Hostage rescue in Syria?; Russian Iskanders in Latakia?; US Marines sent back to Helmand; US Navy reveals new high-end surface strategy; and just a bit more…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

January 9, 2017

Hostage rescue op in Syria? A coalition raid and possible hostage rescue operation appears to have taken place near eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zur on Sunday, according to The Telegraph’s Josie Ensor and local reports from Deir Ezzor 24. Ensor: “Locals say there is ‘an important secret prison in the area. And we think there were westerns in it.’ Not clear who hostage is at this point,” Ensor tweeted Monday morning. Of particular note is the local report “that Isil leaders' bodies were then taken out of Syria is strange. Very unusual.”

A bit more from the Associated Press: “Omar Abou Leila, who runs Deir Ezzor 24, said four helicopters landed in the desert between the IS-held cities of Deir el-Zour and Raqqa on Sunday. Commandos set up checkpoints and intercepted a vehicle carrying several Islamic State militants, killing all of them and flying off with the bodies, he said. "It's an operation that apparently targeted an important figure," Abou Leila told The Associated Press from Germany, where he is based. Deir Ezzor 24 is one of several locally staffed underground groups reporting from IS-held territory. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, another activist-run group, said 25 militants were killed in the ambush. Local witnesses said at least some of the commandos spoke Arabic. There was no immediate comment from the U.S.-led coalition.”

Russian missiles in western Syria. An Israeli satellite reportedly photographed nuclear-capable Iskander missiles at Russia’s airbase in Latakia on Dec. 28, The Times of Israel reported Friday. "ImageSat International said its EROS B satellite captured photos of two vehicle-mounted SS-26 'Iskander' missile launchers in northern Syria. The launchers are located in the Syrian army’s Latakia airbase. Two other launchers had also been spotted at the base, it said. The Iskander is a mid-range missile capable of carrying nuclear warheads, with a range of 400-500 kilometers. According to the Ynet news website, Russia has previously considered providing Iskander missiles to the Syrian President Bashar Assad, but has refrained from doing so due to Israeli concerns. The weaponry seen in the newly released photos is apparently controlled by Russian forces operating in Syria, and has not been handed over to Assad’s forces."

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad says he’s ready to negotiate new terms for his country’s future at the upcoming Russian- and Turkey-brokered talks in Kazakhstan. However, the Associated Press writes, the talks, like many before it, “are still in doubt as Syrian opposition groups have yet to confirm their participation.” More from Assad’s interview with French outlets France Info, LCP and RTL television, via Reuters or AFP.

A truck bomb detonated in a rebel-held town of Azaz in northern Syria on Saturday, killing at least four dozen people, the Washington Post reported. “Saturday’s blast came hours after Turkey said it had completed a fresh round of airstrikes against Islamic State targets [in al-Bab], killing 21 fighters and destroying buildings and vehicles.” That figure has now grown by nearly 50 when taking into account Turkish airstrikes near al-Bab on Sunday, according to Reuters this morning.

Russian airstrikes are also reportedly helping Turkish troops in their march on ISIS-held al-Bab, The New York Times reports. “American officials, who asked not to be identified because they were discussing intelligence, said that Russian airstrikes in the Al Bab area began at the end of December, and that Russian aircraft were flying near Al Bab as recently as Friday. The effectiveness of the Russian air operations, which have mainly involved dropping ‘dumb,’ or unguided, bombs, is unclear.” More here.

Ankara and Baghdad have maybe, possibly come to terms—or they’ve at least made incremental diplomatic progress—on the issue of Turkish troops in Iraq, who arrived about 13 months ago to Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s outrage. Reuters: “Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Saturday agreement had been reached with Turkey over a withdrawal from Bashiqa, but [on Monday] Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stopped short of confirming this. Yildirim noted significant progress in the fight against Islamic State and said the issue of Bashiqa would be solved ‘somehow in a friendly way.’”

Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli clarified somewhat, telling Turkish TV this morning, "The Bashiqa camp is there because of terror which originates in Iraq, and it is our right to take measures against this. If the threat is removed, there will be no need to." More here.

Turkey is also looking forward to Trump’s Pentagon cutting ties with the YPG in Syria, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said this morning.

Why that matters, according to an excellent weekend report from the Post’s Liz Sly: “The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, is the military wing of a political movement that has been governing northeastern Syria for the past 4 1/2 years, seeking to apply the Marxist-inspired visions of Ocalan to the majority Kurdish areas vacated by the Syrian government during the war. Over the past two years, the YPG has forged an increasingly close relationship with the United States, steadily capturing land from the Islamic State with the help of U.S. airstrikes, military assistance and hundreds of U.S. military advisers. The gains have taken Kurdish fighters far beyond traditionally Kurdish areas into territory populated overwhelmingly by Arabs, threatening not only to stir up long-standing ethnic rivalries but also a wider conflict.” More here.


From Defense One

Still Fighting, US Troops from Syria to Afghanistan Await Trump Orders // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: Special operators move ahead with plans for the press to Raqqa, but uncertainty clouds US war plans.

Intelligence Chief Sets High Expectations For Unclassified Hacking Report // Patrick Tucker: James Clapper promises more details of Russian influence operations aimed at U.S. election.

Outgoing US Air Force Secretary: US Needs the F-35 and A-10 // Marcus Weisgerber: As the Obama administration's time grows short, Deborah James puts in a word for two polarizing aircraft.

Trump vs. the Spies // Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart: In this digital age, it is reasonable to ask just what America's intelligence community still brings to the table. The answer is a lot.

How Putin is Using Populist Movements Against the West // The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein: It's time to decide what goals should guide American foreign policy in the 21st century, and what allies are needed to advance them.

Welcome to the Jan. 9 edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1916, the last allied troops are evacuated from the Gallipoli peninsula. (Enjoy the D Brief? Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


Clawing back Mosul, now from the banks of the Tigris. Baghdad’s Counter-Terrorism Service “reached the eastern bank of the Tigris river in Mosul on Sunday for the first time,” Reuters reports. “They are not expected to push across the river without first recapturing the rest of the eastern districts, and in fact all the bridges have been taken out of service by air strikes. But reaching the eastern bank shows the accelerated pace of the latest Iraqi advance, which has made daily gains since restarting 10 days ago.”

Here are a few pictures of Iraqi troops calling in airstrikes as they advance on Mosul.

More violence to the south: “In Baghdad, a suicide attacker killed 13 people when he drove an explosives-rigged car into vegetable market in the mainly Shi'ite Muslim eastern Jamila district, and detonated it, police said. Islamic State claimed the attack in an online statement, saying it had targeted a 'gathering of Shi'ites.' A few hours afterwards, a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest blew himself up at a market in another mostly Shi'ite district, Baladiyat, killing seven, according to police and medical sources. Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack as well. More than 80 people have been killed in just over a week in attacks in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.” More from Reuters, here.

U.S. Marines return to Afghanistan’s Helmand province. For the first time since 2014, the Pentagon is sending approximately 300 Marines to Helmand to replace a U.S. Army contingent and “serve as advisers to Afghan soldiers and police officers fighting Taliban forces,” The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

We’re viewing this as a high-risk mission,” said Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, who will command the Marine task force in Afghanistan. “We’re not in any way viewing this as a noncombat mission or anything to take lightly.”

Wanna see what fighting was like in Helmand not all that long ago? Don’t miss the 2011 documentary, “The Battle for Marjah,” streaming free on YouTube, here.

By the way: U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan “dramatically increased” in 2016, WSJ also reported this weekend. "The number of weapons dropped in Afghanistan in 2016 rose by around 40% to 1,337, according to the undated report from U.S. Air Forces Central Command… The increased engagement follows the U.S.’s decision last year to widen the military’s authority to conduct offensive operations in Afghanistan amid gains made by the Taliban, its largest insurgency, and Islamic State’s affiliate in the country." More here.

The troops, on Obama. With President Barack Obama’s time fast coming to an end, how do the troops feel about his eight years in office? Military Times has a new survey with some results: “More than half…said they have an unfavorable opinion of Obama and his two-terms leading the military. About 36 percent said they approve of his job as commander in chief.”

The various gripes “include the president’s decision to decrease military personnel (71 percent think it should be higher), his moves to withdraw combat troops from Iraq (59 percent say it made America less safe) and his lack of focus on the biggest dangers facing America (64 percent say China represents a significant threat to the U.S.).”

On the plus side, “more than two-thirds support Obama's mantra that securing America means building strong alliances with foreign powers. And more than 60 percent think his use of drones and special forces teams for precision strikes — instead of large-scale military operations — has helped U.S. national security.” More here.  

Navy’s surface fleet has a new, harder-hitting strategy. USNI News reports: “A new strategy for the surface force – released today – creates an outline for a navy that anticipates a return to high-end warfare it hasn’t known since the Cold War.” Read on, here.

Here’s what Vice Adm. Tom Rowden wrote to introduce the new strategy; the Navy’s surface warfare chief will be describing it at greater length tomorrow (Jan. 10) at the Surface Navy Association’s annual convention in Arlington, Va.

Rowden previewed the strategy a few days ago for the San-Diego Union-Tribune, which wrote: “The service’s fleet needs longer-range rockets, stronger counter-missile measures and more sophisticated sensors if it wants to better survive the enemy’s first punch and return the favor. Instead of clumping together in armadas led by aircraft carriers, the ships must spread out, making it harder for foes to detect and bombard them…” Read more, here.

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un says a launch could come from any number of points in his country. Reuters has that one, here.

The U.S. military is sending two dozen Apaches to Korea by February, South Korea’s Yonhap news reports.

Recall that the Navy is also sending a squadron of E-2Ds from Norfolk to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, “as a component of Carrier Air Wing (CVW) 5 in February,” USNI reported last week.

In other U.S. equipment moves, tanks roll into Europe. AP: “Some 3,500 troops from the 4th Infantry Division in Fort Carson, Colorado, will join up with the equipment, which includes 87 tanks and 144 Bradley fighting vehicles, over the next two weeks. The deployment marks the start of a new phase of Operation Atlantic Resolve, which foresees the continuous presence of an American armored brigade combat team in Europe on a nine-month rotational basis. The mission is meant to help allay concerns from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and other NATO allies over an increasingly unpredictable and bellicose Russia. The new forces will gather first in Poland, then fan out across seven countries from Estonia to Bulgaria.” More here.  

Lastly today: Mapped—What European countries view as their biggest concerns about Brexit. Italy fears populism, while most everyone bordering Russia (except Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia) fears for their defence… More, via the European Council on Foreign Relations, here.  


By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston // Ben Watson is news editor for Defense One. He previously worked for NPR's “All Things Considered” and “Here and Now” in Washington, D.C. Watson served for five years in the U.S. Army, where he was an award-winning combat cameraman and media advisor for southern Afghanistan's special operations command during the 2010-11 surge. // Bradley Peniston is deputy editor of Defense One. A national-security journalist for two decades, he helped launch Military.com, served as managing editor of Defense News, and was editor of Armed Forces Journal. His books include No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf, now part of the Chief of Naval Operations' Professional Reading Program.

January 9, 2017

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