Fdd's overnight brief

November 22, 2019

FDD Research & Analysis

In The News


A sudden move to raise fuel prices in Iran has sparked nationwide protests over the past week and, in turn, drawn a fierce crackdown by security forces, marking some of the worst violence in the country in years. Scores have been reported killed. […]Over the past two years, Iran’s economy has worsened because of U.S. sanctions and declining oil sales — revenue the government uses to pay salaries and fund imports. Iran’s economy is expected to contract by 8.7 percent this year, according to the World Bank. – Washington Post

The Iranian authorities moved Thursday to project the appearance of normalcy after a week of violent protests over gasoline price increases, partly restoring internet access and decreeing that the mayhem that convulsed the country was really a foreign-backed failure. – New York Times

The U.N. nuclear watchdog’s top inspector will travel to Tehran next week to press Iran to finally explain the origin of uranium traces found at an undeclared site, the agency’s acting chief said on Thursday. – Reuters

President Donald Trump says Iran is so “unstable” that the Iranian government has shut down the internet so Iranians cannot disclose what he says is the “tremendous violence” occurring in the country. – Associated Press

The Iranian nuclear crisis escalated on Thursday, with inspectors asking for support and diplomats expressing “grave concern” over the Islamic Republic’s decision to expand uranium production. – Bloomberg

Iranian authorities slowly eased up their sweeping blockage of internet access on Friday, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for Iranians to send the U.S. videos “documenting the regime’s crackdown” on protesters. – Associated Press

Bobby Ghosh writes: But the U.S. and European governments can and should impose sanctions on regime officials who encourage, endorse or inflict harm on the protesters, making it clear that they will not be allowed to whitewash their crimes, as Rouhani has. They should also open their doors, offering sanctuary to any protesters who are able to escape the country, and encourage Iran’s neighbors — Turkey, Iraq, the Gulf Arab states, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan and Armenia — to offer them safe passage. – Bloomberg

David Auerbach writes: As a result, Iran is caught in a no man’s zone between North Korea and China, needing more internet technology than the former but unable to titrate its internet like the latter. Iran’s protesters are no doubt aware of this and are surely awaiting the day when the government blinks. Yet even if Iran’s government backs down, the China model still stands as a reference point, and the authoritarians of Iran will soon be doubling down on their study of it. Whether they can successfully copy it may be, for them, the difference between life and death. – Tablet Magazine

Patrick Clawson writes: To be sure, resuming talks on nuclear issues or other matters would have many pitfalls. Iran’s practice has been to treat any past concession that the United States or other parties mention publicly as carved in stone—in other words, it insists that such concessions constitute the starting point for all further talks, without Iran making any quid pro quo. – Washington Institute


At least seven civilians were killed Thursday in the Syrian government-controlled city of Aleppo in intense shelling from rebel-held areas in the country’s northwest. – Associated Press

Kazakhstan will host a fresh round of Syria peace talks sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran on December 10-11, Kazakh foreign minister Mukhtar Tleuberdi told reporters on Friday. – Reuters

Russian newspaper says it has video evidence confirming the gruesome killing of a man in Syria two years ago was carried out by a Kremlin-linked private military company operating in the war-torn country. – Newsweek

Paul Wolfowitz writes: The way to protect our critical interests in the Middle East while minimizing costs and risks for the United States is by supporting people who, while fighting for their own interests, also protect America’s. […]The goal of a revised operation should be made clear: It is not to seize Syria’s oil, as Mr. Trump has suggested, but rather to keep that strategic asset out of the hands of our enemies. – New York Times

Sherin Zadah and Yara Ismael write: The consequences of the U.S. withdrawal have been devastating. Since the Turkish incursion began on Oct. 6, more than 500 civilians have been killed and some 300,000 displaced. The democratic experiment in Rojava is over. By abandoning the Kurds, the U.S. has also abandoned those who dreamed of a different future for the Middle East. – Wall Street Journal

Jennifer Cafarella and Jason Zhou write: The U.S. is pursuing the wrong diplomatic goal. American policymakers are biased toward viewing a cessation of hostilities as the most important sign of diplomatic progress in Syria and thus overlook opportunities to shape Syria’s long-term trajectory. The U.S. must widen its aperture for what diplomacy in Syria can and must achieve. The U.S. should set as its overarching goal keeping space open for political competition within Syria and reinvigorating and relegitimizing a stale and discredited diplomatic process. – Institute for the Study of War

Neil Hauer writes: It is of course impossible to predict the future here, but it seems very likely that Moscow has finally bitten off more than it can chew in its Syria ceasefire-keeping operations. Separating regime and rebel soldiers, or even patrolling an inactive Turkish-Kurdish frontline is one thing; pacifying an active war zone and preventing the outbreak of a full-blown insurgency is another. […]Whatever comes next, it is certain that Russia’s military police have their work cut out for them in north Syria. – Middle East Institute


Turkey is discussing with Russia how to address the continued presence of Kurdish YPG militants in areas covered by an agreement between the two countries, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday. – Reuters

Turkey needs to “get rid of” the Russian S-400 missile defense system it purchased, a senior State Department official said on Thursday, to overcome a standoff with Washington, which says the procurement poses a threat to NATO defense capabilities. – Reuters

A Korean evangelist has been murdered in southeast Turkey, sparking fears of persecution among the Christian community, the International Christian Concern reported in a statement. – Jerusalem Post

Judit Neurink writes: The possibility that the Turks will shift their fight from Syria to Iraq cannot be ignored, given the preparations they have already made by emptying Kurdish villages there. But even if they don’t, Erdogan’s arm still reaches far inside the Kurdistan region of Kurdistan, transforming what has been a sanctuary for decades into a risky place for many. – Jerusalem Post


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was indicted on corruption charges, posing a heightened threat to his personal and political future and deepening uncertainty as the country hurtles toward an unprecedented third election in a year. – Wall Street Journal

Several political leaders in Israel called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign after he was formally charged Thursday in a series of corruption cases. – Fox News

In a radio interview on Thursday, ex-Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Oren outlined what a future war with between the Jewish state and Iranian terror proxies could look like. – Algemeiner

Bret Stephens writes: Peace, if it comes, will not be the result of a diplomatic solution, much less as part of a legal argument over the Geneva Convention. It will happen as a cultural evolution, in which a new generation of Palestinian leaders dedicate themselves to building up the institutions of a decent state rather than attacking those of their neighbor; and in which Israelis have the wisdom to wait for those leaders, if necessary for decades. – New York Times


Eight people died and at least 90 were wounded on Thursday in renewed clashes in central Baghdad, in the most violent clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces in recent days, Iraqi officials said. – Associated Press

Security forces reopened the entrance to Iraq’s main Gulf port of Umm Qasr on Friday after forcibly dispersing protesters who had been blocking it since Monday, port officials told Reuters. – Reuters

Baghdad is familiar with war and insurgency but far less so with protests led by unarmed citizens demanding a change to the terms of the contract between citizen and state. […]At the same time, they have demanded that Iran’s extensive role in Iraqi affairs be pared back. – The Guardian

Middle East & North Africa

The organizers said they had hosted Sunnis before, yet the atmosphere during a tense period for Saudi-Iranian relations showed how much Saudi Arabia has changed over the past three years. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the leader and heir, is trying to fashion a kingdom underpinned by national identity rather than the traditional Wahhabi religious conservatism that defined society for generations. – Bloomberg

The United States is working with Egypt to deter it from going ahead with a deal to buy Russian warplanes, threatening the Cairo government with sanctions if it does, a senior State Department official said on Thursday. – Reuters

The Trump administration is sending mixed signals on the issue of U.S. security assistance to Lebanon. In recent days, senior officials within the administration confirmed that $105 million of aid to Lebanon has been put on hold by the White House. Earlier this month, however, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Near East Affairs said during a visit to Israel that the aid to Lebanon was not being withheld, and rejected Israeli requests to block it. – Haaretz

A senior State Department official has lashed out at Turkey and Egypt for military deals they have struck with Russia, warning of sanctions against the U.S. allies if they don’t reverse course. – Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Pentagon and State Department officials threw cold water on any notions of U.S. ally the United Arab Emirates (UAE) potentially getting the Lockheed Martin F-35 this week at the Dubai Air Show, as America’s flagship fifth-generation fighter jet made its first appearance at the Middle Eastern expo. – CNBC

Korean Peninsula

In a sign that relations between Japan and South Korea might be improving after months of escalating tensions, Seoul decided at the last minute on Friday to temporarily extend a military intelligence-sharing pact with Japan that South Korea had vowed to abandon in August. – New York Times

Japan seized the last event of its G20 presidency on Friday to reject a South Korean warning about radiation from the ruined Fukushima nuclear plant as a dispute between the neighbors threatened to overshadow the meetings. – Reuters

Japan and South Korea made a last-ditch effort to save their expiring intelligence pact, after the Trump administration pressed its two allies to prevent their feud from dealing a lasting blow to the U.S.’s regional security network. – Bloomberg

Olivia Schieber writes: In short, all is not lost. First, the United States needs its Asian allies because of the threat of a rising China and an uncontained North Korea. Second, Moon notwithstanding, the South needs the United States; it’s clear the ROK military is far from up to the challenge the North poses. Finally, at the end of the day, if both sides come to their senses, there’s a deal to be had. – American Enterprise Institute


China is working to resolve conflicts with Washington over trade, a Commerce Ministry official said Thursday, dismissing speculation the talks might be in trouble as inaccurate “rumors.” – Associated Press

China wants to “take over” Australia’s political system with an “insidious” and systematic campaign of espionage and influence-peddling, Canberra’s ex-spymaster warned in an interview published Friday. – Agence France-Presse

U.S. Navy warships twice sailed near islands claimed by China in the South China Sea in the past few days, the U.S. military told Reuters on Thursday, at a time of heightened tension between the world’s two largest economies. – Reuters

The United States is concerned about China’s attempts to influence Taiwan’s presidential election, the top U.S. official in Taiwan said on Friday, as China stepped up pressure on the self-ruled island ahead of the vote in January. – Reuters

As investors and technologists worry that the U.S. is falling behind in the race for dominance in blockchain, Beijing is trying to get ahead. – CNBC

China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier has sailed through the Taiwan Strait and into the South China Sea as the country continues to test the vessel’s systems prior to its commissioning into the People’s Liberation Army Navy. – Defense News

The top U.S. representative in Taiwan says Washington is working with Taipei to combat efforts by Beijing to influence upcoming elections on the island. – Associated Press

Josh Rogin writes: The strategic challenge of a rising China will be the defining test of our time. It will require both cooperation within the community of free nations and — whenever possible — working with not-yet-free countries that face the same threat. What everyone from Hanoi to Halifax can agree on is that there is no time to lose. – Washington Post

Joseph Bosco writes: For both China and North Korea, Trump should launch a Reagan-like strategic communications campaign to get the truth about their own countries and about the outside world to those heavily-propagandized populations. The moral force that helped bring down the Berlin Wall is the least this generation of the Free World can offer the people of Hong Kong and those trapped in Tibet and East Turkestan/Xinjiang. – The Hill

South Asia

The United States says it supports India’s continued involvement in Afghanistan, including its “substantial” investment and aid to the war-ravaged country. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The United States has warned Pakistan of the long-term risks to its economy if it embraces China’s massive infrastructure project and suggested that it should instead look to the U.S. business model. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The release of three senior Taliban members in exchange for two western hostages is not a gateway to peace talks or even a temporary cease-fire with the Afghan Government, but it may help resume stalled negotiations with the U.S. and ultimately lead to an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign troops, the militant group said. – Bloomberg

U.S. President Donald Trump has called Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to thank them for facilitating the release of an American and an Australian who were held hostage by the Taliban since 2016. – Associated Press

Qatar on Thursday welcomed the release of U.S. and Australian university professors held in Afghanistan and said it had played an instrumental role in their release this week. – Reuters

Two Senate Foreign Relations Committee lawmakers on Thursday introduced a bipartisan bill that would establish congressional oversight on any peace deal process to end the now 18-year war in Afghanistan. – The Hill


The bill, titled the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, is a test of Mr. Trump’s commitment to the United States’ historical mission of promoting human rights and democracy abroad. Members of both parties have urged the president to speak out more forcefully on behalf of demonstrators resisting what they call Beijing’s tightening grip over the semiautonomous island territory, to little avail. – New York Times

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s demands for an unflinching crackdown on antigovernment protests in Hong Kong have locked the city’s government into escalating a battle of attrition with increasingly militant demonstrators. – Wall Street Journal

Pope Francis tended to the needs of Thailand’s tiny Catholic hierarchy Friday, urging priests and nuns to find ways to communicate the faith with “a Thai face and flesh” in an overwhelmingly Buddhist country. – Associated Press

Editorial: The Senate human rights measure still has to be reconciled with a House version, and it’s not certain President Donald Trump will sign it. The White House was silent on the bill’s passage and the president, preoccupied with talks to end his trade war with China, has offered only mixed and muddled statements about the Hong Kong crisis, – USA Today


Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that he was thankful “internal political battles” in the United States were putting an end to accusations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 presidential election.  – The Hill

Russia’s lower house of parliament passed legislation on Thursday that will allow individual journalists to be labeled foreign agents, a move that critics say will tighten curbs on the media. – Reuters

Serbian intelligence agencies have uncovered a wide-ranging intelligence operation involving Russian spies and members of the Serbian military, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Thursday. – Reuters

Editorial: If that sounds like foreign interference in an American election, it’s because that’s exactly what it is. The U.S. government needs to be concerned primarily with Russia, which, as Mitt Romney correctly observed, is America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe. – Washington Examiner


As Britain prepares for its most seismic election in decades, one that will decide its relationship to Europe and place in the world, few voters face such an anguished choice as the country’s 300,000 Jews. With anti-Semitism surging in Europe and the United States, the debate over how to vote in Britain’s election has already rattled rabbinical conventions, strained friendships and started a war of letters in the left-wing press, as many Jews wrestle with nerve-racking options. – New York Times

A founder of the climate activism group Extinction Rebellion apologized on Thursday for the “crass words” he used to describe the Holocaust as “an almost normal event” and just another ugly episode in human history. – New York Times

The new president of the European People’s Party on Thursday denounced Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s “illiberal” policies and said the status of Orban’s populist party within the influential group will be decided early next year. – Associated Press

About one in four Europeans hold anti-Semitic beliefs, with such attitudes on the rise in eastern countries and mostly steady in the west, according to a survey released Thursday. – Associated Press

Trump administration officials are considering whether to start a new trade investigation against the European Union as the window closes for hitting Brussels with automobile tariffs, according to multiple people briefed on the issue. – Politico

The Anti-Defamation League’s survey of antisemitic attitudes released on Thursday covers over 9,000 respondents in 18 countries across four continents. As well as probing the extent of more traditional antisemitic beliefs — Jews exercise too much financial power, Jews are more loyal to Israel than their own countries — the survey also examines new areas of concern like the BDS movement and attitudes to Jews among European Muslims. Here are ten ADL findings on global antisemitism in 2019 that stand out: – Algemeiner

Lionel Laurent writes: This is a cross-roads for the EU. It has done a good job in defending its interests as a soft-power bloc. But as Zaki Laidi, a Sciences Po professor of international relations, argues, it needs to get ready for an era of “sharp power,” in which traditional tools like trade or technology are weaponized by the likes of the U.S. and China. Deciding how and where to wield hard power is a vital question for the EU. If Macron’s views are left to wither on the vine with no alternative, it won’t just be his fault. – Bloomberg


The Islamic State has asserted responsibility for an attack that killed 30 soldiers this week in the West African nation of Mali, where extremists are gaining ground in their bloody pursuit to seize territory. In a statement late Wednesday, the group’s self-described West Africa arm said it also wounded 30 soldiers in the attack while mentioning no deaths among its fighters. – Washington Post

Preliminary investigations show a young Somali Canadian peace activist was killed by a stray bullet earlier this week in Mogadishu, the peacekeeping mission in Somalia said Friday, while her family prepared her memorial. – Associated Press

Standing on the platform where he and other protesters packed a train to Khartoum in April to pressure Sudan’s military to share power with civilians, Abdelaziz Abdallah made clear the revolution driven by their city has much further to go. – Reuters

The Americas

Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Bogotá and other big cities on Thursday, as the antigovernment protests that have roiled countries in Latin America spread to Colombia. – Wall Street Journal

A Chinese national who worked for Monsanto before it was purchased by Bayer AG was charged in St. Louis, Missouri, on Thursday with stealing trade secrets for China, the U.S. Justice Department said. – Reuters

A former CIA officer who pleaded guilty to an espionage conspiracy with China could be facing more than two decades in prison. – Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Tulsi Gabbard tussled Wednesday night over prior experience and judgment after the Hawaii congresswoman said the South Bend, Ind., mayor wanted to use the U.S. military to fight drug cartels in Mexico, which he denied. – The Hill

Several Canadian politicians and Jewish community representatives have denounced protests targeting former Israeli soldiers who spoke at York University in Toronto on Wednesday, following an evening filled with heated language, intimidation, and several physical altercations. – Algemeiner

Top Jewish groups in Canada have expressed disappointment after the country voted in favor of an anti-Israel UN General Assembly resolution earlier this week. – Algemeiner


A decision by the German public broadcaster to share videos on Chinese-owned TikTok is sharpening concern in Germany about censorship and security and fanning a debate about the cost of the country’s vast public-sector media system. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Army is undertaking a security assessment of China-owned social media platform TikTok after a Democratic lawmaker raised national security concerns over the app’s handling of user data, Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said on Thursday. – Reuters

Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) said on Thursday it had been granted a license from the U.S. government to export software to Huawei Technologies Co Ltd. […]The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump said this week it would allow some suppliers to restart sales to the Chinese telecoms giant, which was placed on a trade blacklist over national security concerns six months ago. – Reuters

A group of senators from both parties on Thursday urged the Trump administration to stop issuing licenses for U.S. companies to do business with Chinese telecom giant Huawei, warning that even limited business with Huawei could pose a national security risk. – The Hill

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper wants the Federal Communications Commission to reject a proposal by Ligado Networks to use L-Band spectrum for 5G, claiming that the system could jeopardize GPS services. – C4ISRNET

As the cyber domain is more active, and actively exploited, from around the world, experts in the cyber and international legal community believe that rightful authority in cyberspace will be an issue to be reckoned with in the near future. – Fifth Domain

While Ukraine has dominated impeachment talks in Washington this past week, an alleged cybercriminal operating in Ukraine who siphoned off millions from US financial accounts over an 8-year span has been extradited to the US to face federal charges. – New York Post

Rick Noack writes: As protests continued, Iranian authorities appeared to have resorted to a move that has become increasingly common among regimes seeking to crack down on protests: They blocked Internet access. The civil society group site NetBlocks, which monitors Internet access worldwide, has observed similar partial or total shutdowns and social media outages in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Kashmir, Mauritania, Russia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Venezuela and other countries this year. – Washington Post

Shira Ovide writes: Apple’s deftness has let it stay in good graces in both the U.S. and China and has helped it ward off tariffs on the iPhone, at least for now. […]It’s tricky to play nice with two countries that increasingly don’t trust each other. Apple’s deft realpolitik has been to accentuate the positive and keep silent on the negative. – Bloomberg


Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher wore his pin when he reported to work on Thursday at Naval Base Coronado near San Diego. But that pin, and Chief Gallagher’s 14-year SEAL career, had become the focus of an epic clash between President Trump and the Navy. Mr. Trump said in a Twitter post on Thursday that he would be personally intervening in a disciplinary proceeding, to ensure that the chief keeps his Trident pin — an exceedingly rare step by a president that undercut the authority of the SEALs leadership. – New York Times

Navy ship-driving skills of its junior officers have seen modest improvements over last the two years since the fatal collisions in the Western Pacific that resulted in the death of 17 sailors, according to testing data obtained by USNI News. – USNI News

Senate lawmakers on Thursday took another step toward erasing the threat of a government shutdown over the Thanksgiving holiday by passing a four-week budget extension, raising the possibility of a Christmas shutdown instead. The move came over continued objections from some defense lawmakers who warned the short-term budget deals jeopardize military planning by keeping Pentagon funding stuck at last fiscal year’s levels and adding future uncertainty into long-range procurement plans. – Military Times

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has selected three teams to design Pit Boss, a system that can take data from satellites in low earth orbit, process that information in space and disseminate that information to users on Earth without any human input or instructions. – C4ISRNET

Long War

Turkey’s interior minister has identified a key Islamic State suspect captured by the country’s forces in Syria as the alleged mastermind behind attacks in Russia and Germany, according to a newspaper report on Friday. – Associated Press

A number of orphaned British children caught up in the war in Syria are to be brought home to the UK, the foreign secretary has said. – BBC

An elite Ukrainian police unit has apprehended a suspected 30-year-old member of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in the Zhytomyr region west of Kyiv. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Argentina’s president elect Alberto Fernandez is considering making changes to his country’s statement regarding Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The change includes distinguishing between its military and political wings, according to the statement received by the Israeli embassy in Argentina, Ynet reports. – Jerusalem Post

Trump Administration

A former White House Russia expert on Thursday sharply denounced a “fictional narrative” embraced by President Trump and his Republican allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election, testifying that the claim was a fabrication by Moscow that had harmed the United States. – New York Times

The highly anticipated results of an extensive review into early steps taken by the FBI in its Russia investigation is likely to fuel a partisan debate about law enforcement’s role in investigating politically sensitive conduct during a campaign when they are released next month. – Wall Street Journal

The office of Ukraine’s president has denied a request from a political rival to release its records of a July 25 call between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Donald Trump – a call that in the United States is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry. – CBS News

A former FBI lawyer is under criminal investigation after allegedly altering a document related to 2016 surveillance of a Trump campaign adviser, several people briefed on the matter told CNN. – CNN