Kurdish forces take Kobani; The troubled training mission in Syria; Next week on the Hill; What about that drone on the WH lawn?; Dempsey’s essay contest for Abdullah; And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson

Kurdish forces took control of Kobani, a battlefield victory in a much longer fight. Reuters this morning: “…Some Islamic State supporters took to Twitter to say the fight for Kobani, a focal point of the international struggle against the ultra-hardline Islamist group, was still raging. Islamist militants launched an assault on the predominantly Kurdish town last year, using heavy weapons seized in Iraq and forcing tens of thousands of locals into exile. More here.

Indeed, U.S. Central Command said 90% of Kobani has been taken back from ISIS as Kurds claim to have regained full control there after three months of fighting. NYTs’ Anne Barnard and Karam Shoumali from Beirut, here.

The Pentagon is sending the first batch of U.S. military personnel to the Middle East for the Syria train-and-equip mission for moderate rebels, but the covert version of the program had many glitches. The WSJ’s Adam Entous on Page One: “…All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly. The CIA program was the riskiest foray into Syria since civil war erupted in 2011. [Syrian President Assad] is clinging to power after more than 200,000 deaths blamed on the war. Moderate fighters control only a fraction of northern Syria, while Islamic State and al Qaeda’s official affiliate, the Nusra Front, have gained ground.

“Last fall, Nusra overran one trusted commander and seized another’s equipment. Entire CIA-backed rebel units, including fighters numbering in the “low hundreds” who went through the training program, have changed sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades, quit the fight or gone missing.

“Critics say the failings might make it harder to win future support from moderate rebels. Pentagon officials are establishing a new program in Syria, and the general in charge of the effort has told lawmakers that he wants to establish more consistent supply lines and provide air support to approved fighters. But the new mission also calls for building a rebel force to fight Islamic State, not the Assad regime, which will make it tougher for the Pentagon to attract rebel commanders to the program, some U.S. officials say.

Says former Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, who has been critical of the efforts thus far: “I think we’ve lost our window of opportunity.”  Read the rest here.

Meantime, Japan is working with Jordan to secure the release of the second hostage from ISIS. Reuters, here.

A Japanese official is hopeful about the release of both the Japanese journalist and the Jordanian pilot, AP, here.

How the Islamic State’s beheading of the Japanese man could change Japan. The Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza on Defense One, here.

Three al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen were killed in a U.S. drone strike yesterday, the first such strike in more than a month. APhere.

Meantime, the U.S. embassy in Yemen is operating with a skeleton crew. WaPo’s Karen DeYoung: “The U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, remains open, but ‘routine consular services are closed to the public,’ State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said… Diplomatic families and other nonessential personnel have left the country over the past several months.” More here.

And in Libya, gunmen in Tripoli attacked a hotel, killing at least three guards, and have now taken hostages. AP, this hour.

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About that drone that fell out of the sky on the White House lawn at 3 a.m.—did the administration’s security team use drone-killing technology to bring it down? Defense One’s tech editor Patrick Tucker considers the possibilities of signal jamming and electromagnetic warfare today: “What might the White House have used to jam the signal? Defense contractor Raytheon markets a wide variety of electronic anti-drone jammers. That includes the enormous “next generation jammer” that comes in at $10 billion as well as some that actually fly, such as the miniature air-launched decoy (with jamming kit) or MALD-J. But drone jamming doesn’t have to come in at billions of dollars. For instance, a device called the Cyborg Unplug promises to make your living area drone free for around $66…” More here.

The drone incident exposes key White House security gaps. The Secret Service has spent years studying the threats drones pose, but officials said the agency isn’t able to easily identify and stop a typical one. WaPo’s Carol D. Leonnig and Craig Whitlock, here.

Sure, there’s no military solution, but there is a military dimension to the problems in the Middle East, John McCain will “say” this morning. John McCain is in Riyadh as part of the U.S. delegation for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, but the Senate Armed Services Committee he now chairs will hold a hearing this morning with former CENTCOM Commander Jim Mattis on global threats. Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe will deliver McCain’s opening statement on his behalf (and McCain will return in time for Wednesday’s sequestration hearing with the service chiefs)…

“Here’s what Inhofe will read as part of McCain’s opening statement this morning: “…Too often, pundits and politicians – including President Obama – have adopted a cheap fatalism summed up in the Administration’s constant refrain, ‘there is no military solution.’

“Rather than stating the obvious and important point that our military cannot solve every foreign policy problem, this slogan is really an excuse to avoid taking even the most-limited military action that might shape and improve conditions for a political solution, and provide the nation with the flexibility to draw from all instruments of national power effectively to address the problem. While it may be true there is no military solution, it is just as true there may be a military dimension to a political solution. But as problems fester and go from bad to worse, the Administration then claims its inaction was justified all along given the complexities of the situation. The consequences of this reactive bystander foreign policy are on full display around the world in places like Syria and Ukraine.”

Here’s how the next week is going to work between the Pentagon and the Hill: There are a lot of moving parts over the next few weeks or so—with the confirmation hearing of the presumed next Defense Secretary, Ash Carter, and the release of the budget—making for a process that is a little unorthodox. On Monday, Feb. 2, the Pentagon is expected to release its budget. That would normally be followed by the SecDef and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff dutifully trotting to Capitol Hill for the first rounds of budget hearings. But this year it’s going to be a little different: The new Defense Secretary, presumably Carter, will defend the budget, instead of Chuck Hagel, the sitting Defense Secretary, but probably Carter won’t defend the budget until sometime in March. First, he’ll have to be confirmed and that confirmation hearing is scheduled now before the Senate Armed Services Committee next Wednesday, Feb. 4, then confirmation by the whole Senate is expected shortly after that. Even though the larger defense budget hearings with Carter and Dempsey won’t be scheduled for weeks, we’re told the other budget hearings, the ones for each of the services, the combatant commands, and others, are expected to begin very soon after the budget is released on the 2nd.

Rolling deep to Riyadh today: President Obama pivots from India to Saudi Arabia today—where he’ll link up with CIA director Brennan, CENTCOM commander Gen. Austin, State Secretary Kerry, Sen. McCain, Rep. Pelosi, Condi Rice, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft and Stephen Hadley. The NYTs Peter Baker rolls up the additional Congressional delegates and former officials, here.

And, hold on to your classified docs: note that Sandy Berger is also in Riyadh as part of the presidential delegation. The former National Security Adviser, who plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge in 2005 after intentionally removing classified information from the National Archives in 2005. As you will recall, he got off without jail time and only a three-year suspension of his security clearance even after originally misrepresenting what he had done.

ICYMI: Jonathan Turley of GWU wrote in 2013 about the double standard when folks steal secrets, here.

Meantime, Jeffrey Sterling is convicted for sharing secrets in a big victory for the Obama Administration in a case that has had implications for the press. The NYT’s Matt Apuzzo, here.

Also happening today: SOCOM’s Gen. Joseph Votel is set to speak at the Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Symposium at the Washington Marriot Wardman Park at 8:15 a.m. … also at the Wardman Park, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Mike Dumont takes the stage at 1:15 p.m. … AFRICOM’s Gen. David Rodriguez speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at 2 p.m. …

Also on the Hill today: The Senate Armed Services Committee continues its global challenges to U.S. national security strategy hearings today. Sen. McCain & Co. hear from three retired four-stars—Gen. Jim Mattis, Gen. John Keane and Adm. Bill Fallon—at 9:30 a.m. … the Senate Banking Committee talks Iran sanctions with State’s Anthony Blinken and Treasury’s David Cohen at 10 a.m. … the House Foreign Affairs Committee has their own hearing on Iran sanctions at 10 a.m., too … House members on the Subcommittee for Research and Technology will discuss threats in the cyber sphere at 2 p.m. … the House Foreign Affairs folks return at 2 p.m. to talk Nigerian security and the international response … the House Veterans Affairs Committee reviews DOD’s transition assistance program at 2 p.m. … the Senate Foreign Relations a HFA subcommittee talks about the threat from terrorist propaganda at 2:30 p.m. …   and the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence ducks behind closed doors for a 2:30 p.m. briefing.

The broadening fight over new sanctions on Tehran is exposing unconventional rifts and alliances in Congress, our own Molly O’Toole reports: “Iran hawks have revived legislation from Sens. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., which failed last year despite broad bipartisan support. The ‘Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015’ includes increasingly strict sets of sanctions that would not start until July 6 — and only if Iran walks away, fails to reach a final agreement, or falls short of requirements… [In addition] Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. and Rand Paul, R-Ky., announced a middle-ground measure: If the intelligence community were to determine that Iran has violated any existing agreement, Congress could vote to reinstate sanctions.” Read the rest, here.

Putin projecting: Putin asserted yesterday a “NATO foreign legion” is on the ground in Ukraine as part of a wider Western effort to stir up anti-Russian sentiment. WaPo’s Karound Demirijian from Kiev, here.

On Russia’s doorstep: NATO is building a joint training center in Georgia with an official start date slated for the end of the year. RFERL with more, here.

And in New York yesterday, the FBI detained one of three Russian spies gathering intel on potential forthcoming Russian sanctions. AP, here.

Is Gen. Marty Dempsey asking for too much in his recent remarks about a new war powers authorization to fight ISIS? CFR’s Micah Zenko says yes, and warns against establishing the terms for a “perpetual war” with no limits on time or geography. Read that bit here.

Unexpected! Dempsey announced a “research and essay competition” yesterday for National Defense University – to honor the late Saudi King Abdullah. DoD News’ Jim Garamone: “…Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said the essay competition is a fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian monarch… Dempsey first met Abdullah in 2001, when he was a brigadier general serving as the U.S. advisor to the Saudi Arabian National Guard. “In my job to train and advise his military forces, and in our relationship since, I found the king to be a man of remarkable character and courage,” Dempsey said.” More here.

The succession in Saudi signals a potentially more assertive foreign policy role for the monarchy. The NYT’s Ben Hubbard and David Kirkpatrick on Page One, here.

War on the Rocks just announced a new column that dives into evolving security threats in the 21st century. Dave Barno and CNAS’ Nora Bensahel have teamed up for the first post, which investigates the relevance of and DOD investment in traditional warfare for today’s myriad asymmetric threats. That just went live this morning, here.

The Air Force’s IG last week opened an investigation into allegations Maj. Gen. James Post of Air Combat Command likened officers aiding lawmakers in their quest to save the A-10 to “treason.” The results of the investigation are set to hit Sen. McCain’s desk “as soon as they are available,” a spokesman for the Air Force said yesterday. Air Force Times’ Kristin Davis, here.

An Army major and former sexual assault prosecutor was found guilty of rape following a 6-day court martial at Fort Bragg. AP’s Michael Biesecker: “At the time he was charged, [Maj. Erik J. Burris] was the chief of military justice for the 82nd Airborne — a position in which he supervised other military prosecutors handling criminal cases within the famed paratrooper division… Burris was sentenced to 20 years in prison, dismissed from the service, and ordered to forfeit all pay.” More here.

The Concerned Veterans for America will release the findings from its bipartisan Fixing Veterans Healthcare Task Force during a summit on Feb. 26 at the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency, with Reps. Jeff Miller and Kevin McCarthy along with Sen. Joe Manchin attending. RSVP for that, here. Meantime, Military Times’ Leo Shane III has an excellent backgrounder on the topic that posted last week over here.

A new SEAL-based documentary called “Until It Hurts” aims to bridge the divide between operators and civilians. Joe Flanagan with more for Hampton, Va.’s 13NewsNow, here.

USAID just suspended a nonprofit contractor after finding “serious mismanagement” in work that cost U.S. taxpayers nearly $2.5 billion-with-a-B in both Iraq and Afghanistan. WaPo’s Scott Higham and Steven Rich: “For years, International Relief and Development, headquartered in Arlington, Va., served as one of USAID’s key contractors…providing lavish salaries and millions in bonuses to its employees, including the husband-and-wife team who ran the organization, as well as their family members. Many of the allegations were contained in a Washington Post investigation published last May.” More here.

The DEA is keeping tabs on your automobile. WSJ’s Devlin Barrett: “The primary goal of the license-plate tracking program, run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, is to seize cars, cash and other assets to combat drug trafficking…[b]ut the database’s use has expanded to hunt for vehicles associated with numerous other potential crimes, from kidnappings to killings to rape suspects… [and] raises new questions about privacy and the scope of government surveillance.” More here.

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