Mopping up in Ramadi; SpecOps A2 teams in Afghanistan; Bahrain cuts Iran ties; US troops leave Ethiopia; and a bit more.

The new year finds Baghdad’s forces playing a monumental game of cleanup in Ramadi nearly a week after retaking the city from ISIS—an operation estimated to have destroyed some 80 percent of the city, the Wall Street Journal reports. “On Sunday, Iraqi soldiers were still picking through land mines and remaining pockets of militants in eastern Ramadi, even though Mr. Abadi declared the city ‘liberated’ last Monday.”

For the record: “The government of Iraq has freed 18 cities and towns from Islamic State so far, according to a report published late last year by the United Nations Development Program. Most of these cities—most recently the northern cities of Sinjar, Beiji and Tikrit—have been almost completely flattened.”

ISIS continue to launch counterattacks on the margins of Ramadi, Saudi news agency al-Arabiya reported Sunday. “The majority of these are outside downtown Ramadi to the north and east,” and so far Iraqi government forces have successfully repelled every attack, said Baghdad-based coalition spokesman Col. Steve Warren. That spot report, here.

Bahrain joined the Saudis this morning in cutting diplomatic ties with regional Shi’a powerbroker Iran, state news agency BNA report. The UAE has also recalled its diplomatic envoy to Iran this morning amid the ongoing spat. On Saturday, protesters in Iran stormed the Saudi embassy in response to Riyadh’s execution of an outspoken Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr — cited by the Associated Press as a “central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority” — along with nearly 50 other dissidents. The Saudis responded by ejecting all of Iran’s diplomats.

“The cutting of diplomatic ties came at a time when the United States and others had hoped that even limited cooperation between the two powers could help end the crushing civil wars in Syria and Yemen while easing tensions in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and elsewhere,” writes the New York Times. “Instead, analysts feared it would increase sectarian divisions and investment in proxy wars.”

Why did the Saudis execute al-Nimr along with three other Shiites and 43 alleged al-Qaeda members? “It is the threat of a rebellion by the majority Sunnis that most alarms a [Saudi] dynasty whose rule is based on conservative support at home and an alliance with the West,” Reuters writes. Further, “Riyadh is relying less on the U.S. security umbrella, convinced it has to compensate for the perceived disengagement of a U.S. administration unwilling to do the heavy lifting on Middle East security.” A bit more on the motivations, here.

Find abbreviated timelines of Saudi-Iranian relations, here (AP) and here (Reuters).

Two Sunni mosques were attacked south of Baghdad overnight, leaving two dead in the city of Hilla. Iraqi officials point the finger at the Islamic State. That here. (And speaking of ISIS, its Libyan affiliates used two car bombs to attack a security checkpoint near a key oil field, killing nearly a dozen, including five ISIS fighters. More here.)

In Syria, the insurgent group Jaysh al-Islam welcomed the fraying ties with Tehran, nearly two weeks after its leader was killed in an airstrike the day after Christmas.

And French warplanes knocked out an ISIS missile factory east of Aleppo with SCALP cruise missiles launched from Rafale fighters, the defense ministry said Sunday.

Also over the weekend, the U.S. pulled the plug on its drone operations from Ethiopia, AP reported. “U.S. military personnel are no longer in Arba Minch,” embassy spokesman David Kennedy said. “In our ongoing bilateral discussions on defense cooperation, we reached a mutual decision that our presence in Arba Minch is not required at this time.”

Adds the AP: “Ethiopian media reported about the base when it was set up in 2011 but the U.S. has never publicly confirmed its existence. A security expert in Addis Ababa, who insisted on anonymity for fear of Ethiopian government reprisal, said the base was used to attack Islamic extremists in Somalia.” More here.

From Defense One

A new form of conflict emerged in 2015, from the Islamic State to the South China Sea: gray war, aka “hybrid,” “full-spectrum,” “non-linear,” “next-generation,” or “ambiguous” war, conflicts that mix psychological, media, economic, cyber, and military operations amid ostensible peace. That #longread from The Atlantic, here.

At home and abroad, politics is increasingly revolving around one question: are nations more likely to achieve prosperity and security by building bridges to the outside world—or by erecting walls against it? National Journal’s Ronald Brownstein looks at the opposing ideological reactions to real and imagined threats, here.

Montenegro will join NATO — and that matters. The move shows that the alliance is denying Russia a veto while progressing towards greater stability in the Balkans. Evelyn N. Farkas writes in Defense One, here.

Indonesia is immune to ISIS. Relatively speaking, anyway, and so the question is: Can its lessons be applied to more volatile countries in the Middle East? The Atlantic’s Edward Delman explores, here.

Guess which 2016 candidate figures in the latest terrorist recruiting video? That would be Donald J. Trump, shown by Al-Shebab, the African extremist group, between old clips of now-deceased al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. Quartz has the story, here.

As economic and social security have slipped away from much of the American middle class, one group, at least, retains them in various forms: U.S. service members and their families. Former soldier Scott Beauchamp writes for The Atlantic, here.

How Ronald Reagan’s fantasy about space weapons ruined a plan to eliminate the entire U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. The Atlantic recalls a fateful choice, here.

Here’s why the U.S. Marines won’t be using Google’s robot dogs: A spokesperson called the LS3 “a loud robot that’s going to give away their position.” Quartz, here.

Happy New Year from the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Get your friends off on the right foot in 2016 by telling them to subscribe here: Want to see something different this year? Got news? Let us know:

U.S. to send “expeditionary advise and assist teams” to bolster Kabul’s troops in rural Afghanistan, Military Times reported Sunday. The overall U.S. force levels will not change, but special operations units will be sent to forward locations to help quell what turned out to be an awful year for Kabul’s troops and a headline-grabbing year for the Taliban.

The expeditionary A2 teams—often between six to 12 troops—are already chipping away in Helmand province, where the Taliban have made perhaps their biggest gains in recent months.

“They are not participating in combat,” said Brig. Gen. Wilson Shoffner, deputy chief of staff for communications for the American-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. “Coalition special ops forces are not on the objective. They may provide planning support. They may provide enabler support … ISR and that sort of thing. They may provide transport support. But if the Afghan special operations forces are conducting an operation, then the coalition advisers will detach and go to an overwatch position or will go to a command post while the operation is going on.” More here.

And a suicide bomber blew himself up behind the wheel of his car this morning near the Kabul airport, killing only the bomber in the attack. Reuters has that one, here.

Militants in India are in Day 3 of their siege of an air base in the northern part of the country, the Washington Post reports. “The battle began early Saturday after armed men scaled the compound wall and entered the base. But even after the operation was declared successful after nearly 14 hours of fighting, efforts continued to find at least more militants hiding inside the sprawling base.” An Indian army official said that four militants have been killed and two others are believed to be isolated in a two-story residence inside the airbase and that troops were working to clear the building.

The attack followed a recent visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Writes WaPo, “Many analysts termed the meeting — the first visit by an Indian prime minister in 12 years — a ‘masterstroke’ aimed at improving the frayed ties between the two nations. But now critics are questioning why Modi’s diplomatic gesture has not borne fruit.” More here.

Lockheed ended 2015 on a high note, netting a deal worth more than $5 billion for 43 C-130J cargo aircraft, FlightGlobal reported. “Of the two contracts announced 30 December, one concludes negotiations for the $5.3 billion multiyear II contract that has been under discussion for almost two years, with money down now for the first 32 of 78 total aircraft. That $1 billion order includes 13 C-130J-30 Super Hercules, and five HC-130J Combat King IIs used by the air force for personnel recovery and training. A further 11 multimission MC-130J Commando IIs are being procured for special operations and conversion into AC-130J “Ghostrider” gunships. Two more are KC-130J refuellers, and one HC-130J is being purchased for US Coast Guard operations.” That, here.

Lastly today—2016 marks the anniversary of “America’s only real sports car”: the Jeep. Read all about the U.S. military’s storied history with the tough scout vehicle, which began with a test drive on February 1941. That fun retrospective, here.

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