Rex heads to Mideast; ISIS war sees its ‘most kinetic weeks’; China looks to quintuple its Marines; Russia likely supporting Taliban, says CENTCOM; and just a bit more…

Rex goes to the Mideast as Turkey puts on a new face. One day before State Secretary Rex Tillerson comes to Ankara, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on Wednesday said his country’s Syrian excursion Euphrates Shield has “successfully” concluded, the BBC reports. (Euphrates Shield had its own Twitter handle at one point; that appears to have been deleted.)

But don’t get too excited: “Any operation following this one will have a different name,” Yildirim said after meeting with his country’s security council.

The BBC on what happened: Euphrates Shield “was Turkey’s biggest intervention in Syria since the war began: a ground operation to drive IS and Kurdish fighters back from its border. After retaking Jarablus, Dabiq and al-Bab from the jihadists, Turkish officials warned the offensive would push the Kurdish militia out of Manbij, before moving south to Raqqa. But neither of those has happened.”

Why? “It is possible Turkey has got cold feet after sustaining heavy losses in al-Bab. It may also be trying to please the US secretary of state, who was in Ankara on Thursday and was likely to reiterate that Washington would not drop its alliance with the Syrian Kurds. There may also be a link with Turkey’s 16 April referendum on expanding the powers of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hoping to secure nationalist votes by presenting the operation as a success - and possibly trying to win back some Kurdish votes too.” More here.

SecState OKs Lockheed Martin’s F-16 sales to Bahrain; ball now moves to Congress’s court. Tillerson “has decided to lift all human rights conditions on a major sale of F-16 fighter jets and other arms to Bahrain in an effort to end a rift between the United States and a critical Middle East ally,” The New York Times reported Wednesday, citing “administration and congressional officials involved in the debate…The conditions on the sale of 19 new American fighter jets, worth $2.8 billion, had been imposed by the Obama administration amid continuing concerns about the tiny Sunni monarchy’s crackdown against majority Shiites.”

Given Tillerson’s call on Bahrain, and his own “signaling” in recent weeks, the sale of some 16,000 U.S. precision-guided munitions from Raytheon to Saudi Arabia could be next, the Times reports. More here.

The Associated Press forecasts: “Though Congress has opportunities to block the sale, it is unlikely it will act to do so, given the Republican majority’s strong support for the sale.”

Quote of the day: “We tried to influence both Saudi and Bahraini behavior through foreign military sales…and failed. We should be honest about that,” said Andrew Exum, former Army Ranger and Obama administration Pentagon official.

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Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1944: The RAF bombs Nuremberg, losing 95 of 795 aircraft in the costliest raid of the war. Find that here. Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us:

The battle for Mosul has given the world “the most kinetic three weeks” of the ISIS War so far, Air Force Times reported Wednesday: “coalition aircraft above Mosul have dropped more than 500 precision-guided munitions a week so far in March — even hitting as high as 605 weapons in one week. The weapons released were all in support of Iraqi Security Forces pushing further into the western part of Mosul.”

Since the offensive kicked off on October 17, “the coalition has released 8,700 precision-guided munitions — ‘every one approved by an Iraqi general officer or a Kurdish leader,’” said Brig. Gen. Matthew Isler, deputy commanding general for Air, Combined Joint Forces Land Component Command, Operation Inherent Resolve.

ISIS car bombs have also been so frequent that the coalition has been striking the roads with PGMs to alter the possible course of those bombs, Isler said. Lots more worth your time in that story—especially if you or a service member you know are headed to the ISIS fight anytime soon—here.

President Trump’s Iraq plans after Mosul: “it plans to largely abdicate a U.S. role in Iraq’s political future, despite the certainty that driving the Islamic State group from its remaining stronghold in Mosul…starts the clock on a dangerous new era for a country on the verge of fracturing along rival warring factions,” U.S. News reported Wednesday. “Despite assurances last week from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to delegates from the 68 members of the coalition fighting the terror network, the White House is currently positioning itself to help support humanitarian and infrastructure needs in the immediate aftermath of the fighting and then withdraw from leading assistance to Baghdad and other centers of power.” Read why that could be a very dangerous gamble, here.

Future plans: ISIS wants to increase the payload capacity on its drones from 1 kilogram to 20. That’s just one of the bits you’ll learn from Jenan Moussa, reporter for Arabic Al Aan TV, who ID’d one of the Islamic State’s drone developers in Syria: Abou Yosri, real name Fadhel Mensi from Tunisia. Read her intriguing Twitter thread on her findings, here.

Past plans under scrutiny: The feds are investigating SOCOM’s tendency to “farm out much of its Syria strategy to private companies,” Buzzfeed’s Investigative Reporter Aram Roston reported Wednesday. Dig into his #LongRead, here.

Mid-length read: President Trump’s growing Middle East military footprint appears to have “no endgame in sight,” The New York Times reports: “The lack of diplomacy and planning for the future in places like Yemen and Syria could render victories there by the United States and its allies unsustainable.

We are going to need more direct all-weather fire support capability for our [Syrian] partners,” CENTCOM chief, Gen. Joseph Votel, told lawmakers from the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. More from the Times, here.  

Three more things from Votel. The greatest threat to the U.S. is Tehran, he said. “Iran’s objective here is to be the regional hegemon…there’s no doubt about that.”

Votel told lawmakers the U.S. needs to deploy soft power in Yemen: “We will need the Department of State and others.”

He also said Russia is very likely supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. “I think it’s fair to assume they may be providing some kind of support to them…weapons,” he said. “We are at a stalemate right now. It is generally in favor of the government of Afghanistan, but stalemates tend to decline over time.”

Kabul will get new U.S. stuff: “Afghanistan is expected to get up to 200 helicopters and other aircraft as part of a four-year plan to improve the nation’s security forces to help beat the Taliban insurgency,” Voice of America reported Wednesday. “Waziri said discussion of the plan is part of the agenda of a top level U.S. delegation expected to visit Kabul over the next couple of weeks. U.S. officials have not publicly confirmed the reported trip, but their Afghan counterparts have been discussing the expected agenda…the beefing up of the air force, including not just the aircraft but also radar systems and other parts, would be completed by 2020.” More here.

New word (to at least one of us, anyway) from the counterintelligence beat: “Feeb,” which is “slang for someone feeble-minded,” and “a contraction of the initials FBI,” the BBC’s Paul Wood writes in his latest on Russian involvement in Donald Trump’s campaign. The “feeb” element of his story concerns some unnamed folks in the CIA who float the possibility that the FBI is in over its head—compared to the more international expertise of the Agency—and possibly fumbling the investigation.

Wood, you will recall, in January broke the story that a FISA warrant had been granted “to intercept the electronic records of two Russian banks.”

Now the BBC reporter lays out what some former officials described as a “a three-headed operation” to influence the election with micro-targeted news stories in highly contested regions of the country. “Firstly, hackers steal damaging emails from senior Democrats. Secondly, the stories based on this hacked information appear on Twitter and Facebook, posted by thousands of automated ‘bots,’ then on Russia’s English-language outlets, RT and Sputnik, then right-wing US ‘news’ sites such as Infowars and Breitbart, then Fox and the mainstream media. Thirdly, Russia downloads the online voter rolls.”

Why those voter rolls? “Using email, Facebook and Twitter, political advertising can be tailored very precisely: individual messaging for individual voters.” Read on, here.

This is a point echoed in part Wednesday by Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr and the top Democrat on the committee, Mark Warner, speaking to reporters in Washington. Reuters: “Warner and Burr both stressed the importance of exposing the activity of Russian hackers, which Warner said included reports of ‘upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls’ who spread false negative stories about Clinton.”

Added Burr: “This is one of the biggest investigations the Hill has seen in my time here.” (That includes, @MiekeEoyang notes, “the CIA-torture investigation, which ran 6,000 pages and 5 years.”) More on the Burr-Warren presser Wednesday from Reuters, here.

One more thing about that presser: After viewing classified documents, Burr said, “I think it’s safe by everybody’s judgment that the Russians are actively involved in the French elections,” France24 reported. “The warning came days after French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen met Putin in a visit to Moscow as she tries to boost her international status by meeting with world leaders. Last month her key rival, staunchly pro-Europe Emmanuel Macron, accused Russia of trying to derail his campaign by spreading false rumors through state media. In Moscow Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, told AFP that she and Putin discussed ways to fight ‘fundamentalism’ and said that the Russian strongman represented a ‘new vision’ of the world.”

For what it’s worth: Defense One broke the French election meddling story back in January. Read Patrick Tucker’s report at the time, here.

Burr also said there was both a covert and overt operation with similar intent playing out in German elections. The International Business Times has a bit more on that angle, here.

While Russia is deploying missiles banned under the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, writes the Brookings Institution’s Steven Pifer, now’s not a bad time to take a look (map here) at the areas at risk. (Hint: it’s pretty much Russia’s entire west, south and eastern flanks.)

After glancing at that map, you may wonder why Russia doesn’t throw a bigger fit over the joint U.S.-South Korean deployment of the anti-missile system, THAAD. Anthony V. Rinna of the Center for World Conflict and Peace has three ideas: “Russia’s need for South Korean investment, Russia’s status as a great power, and the need to develop a regional course independent from China.” Read on, here. (Warning: you’ll have to sign up for a newsletter—it’s free—to read the article in full.)

China’s Marine Corps is getting bigger and stronger. Photos and details from Popular Science, here.

More on the reds’ blue-green team: Here’s a “rare view of the Chinese Navy conducting underway replenishment, a key to projecting naval power,” Defense News’ Chris Cavas writes after seeing Beijing’s supply ship Luomahu as it “offers replenishment to Chinese warships in multiple directions,” according to the Chinese People’s Daily.

Had enough spy stories? Here’s one more—this time about China and the U.S.“A US diplomat who allegedly took tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from Chinese intelligence agents was charged on Wednesday with lying to investigators over the contacts,” AFP reported Wednesday. “The Department of Justice said Candace Marie Claiborne, 60, knew that the two Chinese men she had regular contact with while working for the US State Department in China and other countries were from the Chinese security services and that the money they gave her was in exchange for US secrets. She took cash and an iPhone for herself, but most of the funds went to an unidentified man half her age with whom she lived in Beijing and Shanghai.”

Adds AFP: “The case was announced days before the first summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his US counterpart Donald Trump in Florida next week, but Chinese analysts said the prosecution was unlikely to affect the meeting.” More here.

Lastly today: “The Violinist of Mosul, who defied ISIS by secretly playing and broadcasting from his home.” This story of 28-year-old Mosul Ameen Mokdad comes to us via The Telegraph.

“Afraid the militants would come for him, the musician packed up all his instruments: violins, guitars and cello into bags and hid them in the basement before fleeing with his family to Baghdad. He imagined he would wait out Isil’s short-lived reign of terror and simply get back to his life. But weeks turned into months. And by January, Mr Mokdad decided he could not wait any longer and took the risk to return to recover his violins.”

After a great deal of difficulty navigating checkpoints, he reportedly made it to Mosul, and “moved back into his now-empty family home in the al-Salam neighbourhood of east Mosul. All his friends, and most of his neighbours, had left long ago…He found escape by playing his violin in the innermost room of the house, putting blankets over the windows to muffle the sound. He spent his days composing concertos, imagining himself performing them with a world-class orchestra.” Read on, or watch video of him playing, here.

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