Syrian rebels caught in a noose; Saudis offer ground force; Top German spy sees ISIS among the refugees; Women & the draft; and a bit more.

Syrian forces wrap noose around rebels. Heavy Russian airstrikes have helped the army “totally encircle” the rebel-held countryside north of the contested city of Aleppo—bringing concerns rebels there could lose not just the province, but the wider war.

The view from 20,000 feet: “If the government were to gain control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest commercial center before the war, the loss would represent a major blow for the rebels after being pushed out of other major towns and cities by both the government and the Islamic State,” writes the New York Times. “The government’s recent advance makes it clear that Russia’s intervention has not simply stabilized the government’s position, but enabled it to advance, diminishing pressure on Mr. Assad to compromise in negotiations.”

The rebels have controlled “much of Aleppo since they surged into the city in 2012, prompting U.S. intelligence assessments that they eventually would topple the government in Damascus,” the Washington Post reports, adding that “more than 200 airstrikes in the past 24 hours alone” have led to “commanders from a range of rebel groups, from moderates to the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, issu[ing] urgent appeals for reinforcements from other parts of the country.”

The Aleppo offensive has displaced 10,000 or so Syrians to the Turkish border, the Wall Street Journal reports, and Ankara says about 70,000 more are on the way.

Not that Russia or Syria care much for what Turkey thinks, though Moscow and Damascus are closely watching Ankara’s troops staged on the Syrian border—with an eye toward a possible Turkish invasion, according to the Russian defense ministry.

The Saudis say they’re ready to roll with a ground force into Syria “if there is consensus among coalition leaders,” a military spokesman told the Associated Press from Cairo. That tease comes ahead of an upcoming counter-ISIS defense ministerial requested by U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter in Brussels. More on that, here.

But here’s some good news of a sort: ISIS end strength is believed to have at last declined, according to new U.S. intelligence estimates. The new figures put the totals at somewhere “between 19,000 and 25,000 in Iraq and Syria, down from prior figures ranging from 20,000 to possibly more than 30,000.” Exactly why is nearly impossible to tell, but U.S. defense officials like to think it’s due to escalated coalition airstrikes, along with desertion and recruiting problems, according to Military Times. That, here.

Confirming your fears: Germany’s top spy says ISIS is sending its lackeys into Europe disguised as refugees. That word from Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency (BfV), comes a day after German officials reportedly thwarted an attack in Berlin.  

Back stateside, Democratic 2016 contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders talked foreign policy and veterans issues last night. And on the former they largely agreed—Clinton says the ISIS fight needs more airstrikes and special forces raids, but large deployments of combat troops is “off the table.” Clinton rehashed her “arc of instability” line about the territory from North Africa to Southeast Asia, but conceded that her policies are not terribly dissimilar from President Obama’s. More here.

From Defense One

New microchip could increase military intelligence powers exponentially. A military-funded breakthrough in microchips opens the door to portable deep learning. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker has the story, here.

The big budget crunch awaiting America’s spies. The U.S. intelligence community’s budget may rise in months ahead, but spending on information technology will not, a new report says. NextGov has the story, here.

Here’s why ISIS is on the rise in southeast Asia: much of the region has witnessed a democratic regression that’s fueling the spread of violent extremism, writes the Council on Foreign Relations’ Joshua Kurlantzick, here.

Rubio proves Obama’s point about Islam and intolerance in the U.S., writes The Atlantic’s David Graham, after Sen. Marco Rubio accused the president of “pitting people against each other” in Obama’s visit to a mosque this week. That, here.

The brilliance and lunacy of Putin’s Chechen hitman. The Kremlin may be losing its grip on a boogeyman of its own making. The Atlantic, here.

NASA’s new super-fast solar ship may have just revolutionized how we explore space. Instead of a traditional, chemical propellant, it’s powered by photons from the sun at up to nearly 64,000 miles per hour. Quartz, here.

Coming up: The civilian workforce that supports U.S. warfighters is aging. How will the Pentagon attract and retain the next generation? Leaders from DOD, USAF, and DLA will lay out their plans and outlook on Tues., February 23, in a livestreamed discussion with Defense One Deputy Editor Bradley Peniston. Register to watch today, here.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Happy birthday, Hiram Maxim. Send your friends this subscription link: Got news? Let us know:

Making it official. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will ceremonially swear in Marcel Lettre, the undersecretary for intelligence, today at the Pentagon. Lettre, the fourth man to hold the post since it was created in 2003, was confirmed by the Senate and took the oath of office in December. He served in an acting capacity since May following Michael Vickers’ departure.

Kiev says those pesky rebels in the east just violated a cease-fire with their use of heavy weapons. AP: “The press office of the Ukrainian government’s operations in the east said in a statement on Friday that the rebels had opened fire on its forces 81 times over a 24-hour period, using grenade launchers and large-caliber weapons that should have long been withdrawn. International observers at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe earlier this week spoke of a ‘massive increase’ in violence in the east.” That here.

NATO’s secretary met with EU defense chiefs to talk Russian countermeasures today in Amsterdam. Not a whole lot out of that one short of some words of support for unity of purpose among allies in the months ahead.  

What can the U.S. Army do to maximize its deterence effect in Eastern Europe? The folks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies have about 40 pages of ideas—with the long list of recommendations starting at page 31, here.

A bill to force women to register for the draft was introduced Thursday by two lawmakers who say they want to force a debate over the issue. “If this administration wants to send 18- to 20-year-old women into combat, to serve and fight on the front lines, then the American people deserve to have this discussion through their elected representatives,” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said in a statement, adding that he might vote against the legislation if it actually comes to a vote. That from the Washington Examiner, here.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, says the administration should slow down its plan to open all military jobs to women. She told the Examiner that she worries that standards will be lowered (administration promises to the contrary) but also that more thought must be given to career progression for women if very few of them can meet the physical standards for combat jobs. That, here.

And several women who pushed to open up the jobs say gender integration can only work if all service leaders are committed to it. “Any leadership that refuses to get on board has to be moved out,” said retired Army Col. Ellen Haring, “and there doesn’t seem to be any willingness to move out leaders who are not getting behind this change.” Stars & Stripes, here.

Lastly today—first there was Hillary Clinton, then came Defense Secretary Ash Carter under scrutiny for using personal email in an official capacity. Now add Colin Powell and Condi Rice to the list. And like Hillary (but not Carter just yet), Powell and Rice transmitted classified data in their personal email correspondence with aides while serving as U.S. Secretary of State, the New York Times reports. “The designation of emails by two other secretaries of state underscored how discussions of sensitive issues of the nation’s diplomacy had sometimes been conducted on email accounts outside the department’s computer networks,” the Times writes.

Powell’s reaction: “What are you talking about?” Rice was unavailable for comment. A lot more on that front, here.

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