President Trump said the U.S. military will “be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now. Very soon. Very soon. We’re coming out.” Trump revealed his plan (well, we’ll see about that) in an unexpected quip while speaking about U.S infrastructure plans to a crowd of union builders in Richfield, Ohio, on Thursday. Video, via ABC News, here.
The Syria line hit like a warning shot among Middle East watchers — and those keeping an eye on the war against ISIS, and the almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria (some 2,000 in Syria alone) fighting what’s left of the group there.
The problem: No one seems to have seen it coming. Neither the military (Reuters’ Pentagon correspondent Idrees Ali), the State Department (The National), nor the U.S. military’s partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (Reuters), say they had any clue this big, sudden change in U.S. policy was going to be happening.
Writes Defense One’s Kevin Baron: “Trump just stepped into dangerous waters.” This renewed intent to wrap up the U.S. mission in Syria hastily probably “[sent] chills down the spines of a lot of Green Berets and other elite coalition forces who have fought, bled, and died to win back that territory — and who are saying the U.S. needs to stay until a peace is settled, just like Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of U.S. Central Command, said as recently as January,” Baron writes.
One view from the Marine Corps: “The world is a big place,” Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told Baron Thursday in a 1-on-1 interview at the Atlantic Council, in Washington (CSPAN video here). Asked if the U.S. had the resources for counterterrorism across Africa at the level some are predicting. “We don’t have enough capacity to do it all by ourselves, and nor should we want to do it by ourselves,” Neller said.
Baron’s bottom line: “Trump draws big cheers when he talks about sending U.S. troops to kill ISIS. He draws equally big cheers when he talks about pulling them home. Those doing the killing, and dying, will have to reconcile with that — and whether the mission yet another president has sent them to do is worth getting killed over.”
TO THAT POINT: Two members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS have died in an IED explosion near Manbij, Syria, where the U.S. is partnered with SDF troops — and where Turkey has repeatedly threatened to invade next. The news came in the form of a tweet from coalition spox U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon. Details (nationality, service, rank, etc.) remain scant at the moment.
UPDATE: One of the KIA is American, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported.
Worth noting: The attack in Manbij may be part of an emerging pattern, the LA Times’ Nabih Bulos tweeted this morning.
Also new: France is sending military reinforcements to Manbij to help halt the advance of fellow NATO member Turkey and its allied rebels, France’s Le Figaro reported Thursday. More (in English) about France’s moves — like the U.S., trying to delicately balance its partnership with Kurdish fighters in Syria — from AFP, here.
Turkey’s reax to France: Your approach is “completely wrong,” President Tayyip Erdogan said Thursday. More predictable reax from officials in Ankara, here.
Is Turkey getting Russia and the U.S. into a bidding war, instead of going to Manbij? That may be the case after “Russia unexpectedly withdrew its troops March 27 from Tell Rifaat,” in northwest Syria, al-Monitor reported Thursday in a decent look at the battlefield dynamics around Manbij.
The quick read: “Turkey is providing two options regarding Russia and the United States, telling the Americans, ‘If you withdraw from Manbij, then we can give up on Russia and work with you east of the Euphrates.’ It’s telling Moscow, ‘If you withdraw from Tell Rifaat, we can work with you to push the United States out of northern Syria.’ Unable to obtain the blessing it wanted from Washington, Ankara has now shifted its focus to Tell Rifaat and seems to be heading toward cooperation with Russia.” More here.
One final thing: To Trump’s (military’s) credit, he said Thursday “we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS.” And during his time in office, that has been especially true of ISIS’s oil assets — as you’ll be able to see very clearly in this chart and analysis from energy security news site, The Fuse. Their bottom line: “ISIS may be out of the oil business, but the fight for Syria’s oil and gas wealth isn’t over.”
From Defense One
Trump’s ‘Very Soon’ Withdrawal From Syria Is Exactly What Many Troops Feared // Kevin Baron: What the president said is exactly what some special operations forces worried would happen — under President Hillary Clinton.
Top Marine General: ‘I’ve Never Told a Marine They Could or Couldn’t Speak’ to the Press // Caroline Houck: While one service cracks down on media engagement, the Corps’ top officer strikes a different tone.
New Transgender Policy Is Grounded in Common Sense // Thomas W. Spoehr: It allows qualified individuals to serve, and excludes only those for whom the stresses of military life present unacceptable risk.
The Global Business Brief, March 29 // Marcus Weisgerber: EXCLUSIVE: Boeing shakes up defense business again; Strianese to leave L3 board; Update from the U.K.; and more.
The White House Doctor and the Dual-Officeholding Ban // Stephen I. Vladeck: Rear Admiral Ronny Jackson’s appointment reinvigorates the debate over the proper relationship between the military and the government.
What Does ‘Denuclearization’ Mean to Kim Jong Un? // Uri Friedman: A close reading of what the Korean leader reportedly told Xi Jinping in Beijing.
The Shadowy Operative at the Center of the Russia Scandal // Natasha Bertrand: Court documents call him Person A, but descriptions match the officer to Russian intelligence and to Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.
Welcome to this Good Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Kevin Baron. Email us. Happy Passover, Happy Easter (KB: and go Nats!) And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. On this day 37 years ago at about 2:30 p.m. local time, President Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest by a disturbed drifter named John Hinckley Jr., just outside of the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Happening now: Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Roger Turner, Jr., recently back from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, has returned stateside to update a crowd at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, D.C., on what’s happening with America’s 17-year war. The event (in-person only) gets under way at 10 a.m. EDT. Details, here. More from the war in Afghanistan below.
Press conference? Send in the Marines! Unlike big DOD, the Marines aren’t clamping down on contacts with the press, USMC Commandant Neller told the Atlantic Council crowd in Washington on Thursday.
The background: “Under President Donald Trump and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Pentagon officials have spent the last year and a half tamping down on public engagements, directing the ranks and department employees to watch what they say, hosting fewer on-camera briefings, and limiting the numbers of reporters invited to cover senior officials on trips abroad,” Defense One’s Caroline Houck reports.
Then in March, “Air Force leaders issued a memo clamping down on media engagement. The service curtailed interviews, embeds, and base visits until public affairs officials and commanders down to the wing level completed new media training.”
Said Neller: “I don’t feel that I’ve been restrained and I’m not restraining any Marines. The media is part of American life; this is a democratic society. You’re going to write a story, and I think we’re compelled — and should be able — to convey to you our version of the story.” More from Houck’s report, here.
Side-eye side note: When Baron said that folks are whispering they’re hearing there’s a “one four-star general per day limit” on press appearances, Neller shot a skeptical “Say, wha?”
ICYMI: Mattis is exploring sending National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border now that the president is turning to the Pentagon to pay for his wall, Just Security’s Kate Brannen reported Thursday.
Developing: Moscow hits back in the tit-for-tat spy spat, expelling 60 U.S. diplomats along with a “raft of countries that have taken unfriendly action against Russia in solidarity with Britain” over the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy in southern England on March 4.
Spotted at Russia’s Foreign Ministry building in Moscow: “embassy officials from France, Germany, Italy, Poland, The Netherlands, Croatia, Belgium, Ukraine, Sweden, Australia and the Czech Republic were seen arriving in their official cars,” Reuters reports from the capital.
The White House’s reax: “Russia’s response was not unanticipated and the United States will deal with it.” A tiny bit more from Reuters, here.
Savannah and Anatoly Sit Down. Today Show’s Savannah Guthrie had an exclusive interview with Russian Amb. Anatoly Antonov that’s full of platitudes and circular logic and worth watching for the ambassador’s bold use of “poison.”
Overheard at the Pentagon on Thursday: “I heard you’re actually the devil incarnate and I wanted to meet you.” That’s what Defense Secretary James Mattis told new White House National Security Adviser John Bolton at the steps to the River Entrance. CNN has a bit more on the Mattis-Bolton exchange, here.
Also visiting Mattis on his home turf: CIA Director/State of State nominee Mike Pompeo, Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
“Why?” asked the Wall Street Journal’s Nancy Youssef: “DoD will only say it is ‘routine synchronization’ — while noting they do not routinely meet. Other agencies/reps won’t tell us either.”
Possibly related: The slow train to Pyongyang. Reuters traces the path of the “distinctive green armored train” which “was an all-but-dead giveaway” that North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un was traveling to China early this week.
The view from the border city of Dandong: “[B]oards supported by scaffolding had been set up on the platform at Dandong’s train station, blocking what is ordinarily an open view, before two trains passed through the station between 10:20 and 10:40 p.m. on Sunday night.”
Then came the delays and cancellations, odd for China’s rail system — proud of the purported fact that “98.8 percent of trains depart[ed] on time in 2016.” More intrigue, here.
That war in Afghanistan could take a tiny turn for the better now that “the Afghan air force dropped its first laser-guided missile on a Taliban compound” in the western Farah province last week, Reuters reports from Lashkar Gah, in neighboring Helmand province.
The airstrike showed a new capability for the Afghan air force just as a new offensive — called Maiwand 2, for a district that straddles Kandahar and Helmand — kicked off in Helmand in early March.
KIAs rising: Things haven’t been good for Farah in the weeks since Maiwand 2 began, Reuters writes. “In one recent week, 180 soldiers and police were killed and hundreds wounded, according to a senior security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said weekly death tolls for security forces in the province could reach as high as 250.”
What’s more, Farah has no governor since the old one stepped down in January, “blaming political interference and civilians say the situation has become worse.” More from Reuters, here.
This week in missiles: The U.S. Navy launched two Trident II missiles from the submarine USS Nebraska (SSBN-739) from the Pacific Test Range on March 26, Harvard astronomer and satellite-tracker Jonathan McDowell noted on Twitter Thursday evening.
Being tested: the Trident’s D5 Life Extension missile configuration, Trident-maker, Lockheed Martin, announced Wednesday.
The idea: “Instead of warheads, the missiles carried test kits and instrumentation to give us troves of information about flight and subsystem performance,” said Eric Scherff, vice president of Lockheed’s Navy Strategic Programs. “The joint government and industry team will use this data to assess performance and to inform maintenance and sustainment plans for the upgraded Trident missile fleet for decades to come.”
More from McDowell: The rocket plumes from the Trident launches were seen as ‘mysterious clouds’ widely reported across the southwestern U.S.,” which means, he suggested, “The missiles probably flew (I am guessing) from near San Clemente[, Calif.] to Kwajalein[, Marshall Islands]… Sunset in San Diego was 0204 UTC so I’m guessing launch was between 0200 and 0300 UTC Mar 27.”
Elsewhere this week: Pakistan tested its indigenously-developed Submarine Launched Cruise Missile, BABUR, with a purported range of 450 km. The “BABUR provides Pakistan credible second strike capability, augmenting the existing deterrence regime,” Pakistani Armed Force’s spox, Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, wrote on Twitter, calling the test “Pakistan’s response to provocative nuclear strategies and postures being pursued in neighbourhood.” Video and official military statement, here.
And finally this week: One big heroin bust on the high seas. A French naval destroyer seized some 1,160 pounds of heroin (with a street value of over $120 million) during an operation in the Arabian Sea, the U.S. Navy-led Combined Maritime Forces (based in Bahrain) announced Thursday. A bit more, here.
Stay safe this weekend, gang. And we’ll catch you again on Monday!