Biggest Israeli strikes inside Syria since 1973; 3 US prisoners released from North Korea; Spotlight on Niger; Australia’s China prediction; And a bit more.

Israel just carried out its largest strikes in Syria since the 1973 war, the Associated Press reports from neighboring Beirut. The overnight attacks — early video alleging to show the Syrian counterattack can be seen here — came in “response to an Iranian rocket barrage on Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights.”

About the alleged attack triggering Israeli retaliation: “Iran’s Quds Force fired 20 rockets at Israeli front-line military positions in the Golan Heights” on Thursday. “Four of the rockets were intercepted, while the others fell short of their targets,” an Israeli military spox said. “Should there be another Iranian attack, we will be prepared for it,” he told AP.

The targets hit in Tel Aviv’s strike, according to the Israeli Defence Forces, included “weapons storage, logistics sites and intelligence centers used by elite Iranian forces in Syria. It also said it destroyed several Syrian air-defense systems after coming under heavy fire and that none of its warplanes were hit,” AP writes.

Said the not-always-trustworthy Russian military, “28 Israeli jets were involved, striking at several Iranian and government sites in Syria with 70 missiles. It said half of the missiles were shot down.”

The broader concern at this point: Will escalation continue — “raising the risk of a wider regional war just a day after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international nuclear deal with Tehran,” the Wall Street Journal writes. Notes AP: “Israel has shifted to a more direct and public confrontation with Iran, striking at Iranian bases, weapons depots and rocket launchers across Syria, and killing Iranian troops. Israel accuses Tehran of seeking to establish a foothold on its doorstep. Iran has vowed to retaliate.”

By the way, the Journal adds, “In a separate incident yesterday, “Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a barrage of missiles into Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. The pair of attacks were an early indication that Iran and its allies are flexing their muscles in the Middle East after Washington’s move.”

To those still asking: Iranian aggression and missile testing are the reasons the U.S. exited the Iran deal, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis told senators on Capitol Hill Wednesday.

Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to POTUS: “Wait for the day when Trump is dead, his corpse is fed on by snakes and insects, but the system of the Islamic Republic will still be standing.”

One more thing from the Ayatollah: Iran “needs nuclear power and according to experts, the country will need 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity.”

Saudi Arabia was ready for that one, and reminded the world they would seek a nuclear weapon if the Ayatollah does. More from CNN, here.

From Defense One

Mattis: Leaving the Nuclear Deal Will Help the US Negotiate with Iran // Caroline Houck: Withdrawal will help the U.S. develop a ‘more compelling’ deal on a range of issues, SecDef told lawmakers.

Why We’re Launching a Review of Naval Education // Thomas B. Modly: Learning is the key to an agile force that can meet the challenges we see coming — and those we don’t.

Reducing the Human Costs of ‘By, With, and Through’ // Melissa G. Dalton, Daniel R. Mahanty, Jenny McAvoy , Julie Snyder and Kelsey Hampton: Partnered operations put civilians at risk, which puts U.S. goals at risk. Here are some options for addressing the issue.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. On this day in 2002, F.B.I. agent Robert Hanssen was sentenced to life in prison without parole for selling state secrets to Russia in exchange for $1.4 million in cash and diamonds.
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North Korea frees three U.S. prisoners, delivering President Trump — as he put it — a moment that broke “the all-time in history television rating for 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Trump’s goal for North Korea remains getting rid of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons, he said from the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base. “My proudest achievement will be — this is a part of it — but it will be when we denuclearize that entire peninsula,” he reminded reporters in attendance this morning. More from the “whirlwind” that was 20 hours of diplomacy over the three U.S. detainees — Kim Dong-chul, Tony Kim and Kim Hak-song — via the Washington Post, here.
In case anyone’s asking: Removing U.S. troops from South Korea is (still) not on the table, SecDef Mattis told lawmakers Wednesday.
From the region: Australia predicts China will be the top Asia-Pacific power by 2030, Stars and Stripes reported Wednesday.

Happening today: The Pentagon is briefing reporters on what happened in Niger back in October when four American troops were killed in an ambush by Islamic extremists.
According to Fox News, “Defense officials said they will lay out Thursday how the mission unfolded and led to the gruesome ambush, and then explain what is being done to correct the problems brought to light by the incident. Families of the fallen troops have been briefed on the investigation, including details of their loved ones’ final moments as they battled as many as 100 insurgents in a fierce firefight.” The briefing gets under way at noon (ET). Catch it live, here.

Preview of that briefing? The New York Times reported Wednesday evening that America’s general in charge of special operators in Africa, Maj. Gen. J. Marcus Hicks, “has ordered American troops under his watch to ‘plan missions to stay out of direct combat or do not go.’”
But that’s not all. “Additionally, the Army Special Forces Group that has been assigned to Africa since 2016 may close two outposts — one in northeastern Niger and another in an undisclosed location in North Africa.” Continue reading, here.
Related #LongRead: The White House “has quietly expanded how the U.S. uses military force around the world… and no one is paying attention,” Stephen Tankel, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New America Security, writes in Politico — excerpting from his upcoming book, “With Us and Against Us: How America’s Partners Help and Hinder the War on Terror.”

In northern Syria, a recent three-month operation ended with the apprehension of five top ISIS officers near the Turkey-Syria border, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
The skinny: “Two Iraqi intelligence officials said those captured included four Iraqis and one Syrian whose responsibilities included governing the Islamic State’s territory around Deir al-Zour, Syria, directing internal security and running the administrative body that oversees religious rulings.”
What timing: “The developments quickly took over many Iraqi news broadcasts on Wednesday night, with news anchors praising Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for what the intelligence service called a ‘major victory.’ The news came at an opportune time for Mr. Abadi, who faces a tight parliamentary race on Saturday.” More — including details of how the five captured fighters were deceived by one of their own — here.

Who needs a “cyber czar.” The White House may eliminate its top cybersecurity post, Politico reported Wednesday.
The post: “[S]pecial assistant to the president and cybersecurity coordinator… a post created at the beginning of the Obama administration [and which] leads a team of NSC staffers who manage federal cyber strategy on everything from election security to encryption policies to digital warfare.”
The current office-holder, Rob Joyce, “is a widely respected career cyber professional who spent nearly 30 years at the National Security Agency. He plans to return to the intelligence agency Friday.” Read on, here.

This week in DoD contracts: Half a billion ($550,840,000) will finance an effort to “provide McAfee brand name hardware, software, and services for Department of Defense (DoD), U.S. intelligence community, and Coast Guard activities worldwide,” the Pentagon announced Wednesday. The winning companies: DLT Solutions Inc. (out of Herndon, Va.) and EC America (McLean, Va.).

And finally today:The Maverick” speaks up. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wants his colleagues to reject Gina Haspel as the new head of the CIA, he said in a statement Wednesday.
In his own words: “I believe Gina Haspel is a patriot who loves our country and has devoted her professional life to its service and defense. However, Ms. Haspel’s role in overseeing the use of torture by Americans is disturbing. Her refusal to acknowledge torture’s immorality is disqualifying. I believe the Senate should exercise its duty of advice and consent and reject this nomination.” Read more from Fox News, here.

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