ISIS shelters beneath a Syrian dam; USSOF in Libya; Syrian peace meeting delayed; $2B in bombs for Iraqi F-16s; and a bit more.

The Islamic State is holding prisoners at Syria’s largest dam as airstrike insurance, the Wall Street Journal reported. It’s the latest tactic we’ve seen from ISIS to counter the technological superiority of the 65-plus nations trying to end the group’s reign in Iraq and Syria.

The obvious reason for housing prisoners there: bombing the scene would unleash a giant flood that would end electricity service for all of eastern Syria and, in short order, flood large parts of Iraq.

A bit more on the site: “The Tabqa Dam is 25 miles west of Raqqa, Islamic State’s Syrian headquarters, and has been under the group’s control since 2013. Created with Russian help in the 1970s, it controls the flow of the Euphrates River into southeastern Syria and northern Iraq. The construction of the dam, 200 feet tall and roughly 3 miles long, created Lake Assad, which is about 50 miles long and Syria’s largest water reservoir.”

The big problem presently: “The dam is surrounded by checkpoints, heavily guarded by foreign-born fighters, and strictly off-limits to nonmilitary personnel…Retaking the Tabqa Dam from Islamic State would be much more challenging than taking the one in Mosul or defending the one in Haditha, largely because there are no allied ground troops in Syria to lead such an operation, U.S. officials acknowledge.” Read the rest, here.

Washington is looking to offer Ankara “aerostat surveillance balloons and anti-tunneling technology” as well as IED-detecting equipment to help Turkey clamp down on 60 miles of an unprotected border with Syria, Reuters reports. Vice President Joe Biden heads to Istanbul today to meet with the president and prime minister about the deal. And later in February, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is scheduled to visit Turkey to “lead an inter-agency delegation and offer the Turkish government a menu of specific border-control technologies.” More here.

The already-delicate Syrian peace process—slated to begin on Monday in Geneva—looks like it’ll be pushed to the right “a day or two,” said U.S. State Secretary John Kerry this morning from the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Why the delay? There’s “still work to do on determining which opposition groups are deemed terrorist organizations” and would be ineligible for ceasefire negotiations, the Associated Press reports.

Who are the fighters causing hiccups in the talks? “One dispute is over the groups Ahrar-as-Sham and Jaish al-Islam. Russia and Syria consider terrorists; Saudi Arabia, the United States and others view as legitimate opposition groups. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Thursday that only three groups are now on the terrorist list: the Islamic State group, al-Qaida-affiliate al-Nusra and al-Qaida itself.”

How can the U.S. make the best use of its brains and brawn against both IS and AQ in Iraq and Syria? The folks at the Institute for the Study of War have an idea or two, and they rolled them up in a new report, here.

And while you’re at it, drop in on this new ISW report as well, which debunks the “myth of an anti-ISIS grand coalition.” Really too much to excerpt here, so check it out for yourself over here.

Here’s what U.S. special operators are doing in Libya. Gen. Joseph Votel, USSOCOM commander — and the pick to be the next CENTCOM — lays out in broad terms what SOF can do in countries where ISIS has a presence but not yet an open war. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports, here.

Meanwhile, the United States is convening a 27-nation meeting on ISIS. It’s a true working ministerial meeting as the U.S. defense secretary and other countries’ top defense officials get caught up and look ahead. Executive Editor Kevin Baron, traveling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter, reports.

And oh: ISIS has reportedly cut its fighters’ salaries in half. An ostensible ISIS treasury memo shows an organization under increasing financial pressure as coalition warplanes ramp up attacks on their oil infrastructure. Quartz, here.

From Defense One

Today: Livestream on maintaining force readiness. Join top leaders of the 24th and 25th Air Forces and U.S. Army North for a Defense One livestream on Thurs., Jan. 21. It’s in San Antonio, at 11 a.m. Central time. We will explore the impact of recruiting and retention on critical commands and developing top technical talent to execute the mission requirements. Livestream, here.

The diplomat-in-chief hits a national security trifecta. If Barack Obama were a Republican, Congress would have already named an airport after him, argues Ploughshares’ Joe Cirincione, here.

What’s known, and not, about China’s shadowy new combat force. On the last day of 2015, Beijing overhauled the way its military was structured, creating a new force that’s received very little attention in the foreign press. The Council on Foreign Relations’  Lincoln Davidson lays out what we do know, here.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Get your friends off on the right foot in 2016 by telling them to subscribe here: Want to see something different this year? Got news? Let us know:

Two powerful Shiite militias—Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Saraya al-Salam—are believed to be behind the abductions of three U.S. contractors from a Baghdad apartment block over the weekend, AP reports. According to one Iraqi police commander, “nobody can do anything in that neighborhood without the approval of those militias.”

A bit more on the groups: “Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Iranian-backed and one of the most powerful Shiite militias operating in Iraq, has repeatedly spoken out against the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq in the fight against IS. Saraya al-Salam is run by Iraq’s influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr whose Mahdi militia often battled with US forces between 2003 and 2011.”

Where things currently stand: An “Iraqi intelligence official told the AP this week that from the Dora neighborhood the Americans were taken to Sadr City, a vast and densely populated Shiite district to the east, and there ‘all communication ceased.’”

UK judge fingers Putin in death of ex-KGB agent in 2006. A British inquiry found that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “probably” the one who ordered the murder of Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium-210 in London a decade ago, the Washington Post reports. “The inquiry’s findings, set out over 328 pages, include that Putin had a personal motive for wanting Litvinenko dead, and that the president would likely have had to approve a high-stakes operation to assassinate the former KGB operative on British soil … The inquiry found that two men deliberately poisoned Litvinenko, and were almost certainly working on behalf of the Russian intelligence agency FSB. The two named assassins, Andrei Lugovoi and Dimitry Kovtun, remain in Russia, and the Russian government has rebuffed British attempts to secure their extradition.” No surprises there. Read the rest, here.

Sens. John McCain and Jack Reed are not interested in demoting retired Gen. David Petraeus, The Hill reports on the heels of The Daily Beast reporting this week that Defense Secretary Ash Carter is looking into the demotion as a way of not appearing two-faced as he cracks down on U.S. generals behaving badly. Said the senators in a statement Wednesday: “We are concerned such a retirement grade review, taking place nearly a year after the misdemeanor conviction in which General Petraeus admitted his guilt, and apologized for his actions, is manifestly unreasonable and unfair … The unusual circumstances surrounding this review raise serious questions about the motivations behind it.” Which is to say, sheriff McCain is watching you, Ash…

More on calls for heads to roll: Rep. Duncan Hunter wants Navy Secretary Ray Mabus to pump the brakes on his accelerated push for a more progressive service—in particular, Mabus’s new requirement for Navy officials to come up with a plan to integrate co-ed recruit training with just 15 days’ notice. Read Hunter’s letter to SecDef Carter on the matter, submitted Tuesday, here. Or read up on Mabus’s broader “clash with Marines” over gender integration, via Military Times, here.

The U.S. Air Force is about to open its RQ-4 Global Hawk drone operator jobs to enlisted troops, IHS Janes reports from an Air Force Association briefing Wednesday. But, IHS notes, “the real strain for the air force’s UAV force is on General Atomics MQ-1/9 Predator/Reaper crews.” More on that ISR staffing dynamic, here.

Lastly today—the search for 12 U.S. Marines missing off the coast of Hawaii after their CH-53 helos collided on Jan. 14 has ended with no survivors. Their ages span 21 to 41, and ranks span O-4 to E-3. A memorial for the 12 Marines is planned for Friday at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Air Force Times reports, with a full list of those believed to have been lost in the accident, here.

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