Russia exiting Syria, mostly; Pentagon wants to buy your garage bomb; Which candidate do the troops back?; A Catch-22 for personnel reforms; and a bit more.

Russia’s military is (mostly) leaving Syria. The government-controlled Rossiya 24 channel broadcast purported images of troops putting equipment in boxes, Ilyushin Il-76 transport planes being loaded with gear, and Su-34s landing at a southern base in Russia. All that followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise announcement Monday to withdraw the “main part” of Russian forces in a reflection of “what he called the Kremlin’s achievement of nearly all its objectives in the war-torn country,” as the New York Times reported.

Russia will keep its two bases in the country operational: The air base in Hmeimin, near the port city of Latakia, and a naval installation at Tartus. But what remains unclear is “how long the withdrawal of Russian forces will continue—or how many Russian troops and aircraft may remain in Syria,” the Wall Street Journal adds.   

Worth noting: Russia’s withdrawal from Syria is one of the opposition’s seven demands before moving ahead with peace talks, as Syrian analyst Charles Lister pointed out.  

Iran welcomed the decision from Russia, but said it had no interest in partitioning Syria into regions that allow Kurds or Alawites (the ruling sect in Syria) their own regions. Redrawing Syria’s borders “will only make the situation worse. That will be the beginning—if you believe (in religious texts) – of Armageddon.”

But the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remains the biggest unanswered question. “Three times in the past two weeks, Mr. Assad and his advisers have made public statements noticeably out of sync with Russia’s declared goal of substantive talks,” the Times writes, “most recently on Saturday, when Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem of Syria declared that Mr. Assad’s rule was a ‘red line’ and that there would be no discussion of presidential elections.”

The reax from rebel-held territory: “People are distributing sweets and calling ‘God is great’ from the mosques,” said a fighter who gave his name as Ahmed. “There’s optimism, but we don’t know what’s hidden.”

As Putin withdraws, Obama’s former top Russian policy official at the Pentagon says the U.S. should pounce on the opportunity to create a humanitarian safe zone in Syria, send additional help for the opposition, and threaten additional sanctions. Evelyn Farkas writes that Putin was never going to join the West’s fight against ISIS, and he got what he wanted — leverage — but the U.S. still can take advantage.

“Russia’s maximum moment of leverage over the future of Syria will be on Tuesday,” Farkas writes in this exclusive commentary for Defense One. “We can’t watch and react.”

Why is the Pentagon’s personnel-reform chief stepping down? It’s complicated. Last month, Brad Carson went to Capitol Hill to seek confirmation as defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness. Instead, GOP senators ripped into him and his proposals to rejigger the military’s personnel regulations to attract and retain the most talented people. So it wasn’t a complete surprise when DoD confirmed Monday that Carson will step down in April. But even before he ran into a Senate buzzsaw, Carson was already caught in a political Catch-22, unable to visit Capitol Hill to lay the groundwork for the legislation that might have made his reforms possible. Deputy Editor Bradley Peniston explains, here.

ICYMI: watch a July discussion between Carson and Defense One Executive Editor Kevin Baron, here. And read Carson’s reform manifesto, published on Defense One last June.

From Defense One

Hey, America: Don’t forget your soldiers while spending billions on future weapons. AUSA President Gordon Sullivan talks to News Editor Ben Watson about what a smaller, busier Army means for American power, global instability, and the troops themselves. Read the Q&A, here.

The Pentagon wants to buy that bomb you’re building in the garage. DARPA will pay tinkerers to weaponize off-the-shelf items — in hopes of defending against such hacks. Is this a…good idea? Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports, here.

Why does Obama fight wars he deems unwinnable? The uncertainty he projects about his policies undermine the half-hearted military efforts he undertakes. Kori Schake, via The Atlantic, here.

An isolationist president, in love with drones and special forces. Obama’s no realist, writes Josef Joffe; history suggests little promise for the path he has chosen for the U.S. Via The Atlantic, here.

The end of the U.S.-dominated order in the Middle East. Critics say the Obama doctrine has given Russia the upper hand in the region; the president says Moscow’s welcome to try to use it. Martin Indyk explains, via The Atlantic, here.

Beware the Ides of March edition of the D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 44 BC, et tu Brute? Treat your friends better than Caesar with this link: Got news? Let us know:

More Pentagon acquisition reform on the way. Building off a slew of acquisition reform measures passed by Congress last year, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is scheduled to unveil new proposals today at Brookings, according to House aides. The purpose of the package, they say, is to get better technology onto the battlefield quicker.

To do that, future weapons need to use open architecture. That would allow, say, a fighter jet to receive upgrades faster and cheaper. Historically, this has not been the case, and the Pentagon has to pay the company that made the weapon if they want to upgrade. So if that fighter jet needs a new sensor pod, the company that made the plane would have to work with the firm that made the pod to integrate the two systems. Some systems are already heading that way; the Air Force is building its new B-21 bomber to easily accept future upgrades.

Which 2016 candidates do the American troops back? Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, according to a Military Times poll of active duty service members. “The Republican front runner Trump was the most popular candidate in a subscriber poll that closed Sunday, with 27 percent saying they would back the business mogul if the election were held tomorrow. Sanders, the independent Vermont senator, was a close second at 22 percent. The results — based on responses from 931 active-duty troops, reservists and members of the National Guard — do not offer a scientific status of military voting preferences. However, they do show that the outsider candidates’ messages are resonating with individuals in uniform.”

The rest of the pack: “Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who has made national security issues one of the centerpieces of his campaign, was nearly last in the Military Times survey, with only about 9 percent of candidates favoring him. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz had almost double that, with 17 percent support.  Those surveyed offered only slightly more support for Republican Ohio Gov. John Kasich (8 percent) than potential third-party candidates (6 percent). Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton received a little more than 11 percent backing.” Read their full report, here.

Delays in possible U.S. sales of F-15s to Qatar has Boeing defense workers in St. Louis on edge. “The Emirate of Qatar wants to buy at least 36 of the air-superiority jets, and possibly 72, but the purchase has been held up for two years as the administration of President Barack Obama ponders whether to allow it,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. “Boeing is now busy building F-15s for Saudi Arabia and has enough work to keep the line running to 2019. Absent new orders, the line will shut down then. The Qatar order is now the best bet for extending production beyond that, although Israel might order more F-15s if the United States increases aid to the nation.”

The potential impact: “Boeing employs about 15,000 people here, and the Super Hornets, Growlers and F-15 fighters are their main local products. The company has not said how many work on the St. Louis fighter lines, but they number in the thousands. The Qatar orders seem caught in a tug of war, with the Defense Department pushing in favor, Israel pushing against, and the White House undecided.”

What could shift the dynamics? “Israel might relent if the U.S. boosts its own military aid package. A $50 billion, 10-year package would allow Israel to add F-15s to its expected purchase of more F-35s.” More here.

Finally today—Is the U.S. at war with Shebab militants in Africa? “The short answer, several officials said, is no,” writes NYT’s Charlie Savage. “But there turned out to be a twist that illustrates how the fight against terrorism keeps eroding limits on presidential war-making powers.” That twist concerned the White House’s invoking the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, calling Shebab an extension of the AUMF’s “associated forces” with al-Qaeda clause. Critics of the approach, Savage writes, argue for an update to the justification, now 15 years old. “But Congress has been too polarized and gridlocked to act, essentially acquiescing to the executive branch’s interpretations of what the authorization covers.”

So Charlie hit up the Pentagon for an answer, and the implications quickly grew complicated, at least in an academic sense, even as the issue remains “crucial” to U.S. foreign policy—not only for the remainder of Obama’s term, but also for his successor. Food for thought, here.  

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