US shows ‘Iranian weapons found in Yemen’; China reinforces fake islands; Senator: 30% chance of N. Korean war; 3 things US troops need in Europe; and just a bit more…

The U.S. says weapons fragments show Iran is arming Houthi rebels. The Trump administration’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, made that case Thursday at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C.

On display: “remnants of what officials say are two ballistic missiles manufactured in Iran, smuggled into Yemen and used by Houthi fighters to launch a series of attacks this year on targets deep within Saudi Arabia, including one of the country’s busiest civilian airports,” the Washington Post writes. There was also an alleged “kamikaze” drone and “equipment from an attack speedboat and remnants of an antitank missile.” Some of the wreckage was reassembled, the Wall Street Journal reported, adding “Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who has long argued that the U.S. and its allies should counter Iran’s behavior in the region, sought to have the weaponry declassified so it could be shown publicly.” The Post adds most of the weaponry passed into U.S. hands via Saudi Arabia and the UAE — both of whom have been fighting Houthis in Yemen since March 2015.

Said Haley: “In this warehouse is concrete evidence of illegal Iranian weapons proliferation gathered from direct military attacks on our partners in the region…Just imagine if this missile had been launched at Dulles airport or JFK or the airports in Paris, London or Berlin. That’s what we’re talking about here, that’s what Iran is actively supporting.”

Aside from the obvious (weapons proliferation), here’s why this is problematic: “Iran is prohibited by a U.N. resolution from selling weapons and an international embargo bans the sale arms to Yemen.”

However, a new UN report “drew less certain conclusions,” the Journal writes.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif denied the accusations, writing on Twitter: “When I was based at the U.N., I saw this show and what it begat,” a reference to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s 2003 claims  (later proven false) about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

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Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Email us. And if you don’t subscribe already, consider subscribing. It’s free. OTD1978: The U.S. announces that it will recognize the People’s Republic of China and sever relations with the Republic of China.

Doing the Assad regime’s work. U.S.-backed Syrian forces are still killing ISIS inside Syria — 20 more fighters, according to the U.S. military — and in a region where Russian-backed Syrian regime troops were supposed to halt ISIS advances. The U.S.-backed troops also captured an unspecified number of ISIS fighters, including foreign fighters, the coalition’s spokesman, U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon tweeted Thursday. Stars and Stripes reported the total captured was close to 15. Read their take, here.

The U.S. military says Russian jets are crossing the deconfliction line in Syria, significantly elevating the risk to American pilots in a crowded sky, CNN reported Thursday and updated a little bit this morning.
The skinny: “The US jets (F-22s) fired warning flares during the intercept of the two Russian Su-25 close air support jets according to the officials after they crossed the de-confliction line multiple times” on Wednesday, CNN reports. “One of the [U.S. defense] officials said a Russian Su-35 fighter jet was also involved and that the aerial encounter lasted… approximately 40 minutes before the Russian aircraft flew to the west side of the [Euphrates] river.”
New term (to us): Fox News called the encounter a “head-butt.”
Russia’s military reacted in its very Russian way: Denying the event took place, then counter-accusing “the F-22s of interfering with the flight of the Su-25s while they were operating along the western bank of the Euphrates River in the vicinity of the town of Mayadin,” CNN writes.
Worth noting: The portrayal from the U.S. tracks closely with an alleged lie (according to the U.S. Air Force) from Russia this past weekend about air-to-air encounters in Syria. Business Insider broke that story down here on Wednesday.

China has built new radar installations (for monitoring) and underground tunnels (likely for ammo and/or supply storage) on its “artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea” this past year, The Wall Street Journal reports, citing imagery from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
What’s more, “China also continued construction work designed to transform the three larger Spratly outposts into fully functional joint air and naval bases, and to upgrade at least three more Paracel outposts that could be used to bolster its control of the South China Sea,” according to AMTI. Much more (but alas: paywall alert), here.

Pot, kettle black? China’s naval chief told his Aussie counterpart that Australia’s “actions on the South China Sea run counter to the general trend of peace and stability in the disputed waterway…without pointing to any specific examples,” Reuters reports from Beijing.
Worth noting: “Australia has previously drawn criticism from China for running surveillance flights over the South China Sea and supporting U.S. freedom of navigation exercises there. However, Australia has not conducted a unilateral freedom of navigation voyage of its own.”
Recall that in the past week, Beijing has taken a particularly sharp stance against Australia in light of Canberra’s efforts to curb interference in its own domestic politics. Dive into those sticky dynamics, via The Australian, here.

Putin warns the U.S., North Korea against escalation. In his annual end-of-year press conference, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that a single nuclear strike would be “a catastrophe.”
Also, according to Putin: the U.S. has effectively quit the INF Treaty. He cited last year’s installation of the Aegis Ashore anti-missile battery in Romania, saying its defensive missiles “could be easily replaced with intermediate missile launchers,” TASS reported. And he warned the U.S. not to withdraw from the New START strategic-arms treaty. Read on, here (ht Ankit Panda). Putin, who is up for reelection next year, also used the mammoth (1,640 journalists registered to attend) and marathon (four hours) event to tout Russia’s economic growth — and the United States’ as well.
Later in the day, Trump called Putin. (At least, the Kremlin says it was Trump’s idea). What was on the U.S. president’s mind? In the words of the White House’s press release: “President Trump thanked President Putin for acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in his annual press conference. The two presidents also discussed working together to resolve the very dangerous situation in North Korea.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham: 30% chance of war with North Korea. From The Atlantic: “I would say there’s a three in 10 chance we use the military option,” Graham predicted in an interview. If the North Koreans conduct an additional test of a nuclear bomb—their seventh—“I would say 70 percent.” Graham said that the issue of North Korea came up during a round of golf he played with the president on Sunday. “It comes up all the time,” he said. Read, here.
The U.S. military would be ready to go. That’s from Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, who told a South Korean reporter on Friday, “We in the military understand that we have to be prepared for any kind of increasing capability that could come from the North, that would threaten us from the North, so that we could prevail and that we provide a firm backstop to the diplomatic and economic efforts that are going on the lead.” Yonhap News Agency, here.

Finally this week: Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges retires today after three years spent “rebuilding the [U.S.] Army in Europe,” Stars and Stripes’ John Vandiver writes in a send-off report from Germany.
A tease: “Hodges’ three-year tenure at USAREUR has been arguably the most consequential in Europe since the end of the Cold War, with the Army serving as the centerpiece of the Pentagon’s efforts to energize what had been a languishing military mission… Hodges’ warnings have been severe at times. He argues that Russia aims to split NATO apart and that the West should find ways to make Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine more painful. He’s spoken of the need for allied unity but also called members out.”
Next step: “Upon retirement, Hodges will move to home to Florida,” Vandiver writes. “He plans to stay involved in security issues in Eastern and central Europe, working with the Center for European Policy Analysis think tank.”

And ICYMI: Check out this long read on Hodges’ accomplishments and tenure, via The Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes, (we must say it again: paywall alert) here. Have a safe weekend, gang. And we’ll see you again on Monday!

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