US to Turkey: focus on ISIS; Moscow finds airpower has limits; Russian hackers hit DC think tanks; Combined-arms training for the cyber era; and a bit more.

Stop fighting the Kurds and focus on ISIS, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter tells Turkey. Lines are being drawn in the sands of northern Syria after Turkey’s military offensive into and out of the city of Jarablus, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. The articles retrace the steps leading up to Ankara’s incursion into Syria, which began last week and has strained the U.S.-Turkey relationship. The operation caught the U.S. off guard, the Journal writes, and compelled a clarification about where and when American air power will assist a tangle of allied groups Washington has mustered to fight the Islamic State in Syria.  

So, what was clarified? “Officials in Washington said they warned their Turkish military counterparts Monday that the U.S. won’t provide air support to Turkish forces pushing southward, deeper into Syrian territory,” WSJ reported. “The U.S. will continue to provide air support to Turkish forces moving westward, into the border area threatened by Islamic State.” And on the Kurdish-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces side: “U.S. officials told the Kurds that U.S. air support hinged on their forces moving east of the Euphrates River and on advancing south toward Islamic State’s self-declared capital, Raqqa, to ensure they wouldn’t come into conflict with the Turks, according to the officials.”

That’s the pragmatic takeaway about what was a confused and rushed operation, at least from the U.S. perspective, the Journal writes. The notion of a Turkish offensive was first floated back in the spring of 2015—but Ankara pulled the trigger quickly and without acquiring White House approval to send about 40 U.S. special forces along for the ride, shortly after U.S.-backed SDF fighters took back the city of Manbij from ISIS around August 13.

Why did the U.S. drag its feet? The presence of al-Qaeda-aligned rebels in Turkey’s ragtag ensemble. The White House wanted assurances American SOF wouldn’t be a target of those rebels, but U.S. commanders in the ISIS battlespace couldn’t get those assurances in time. And so Turkey proceeded anyway.

All of this means the U.S. is more concerned than ever that a key ally such as Turkey will become bogged down in Syria and draw attention away from the battle against ISIS. Read the Journal’s full recap, here.

With Turkey increasingly seen as an unreliable partner, now might be a good time to review U.S. and coalition basing alternatives in the Middle East, scholars from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies write in this report released Monday.

Meanwhile, newly acquired documents reveal that ISIS is “under strain from financial misappropriation, embezzlement, alleged infiltration by anti-ISIS spies, and bureaucratic infighting,” The Daily Beast reports this morning.

And while that may be good news, The Guardian brings a bad-news story of UN aid to Assad regime. A review of hundreds of contracts for Syrian officials since 2011 shows that UN agencies have done business with at least “258 Syrian companies, paying sums as high as $54m and £36m, down to $30,000,” many of them deals with individuals sanctioned by the U.S. and the EU. More here.

Russian officials are coming to terms with the limits of airpower in Syria. Reporting from Moscow, Reuters says that the Russian military is “in need of a new strategy to advance its aims.” Those frustrations are illuminated by that short-lived deal with Iran to carry out airstrikes into Syria. “But Andrei Klimov, a pro-Kremlin member of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, said the cost of the Syrian operation may have been a factor. ‘We are trying to conduct the operation in Syria within certain sums…The defense ministry has other expenditures. Therefore to optimize costs, more economical routes are sought. Any sensible country does the same thing.’”

Line of the day (even, perhaps, of the broader conflict): “I get the feeling we’re like a horse at the circus, running around in a circle since Sept. 30 when we first deployed our aircraft there,” said an unnamed person “close to the Russian defense ministry.” Read the rest, here.

Elsewhere along Russia’s periphery, take a look at Putin’s air defense systems on its western and southern flanks, via the folks at the Institute for the Study of War. What is clearly evident is Russia’s robust anti-access and area-denial network, enabled by various S-300 and S-400 air defense systems from Latakia, Syria, to Kaliningrad all the way up to Norway’s doorstep.

But it’s Lithuania that in many ways is “ground zero in a new Cold War,” The Daily Beast reports from the Curonian Spit, a sand dune nearly 100 km long that plays host to Russian war games just across the border. Said one Lithuanian civil engineer: “We are worried that one day, when they [NATO and Russia] actually decide to fire at each other, there will be nothing left of Lithuania.” There’s also a side story about a militia deeply opposed to Donald Trump’s NATO-bashing rhetoric. Story, here.

For your ears only: How should the next U.S. president prioritize challenges from Russia, China, and elsewhere? NPR’s Michele Kelemen tackled the question Monday with the help of retired Navy Capt. Jerry Hendrix of CNAS, Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute, and CNAS CEO Michèle Flournoy.


From Defense One

Russia-backed DNC hackers strike Washington think tanks. The same Kremlin-backed group that hacked the Pentagon, State Department, and DNC targeted D.C. insiders last week. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker has the scoop,  here.

A former general’s case against Trump. The GOP nominee would undermine values that strengthen the U.S. military, says retired Lt. Gen. Claudia Kennedy, the Army’s first female three-star. here.

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1862, Confederate forces defeated Union troops at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


New training for a new era. The U.S. Army is training with drones, sensors, and new tactics to adapt to warfare that’s increasingly taking place in the digital domain, U.S. News’ Paul Shinkman reported Monday from Fort Irwin, Calif. “It’s a twofold mission: The military’s fledgling cyber teams are trying to figure out precisely how to deploy highly technical operatives into the field and work alongside the kind of soldier that signed up for the dusty, hot and dangerous work of the service branches like infantry, cavalry and armor troops, while also convincing old guard combat commanders that the battlefield now extends into a realm they can neither see nor attack with bullets, artillery shells or armored vehicles.”

The impetus: “Russia became the first country to successfully incorporate cyber operations into a massive military maneuver when it invaded Georgia in 2008. Its tank and infantry movements followed a cyber strike that crippled the websites for Georgia’s ministries of defense and foreign affairs, among other key elements of its government and commercial infrastructure. Separatists in Ukraine that Moscow backs continue to use highly advanced cyber tactics to harass the forces loyal to Kiev while waging a sophisticated propaganda campaign to control the sole source of information available to the population in the breakaway areas of Ukraine’s east.”

Adds Shinkman: “The training scenarios here are designed to replicate those kinds of quagmires.” Read his report in full, here.

If al-Shabaab is at its “weakest point,” it’s still as deadly as ever. A suicide bomber from the group hit the Somali capital of Mogadishu this morning, detonating near the gate of the Presidential Palace in an attack that has killed five so far and injured more than two-dozen others, AP reports.

Adds AP: “While al-Shabab has been ousted from most of Somalia’s cities, it continues to carry out bombings and suicide attacks, notably in the capital. In late July, two al-Shabab suicide bombers detonated explosives-laden cars outside the office of the U.N.’s mine-clearing agency and an army checkpoint near the African Union’s main base in Mogadishu, killing 13. Other attacks have targeted hotels. In June, extremist gunmen stormed the Nasa-Hablod hotel, killing at least 14. Two weeks before that, extremist gunmen killed 15, including two members of parliament, at the Ambassador hotel.”

Al-Shabaab also carried out an attack on August 25 and four days prior—that August 21 attack came one day after The Guardian wrote Shabaab is “at its weakest point, paranoid about spies and short of cash.”

McCain’s “squeaker” Senate primary happens today, giving election tea-leaf readers something to chew on as Ds and Rs gear up for the general election in November. “McCain says people in his state are angry, the economic recovery is uneven and the atmosphere is volatile,” Politico reports in a primary preview this morning. “He expects to prevail over conservative challenger Kelli Ward, but the margin of victory will decide whether he barrels or limps into the toughest general election fight of his 34-year political career, against Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick.” More here.

Technical troubles continue for the U.S. Navy’s “costliest warship ever,” Bloomberg reported Monday after getting their hands on an August 23 memo on the $12.9 billion Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. “The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer [Frank Kendall] has ordered an independent review” of the carrier “citing a list of actual and potential deficiencies,” which include “propulsion and electrical system components” and “launch and recover systems for aircraft and a new dual-band radar.” Read the rest, here.

Lastly today: An Islamic radical who changed his mind is helping advance the study of jihadists. It’s the story of Jesse Morton, the man behind one of the most-visited jihadist websites in the U.S. But today, “After a stint as an F.B.I. informant and his release from prison last year, Mr. Morton has been hired as a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, where he will research the very ideology he once spread.”

Catch video of the Times speaking to Morton, here. Or read the full write-up for yourself, here. See also PBS Newshour’s take on Morton over here.

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