Aleppo is all but finished; DHS pick is another gruff talker; The flawed new plan to fight extremist content; Night vision in sunglasses?; and just a bit more…

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

December 8, 2016

President-elect Donald Trump has selected his third general for a top spot in his cabinet—Marine Gen. John Kelly to take the helm at the Department of Homeland Security—triggering more concern over a “heavy military influence” and the possible “threat to civilian oversight of government” so many GOs might pose, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal report, respectively.

The Post, in review: “If confirmed, Kelly and defense secretary nominee James Mattis, a retired Marine general with the nickname ‘Mad Dog,’ would join retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s pick for White House national security adviser. Meanwhile, retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus is under consideration for secretary of state, and Navy Adm. Michael S. Rogers is a contender for director of national intelligence.”

And rounding things out so far, “Other figures with military backgrounds are populating the administration as well, including Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), who graduated from West Point and served in the Army in the Gulf War, is Trump’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, while Stephen K. Bannon, a former naval officer, will serve the president in the West Wing as chief strategist and senior counselor.” More from WaPo, here.

Writes the Journal, “The generals’ presence might help ensure that the White House will have a deep understanding of the Pentagon’s operations from those who have spent time in combat, but it doesn’t necessarily mean these retired officers will be more likely to push the White House into armed conflict.” More here.

What you may not know about Kelly: “If you think Gen. Jim Mattis is a gruff talker, wait ’til you get a load of Kelly,” writes Defense One’s Kevin Baron. “The Southie boy from Boston was basically muzzled by President Obama’s Pentagon in his final months as the leader of U.S. Southern Command. But he rose to the top exactly because of that frank talk and advice, previously serving as the three-star senior military aide alongside Defense Secretary Robert Gates and commanding troops through the crucible of Iraq’s Anbar province.”

The important question: “What kind of DHS secretary will Gen. John Kelly be? Controversial. Outspoken. Tough on terrorism, tough on drugs and, undoubtedly, tough on himself,” Baron writes. Read why, here.

Aleppo is all but finished as the city “shakes with explosions and gunfire day and night in both the government- and rebel-held sides” and “a growing sense of imminent victory” is taking hold for supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the AP reports this morning. “A rebel defeat in Aleppo, Syria's largest city and once its commercial center, would reverberate across the war-torn country, where opposition forces continue to hold out in smaller, scattered areas. It would cap a string of government successes over the past year and provide a turning point” in the nearly six-year war that has left nearly half a million dead and more than 11 million homeless.  

The Syrian rebels’ hope by proxy: WSJ’s Yaroslav Trofimov reports that Syria’s Sunni opposition is clinging “to the hope that when Donald Trump tackles the Syrian crisis, his longstanding hostility to Iran will offset his desire to improve relations with Russia,” and thus not erase or roll back what remains of their resistance to the ruling regime.

The moderate Syrian rebels have few friends left nowadays,” Trofimov writes. “France, one of their most vocal backers, is likely to change its policy soon as the two candidates expected to reach the runoff in the country’s presidential election next year favor closer ties with Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad. There is little that Saudi Arabia and Qatar can do. Turkey, another major rebel backer, appears to have tacitly acquiesced to the fall of Aleppo.” And what comes next is still very much anyone’s guess.

Anyone, that is, but President Assad. He told state-run news, “The battle of Aleppo will be a gain, but to be realistic, it doesn’t mean the end of the war in Syria. It is a significant landmark towards the end of the battle, but the war in Syria will not end until terrorism is eliminated. Terrorists are there in other areas; so even if we finish in Aleppo, we will carry on with the war against them.” It’s quite the wide-ranging interview, and Assad touches on many issues—including the future of the Kurds in Syria (he’ll tackle that after the terrorists are removed his country), respect for Russia’s way of governing, relations with Egypt, relations with Hamas, and the daunting subjects of reconciliation and reconstruction that still await the country—here.

Don’t look now, but the Islamic State in Syria just announced a new offensive in the vicinity of Homs, and showed off loot (tanks, artillery, small arms, rockets) from an alleged recent assault of a Syrian army outpost.

To the north, clashes are still ongoing between ISIS and Turkish-backed fighters in al-Bab, with six of Ankara’s soldiers wounded, Kurdistan24 news reports.

And ICYMI: Turkish media reported an Iranian drone may have been responsible for the recent killing of four Turkish soldiers in Syria. They arrived at Iran (or the Quds Force, or Hezbollah, or some other Shi’a militia) as a culprit since both Moscow and Damascus said the drone wasn’t theirs. More here.


From Defense One

What You Don’t Know About Gen. John Kelly // Kevin Baron: The four-star Southie boy from Boston brings to DHS the grief of losing friends to America’s drug epidemic and a son to the war on terrorism.

The Flaw in Tech Giants’ Plan to Fight Extremist Content // Tucker, again: Everyone gets to use different definitions of dangerous imagery, says the inventor of the software they'll use.

Nanotech Breakthrough Could Revolutionize Night Vision // Patrick Tucker: Researchers build “teeny, tiny structures” that can change infrared to visible light — and might make NVGs no bigger than sunglasses.

America’s Lead in Quantum Computing Is ‘Under Siege’ // Nextgov’s Mohana Ravindranath: A White House cyber policy adviser says the U.S. must boost investment.

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asks Congress for a declaration of war on Japan. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: the-d-brief@defenseone.com.)


A tip from Mosul. Iraqi special forces are still facing a battering ram of suicide car bombs as they continue to push deeper into Mosul, raising flags over more buildings near the Tigris, and unearthing intelligence indicating ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could be located in the Tal Aubtah area west of Mosul, Iraqi news reports.

The Islamic State’s British hostage, former journalist John Cantlie, made his first appearance since July in a new video from the group released Wednesday, CNN reported. (Catch up to Cantlie’s story via this superb broadcast from On the Media back in May) The Long War Journal: “Cantlie and others who appear in the nearly nine minute production claim that the coalition’s air strikes have crippled civilian life, damaging bridges and interrupting the city’s supply of water and electricity… Amaq’s video is intended to portray the US-led coalition as being anti-Sunni, with the Islamic State as the supposed sole defender of Iraq’s Sunni population. This is a consistent theme in the group’s propaganda.” More here.

Iranian officials were briefed on the Mosul offensive well before it kicked off, Reuters reported Wednesday in a piece titled “How Iran closed the Mosul ‘horseshoe’ and changed Iraq war.” Said one humanitarian worker, Iran “wanted the whole region west of Mosul to be a kill box.” And so, Reuters reports, “Iran lobbied for Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization fighters to be sent to the western front to seal off the link between Mosul and Raqqa, the two main cities of Islamic State's self-declared cross-border caliphate.”

For what it’s worth, those PMUs say this morning they’ve liberated more land southwest of Mosul, this time in the vicinity of Tal Abta.

The USS George HW Bush gets ready to re-enter the ISIS fight. CNN has bit of a look-back/look-ahead from the carrier, here.

Are U.S. airstrikes done in Libya? It seems that way, Stars and Stripes reports. “Nine Islamic State fighters — believed to be the last in Sirte, Libya — surrendered to militias backing the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis stopped short of declaring victory in the U.S. military’s Operation Odyssey Lighting, the bombing campaign to aid the GNA militias, but said the terrorists no longer control any territory in the city.”

We’re not quite ready to call it,” Davis said. “We’ll wait for [the GNA] to call it, but that appears to be just about wrapped up.” More here.

Vietnam is island-building in the South China Sea. New satellite photos show dredging going on by Ladd Reef, which observers take as a precursor to turning the tiny, often-underwater feature, which currently hosts a lighthouse and watch tower, into a more useful military outpost, Reuters reports. It’s the same kind of thing, if on vastly smaller scale, that China has been doing for several years now. (In all, Vietnam has added about 120 acres to its SCS holdings, while China has added more than 3,200.)

Reuters: “‘We can see that, in this environment, Vietnam’s strategic mistrust is total [of China] and they are rapidly improving their defences,’ said Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired naval intelligence analyst with Britain’s defence ministry.”

This comes on the heels of last month’s discovery that Vietnam had already begun major improvements on Spratley Island: adding about 57 acres, roughly doubling the length of its runway, building hangars, and installing rocket launchers. CSIS has the aerial photos and a handy locator map, here.

Meanwhile, the Philippines defense minister says his country is likely to stop hosting American warships traveling to and from patrols in the South China Sea, AP reports. President Rodrigo Duterte, “who took office in June, has taken steps to mend ties with China and became hostile toward the Obama administration, after it raised concerns over Duterte’s deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.” U.S. officials had no immediate comment on this latest Philippines statement about reducing military cooperation. Last month, PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris, said “that despite Duterte’s rhetoric, military cooperation with Manila has not changed.”

Getting to Trump’s 350-ship navy would be a “Herculean task.” So says Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who, along with the Navy’s acquisition chief Sean Stackley, put the campaign promise in context at a U.S. Naval Institute event yesterday. Read on at USNI News, here.

At that same event, Gen. Robert Neller described how his 182,000-strong Marine Corps would handle Trump’s proposed 12,000-troop expansion: “That’s a lot of people and you’re talking about a volunteer force that has to be recruited,” Neller said. “It’s not just the Marines. I’ve got to find X number more battalion commanders; X number more sergeants major and company commanders and [operations officers]; let alone buy the gear and build the barracks.” That from Marine Corps Times, here.

Another F/A-18 Hornet has crashed — this one on Wednesday off Japan — bringing the alarming total to nine in six months, the Aviationist reports. The search for the missing pilot was still going on at press time.

Finally today: a #ThrowbackThursday to ’70s-era space aircraft. An X-Wing fighter was rolled down the streets of Hollywood on Wednesday for a Saturday premiere of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” Hollywood’s ABC7 news reported with a nice video report to go along with it. It’s a short article and video, but you can check them both out 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.

December 8, 2016

https://www.defenseone.com/news/2016/12/the-d-brief-december-08-2016/133738/