Fdd's overnight brief

November 19, 2019

In The News


Iran’s top paramilitary force threatened to crack down on Iranians protesting a rise in fuel prices, as Tehran struggles to counter U.S. sanctions that are crippling the country’s economy and posing a risk to the government. – Wall Street Journal 

Several senior Iraqi officials named in a New York Times report based on leaked Iranian intelligence cables denied on Monday that they were close to Iran or that they had given sensitive information to its government. – New York Times 

Iran has breached another limit in its nuclear deal with major powers by accumulating slightly more than 130 tonnes of heavy water, a substance used in a type of reactor it is developing, a U.N. nuclear watchdog report showed on Monday. – Reuters 

Iran on Monday alternatively downplayed and demonized ongoing protests across the country that have killed at least five people and renewed pressure on the government as the country struggles under the weight of U.S. economic sanctions. – Associated Press 

Iran said it still faced riots even though the situation was “calmer” Monday after days of violent protests sparked by a shock decision to hike petrol prices in the sanctions-hit country. – Agence France-Presse 

The United States said on Monday it will no longer waive sanctions related to Iran’s Fordow nuclear plant after Tehran resumed uranium enrichment at the underground site. – Reuters 

Editorial: Above all, the world should speak up in support of Iranian aspirations to become a normal country, instead of a theocracy that spreads revolution and terror. Barack Obama made an historic blunder when he stayed mute amid the Iranian regime’s bloody crackdown on democratic protests in 2009. President Trump should not make the same mistake. – Wall Street Journal 

Eli Lake writes: More important, the digital resilience of Iran’s freedom movement is a U.S. national security issue. It’s too soon to say whether these latest convulsions will topple a regime that has made war throughout the Middle East. But it’s clear that online activism was enough of a threat to Khamenei and his deputies that he tried to turn the internet off. The rest of the world should be grateful that so many Iranians have found ways to defy his orders. – Bloomberg 

Patrick Clawson, Mehdi Khalaji, and Farzin Nadimi write: The U.S. government has limited options for influencing Iran’s domestic developments, and any statements by the Trump administration about support for the people will have little credibility, largely because of the U.S. visa ban instituted against them. […]Furthermore, the government should give serious consideration to asking U.S.-based social media companies to block accounts held by foreign leaders who make those outlets unavailable in their countries, recalling that Khamenei makes active use of his Twitter account despite the service being banned in Iran. – Washington Institute


Explosions were heard in Syria near Damascus International Airport early on Tuesday morning, the official SANA news agency reported. The agency gave no further details, but the Israeli army announced at a similar time that it had intercepted rockets fired from Syria. – Times of Israel 

The Israeli military said it intercepted four incoming rockets from Syria on Tuesday and explosions were heard shortly after that in Damascus, a week after another Israeli strike targeted a top Palestinian militant in the Syrian capital. – Associated Press 

Assyrian Christians like Simon, who escaped the town’s occupation by the Islamic State group in 2015 and did not choose to emigrate, now anxiously watch the advance of Turkish forces towards their villages in the south of Hasakeh province. – Agence France-Presse 


Turkey has ordered the detention of 133 military personnel over suspected links to a network Ankara accuses of organizing an attempted coup in 2016, the state-run Anadolu news agency said on Tuesday. – Reuters 

Senior members of ISIS are plotting mass prison breaks and a resurgence of terror after taking refuge in Turkey, according to the head of Iraqi Military Intelligence. – CNN 

Gönül Tol writes: Despite deepening ties between Turkey and Russia and Ankara’s decision not to join Western sanctions against Moscow, Turkey sees growing Russian influence in the Black Sea as a threat and leans on NATO as a safety valve. Turkey-Western relations may be at an all-time low, and Russia-Turkey ties might be their closest ever, but Turkey is not leaving NATO anytime soon. – Middle East Institute 


The U.S. no longer will consider Israeli settlements to be illegal under international law, officials said Monday, in a move that formalizes the Trump administration’s treatment of the West Bank and shifts decades of U.S. policy. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. embassy in Jerusalem on Monday warned Americans about traveling in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, soon after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the United States was softening its position on Israel’s Jewish settlements. – Reuters 

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, warned that a U.S. change of position on Monday on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank would have “dangerous consequences” on the prospects of reviving the Middle East peace process. – Reuters 

Israel praised a U.S. decision on Monday to soften its position on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, a move that upset the Palestinians who said it contradicts international law. – Reuters 

The EU’s position on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank has not changed, the bloc’s foreign policy chief said on Monday, after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the Trump administration would ease its stance toward Israel. – Politico 


Fast-forward 16 years, and Iraqis for weeks have been protesting the sectarian political system set up in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion. Despite calls for change, Iraq’s government has doubled down on rejecting reforms while Iraq’s military has brutally cracked down on the uprising. – Washington Post 

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday said the United States was prepared to impose sanctions on any Iraqi officials found to be corrupt as well as those responsible for the deaths and wounding of peaceful protesters. – Reuters 

Russia says it has repatriated another 32 children of members of the Islamic State group from Iraq. – Associated Press 

Anti-government demonstrations in southern Iraq blocked roads leading to the country’s main port and an oil field on Monday, while the Iraqi central bank reduced working hours because of the ongoing unrest, security officials said. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

A recent flurry of American airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in southern Libya has seriously disrupted the terrorist group’s efforts to reorganize and carry out attacks in one of its most important hubs outside the Middle East, military and counterterrorism officials say. – New York Times 

An international rights group says Egyptian authorities have arrested, raided houses and imposed travel bans against dozens of relatives of dissidents who live abroad, apparently in reprisal for their activism. – Associated Press 

A heavy deployment of Lebanese security forces fanned out in central Beirut on Tuesday, ahead of a parliamentary session protesters have vowed to prevent as they demonstrate against the ruling elite. – Reuters 

The Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Houthi movement in Yemen said on Monday the Houthis had seized a vessel towing a South Korean drilling rig at the southern end of the Red Sea. – Reuters 

Timothy Kaldas writes: As Egypt marks the third anniversary of its bailout by the International Monetary Fund, the results are decidedly mixed. […]Between the cost of patronage, lost investments, and market instability, the military domination of Egypt’s economy is a luxury the country can no longer afford. – Bloomberg 

Rabah Arezki writes: The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) needs bolder and deeper economic reforms. GDP growth is projected to be 0.6 percent in the region in 2019, a fraction of what is needed to create enough jobs for its fast-growing working-age population. Even in the few countries that have had periods of higher growth since the 2011 Arab Spring, poverty rates have failed to drop, suggesting the need for reforms to instill fair competition and promote more inclusive patterns of growth. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

Adding a further hurdle to reviving stalled denuclearization talks, Pyongyang on Monday rejected the idea of another nuclear summit that “gives us nothing,” a day after President Trump had urged North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by tweet to “act quickly, get the deal done”—and closed with, “See you soon!” – Wall Street Journal

North Korea said on Tuesday that the United States’ decision to postpone a joint military drill with South Korea was not enough of an incentive for it to return to the negotiating table, and that it would not discuss denuclearization until Washington ended its “hostile policy.” – New York Times 

North Korean state media published detailed reports on Tuesday of a visit by leader Kim Jong Un to two fisheries, underscoring his drive to build economic independence as negotiations with the United States to lift punishing sanctions soured. – Reuters 

South Korean and U.S. officials broke off talks on Tuesday aimed at settling the cost burden for Seoul of hosting the U.S. military, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry said, amid a public backlash over a $5 billion U.S. demand for the bill. – Reuters 

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Tuesday he believed South Korea “can and should” contribute more on cost-sharing for hosting the U.S. military, after Seoul broke off the talks earlier in the day following a public backlash. – Reuters


When President Trump’s advisers suggested that Beijing resume buying around $20 billion in American farm products as part of a trade deal, Mr. Trump wasn’t satisfied. In a dramatic public retelling in the Cabinet Room, he said he pressed his team to more than triple that figure, then trimmed that a little and asked for up to $50 billion in annual purchases. – New York Times 

The United States government has failed to stop China from stealing intellectual property from American universities and lacks a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the threat, a congressional report concluded Monday. – Associated Press 

China’s ambassador to Britain has accused the U.K. and U.S. of interfering in the internal affairs of China and Hong Kong as authorities in the semi-autonomous territory struggle to contain months of protests. – Associated Press 

A report in the New York Times that included 400 pages of leaked internal documents on the internment of Uighur Muslims was “fabricated” and prompted by “hostile foreign forces”, the government of China’s far western region of Xinjiang said. – Reuters 

China confirmed on Monday that its first domestically built aircraft carrier had sailed through the Taiwan Strait for “routine” training and tests after Taipei accused Beijing of intimidation around upcoming elections. – Agence France-Presse 

Editorial: China will try to intimidate into silence countries that depend on its money and trade, but that’s no excuse for Western leaders, the World Bank or United Nations. Muslim leaders should also be called out for their silence. In October the U.S. finally imposed sanctions on Chinese individuals and groups involved in the eradication campaign against Uighur culture, but more can be done. Chinese leaders care about world opinion, and they need to hear that the world will not ignore their abuses against the Uighurs. – Wall Street Journal 

Derek Scissors writes: Is it a good idea for governments to interfere with supply chains? Multiple parts of the U.S. government certainly believe so and are seeking to expand the current trade dispute with China. While it’s wise to be skeptical of government intervention, there are sound reasons why some supply chains that include America should not include China. And even if ongoing bilateral talks achieve limited success, Washington is likely to continue in some form to try to displace certain supply chains. – War on the Rocks


A Taliban official told the Associated Press on Tuesday that an American and an Australian held hostage for the last three years has been released. The announcement comes shortly after it was revealed that three detained Taliban commanders had been flown to Qatar.- Washington Post 

A court struck down the government’s emergency anti-mask law as unconstitutional, a ruling that underscored the independence of the city’s British-style judiciary that is under pressure from China to back a stronger crackdown on social unrest. – Wall Street Journal 

As the Hong Kong leadership — backed by Beijing — is increasingly cracking down on pro-democracy protests in the semiautonomous territory, some argue that the West’s most credible leverage over the Chinese leadership there hinges on the British National Overseas (BNO) passport category. – Washington Post 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called for all sides to exercise restraint in the escalating Hong Kong conflict, and said the territory’s government should start an independent investigation into incidents during the half-year of pro-democracy protests. – New York Times 

About 100 anti-government protesters remained holed up at a Hong Kong university Tuesday as a police siege of the campus entered its third day. – Associated Press 

New Hong Kong police chief Chris Tang took office on Tuesday with a warning that “fake news” was undermining the reputation of his police force. – Reuters 


Russia on Monday handed over three navy ships it seized a year ago from Ukraine, Moscow and Kiev authorities said, in the latest move to ease tensions between the two countries ahead of a crucial summit. – Agence France-Presse 

Senate Republicans are confiding in reporters a growing sense of unease about President Trump’s decisions that align with Russian priorities at the expense of U.S. interests. – Washington Examiner 

President Trump’s interest in going to Moscow to celebrate the end of World War II worries NATO allies who fear that his visit might help the Kremlin mask aggression against Lithuania. – Washington Examiner 

A Russian court on Tuesday ruled to keep former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan in custody facing spying charges after it rejected his appeal against the extension of his detention until late December, Interfax news agency reported. – Reuters 

Leonid Bershidsky writes: An article over the weekend in The Sunday Times says that a parliamentary report in the U.K. has concluded that it was impossible to quantify the impact of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 Brexit referendum. […]This doesn’t mean, however, that foreign propaganda’s impact couldn’t be measured quite precisely in the future — if, that is, anyone really wanted to quantify it. – Bloomberg

Petr Akopov writes: Russia’s geopolitical strategy, place and future are being debated all over the world. But practically none of the great power leaders share his opinion with the public. However, it is not the first time that French President Macron has reflected aloud on Russia’s choices. And now he has identified three scenarios for the future of our country. But they are overly categorical. – Middle East Media Research Institute


Mali’s military says 24 soldiers are dead in the latest extremist attack as alarm grows about the vast Sahel region as a haven for fighters linked to the Islamic State group and al-Qaida. – Associated Press 

The United States on Monday imposed sanctions on Kenya’s former attorney general, Amos Sitswila Wako, accusing him of involvement in “significant” corruption, according to a statement from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. – Reuters 

The deadly crackdown by Sudanese security forces against pro-democracy demonstrators last June may have amounted to a crime against humanity, a leading human rights group said Monday. – Associated Press 

The Americas

Thousands of indigenous Bolivians flooded into this capital city of almost a million people on Monday as part of a broader effort to fatally weaken the one-week-old government of interim President Jeanine Añez, in part by depriving it of food and fuel. – Wall Street Journal 

Pete Buttigieg told a Latino forum that he’s open to sending the United States military into Mexico to fight drug cartels and restore order in the country. – Washington Examiner 

Nicaraguan police on Monday accused 16 anti-government protesters of planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the Central American country, which has been rocked by more than a year-and-a-half of protests against the government. – Reuters 


The Commerce Department on Monday announced that the temporary license allowing U.S. companies to do business with Chinese telecommunications group Huawei had been extended by 90 days. – The Hill 

A group of top Democratic senators from four key committees on Monday unveiled their priorities for the nation’s first comprehensive privacy bill, reinvigorating a debate that had stalled for months on Capitol Hill. – The Hill  

2020 presidential candidate Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) on Monday published a strategy for how she would secure elections against cyber and disinformation threats if elected president, the same day she joined a group of Senate Democrats in pushing for election security funding. – The Hill

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) on Monday introduced a bill that would curtail the flow of sensitive information about people in the U.S. to China through large tech companies like Apple and TikTok. – The Hill  

Michael Sexton and Eliza Campbell write: The role of cybersecurity in the future of geopolitics in the Middle East and the surrounding regions will have much to do with individual state and enterprise preparedness. With cyber threats a growing source of interstate tension, governments must take measures to increase national cyber preparedness that are tailored to their vulnerabilities and cyber ecosystems. – Middle East Institute 

James Andrew Lewis writes: One common complaint heard from European governments (and others) is that the United States isn’t really serious about banning Chinese telecom suppliers like Huawei. They point to the presence of Huawei equipment in U.S. telecom networks as evidence that the risk of using Huawei is exaggerated. While the charge is a bit of self-serving and an excuse for inaction by some other governments, it reflects a degree of distrust and a misunderstanding of U.S policy. The FCC has a chance to change this in November in the upcoming vote on “Protecting National Security Through FCC Programs.” – Center for Strategic and International Studies


It’s no secret that Pentagon leaders believe that future wars will be fought in space. But operating concepts and battle plans remain under such tight wraps that it’s hard for the defense industry to start making the satellites, spacecraft, and materiel that will be needed for the fight. – Defense One

 Blue Origin has successfully challenged a U.S. Air Force contract for military space launch – before a contract has ever been issued. – Defense News 

U.S. Space Command is expected grow by 25 percent in the next two months as the military’s newest combatant command comes into its own, the head of the new organization said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event Nov. 18. – C4ISRNET

The Navy accepted delivery of USNS Miguel Keith (T-ESB-5), the expeditionary sea base that was damaged while under construction when its dry dock flooded in July 2018 and subsequently set back by about six months. – USNI News 

The Navy completed its second full-scope audit amid an effort to reform its business practices to support the National Defense Strategy and great power competition. – USNI News 

Jason Rathje writes: As a co-creator of the Open Topic, I am admittedly biased. And, certainly, mission-focused, usage-backed metrics are needed. It will take some time to understand the effectiveness of this new approach. However, these early signs indicate how a platform approach to acquisitions can enable solutions to find problems quickly, representing a changing paradigm for defense acquisitions. – War on the Rocks 

Long War

The United States on Monday imposed sanctions on four companies and two people operating in Syria, Turkey, the Gulf and Europe for providing financial and logistical support to Islamic State. – Reuters 

In October 2019, Seattle authorities confiscated five rifles, including an AK-47, and three pistols and other gun components from 24-year-old Kaleb James Cole, an avowed neo-Nazi. […]Against this backdrop, this report will review Atomwaffen Division members’ online activity promulgating hate speech and calls for violence and also showing means of taking action. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Noah Feldman writes: U.S.-born Hoda Muthana should be in an American prison for joining Islamic State, the caliphate that terrorized, murdered and raped innocent civilians. Instead, she and her 2-year-old son are stuck in a refugee camp in Syria — because the U.S. government, relying on a technicality, has stripped her of her passport and told her that she and her son are not citizens. […] The fact that Muthana is morally culpable shouldn’t distract us from the concern that her case will set a precedent. – Bloomberg 

Trump Administration

A counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine told lawmakers last week that he was shocked to overhear a phone call in which a top diplomat assured President Trump that Ukrainian officials would pursue an investigation of interest to the U.S. commander in chief — a probe that the diplomat later suggested was of former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival. – Washington Post 

The House impeachment hearing Tuesday is set to feature one of the Democrats’ star witnesses: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a Purple Heart recipient who is expected to testify about his alarm at President Trump’s request that Ukraine investigate his political opponents. – Washington Post 

U.S. State Department officials were informed that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was feeling pressure from the Trump administration to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden even before the July phone call that has led to impeachment hearings in Washington, two people with knowledge of the matter told The Associated Press. – Associated Press 

Democrats responded skeptically on Monday to President Donald Trump’s declaration that he might be willing to testify in his impeachment inquiry and also said they were examining the truthfulness of his testimony in the Russia 2016 election interference probe. – Reuters