Syrian Kurds pull back from ISIS fight; DoD slashes cloud contract; New data on Russia’s military; A combatant command for space?; And a bit more.

By Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston

March 7, 2018

Kurds withdraw from ISIS front lines, citing disappointment with U.S. “The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they were pulling fighters off the front lines in the province of Deir al-Zour, where Islamic State fighters have been putting up a fierce fight in a pocket of territory on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River,” reports the Washington Post. “The move follows an effort by the Trump administration to assuage Turkish ire over the U.S. military’s close relationship with Syrian Kurdish forces.”

Perhaps 1,700 SDF fighters may be redeployed near Afrin, Syria, a group spokesman told the Associated Press. That’s where Syrian Kurds have been battling Turkish forces sent into the country on Jan. 20.

Turkey to U.S.: stop them! President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's spokesman said Wednesday that Turkey wants the United States to “step in and prevent” the redeployment, AP reported Wednesday.

For your eyes only: “How a Drone Hunted Three Kurdish Fighters in Syria.” In January, Turkey launched its offensive into Syria's northwest to displace the Kurds in Afrin. The New York Times “analyzed drone footage released by the military to show how two sides fight on a modern battlefield,” in a three-and-a-half minute video on Facebook, here.

Live now: Genius Machines, Defense One’s half-day conference on AI. If you can’t make it to the Ritz at Pentagon City just south of the Pentagon, check out the livestream, here. (Scroll down; registration req’d.)

From Defense One

Pentagon May Create a Combatant Command for Space // Marcus Weisgerber: The Defense Department is also looking at major changes to speed up how it buys satellites.

Trump Says His New Tariffs Are About National Security. They’re Not. // Tim Fernholz: Few people believe him, and that's a problem for him—and the world.

Why ‘Different Spanks for Different Ranks’ Are Often Justified // James Joyner and Butch Bracknell: It can be frustrating when generals and admirals appear to skate on misconduct charges, but lawmakers should be wary of trying to "fix it."

Don't Let Trump Turn Iran into North Korea // Ryan Costello: Unless Congress, Europe, and other parties step up to protect the West's nuclear deal with Iran, it will collapse, unshackling Tehran's nuclear efforts.

Defense Department Drastically Cuts Nearly $1B Cloud Contract // Frank Konkel: Amid industry criticism following a $950 million cloud computing contract last month, the Defense Department limited its scope and reduced its size down to $65 million.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Email us. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. OTD1951: Start of Operation Ripper, the battle to push Chinese forces away from Seoul.

Also happening this morning: The Center for a New American Security is talking about the “future of U.S. grand strategy.” On hand: Robert Kaplan, Ambassador Victoria Nuland, Kathleen Hicks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and others. That event began at 8 a.m. (EDT) and also runs through noon. Details and agenda, here. Watch it live, here.

Get to better know Russia’s military posture — in particular, its ground forces “order of battle” in two new, complementary reports from the Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Initiative.
The set up: “The Russian military is well-positioned to launch a short-notice conventional war in Ukraine and a hybrid war in the Baltic States, the opposite of what Western leaders seem to expect in each theater… The deployment of Russian forces along the Baltic borders, among other factors, suggests that Moscow is much more likely to pursue a hybrid-war approach than to launch a conventional mechanized invasion.  U.S. and NATO mechanized battalions will be insufficient to defend the Baltics against the hybrid threat.”
Their prescription: "Over-investing in conventional deterrence and defense can lead to ignoring hybrid threats that could achieve equally devastating effects. Ignoring the conventional threat, on the other hand, could leave U.S. allies and partners open to rapid decisive thrusts." Which means the U.S. and its allies need to do some nuanced thinking in order to find the best balance between those two extremes. Read on, here (ISW) and here (AEI).

President Trump’s tariffs may be about national security — but not in the way the president thinks, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
The gist: SecDef Mattis and SecState Tillerson privately warned senior trade officials Tuesday that President Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs could endanger the U.S. national security relationship with allies, five people familiar with the meeting told the Post.
The allies mentioned, even if only vaguely: Canada and Europe.
A delicate phrasing of how this conversation happened: “In a broad discussion, the secretary raised concerns about tariffs that had been mentioned to him by some allies, or are likely to be mentioned,” said Steven Goldstein, the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs. After that conversation, Trump said the tariffs would still be imposed “lovingly.” Read on, here.

Peeling back more layers of the Russian disinformation onion, the Wall Street Journal reports “Russian operators, using social media including Facebook, asked for and got personal information from ordinary Americans as part of their political influence campaign.”
The quick read: “Leveraging social media, Russians have collected data by peddling niche business directories, convincing activists to sign petitions and bankrolling self-defense training classes in return for student information. It isn’t clear for what purpose the data were collected, but intelligence and cybersecurity experts say it could be used for identity theft or leveraged as part of a wider political-influence effort that didn’t end with the 2016 election.” The operation has now moved under the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s wide-ranging probe. Story, here.

One of 30 cities could be the home of the U.S. Army’s new Future Command, reported Tuesday. “It's not going to be like an 800-person command," Under Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said. "It is going be much smaller … a couple floors in a high-rise as opposed to a massive building that we own."
According to Army Times, the Army plans to shorten its list of 30 cities down to 10 that officials will visit. Then from 10 to 4, and then finally a “winner.”
Known knowns: “Army officials continue to be tight-lipped about the massive reform effort,” writes. “But the service plans to reveal details at the Association of the United States Army's winter meeting in Huntsville, Alabama, March 26-28.”

An episode of school violence — with an ISIS flag playing a small role — appears to have been averted in Utah. The FBI and a bomb squad visited a high school in St. George, Utah, to arrest a student now “charged with bringing a homemade bomb to the school that was discovered in a backpack emitting smoke and prompted an evacuation,” the Associated Press reported this morning. “The boy was arrested Monday night after Pine View High School in the city of St. George was evacuated for two hours that afternoon while the FBI and a bomb squad investigated.”
“See something, say something” seems to have helped: The “backpack was found in a common area of the school by a student who reported it to a teacher.”
The charges facing him: “manufacture, possession, sale, use or attempted use of a weapon of mass destruction.”
What’s more, “Authorities said additional charges also are pending against the teen as a suspect in the raising of the Islamic State group's flag on a pole at another Utah high school last month just after the Florida mass school shooting.” Read on, here.

Transparency hiccup in Afghanistan. Stars and Stripes reports “Data the Pentagon issued last year [in December] to spotlight the success of operations against militant groups in Afghanistan were inaccurate.”
The problem now is “A corrected report [which] was quietly issued in late January… also appeared to include errors, such as missing or conflicting data.”
The 30,000-foot view: “Weeks later, the cause of the mistakes remains unclear — at least some could be the result of editing mistakes — but the episode highlights increasing difficulties in obtaining data about U.S. and Afghan operations, even from records meant to hold the military accountable to the 16-year war’s congressional overseers.” Story, here.

Finally today: From a life with al-Qaeda to a life on food stamps in New York City, the NYTs Adam Goldman has the remarkable story of 35-year-old Bryant Neal Vinas, aka “a convicted terrorist from Long Island.”
The skinny read: “Captured in 2008 after training for months at Qaeda camps, Mr. Vinas quickly turned on his fellow jihadists and began helping American investigators dismantle the group.”
The twist: "[T]he government decided against giving him protection, and Mr. Vinas, 35, has found himself unexpectedly back in New York… now on food stamps and Medicaid. He does odd jobs for his lawyer and has had little luck finding a job. He applied to Uber Eats but never heard back." Worth the click, 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, 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.

March 7, 2018