US bombs Iran proxies in Syria; NATO may revive Atlantic Command; Alliance preps to send more troops to Iraq, Afghanistan; SOCOM’s new kamikaze drones; and just a bit more…

U.S. airstrike in Syria marks a new confrontation with Iran’s proxies in the Middle East. Coalition jets reportedly hit Syrian forces and their allies in southern Syria on Thursday, near the border with Jordan and Iraq.

Who was hit? Kataib Imam Ali, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-backed unit that already operates around Tikrit and Mosul, Iraq, Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute wrote on Twitter Thursday.

The airstrikes took place about a 30-minute drive from a U.S.-UK special operations base in al-Tanf, Syria.

But that strike wasn’t all. A follow-up attack from U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army troops reportedly destroyed four tanks of the Assad regime, as well as several trucks and a ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” self-propelled anti-aircraft system, Lister writes.

Later on Thursday, “Fars, an Iranian news agency affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, reported that 3,000 Hezbollah fighters had been sent to Tanf to back the Syrian military in its fight against the United States ‘and establish security at the Palmyra-Baghdad road,’” Thanassis Cambanis of The New Century Foundation reports for The Atlantic out of Beirut.

“If U.S. troops are now engaging directly with Iranian militias, escalation in the absence of a well-wrought plan could inflame the conflict in Syria and further afield,” Cambanis writes. “On the other hand, for all Iran’s bluster, the Islamic Republic, a staunch ally of Syria, will have to re-calibrate its own expansionist ambitions in the Middle East if it encounters meaningful resistance from the United States after nearly a decade of only token or indirect opposition.”

His advice, after speaking with Arab leaders in the region: “For those who believe that Iran has gone too far—in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, and in Yemen—any forceful pushback is welcome. But the United States needs to be careful. Boxing in Iran and its proxies could advance U.S. interests and restore the regional balance of power, but only if military force is deployed as part of a careful strategy that maintains America’s distance from Iran’s problematic allies.”

The problem with that: “So far, there are no indications that the Trump administration is doing any of the necessary groundwork to insure against blowback or out-of-control spiraling as America appears to turn from accommodation and containment to military force.” Much more to all that, over here.

To its credit, the coalition came out with a statement on the strikes shortly after the news broke. Their portrayal: “The coalition struck pro-regime forces that were advancing well inside an established de-confliction zone northwest of At Tanf, Syria, May 18, and that posed a threat to U.S. and partner forces at At Tanf.”

Making matters a bit tricky for Moscow—which, of course, backs the Assad regime and its Iranian proxies—they added, “This action was taken after apparent Russian attempts to dissuade Syrian pro-regime movement south towards At Tanf were unsuccessful, a coalition aircraft show of force, and the firing of warning shots.”

Russia’s reaction this morning to the Thursday strikes: It’s an instance of “government terrorism” that “is totally unacceptable; it is a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Of course, it does not help the political process,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov stated on Friday, according to state-run RT.

Mentioned by the coalition release but not by RT: the “apparent Russian attempts to dissuade Syrian pro-regime movement.”

Oh, and Russia says the attack killed some civilians—but there was no elaboration on that damning charge, according to Reuters.


From Defense One

In Urgent Request, US Special Ops Adds 350 Kamikaze Drones to Fight ISIS // Patrick Tucker: And that’s not all. The command is also opening a drone-hacker lab to help keep up with ISIS weaponeers.

NATO Laying Groundwork to Send More Troops To Iraq, Afghanistan // Marcus Weisgerber: The bump could come with more alliance responsibility for fighting ISIS in Iraq.

The US Just Bombed Pro-Assad Troops in Syria. What’s Next? // Thanassis Cambanis: This could be the start of a larger escalation that includes direct military clashes with Iran or Iranian-backed proxies.

Expect a Lot of Modernization Spending in the Next Few Years: Gen. Dunford // Marcus Weisgerber: The 2018-21 budgets will be crucial in setting up the U.S. military for the future, says the Joint Chiefs chairman.

The Government Wants You to Stop the Next Edward Snowden // Lindy Kyzer: New rules mean you could lose your security clearance if you don’t Say Something when you See Something.

The Global Business Brief: May 18 // Marcus Weisgerber: Joint Chiefs chairman talks 2018 budget. Big contracts to ship small packages. Lettre joins Lockheed. And more.

Defense Acquisition Is Bad and Getting Worse: Report // Katherine McIntire Peters: A Congressional panel delivers a peppery interim look at military acquisition as Rep. Mac Thornberry prepares to introduce new reforms.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1959: North Vietnam stands up the army’s Group 559, the logistics outfit that will create the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Got tips? Email us at the-d-brief@defenseone.com. (And if you’re reading this on our website, consider subscribing. It’s free.)


NATO may revive Atlantic Command. The Cold War naval command would help “counter Moscow’s increased submarine activity in the Arctic and protect Atlantic sea lanes in the event of a conflict, according to allied diplomats and officials briefed on the planning work,” WSJ reports. The discussions “indicate that the alliance remains focused on improving allied defenses against a resurgent Russia despite the Trump administration’s demand for a greater focus on counterterrorism.”

This is something Norway, among others, has been asking for. And read up on the rising threat of Russian subs, from the Atlantic Council’s Magnus Nordenman, here.

Speaking of NATO: Stephen Miller, a White House advisor and skeptic of the alliance who is writing Trump’s upcoming speech before the alliance, Buzzfeed News reported Thursday.

Russian hackers targeted more 10,000 Pentagon Twitter users with “expertly tailored messages carrying malware,” TIME’s Massimo Calabresi reported Thursday citing “a disturbing report hit the desks of U.S. counterintelligence officials in Washington” on March 2.

One problem, among many others: “…perhaps during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, Pentagon Twitter accounts might send out false information. As each tweet corroborated another, and covert Russian agents amplified the messages even further afield, the result could be panic and confusion.”

That nugget is the appetizer for Calabresi’s #LongRead that promises to take readers “Inside Russia’s Social Media War on America.”

The BLUF: “Marrying a hundred years of expertise in influence operations to the new world of social media, Russia may finally have gained the ability it long sought but never fully achieved in the Cold War: to alter the course of events in the U.S. by manipulating public opinion.” Worth the click, here.

Dangerous piloting in the Yellow Sea. For the first time since President Trump took office, the U.S. military has lodged a protest with China over alleged unsafe maneuvers by Beijing’s air force. “Two Chinese fighter jets flew too fast and too close to an American military aircraft patrolling the East China Sea, prompting a formal protest to the Chinese government,” The New York Times reports this morning.

The incident occurred Wednesday and “involved an American WC-135 Constant Phoenix aircraft and two Chinese SU-30 jets that both flew in an ‘unprofessional’ and dangerously close way, according to a spokeswoman for the Pacific Air Forces, Lt. Col. Lori Hodge.”

CNN reported that “the Chinese jets came within 150 feet of the US plane, with one of the Su-30s flying inverted, or upside down, directly above the American plane.”

About the U.S. aircraft: “The WC-135, a modified Boeing C-135, is designed to detect radioactive debris after the detonation of a nuclear device and is informally known as a ‘sniffer’… The deployment of the aircraft ostensibly to search for evidence of a North Korean nuclear test may have been considered by the Chinese as an excuse for spying,” the Times writes, citing Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing.

Another possibility is “that China had decided to enforce the parameters of the ‘air defense identification zone’ that Beijing declared over the East China Sea in 2013.” More here.

This great dataviz from the Washington Post “contains probably about as much as anybody knows about North Korean nuclear targeting,” writes Joshua Pollack, editor of Nonproliferation Review. It really is too robust to pick out what you’ll learn, so check it out for yourself, here.

While the White House pivots from the North Korean crisis to President Trump’s first foreign trip abroad, a new ferry just opened linking North Korea and Russia “despite U.S. calls for isolation,” Reuters reports. “The service is pitched at Chinese tourists wanting to travel by sea to the Pacific port of Vladivostok, according to the operators. China has no ports on the Sea of Japan, so traveling to North Korea and on to Vladivostok is the quickest way of reaching Vladivostok by sea.”

Adds Reuters: “The ferry’s Russian operators say it is purely a commercial venture, but the service’s launch coincides with what some experts say is a drive by North Korea to build ties with Moscow in case its closest ally China turns its back.” More here.  

Related to POTUS’ first trip abroad: “Lockheed Martin Corp. has reached a $6 billion deal to sell Saudi Arabia four of its Littoral Combat Ships as U.S. President Donald Trump travels to the kingdom,” Bloomberg reported Thursday. “The final letter of agreement includes a better-armed version of the ships, support equipment, munitions and electronic-warfare systems, according to the people, who asked not to be identified in advance of an announcement that may come as early as Saturday morning Washington time. That’s when Trump is scheduled to arrive in Riyadh on the first leg of an eight-day trip that will take him across the Middle East and to Rome.” More on the “package of agreements on weapons sales that already had been approved in late 2015 by the U.S. State Department,” here.

Of course, as our Marcus Weisgerber reminds us, such agreements do not always lead to actual sales.

Crisis fatigue? After a week of bruising news for President Trump’s efforts to move beyond multiple ongoing investigations into alleged ties between campaign officials and Russia, Thursday brought a comparatively muted torrent of White House-related news, including (1) The Trump campaign failed to disclose at least 18 more contacts with Russians before the election, via Reuters; (2) Mike Flynn reportedly put the kibosh on a military plan Turkey didn’t like, while taking $500,000 to lobby for Ankara, via NBC News; (3) Trump reportedly pressured a “reluctant” Flynn into taking the National Security Adviser job, via the Washington Post; (4) Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had already been told that former FBI Director James Comey would be fired when he wrote the memo recommending (though not explicitly) as much, according to Democratic senators—that via Fox News.

Learn what “areas of active hostilities” are to the Trump White House, via this reply from Bobby Chesney, professor in law at the University of Texas School of Law, writing in Lawfare. Chesney corrects a few points in a recent U.S. News report on those “areas” published earlier this week.

After clarifying a few points, Chesney writes that what is most important about the current White House’s read on the laws of war and how it applies in and around current conflict zones like Somalia and Yemen is this: “President Trump has pushed authority to make decisions on particular uses of force away from the White House and towards commanders in the field, and some commanders worry this is in part a move designed to preserve the president’s ability to criticize military decisions that turn out poorly (citing Trump’s reaction to the SOF ground raid in Yemen that occurred early in his presidency).” Read his take in full, here.

Lastly this week: Card games in wartime. Doctrine Man pointed our attention to a new game seeking funding over at Kickstarter that takes its name from an all-too-common obstacle to military unit cohesion called the “Blue Falcon.” Blue Falcons, if you’re unaware, have no sense of loyalty and will turn on others in a heartbeat. Which is why the game’s developers subtitled it, “The Game to Screw Over Your Friends.” As an example, they offer this: “You’re standing in formation and First Sergeant asks why Johnson isn’t present. That guy who raises his hand and says he saw Johnson going home with a stripper… that’s a Blue Falcon.”

We’re not recommending you buy the product, but you can at least view a demonstration of how the game is intended to be played, here.

For Defense One’s Patrick Tucker, the game called to mind another one, “a dramatic game of political intrigue and betrayal set in 1930’s Germany.” Its title: Secret Hitler. From the game’s promotional YouTube description: “Players are secretly divided into two teams—liberals and fascists. Known only to each other, the fascists coordinate to sow distrust and install their cold-blooded leader. The liberals must find and stop the Secret Hitler before it’s too late.” Watch that video, here.

And enjoy your weekend, gang. We’ll see everyone after President Trump and his team arrive in Israel on Monday.

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