The Pentagon is considering sending 1,000 more ground troops to Syria to help shape the offensive against Islamic State-held Raqqa before it formally kicks off, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. The plans are described as one of many granular additions to the “broad outline” for defeating ISIS that Defense Secretary James Mattis presented to President Trump at the end of February, the Post writes. “Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, has been filling in more details for that outline, including by how much to increase the U.S. ground presence in Syria. Votel is set to forward his recommendations to Mattis by the end of the month, and the Pentagon secretary is likely to sign off on them, according to a defense official familiar with the deliberations.”
The mission: “The new troops, if sent, would be focused on supporting Kurdish and Arab fighters in northern Syria battling the Islamic State. Under the plan, the added American forces would act primarily as advisers, offering expertise on bomb disposal and coordinating air support for the coalition of Kurds and Arabs, also known as the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
The additional U.S. elements “would probably come from parts of both the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit — a flotilla of ships loaded with 2,200 Marines that is now steaming toward the region — and the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, from which 2,500 troops are headed to Kuwait. These conventional troops would supplement the Special Operations forces already on the ground and operate much like their counterparts fighting in the Iraqi city of Mosul.”
Where the U.S. troop count currently stands in Syria: “About 500 U.S. Special Operations forces are already in Syria operating alongside the SDF, in addition to about 250 Rangers and 200 Marines.”
If approved by Trump, the plans “would potentially double the number of U.S. forces in Syria and increase the potential for direct U.S. combat involvement in a conflict that has been characterized by confusion and competing priorities among disparate forces.”
For example, “Turkey has said it will send ground forces to help seize Raqqa, but that option is complicated by Turkish insistence that its participation depends on the United States severing ties with Syrian Kurdish fighters, called the People’s Protection Units, or YPG. While the Pentagon considers the YPG to be the most effective local Syrian fighting force, Turkey has labeled it a terrorist group.”
Speaking of Turkey, its defense minister wants answers on the “diplomatic” situation in Manbij, Syria, saying “a military approach would only be considered if diplomacy failed,” Reuters reports this morning.
And on the diplomatic note, Syrian Kurds are asking President Trump to establish safe zones in territory held by the Syrian Democratic Forces in the north. Kurdish ARA News has more on a region of Syria the Kurds say more than 150,000 have come for protection during Raqqa offensive shaping operations.
Video dispatch from Raqqa: The Syrian Democratic Forces have found a complex ISIS tunnel system complete with pillboxes and blast walls in the vicinity of Raqqa. Watch footage of their recent finds, here.
Apropos of nothing: Take a look at Syria’s newest troops—many of whom appear to be quite old, as the Middle East Institute’s Charles Lister points out.
Trump’s “hard power” budget due today. “The Trump administration will roll out two budget plans on Thursday: one that amends the Obama administration’s 2017 spending plan, and another for fiscal 2018, which begins on Oct. 1,” Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reports. The updated 2017 plan includes a $30 billion supplemental fund for “defense and primarily border” security, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney told reporters Wednesday.
About that border security: The Department of Homeland Security’s budget would see a 6 percent increase under the Trump plan, which includes $4.1 billion for the southern border wall: $1.5 billion in the 2017 supplemental and $2.6 billion in 2018.
The dominant message: Under Trump’s plan, money would shift from foreign aid projects into military and security programs, Weisgerber writes.
(ICYMI: The White House proposal, like similar ones under Obama, tries to ignore legal spending caps.)
Want to make sense of the defense budget math? The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Todd Harrison has a chart for you, here.
How AP frames it: “The $54 billion boost for the military is the largest since President Ronald Reagan’s Pentagon buildup in the 1980s, promising immediate money for troop readiness, the fight against Islamic State militants and procurement of new ships, fighter jets and other weapons. The 10 percent Pentagon boost is financed by $54 billion in cuts to foreign aid and domestic agencies that had been protected by former President Barack Obama.”
More from Reuters: “The plan earmarks the new funds to accelerate the fight against Islamic State militants, reverse Army troop reductions, build more ships for the Navy and ramp up the Air Force – including by purchasing additional F-35 fighter jets, built by Lockheed Martin…The budget also requests $12 billion in so-called Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO, funding for extraordinary costs, chiefly in war zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. No comparison was provided for the current year’s OCO spending.”
And on the foreign aid side, “The combined budget for the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, would fall by 28 percent, with funding cuts for the United Nations, climate change and cultural exchange programs. The plan preserves $3.1 billion in security aid to Israel.” That, here. (ICYMI: the generals fighting ISIS say cutting soft-power funds will hurt their war efforts.)
From Defense One
Get “Foreign Military Sales Under the Trump Administration,” a new ebook from Defense One. During the eight years of the Obama administration, the defense industry’s requests to export weapons were approved at a record clip. Now companies are waiting to see how Donald Trump will do business. Download the ebook, here.
Trump Proposes More Money for Nukes, Border Security // Marcus Weisgerber: Dubbed a “hard-power” budget by administration officials, the 2018 spending plan includes money for a controversial border wall.
Yahoo and the Sloppy Future of Russian Spying // Patrick Tucker: Two hackers hired by FSB agents started running side scams. Now Moscow has account data on half a billion Yahoo users.
A New Kind of War Demands New Defensive Alliances // Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president of Estonia: I propose a collective-security organization based not on geography but on a shared dedication to democracy.
What’s the Purpose of President Trump’s Navy? // Simon Reich and Peter Dombrowski: Does the president’s specified goal of 350 ships meet the needs of the nation in the 21st century? The answer is not yet clear.
Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Happy 215th birthday, Army Corps of Engineers! (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
In Iraq today, rains have bogged down the Mosul offensive, where sporadic fighting flares up in the “Old City,” where Iraqi troops are a mere 500 meters from the Grand Mosque with the group’s black jihadist flag still hangs “from the mosque’s famous leaning minaret,” Reuters reports from the city.
“Earlier on Thursday, government forces had been attempting to encircle the Old City to bottle up Islamic State fighters. Several more areas of western Mosul had been recaptured, including the hospital, over Wednesday and Thursday morning but officers said progress was slowed by car bombs and booby-traps in houses and alleyways.” More here.
Photographic dispatch from Mosul: Hard to tell what happened here, but a car is on top of a building. The BBC’s Nafiseh Kohnavard snapped the picture you can find here.
ICYMI: In Libya on Tuesday, forces loyal to Libyan military strongman Khalifa Haftar overran the entirety of the country’s oil-producing region, after a series of air, sea and ground attacks, Reuters reported Wednesday. More from al-Jazeera and Middle East Eye, here and here.
State Secretary Rex Tillerson calls for a “new approach” to North Korea, but offers no details, Reuters reports from Tokyo. “Two decades of diplomatic and other efforts, including aid given to North Korea by the United States, had failed to achieve the goal of denuclearizing Pyongyang, he said. ‘So we have 20 years of failed approach,’ Tillerson said. ‘That includes a period where the United States has provided $1.35 billion in assistance to North Korea as an encouragement to take a different pathway.’ He added: ‘In the face of this ever-escalating threat, it is clear that a different approach is required. Part of the purpose of my visit to the region is to exchange views on a new approach.’”
Adds Reuters: “A Japanese foreign ministry official said U.S. officials had discussed potential new approaches regarding North Korea, but he declined to elaborate. Tillerson visits South Korea and China later in the week. The New York Times reported on Wednesday he will warn Chinese officials that the United States would increase missile defenses in the region and target Chinese banks if Beijing does not constrain North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions.” More here.
Speaking of nukes, you can now watch declassified movies of nuclear tests from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. Get started at The Verge, here.
Newsflash: America’s “pivot to the Pacific” is over, Defense News reported Tuesday. “Asked by reporters about the future of the rebalance, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton said Monday that the new administration has its own plan for the region, even if that plan has yet to take shape. ‘Pivot, rebalance, etcetera — that was a word that was used to describe the Asia policy in the last administration. I think you can probably expect that this administration will have its own formulation. We haven’t really seen in detail, kind of, what that formulation will be or if there even will be a formulation,’ she said.” Story, here.
Elsewhere in the region, South Korea is still trying to convince China the THAAD U.S.anti-missile system is not aimed at China.
And China just warned Japan to stay out of the South China Sea. Reuters: “China on Thursday pledged a firm response if Japan stirs up trouble in the South China Sea, after Reuters reported on a Japanese plan to send its largest warship to the disputed waters. The Izumo helicopter carrier, commissioned only two years ago, will make stops in Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka before joining the Malabar joint naval exercise with Indian and U.S. naval vessels in the Indian Ocean in July, sources told Reuters. The trip would be Japan’s biggest show of naval force in the region since World War Two.” More here.
ICYMI: Beijing is once again building up its islands in the South China Sea, new images reveal.
Against the pirates. “Somali maritime forces have exchanged gunfire with the hijackers of an oil tanker in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland,” Reuters reports from the scene of the first tanker capture since 2012. “‘We tried to intercept a boat that was carrying supplies to the pirates, but pirates on the ship fired on us and so the pirate boat escaped,’ said Abdirahman Mohamud Hassan, the director general of the maritime force in Puntland. Pirate Abdulaahi claimed the pirates killed a member of the marine force and injured another, but Hassan said that was untrue.” A tiny bit more to that developing story, here.
There’s a Russian spy ship near the U.S. ballistic-missile submarine base in Georgia, CNN reported Wednesday. “The Viktor Leonov, a Russian spy vessel outfitted with a variety of high-tech spy equipment and designed to intercept communications signals, was spotted some 20 miles south of the US Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay near the Florida border, a US defense official told CNN. It was heading north. The ship was docked in Cuba before heading towards the US, said the defense official, who didn’t specify when the sighting occurred.” More here.
Lastly today: Enough with the desert warfare; the U.S. Army has established a new jungle school in Hawaii—the first such new school in decades, AP reports from Honolulu. “The course is part of a program to train soldiers for exercises and potential combat on terrain that looks more like islands and nations in the Pacific than arid Afghanistan and the deserts of the Middle East…Brig. Gen. Stephen Michael, deputy commander of the 25th Infantry Division, said the Army set up the school as its footprint was shrinking in Iraq and Afghanistan after more than a decade of war in those countries. ‘The jungle school gives us that focus, it reinforces that we’re in the Pacific,” Michael said. “If you’re in the 25th, you understand you got to fight in the tough environment of the Pacific.’” Should someone tell State’s Susan “Pacific pivot is over” Thornton? Read the rest of AP’s report, along with seven vivid photos of the jungle the soldiers are often literally up against, here.