The battle for Mosul is on; Turkey retakes Dabiq; Another attack on US destroyer?; Russia’s inflatable jets; and a bit more…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

October 17, 2016

Mosul’s moment has arrived. At least 45,000 troops are reportedly advancing on the country’s second-largest city, held by the Islamic State group since their convoys rolled into town back in June 2014. Some reports say the force holds up to 60,000 troops, including some 4,000 Peshmerga fighters reportedly working from the south and east.

Airstrikes and artillery began early in the morning, with French and American fires reportedly targeting eastern and western Mosul while thousands of additional forces continued to move into position.  

Before we get too far along, let’s take a moment to think of the dark times ahead for the estimated 1.2 million civilians still in Mosul. The Iraqi government is reportedly so worried that a general told Buzzfeed’s Mike Biglio, reporting northeast of Mosul in Khazer, that Baghdad’s only hope is that those civilians will just shelter in their homes. “Ominous days for them ahead,” Giglio writes.

The offensive, in broad strokes: The “Mosul strategy targets ISIS from four sides,” wrote Middle East scholar Hassan Hassan. “Tel Afar [and the] Nineveh plain are major fronts in their own right. Joint forces are based in Qayyara. Forces to the city’s western side will be mostly to prevent ISIS from redeployment into Syria.” Read his entire Twitter thread on key considerations from the battle, beginning here.

For what it’s worth: The IO efforts have already begun alongside the artillery and aircraft: an intelligence phone line for Mosul citizens to feed Iraqi troops info was spoiled by ISIS on Sunday.

The “defensive” suicide attacks have been coming at a rapid clip: 11 in roughly two hours, terrorism scholar Charlie Winter writes this morning.  

About that relatively open route to the west: safety is not guaranteed, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, a spokesman for the Iraqi military, told the Washington Post.

One of the city’s five bridges is already damaged. That happened on Saturday when coalition airstrikes targeted some boats on the Tigris, and destroyed part of the bridge in the process. For what it’s worth, all five of the city’s bridges were reportedly rigged to blow as recently as Wednesday.

Here’s a 63-second video on the stakes of the Mosul offensive, via Agence France-Presse.

And Kurdish Rudaw News is live-streaming some of the action here.

U.S. officials told The Daily Beast the timeline for taking the city could take weeks or months. Recall, of course, that unnamed U.S. officials also said the offensive on Mosul would begin “in weeks.” That was 19 months ago.

Bring on the selfies. Here’s one from an Iraqi pilot. Expect thousands more.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says: “Don’t forget me.” Although his actual quote was: “We will be in the operation and we will be at the table," Erdogan said in a televised speech. "Our brothers are there and our relatives are there. It is out of the question that we are not involved." More on that angle from AFP reporting out of Istanbul on Sunday, here.

Reminder: “While the Mosul operation is key to degrading the ISIS threat, there is risk in the coming weeks that ISIS external operations based in Raqqa will try surge terror into Europe,” terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank tweeted Sunday.

In Syria, Turkey’s allied forces took the fabled city of Dabiq from ISIS. Reuters: “The rebels, backed by Turkish tanks and warplanes, took Dabiq and neighboring Soran after clashes on Sunday morning, said Ahmed Osman, head of the Sultan Murad group, one of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions involved in the fighting…The village, at the foot of a small hill in the fertile plains of Syria's northwest about 14 km (9 miles) from the Turkish border and 33 km north of Aleppo, has little strategic significance in its own right… The Turkish-backed forces would now continue their advance toward the Islamic State-held town of al-Bab, southeast of Dabiq,” a Turkish official said.

Here is an excellent window into ISIS’s shifting view of Dabiq’s importance. The skinny: they’re not as keen on holding territory these days. Read the full exchange between an ISIS fighter and terrorism scholar Amarnath Amarasingam, here.  

Apropos of nothing: Here’s a look at some of the rebels’ Turkish, American, and Romanian weapons they carried to Dabiq.

Worth noting: Those Dabiq forces are now 25 to 30 kms outside of Aleppo.

And in Aleppo: More than 40 airstrikes pounded the city yesterday, killing at least 50, the White Helmets reported on Sunday.

At one point, 11 bombs fell in 15 minutes, according to Bana Alabed, a 7-year-old girl in Aleppo whose mother helps her report from inside rebel-held east Aleppo.

On the diplomatic side of Syria’s “barbaric” offensive in Aleppo, the U.S. and the U.K. are mulling new sanctions on Syrian and Russian officials. The BBC has more on that, here.

In case you were curious, here’s the effect of sanctions, via Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations: “Sanctions work roughly one-third of time with goals of democratization or regime change or to change behavior. [They] have to be swift and significant. Also, when ‘democratic, major powers’ impose sanctions on a state, they're 52 percent more likely to attack that state.”

Beyond sanctions, the U.S. could opt for implementing a no-fly zone in northern Syria. But that approach, given the Obama administration’s lack of a comprehensive plan for what comes next in Syria, is really more of an “idea in search of a strategy,” warns Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writing in The Wall Street Journal this weekend.

Could Russia’s air defense equipment in Syria be destroyed in two days? One expert thinks so. “We have no chance,” one Russian defense expert told a radio interviewer last week, when asked about the prospects of an actual clash between Russian and U.S. forces in Syria. “Our detachment would be destroyed in two days in a single air offensive.” That via The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa, writing about “Putin, Syria and Why Moscow Has Gone War-Crazy.”

And by the way: The Russian navy is very busy at the moment. Operations include the transit of Moscow’s only aircraft carrier, Kuznetsov, departing its location up near Finland for the Mediterranean.


From Defense One

War Goes Viral // Emerson Brooking and Peter W. Singer, via The Atlantic: How social media is being weaponized across the world.

Potemkin Jets Unlikely To Fool US Satellites // Tech Editor Patrick Tucker: But Russia's inflatable decoys just might tie up scarce U.S. resources long enough to make a difference.

The US Military Is Shedding Civilian Jobs. It Has No Idea How Much Money It's Actually Saving // GovExec’s Eric Katz: The Government Accountability Office wants to make sure the military isn't letting employees go without a true accounting of the costs.

Geography Allows America To Choose Its Global Role. Only One Candidate is Choosing Wisely // The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman: Because of its location, America can choose whether it wants to be a gatekeeper or a global policeman.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1941, a German U-boat torpedoed, but does not sink, the USS Kearny, before the U.S. entered World War II. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


USS Mason, attacked a third time — maybe: On Saturday, the U.S. destroyer fired anti-missile countermeasures in response to a perceived attack as it patrolled off the coast of Yemen. But hours later, Navy officials were still attempting to understand whether the incoming missiles were real or merely a figment of the defense systems’ imaginations. Talking to reporters later in the day, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson called it an attack, yet left open both possibilities. Via USNI News: The Mason, he said, “appears to have come under attack in the Red Sea again from coastal defense cruise missiles fired from the coast of Yemen,” he said. “So as you know this is the third such attack. We suffered one about a week ago. We also saw one in the middle of last week and now we see more activity.”

Did the U.S. just respond to the DNC hack? AP reports, briefly: “WikiLeaks says that founder Julian Assange’s internet access has been cut by an unidentified state actor. Few other details were immediately available.”

Recall that on Friday American officials warned a response would be coming. U.S. intelligence “sources did not elaborate on the exact measures the CIA was considering, but said the agency had already begun opening cyber doors, selecting targets and making other preparations for an operation,” NBC News reported, before adding this ominous extra line: “Former intelligence officers told NBC News that the agency had gathered reams of documents that could expose unsavory tactics by Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

The Friday warning, naturally, prompted a rapid rhetorical response from Russia.

The Brits just sent 40 military personnel to train Tunisian armed forces to fight ISIS. "The training will be delivered to around 200 Tunisian army personnel at various locations. Two previous training missions took place in February and late last year… The training will focus on operational planning, intelligence, surveillance and mobile patrolling and is the third mission of its kind by British troops in Tunisia since 30 British holidaymakers were killed in a beach attack there" in June 2015. More here.

U.S. special operators have been quietly escalating the war on al-Shabab in Somalia, The New York Times reported this weekend. “About 200 to 300 American Special Operations troops work with soldiers from Somalia and other African nations like Kenya and Uganda to carry out more than a half-dozen raids per month, according to senior American military officials. The operations are a combination of ground raids and drone strikes. The Navy’s classified SEAL Team 6 has been heavily involved in many of these operations.”

The rub: “In its public announcements, the Pentagon sometimes characterizes the operations as ‘self-defense strikes,’ though some analysts have said this rationale has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is only because American forces are now being deployed on the front lines in Somalia that they face imminent threats from the Shabab.”

A note on transparency: “The Pentagon has acknowledged only a small fraction of these operations. But even the information released publicly shows a marked increase this year. The Pentagon has announced 13 ground raids and airstrikes thus far in 2016 — including three operations in September — up from five in 2015, according to data compiled by New America, a Washington think tank. The strikes have killed about 25 civilians and 200 people suspected of being militants, the group found.”

The bottom line: “The Somalia campaign is a blueprint for warfare that President Obama has embraced and will pass along to his successor. It is a model the United States now employs across the Middle East and North Africa — from Syria to Libya — despite the president’s stated aversion to American “boots on the ground” in the world’s war zones.” Read the rest, here.

In Afghanistan, the U.S. military is trying to put a “band-aid on a bullet wound” in the hotly-contested Helmand province, in the southwest, WaPo’s former Marine, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, reports from the country. “Considered the birthplace of the Taliban — and the hub of the Afghanistan’s opium trade — Helmand is a hard-fought battlefield that runs deep with symbolism and blood. But despite a 2010 surge into the province by U.S. forces — the biggest military operation of the Afghanistan war — military reports now estimate that 85 percent of Helmand is controlled by the Taliban.”

The problem, in short: “Despite a renewed dependency on U.S. forces, Afghan casualties are at unsustainable levels across the country. U.S. military documents show that in one week in August alone, more than 100 Afghan forces were killed, and nearly 300 were injured. The casualties, along with inconsistent leadership, has led, in some areas, to dangerously low morale in both the Afghan army and various branches of the police forces. The result is the almost daily abandonment of police and army checkpoints that are looted by the Taliban. Of the 540 checkpoints in Helmand, Afghan police have abandoned 112 of them, and the army has lost 30.” Much more to the story, here.

Lastly this morning: meet the good samaritans of the U.S. Army, who were “were among the first to go to the aid of motorists in a bus crash in southeast Washington Wednesday night that left one person dead and three others injured,” AP reported late last week.

Those “samaritans” were led by none other than “Gen. Mark Milley, the chief of staff of the Army, [who] was traveling from Joint Base Andrews to Fort Myer in Virginia in a two-car convoy [when his group] came upon the accident… According to Army Lt. Col. Rob Shaw, two soldiers helped pull one person from the car before it caught fire, and two others provided first aid to that person until the ambulance arrived. According to a person familiar with the incident, Milley helped direct the response and assisted with the first aid. The soldiers were unable to pull the other victim from the car because it was in flames…Shaw said the soldiers involved in assisting the crash victim want to remain anonymous and ‘were simply doing what they believed was the right thing to do—using their military training to help others.’” More 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.

October 17, 2016

https://www.defenseone.com/news/2016/10/the-d-brief-october-17-2016/132378/