Turks gain ground in Syria; Drone strike in Afghanistan; Naval chiefs decry China’s Belt-and-Road effort; The poisoning of a former Russian spy; and just a bit more…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

March 8, 2018

Turks gaining ground in NW Syria. Turkey and its rebels in northern Syria have taken control of the city of Jinderes, “one of the largest settlements in Syria’s northwest Afrin region,” Reuters reports now 47 days into Ankara’s latest invasion into Syria.

On the other side of that conflict-within-a-conflict, “On Tuesday, Kurdish-allied Syrian Arab militias said they are redeploying 1,700 fighters from fronts against Islamic State to the Afrin region to help fend off the Turkish offensive.” That news came the same day Turkey’s President Erdogan insisted the U.S. military halt the movement of Kurdish fighters from its remote bases in eastern Syria. More here.

Also in Syria: the rebel enclave in Eastern Ghouta is effectively “sliced in two,” thanks to the ongoing offensive by Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian troops, Reuters reports separately. “The remaining sliver of territory in eastern Ghouta separating forces advancing from the east and west is in effect a no-go zone because it is all within range of government fire, making it impossible for rebels to cross between the northern and southern parts of the enclave.” More here.

Are we on the verge of another U.S. airstrike against pro-regime soldiers in eastern Syria? Maybe not, but the circumstances are beginning to look similar, CNN reported Wednesday off word from U.S. officials. “Pro-Syrian regime forces have once again recently begun massing east of the Euphrates River near where U.S. troops are advising the [Syrian Democratic Forces],” the network’s national security reporter, Ryan Brown, tweeted. “The area is very near where pro-regime forces attacked U.S./SDF troops last month,” an attack which killed a still-unclear number of Russian mercenaries.

From Defense One

Stand Up for the Constitution: Stop Unauthorized Involvement in Yemen's Civil War // Lawrence Wilkerson and Daniel L. Davis: The War Powers Act requires a Senate vote. Lawmakers should not duck their responsibility.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Email us. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. OTD1965: A contingent of Marines becomes the first U.S. ground troops in Vietnam.

A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan killed nearly two dozen militants, the Associated Press reports from Pakistan. Two missiles reportedly "hit a militant facility in neighboring Afghanistan, killing 21 insurgents, including the son of the head of the Pakistani Taliban" on Wednesday, according to “two Pakistani intelligence officials and local Taliban commanders.”
Target of the strike: “Mullah Fazlullah, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban who is believed to be hiding in Afghanistan.”
FWIW: “The United States made no comment on the strike. There was also no immediate comment from NATO, Afghan authorities or the Pakistani government.” More here.

Happening now: U.S. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, who leads U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, testifying now on EUCOM’s FY2019 budget before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Catch it live, here.  

The “Biggest Artillery Event in Europe Since Cold War” is under way at Germany’s Grafenwoehr Training Area ranges, Stars and Stripes reported Wednesday on location. Called Dynamic Front 18, some 3,700 soldiers from 26 nations are involved, along with “seven rocket launching systems, and 94 artillery pieces, including eight German Panzerhaubitze 2000 armored howitzers, 14 British L118 light guns, and 18 U.S. M777 155 mm howitzers.” More on the drill from the Army, here.  

Also in Europe: That poisoning case in Britain is taking an ominous turn. British investigators said Wednesday they had zeroed in on a nerve agent allegedly used in the attack on a former Russian spy. Known-knowns about the nerve agent: it’s not VX and it is “rarer than Sarin gas,” the BBC reports this morning. That, here.
Another ominous turn, perhaps. The British Telegraph reported Wednesday that the poisoned ex-spy was a “long-time associate” of the quite famous former British spy, Christopher Steele. That, here.

You can never be too careful, or so Belgian officials apparently think. The country is handing out “millions of iodine pills in case of [a] nuclear accident,” The Guardian reported Wednesday. “The government has also launched a website in the country’s official languages of French, Dutch and German to tell people what to do in an emergency as it begins implementing plans announced two years ago.”
Contributing factor: “Belgium’s creaking nuclear plants have been stirring concerns at home and across its borders after a series of problems ranging from leaks to cracks and an unsolved sabotage incident. In the last few years the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Germany have all raised concerns about the nuclear plants across the border in Belgium.” Read on, here.

Two big moves on global trade are happening today: President Trump is to sign his steel and aluminum tariffs. Meanwhile, 11 nations in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership are to sign what Reuters calls “a landmark Asia-Pacific trade agreement” in Santiago.
Who are the 11 nations? Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
While in Chile, those countries are expected to agree to a deal that would “reduce tariffs in countries that together amount to more than 13 percent of the global economy — a total of $10 trillion.” Had the U.S. been a part, that number would have climbed to 40 percent, Reuters writes. Even so, “the deal will span a market of nearly 500 million people, making it one of the globe’s three largest trade agreements, according to Chilean and Canadian trade statistics.” Read on, here.

Apropos of nothing: Your D Brief-ers learned Wednesday that the word “tariff” comes from the Arabic language — ῾arrafa, which means “to notify.” That thanks to Middle Eastern satirist Karl Sharro.

U.S. Navy and Marine officials criticized China’s “belt and road” trade network plans, Navy Times reported Wednesday off testimony that day before the House Appropriations Committee.
Navy Secretary Richard Spencer: China’s “open checkbook keeps me up at night.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller: “Everywhere I go, they’re there…Their concern for human rights is not there, and they’ve got big bags of cash.” Story, here.
Related: How is Chinese money disrupting the U.S. counterterrorism forecast in eastern Africa? By throwing into uncertainty who exactly will control a vital port in Djibouti. The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin has more on those concerns, here.

In northern Virginia today: A group called the Association for Federal Information Resources Management is holding its 5th Annual Cybersecurity Summit. The focus: “workforce development issues, imposing cyber threats, and the difficulties filling vacant cybersecurity positions throughout the government agencies.” The event began at 7:30 a.m. and runs through noon.
Location: CenturyLink, 4250 North Fairfax Drive (on the second floor) in Arlington, Va. Agenda and lineup — including officials from DHS, DOJ, DOE, the NSC and more, here.

For your eyes only: Here’s a promotional video by Russian arms maker, Kalashnikov Concern, showing a Russian counterterrorism unit training with armed unmanned ground vehicles somewhere fairly cold. Fifty-one seconds of explosions and fast cuts and dismounted ops, here. (h/t @AbraxasSpa)

Finally today, a public service announcement: Sikhs are not Muslims. Former U.S. Marine Reservist Chad Horsley knows that now after ramming his “truck into a store [east of Baton Rouge, La., on Saturday] because he thought the owners were Muslim,” the Washington Post reports this morning.
"According to Horsley, he was under the impression the owners were Muslim," the sheriff's office said in a news release posted on Facebook. The owner was in fact a Sikh. But Horsley never bothered to find that outl instead, the police said, "He blamed Muslims for killing his fellow service members overseas."
But his gripes didn’t end there, according to the police. "He was also upset that Muslims, in his mind, were having an easier time prospering than he was despite his time in the service." The charges facing him include “a hate crime, criminal damage to property, criminal mischief and two counts of impersonating a peace officer.” Read on, 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.

March 8, 2018