantic

Saudi Arabia

Saudi authorities said Friday they are preparing to place a group of detained women’s rights activists on trial despite months of international pressure to release them. The decision to try the activists suggests an intensification of a political crackdown overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, who has come under global scrutiny following the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October. – Wall Street Journal  

The family of a dual Saudi-U.S. citizen imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than a year are claiming that he has been subjected to routine torture and is on the verge of an emotional breakdown. – Associated Press  

Nicholas Kristof writes: Jared Kushner slipped quietly into Saudi Arabia this week for a meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, so the question I’m trying to get the White House to answer is this: Did they discuss American help for a Saudi nuclear program? – New York Times

Middle East & North Africa

Two years ago, American Marines battled Al Qaeda militants in western Tunisia along the border with Algeria. A Marine and a Tunisian soldier were wounded and two other Marines were later commended for their valor in the gunfight. Yet many details of the February 2017 clash remain murky, largely because of the Tunisian government’s political sensitivities over the presence of American forces in its territory. – New York Times

Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan said he’s working to persuade Turkey to drop plans to buy a Russian missile defense system, saying that would imperil prospects to sell the NATO ally the next-generation F-35 jet it’s helping to build. – Bloomberg

Angry Algerians have protested into the night despite President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s offer of a new constitution and a truncated next term. – Associated Press

Yet many Yazidis, followers of a minority faith, are still missing, five years after IS militants stormed Yazidi towns and villages in Iraq’s Sinjar region and abducted women and children. Women were forced into sexual slavery, and boys were taken to be indoctrinated in jihadi ideology. – Associated Press

Korean Peninsula

The U.S. military is ceasing annual large-scale joint exercises with South Korea, two U.S. officials said Friday, after the Trump administration deemed them too expensive. – Wall Street Journal  

President Trump on Sunday blamed the congressional testimony of Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer and fixer, for the collapse in negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program last week — continuing to vent about the investigations encircling him and his associates. – Washington Post  

On Friday, the Warmbiers emerged into the public eye again, this time with a blistering statement directed at the president. They said they could no longer be silent after the summit meeting this week with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, and after hearing Mr. Trump say that he believed Mr. Kim’s claim that he did not know what had happened to Mr. Warmbier while he was in custody. – New York Times

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Monday that Seoul will actively try to get the nuclear negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang quickly back on track. – Associated Press  

The White House national security adviser on Sunday described President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a success despite the lack of an agreement providing for verifiable dismantling of the North’s nuclear sites. – Associated Press  

National security adviser John Bolton defended Donald Trump after the president’s failed nuclear weapons summit with North Korea’s leader last week. – Politico

President Donald Trump on Friday defended himself against criticism that he gave North Korean leader Kim Jong Un a pass for the death of American student Otto Warmbier — including from Warmbier’s parents — saying “of course” he holds the regime responsible. – Politico

Adam Taylor writes: President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un in Hanoi this week was supposed to iron out some of the details of the historic — though remarkably vague — agreement the two leaders had reached when they met in Singapore on June 12. Instead, the Hanoi summit ended early and abruptly, without an agreement between Trump and Kim. Analysts are now picking over accounts of the talks to try to work out what went wrong. – Washington Post

E. Tammy Kim writes: Seoul has never had the luxury of selective dealings with Pyongyang. North Korea’s nuclear stockpiles are a less immediate threat than the mass of conventional arms lining the Demilitarized Zone, just across the border. For South Korea, sanctions against the North are not simply a virtue-signaling device, but a policy with immediate, real-world consequences. – New York Times

Uri Friedman writes: Donald Trump’s summit with Kim Jong Un collapsed not because the parties couldn’t agree on how North Korea would get rid of its nuclear weapons altogether, but over something far more modest: the price for preventing Pyongyang’s arsenal from becoming even deadlier. – The Atlantic


China and the U.S. are in the final stage of completing a trade deal, with Beijing offering to lower tariffs and other restrictions on American farm, chemical, auto and other products and Washington considering removing most, if not all, sanctions levied against Chinese products since last year. – Wall Street Journal  

An executive at Huawei Technologies Co. has sued the Canadian government, police and border officials claiming her legal rights were violated when she was detained at Vancouver International Airport in December following an extradition arrest request from the U.S. – Wall Street Journal  

President Xi Jinping, battling a persistent downturn in China’s economy, is trying to gird his rule by demanding absolute loyalty from the Communist Party in an effort to stifle simmering dissent. – Wall Street Journal  

Canada said Friday the U.S. had presented enough evidence to proceed with the extradition hearing for a Huawei Technologies Co. top executive, clearing the way for a case at the center of tensions between the U.S., China and Canada. – Wall Street Journal  

A year since effectively making himself China’s leader for life, Xi Jinping appears firmly in charge, despite a slowing economy, a trade war with the United States and rumbles of discontent over his concentration of power. – Associated Press  

In an unusual step, China’s ceremonial legislature is due to endorse a law meant to help end a bruising tariff war with Washington by discouraging officials from pressuring foreign companies to hand over technology. – Associated Press  

Sophie Yan writes: This year, Mr Xi will stride into the Great Hall of the People in far tougher times – the economy is seeing its poorest economic growth in nearly three decades, hampered by a protracted trade war with the US. Beijing is also seeing the first signs of a backlash over its ‘Belt and Road’ plan – an infrastructure-led plan intended to boost its global clout – as partner countries cancel or reconsider previously agreed projects over debt concerns. – The Telegraph

Claude Barfield writes: Germany has announced that it will seek to sign a “no spy” pact with Beijing as a condition for allowing the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to participate in contracts providing baseline and other equipment in the rollout of 5G technology. […] the security risks associated with 5G are orders of magnitude more complex — and possibly unsolvable at the moment — than those stemming from the rollouts of previous generations of mobile technology. – American Enterprise Institute  


American negotiators and Taliban officials set to resume negotiations in the Qatari capital on Saturday expressed guarded optimism that they are getting closer to an agreement that could help end 17 years of conflict, America’s longest war. – New York Times

Taliban suicide bombers penetrated a key government military base in southern Afghanistan on Friday, in a major attack that inflicted heavy casualties on the eve of the latest round of Afghan peace talks, local authorities said. – New York Times

The United States is trying to prevent simmering tensions between India and Pakistan from impacting a third country: Afghanistan, where a fragile peace push is underway to try to end more than 17 years of war with Taliban insurgents. – Reuters

South Asia

Pakistan released a captured Indian fighter pilot on Friday, aiming to end a cycle of retaliatory attacks that brought the nuclear-armed foes close to war and could set a precedent for future clashes. – Wall Street Journal  

The aerial clash, the first by the South Asian rivals in nearly five decades, was a rare test for the Indian military — and it left observers a bit dumbfounded. While the challenges faced by the India’s armed forces are no secret, its loss of a plane last week to a country whose military is about half the size and receives a quarter of the funding was still telling. – New York Times

Intense shelling erupted along the disputed border between India and Pakistan on Saturday, killing several civilians and making it clear that hostilities between the two nuclear-armed nations were hardly over — only a day after Pakistan handed over a captured Indian fighter pilot in what it called a “good-will gesture.” – New York Times

For villagers living near Kashmir’s dividing line, the fact that Pakistan and India have taken steps back from the brink is a temporary relief. In this region that is at the heart of the conflict between India and Pakistan, residents have endured three decades of insurgency and cross-border firing with no end in sight. – Washington Post

He parachuted out over enemy territory. Fired in the air to keep back angry locals. Jumped into a pond and then destroyed documents by eating them. Ever since Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, an Indian fighter pilot, crashed in Pakistani territory on Wednesday, the story of his survival has transfixed a nation. – Washington Post

The deadly bombing in Kashmir, a region claimed by both countries, was one of scores of militant attacks on the Indian-controlled side that have taken thousands of lives in the past quarter-century. India has blamed them on guerrilla groups with covert Pakistani support; Pakistan has routinely denied such charges and focused instead on alleged abuses by Indian troops. But behind those denials is a complicated mix of reasons that Pakistani officials are unwilling or unable to challenge the violent sway of underground, anti-India groups. – Washington Post

The United States said on Sunday it was trying to find out if Pakistan used U.S.-built F-16 jets to down an Indian warplane, potentially in violation of U.S. agreements, as the stand-off between the nuclear-armed Asian neighbors appeared to be easing. – Reuters

Basharat Peer writes: As fighter planes circled overhead and several thousand more Indian troops were sent to Kashmir, the sense of panic increased. In a renewed crackdown, hundreds have been arrested. But the necessary question is ignored: What led that young Kashmiri man, Adil Ahmad Dar, to become a suicide bomber who brought South Asia to the brink of war? The last suicide bombing in Kashmir — and the first — was 19 years ago. – New York Times

Hijab Shah and John Schaus writes: In a tense, highly fluid interaction between India and Pakistan, there is a great deal of uncertainty. As of this writing, however, we do have some facts: we know that India blames Pakistan for harboring—if not outright abetting—the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorists that attacked an Indian military convoy and killed 40 soldiers in Pulwama, Indian Kashmir, on February 14.[…] Although Pakistan’s release of Wing Commander Abhinandan has allowed for a cooling of hostilities and a potential opening for the resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan, tensions are far from being diffused. – Center for Strategic and International Studies  


The chief of Russia’s armed forces endorsed on Saturday the kind of tactics used by his country to intervene abroad, repeating a philosophy of so-called hybrid war that has earned him notoriety in the West, especially among American officials who have accused Russia of election meddling in 2016. – New York Times

Russia will “do everything possible” to avoid outside military intervention in Venezuela, Parliament Speaker Valentina Matvienko told the Latin American nation’s vice president. – Bloomberg

Hundreds of mercenaries linked to Russian military intelligence have been backing the rebel commander of Libya’s breakaway eastern half, The Telegraph has learned, as Moscow further expands its presence in Africa. – The Telegraph  


The son of Dawn Sturgess, a British woman fatally poisoned by a nerve agent discarded in a residential area by Russian intelligence officers, on Sunday asked President Vladimir V. Putin to allow British investigators to question the men presumed responsible, telling Mr. Putin, “I am appealing to you as a human being.” – New York Times

Britain’s international trade secretary on Sunday welcomed proposals drawn up by hard-line Brexit supporters that outline what it would take for them to support Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal with the European Union. – Associated Press  

Roger Cohen writes: Britain is in a funk. “Just get this over with,” is a plea I heard often from Brexit-battered Brits, as if they were waiting to have a limb amputated. After nearly three years, they’re done. All the oxygen has been sucked from the room by the Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May’s floundering attempt to end the country’s 46-year membership in the European Union. – New York Times

William Echikson writes: Anti-Semitism is back in Europe. Cries of “dirty Jew” during Yellow Jackets protests in France, anti-Semitic posters condemning Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros in Hungary, a row over anti-Semitic remarks that threatens to tear the Labour Party apart in the U.K. — these are all part of the same worrying trend. – Politico

Desmond Lachman writes: It is tempting for the United States and for markets to dismiss the United Kingdom’s Brexit problem as that affecting a spent imperial power with little relevance to the United States and global economies. However, that would be a grave mistake. – American Enterprise Institute  


The Somali militant Islamist group al-Shabab claimed a double bombing and siege of a hotel in downtown Mogadishu that began late Thursday and continued for 20 hours until Somali special forces cleared the area of attackers. – Washington Post

A senior jihadist leader in Mali has reappeared in a video, months after the authorities said he had been killed. The death of Amadou Koufa was widely reported, after a raid by French forces in November. The video, in which Mr Koufa mocks the reports of his death, has been verified by Site, a US-based monitoring group. – BBC News  

Israel Defense Forces commandos are reportedly training local forces in more than a dozen African nations, part of a broad strategy by Israel to boost its diplomatic ties in the continent. – Times of Israel  

North America

Representative Ilhan Omar, a freshman Democrat from Minnesota, came under scrutiny again this week because of her comments about Israel. […]The sentence that garnered the most attention was, “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is O.K. for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” – New York Times

In Canada, the House of Commons’ justice committee generally goes about its work in earnest obscurity. Jody Wilson-Raybould, a former cabinet minister, dramatically changed that with her appearance on Wednesday, which stretched on for almost four hours. Ms. Wilson-Raybould accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his aides and others of applying improper pressure and making “veiled threats” to get her to reach a settlement in a criminal corruption case involving SNC-Lavalin, the major construction and engineering company in Montreal. – New York Times

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada promised a fresh approach to politics, one that was based on openness, decency and liberalism. Now he is embroiled in a scandal involving accusations of back-room deal-making and bullying tactics, all to support a Canadian company accused of bribing the Libyan government when it was run by the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi. – New York Times

Latin America

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó said he plans to return to his home country on Monday in a high-stakes strategy that directly challenges President Nicolás Maduro’s authority and could end with Mr. Guaidó in jail. – Wall Street Journal  

What will happen to Venezuela’s opposition leader, and the movement he leads, when he returns to Venezuela? That question has been asked across South America since Juan Guaidó left his country more than a week ago, defying a travel ban from Venezuela’s courts to embark on a largely improvised tour of the continent to shore up support. – New York Times

A Colombian prosecutor assigned to investigate the country’s largest former rebel group was arrested and accused of accepting a bribe in the case of a former rebel commander wanted in the United States, the authorities said Friday. – New York Times


The Air Force’s B-52 Stratofortress aircraft — America’s longest-serving bombers — are expected to get an upgrade that will allow them to drop bombs like never before. Airmen at Barksdale Air Force Base have been testing a major upgrade for the revolutionary Conventional Rotary Launchers of the decades-old bombers. – Business Insider  

Boeing’s deliveries of its KC-46 tanker to the U.S. Air Force have been suspended as the service investigates a series of problems with foreign object debris, its top acquisition official confirmed Friday. – Defense News  

The Navy has issued a draft request for proposal to design and build its planned class of 20 next-generation guided-missile frigates (FFG(X)). Posted late Friday, the detailed design and construction RFP draft will serve as a practice run for shipbuilders to pitch their designs for the small surface combatants that are set to follow on the two classes of Littoral Combat Ships currently in production. – USNI News

Long War

The Dutch husband of Shamima Begum, the teenager who fled Britain to join the Islamic State, has told British news outlets that he wants to return to the Netherlands with his wife and their newborn son. – New York Times

A New Zealand man detained in Syria after joining the Islamic State militant group will not be stripped of citizenship but could face criminal charges if he returns, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Monday. – Reuters

One of the sons of the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is emerging as the new leader of the militant group, according to the State Department. The United States is offering a reward for information on Hamza bin Laden, thought to be about 30 years old and based near the Afghan-Pakistan border, of $1 million. – USA Today

Trump Administration

President Trump’s job-approval rating has ticked up, but many of his party’s policy positions are viewed as out of the mainstream, and there is broad opposition to his effort to fund a border wall by declaring a national emergency, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds. – Wall Street Journal  

Republicans in recent years have gained access to information long considered too sensitive to share with Congress. Now that House Democrats are in charge, the tables are turning as party lawmakers embark on wide-ranging inquiries into President Trump and his administration. – Wall Street Journal  

The House Judiciary Committee this week plans to request documents from more than 60 associates of President Trump, including from his sons and from his longtime chief financial officer, as part of a House investigation into obstruction of justice, corruption and abuse of power. – Wall Street Journal  

Lawyers for Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, asked a federal judge in Northern Virginia on Friday to show leniency when he sentences Mr. Manafort next week, casting him as a loyal, compassionate, idealistic man who has learned a “harsh lesson.” – New York Times

Sen. Rand Paul is throwing his support behind a resolution that would block President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency to build his long-promised U.S.-Mexico border wall, defying a warning from the president and putting the measure on track to passage. – Washington Post