ISIS cut off inside Mosul; US drones overfly Libya; Canada ditches F-35, for now; SOUTHCOM seeks network speed; and just a bit more….

The Islamic State group inside Mosul is now completely cut off from the outside world, Iraqi officials said this morning. The last key route connecting Mosul to Raqqa, Syria, was severed Tuesday when Shi’a-dominant Popular Mobilization Units converged on the northern city of Tal Afar, a Sunni-dominant and “mostly ethnic Turkmen town,” forcing “tens of thousands of civilians to flee,” Reuters reports. “About 3,000 families have left the town, with about half heading southwest, toward Syria, and half northward, into Kurdish-held territory, said a Tal Afar representative in Erbil, telling Reuters he’s asking Kurdish authorities “to open a safe passage” for the fleeing civilians.  

The PMUs in Tal Afar could trigger action from Ankara, Reuters writes of what’s at stake: “Citing its close ties to Tal Afar’s Turkmen population, Turkey has threatened to intervene to prevent revenge killings should Popular Mobilisation forces, known in Arabic as Hashid Shaabi, storm the town.” And that’s something Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said he is trying to avoid in the messy Mosul offensive. Various estimate putting the composite assaulting forces at nearly 100,000 troops.

Catch a bird’s-eye view of what’s what around Mosul—and whose forces have recently advanced where when—via this updated map.

The U.S. added three new ISIS commanders to its list of global terrorists, The Long War Journal reported Tuesday: Abdullah Ahmed al Meshedani, Abdelilah Himich, and Basil Hassan. The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi does a great job of rolling up what’s most important from the designation—including the U.S. naming Morocco-born Himich as an architect of the Paris attacks, and what that means for “Emni, the unit in ISIS dedicated to exporting terror”—here.

Find out how the U.S. Air Force’s special operators train for the fight in Mosul and beyond, via this take from Military.com’s Oriana Pawlyk at the 24th Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle.

Back to the battlefield, unarmed American drones are indeed flying over the Tunisia-Libya border looking for ISIS, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi confirmed today. Essebsi made the remarks after being reportedly pressed by lawmakers over possible U.S. military presence, worried it may constitute a breach of sovereignty. Reuters: “Asked if U.S. drones were flying missions at the border, Essebsi told local channel Elhiwar Ettounsi, ‘Yes, and it was at our request… Our agreement with the U.S. was to share intelligence information.’”

Curiously, “Essebsi said the surveillance drones would be given to Tunisia after training conducted by 70 U.S. soldiers. He did not say how many drones were being used or how long the training would last.” More here.

It sure sounds like retired Gen. James Mattis talked President-elect Trump out of advocating for torture, according to a talk with The New York Times Tuesday. The interview contained plenty of campaign fodder—Trump standing down on his claim to pursue prosecution of Hillary Clinton’s email server or the Clinton Foundation, for example—in what the Times called a demonstration of “the volatility in Mr. Trump’s positions” — read that, perhaps, to mean “watch what he does, not what he says.”

One of those evolving positions concerns the use of torture—waterboarding, in particular—after a recent conversation between Trump and Mattis.

“‘I’ve never found it to be useful,’” Trump said Mattis told him. “‘Give me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of beers, and I’ll do better,’” Mattis supposedly said.

“I was very impressed by that answer,” Trump told the Times, adding torture is “not going to make the kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.”

Trump said Mattis was being “seriously, seriously considered” for Secretary of Defense. “I think it’s time, maybe, for a general,” said Trump.

Speaking of: Gen. David Petraeus told the BBC he’s willing to serve in a Trump cabinet. “If you’re asked, you’ve got to serve — put aside any reservations based on campaign rhetoric…and figure out what’s best for the country,” he said. That, here.

On that note: “At least six former generals are being considered for as many as four top positions in a Trump administration — a concentration of military brass that foreign policy experts said is unprecedented in the recent history of the United States,” the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe reports.

How this could prove problematic: “Trump’s vision of ruthless battlefield commanders pursuing an implacable foe misses a lot about the modern general. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have certainly involved a lot of fighting and killing, but generals have also spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about winning over civilians, wooing fickle tribal elders and managing sensitive allies.”

What’s more, Jaffe writes, “Trump’s unprecedented courtship of the brass also raises some troubling questions for a country built around civilian control of the military. For years top U.S. officials have been pushing allies where the military dominates the highest levels of government, such as Egypt, Pakistan and Turkey, to cede more authority to civilians. A general-heavy Trump administration could undermine that message.” Full story, here.

Fear of Trump is already “pervasive” among the many Muslims working at the Pentagon, U.S. officials told The Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef. “Four U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said fear is pervasive among Muslims inside the halls of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the Department of Homeland Security in anticipation of a Trump administration. Already, the officials said, they are seeing colleagues who are less willing to share their thoughts about national security. They fear they will no longer be seen as an asset to confronting terrorism but rather suspect members of the government they serve. It is, one U.S. official explained, a climate of ‘anticipatory freakout.’”

Among the unanswered questions looming from Trump’s campaign promise rhetoric: “Will Muslim CIA agents be asked to register? Will the next commander in chief ban the family of Muslim troops from visiting this country? Will Muslim members of the Department of Homeland Security face increased scrutiny based on their faith?”

Alas, Youssef writes, “It is not just Muslims who are worried. Gays and lesbians, African Americans, Hispanics, and women all have expressed some level of concern. After all, the national-security community has historically lagged behind other government agencies when it comes to embracing diversity.” Full story, here.


From Defense One

Your D Brief-ers wish you a happy Thanksgiving. We’ll next see you on Mon., Nov. 28.

Canada Ditches the F-35 for the Super Hornet — For Now // Marcus Weisgerber: After an initial buy of F/A-18s, Justin Trudeau’s government will hold a competition to replace the rest of its CF-18 Hornets.

The F-35B Just Got A Lot Deadlier // Patrick Tucker: In a proof-of-concept experiment, data passed instantly from a Marine Corps fighter allowed a shipboard Aegis system to shoot down a drone.

America’s War-by-Airstrike in Three Charts // Caroline Houck: The U.S.-led air war against the Islamic State in Mosul, Raqqa, and the region, visualized.

Transnational Criminals Move at Network Speed. At SOUTHCOM, We’re Learning to Do the Same // SOUTHCOM commander Adm. Kurt Tidd: But this sea change must be matched by U.S. and foreign partners, writes the leader of U.S. Southern Command.

Can Trump Make a Deal With North Korea? // Via The Atlantic, Joel S. Wit and Richard Sokolsky: One of the biggest problems facing the president-elect might also be his biggest opportunity.

Asia Awaits the Trump Era // Via The Atlantic, Jon Emont: As a candidate, he criticized alliances while vowing a military buildup. What does that mean for half the world?

Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1863, the Battle of Chattanooga begins. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


The Pentagon said it killed another al-Qaeda leader in Syria during a drone strike on November 18, AP reported Tuesday. “Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook identified the target as an Egyptian named Abu Afghan al-Masri. Cook called him a senior al-Qaida leader in Syria who joined the organization in Afghanistan several years ago and had a hand in attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.”

Said Cook: “This is someone who helped organize al-Qaida activities and was directly affiliated with senior leaders there as well, and this is someone who’s been on our radar for some time.” That, here.

Get to better know the status of the Syrian rebellion, its numbers, ideologies and prospects, according to a new analysis by the Washington Institute.

Some highlights: “The ‘Sunni rebellion’ could have anywhere from 100,000 to 150,000 fighters…Among the 90,000 ‘powerbroker’ rebels, some 20 percent can be classified as transnational jihadists, 31 percent as national jihadists, 24 percent as political Islamists, and 25 percent as ‘secularists.’”

As for funding: “The West mainly finances secularists, Riyadh tends to fund Syrian Salafi-jihadists, while Doha and Ankara fund political Islamists.”

On the side of Damascus: “The Syrian regime has about 125,000 regular army troops and 150,000 pro-government militia members, including around 50,000 Shiite foreign fighters (i.e., Hezbollah personnel and Iranian-trained Iraqis, Pakistanis, and Afghan Hazaras). Yet most of the native forces are preoccupied with defending territory and communication lines; only about a fourth of them are able to launch offensives.”

And on the Kurdish side of the war in Syria: “For their part, the SDF and its main component, the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), have about 30,000 fighters.”

And ISIS estimated end strength: “The CIA believes it has as many as 30,000 total fighters in Syria and Iraq.”

Read more about the regional breakdown among fighters in the Southern Front, the Damascus area, the northwest, northeast Aleppo, the Houla-Rastan pocket (between Homs and Hama), and “How to Avoid Jihadistans,” here.

NATO is not too happy about anybody (read: Russia) interfering with Montenegro’s future, either at the polls or trying to sideline NATO’s invitation to the Balkan state to join the 28-member alliance, Secretary General Jen Stoltenberg said this morning in Brussels.

For context, AP writes: “Two Russians and three Serbians are among 21 people linked to an alleged election-day plot in Montenegro to assassinate the prime minister and take power because of its NATO membership bid. Stoltenberg said ‘any interference into elections in any sovereign nation is absolutely unacceptable.’ He welcomed investigations in Montenegro and Serbia into the suspected plot. He underlined that Montenegro’s accession process is moving forward and that the country would join soon.” More here.

Russia plopped down Bal and Bastion missile systems on the southern Kurils/Northern Territories, “Pacific islands that are controlled by Russia but also claimed by Japan,” AP writes this morning off a report from Boyevaya Vakhta (Combat Duty), a military newspaper for Russia’s Pacific Fleet. That short hit, here.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials used last week’s Halifax conference to sound alarm bells that Trump might abandon their country for better relations with Russia, US News reports. Trump has been outspokenly admiring of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and in July, said his prospective administration would “would be looking into” formally recognizing Crimea as Russian territory. A vice prime minister of Ukraine, Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze: “I want to believe in common sense. I want to believe in the rule of international law. I want to believe in values. That’s exactly where we stand right now. [Appeasing Russia with Crimea] would be a disastrous understanding of the wrong picture of the world that we have right now.”

Weapons watch: China has successfully tested a really big, really fast, really long-range air-to-air missile. “This is a big deal,” write Peter Singer and Jeffrey Lin write in Popular Science. “This missile would easily outrange any American (or other NATO) air-to-air missile. Additionally, the VLRAAM’s powerful rocket engine will push it to Mach 6 speeds, which will increase the no escape zone (NEZ), that is the area where a target cannot outrun the missile, against even supersonic targets like stealth fighters.”

And Russia says it has tested its “nuclear train,” aka the “Combat Railway Missile Complex.” Read all about the “James Bond-like weapon” via a 2014 take from FoxTrotAlpha, here.

Lastly this Thanksgiving week: “Mall Santa reassigned after putting Hillary Clinton on naughty list,” is The Hill’s headline. Not sure you need many more details, but if so, the Orlando Sentinel can fill you in on the rest—including word that the Santa won’t be fired, he’ll just need a little sensitivity training before returning to the workforce. Only 31 days until Christmas!

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