The D Brief: A big disconnect in Syria? McCain calls Kirby an idiot; China hits back on anti-missile radar; Mike Flynn, back on the grid; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson

Canada’s Harper: we won’t be intimidated. BBC, this hour, here.

More on the attack in Canada below, including a tick-tock of the episode in Ottawa.

Meantime, “A big disconnect:” The U.S. only to train Syrians in a defensive role. The Obama Administration’s policy in Syria seems to be premised more on holding the line than taking back territory from the Islamic State, especially since President Obama has decided not to put American “combat boots on the ground,” which significantly limits the administration’s options there. Many believe the White House only wants to keep a lid on Iraq and Syria until the next commander-in-chief comes in in 2017.

Indeed, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby this week, on there being no “tipping point” in this kind of war, hinted at the administration's limited ambitions: "I don't—in a struggle like this, I don't know that you can expect a tipping point, a specific point in time where all of a sudden you know everything is going to be better, that it's—that you've turned a corner. That's very unlikely in a war like this, particularly a war like this where, you know, you—you've got indigenous forces on the ground that are—especially in Iraq that are, in some cases, trying to improve their skills while they're fighting at the same time." The transcript of his remarks, here.

Today in the WaPo, Rajiv Chandrasekaran has this about the U.S. policy in Syria: “The Syrian opposition force to be recruited by the U.S. military and its coalition partners will be trained to defend territory, rather than to seize it back from the Islamic State, according to senior U.S. and allied officials, some of whom are concerned that the approach is flawed.

"Although moderate Syrian fighters are deemed essential to defeating the Islamic State under the Obama administration’s strategy, officials do not believe the newly assembled units will be capable of capturing key towns from militants without the help of forward-deployed U.S. combat teams, which President Obama has so far ruled out. The Syrian rebel force will be tasked instead with trying to prevent the Islamic State from extending its reach beyond the large stretches of territory it already controls."

A senior U.S. official to Rajiv: “We have a big disconnect within our strategy. We need a credible, moderate Syrian force, but we have not been willing to commit what it takes to build that force.” More on that here.

Ad hominem: The White House has someone in uniform, Rear Adm. Kirby, defending its war policies at the Pentagon. And for a White House which knows there are no shortage of critics of those policies, having someone in uniform explain them and defend them is considered a shrewd move—adds that much more credibility to the policies in the eyes of the American public. And Kirby is considered a pro who can effectively channel his boss’s thinking (he also used to work for Adm. Mike Mullen). Uniformed officers always must tread a thin line when it comes to articulating policy and politics. But with no one from the Pentagon’s Joint Staff briefing regularly and scant opportunities for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to talk about the war in Iraq and Syria, Kirby has, rightly or wrongly, become the face of that war. Enter John McCain, no friend to the Obama administration’s foreign policy, who last week called Kirby an “idiot.” The WaPo’s Dan Lamothe has the story, first broken by Buzzfeed: “…The Arizona senator said the spin and lies coming from the White House are 'unbelievable,' and then started in on Kirby. ‘This idiot Admiral Kirby was asked, I think yesterday, that said, ‘John McCain says that we are losing, what do you say?’ The guy, you gotta run it, you gotta run it. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. Blah. I mean, it’s amazing.’ Kirby, reached by telephone Wednesday evening, said he was aware of McCain’s comments, but declined to comment.” Read the story and listen to the comments McCain made on a conservative radio talk show here.

Meantime, Obama needs to reach beyond his inner circle, not just his cabinet—and fast. Juliet Eilperin and David Nakamura for The Washington Post: “Simmering bureaucratic problems erupted into full-fledged management crises—often after repeated assurances from the administration that it was on top of the issue—in a way that has made the West Wing look merely reactive. And in multiple instances—from the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups to the fact that Secret Service agents let an armed federal contractor on an elevator with Obama last month—the president’s aides said he learned about these issues from media reports or shortly before the story broke in the press.

"…Several current and former administration officials say that although Cabinet officials are now empowered to pursue specific projects, they are still sometimes excluded from key decision-making sessions.” The bottom line: “Nearly six years into his presidency, Obama has struggled to manage the sprawling federal bureaucracy that he has said is critical to improving the lives of ordinary Americans.” Read the rest here.

Which will it be? RAND Corporation just updated its Dec. 2013 report on Syria—running down the list of four possible future scenarios: prolonged conflict, regime victory, regime collapse, and negotiated settlement. Read that fresh take from RAND’s Andrew Liepman, Brian Nichiporuk and Jason Killmeyer, here.

Welcome to Thursday's edition of The D Brief, Defense One's new, first-read national security newsletter. We hope you'll stay with us, and if you like what you see and you want us to subscribe a friend or colleague, we're very happy to do that. Subscribe here or send us a holler at and we'll put you on the list. Whatever you do, we hope you'll follow us @glubold and @natsecwatson.

First in D Brief: Mike Flynn, back on the grid. The recently-retired Army three-star who left the Defense Intelligence Agency in August, will become the first intel officer to join the brain trust at SBD Advisors, Sally Donnelly’s consulting firm that also includes Mike Mullen, Denny Blair (a former DNI who was actually a surface warfare officer) and former DepSecDef Ash Carter. Donnelly and Flynn, who could open an Irish bar if the consulting thing doesn’t pan out, worked together for Mullen when he was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Flynn, who has been taking some family time off, is expected to take on a portfolio of activities including helping non-profits and private firms with global ops, cyber issues and technology. 

In Defense One today: The Air Force is no stranger to the dominant role of “energy independence” in national security, says its top civilian. Service Secretary Deborah Lee James writing in Defense One: “The reason for this focus on energy is simple. In the event of natural or man-made catastrophe, we want to guarantee our planes can fly and our installations can operate in the face of disruptions in energy supplies. Now, more than ever, energy is a critical means to maintain our strategic advantage.”

Remember Hagel’s remarks about the Army’s new “coastal defense” mission at last week’s AUSA conference? He wasn’t kidding. Brendan McGarry for DODBuzz: “The Army is gearing up to solicit proposals to replace the so-called Mike boats as part of a new acquisition program to buy three dozen craft called the Maneuver Support Vessel (Light), or MSV(L), according to Scott Davis, who heads the service’s Combat Support and Combat Service Support office in Warren, Michigan.” More here.

Page One: USAID reportedly tried to cover its tracks over a democracy-building project in post-Mubarak Egypt—causing its acting inspector general to step down on Wednesday. WaPo’s Scott Higham and Steven Rich have the scoop, here.

Also Page One: Blackwater guards found guilty in killing of 14 Iraqis in downtown Baghdad seven years ago. Andrew Grossman for the WSJ: “The guards were convicted on nearly every one of the 32 charges they faced. Nicholas Slatten, a sniper who prosecutors said started the shooting, was convicted of murder. Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard were convicted on charges of voluntary manslaughter, attempting to commit voluntary manslaughter and weapons charges... The four defendants were largely motionless as the charges were read. Lawyers for Messrs. Heard and Liberty said they plan to appeal.

“The reaction in Iraq was muted. Evening news casts mentioned the verdict deep into their broadcasts, quoting news wires—after leading with political and military developments in the ongoing struggle against the Islamic state insurgency.More here.

What in tarnation is graphene? It could be the stuff doctors put in soldiers’ brains to help moderate PTSD. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker has this: “Today, our crude efforts to study brain signals via surgically implanted devices are limited to chips composed of indium-tin oxide, ITO, platinum, and other metallic materials. But even at their thinnest, these devices aren’t transparent, which is a limiting factor if you want to do experiments on the brain that involve not just electrical signals but light, an emerging area of brain research called optogenetics. Optogenetics is quickly becoming one of the most important (and least invasive) avenues for brain research.”

Page One: Taliban are rising again in the north in Afghanistan. The north was always seen as an area that was fairly quiet when it came to Taliban activity—that’s why the Germans liked operating in the region. But things have changed. The NYT’s Azam Ahmed, on the Taliban’s “rapid advance,” here.

Kabul pings the Shanghai Cooperation Organization for CT intelligence sharing. Kyrgyzstan's AKIPress with that short hit, here.

Rand Paul’s For-Pol: Last week, he was on the cover of Time. Tonight Rand Paul will be in New York at the Center for the National Interest to talk about foreign policy and the value of restraint. Politico’s Manu Raju on what Paul is expected to say tonight: “America shouldn’t fight wars where the best outcome is stalemate… America shouldn’t fight wars when there is no plan for victory. America shouldn’t fight wars that aren’t authorized by the American people, by Congress. America should and will fight wars when the consequences—intended and unintended—are worth the sacrifice.” More here.

ICYMI: Hey, pols—Wanna be strong on national defense? Like Bobby Jindal, get in line. American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow Roger I. Zakheim writing in National Review: “In addition to Jindal, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, and Rick Perry have all put forward policies in recent months that promote their version of Reagan’s ‘peace through strength.’... Part of the reason these Republicans are focusing on Obama’s defense policy is that it’s an ill whose cure can be prescribed in tangible terms and with a concrete program..." More here.

A raft of critical defense legislation awaits Congress when they return from the midterms. Politics reporter Molly O’Toole for Defense One: “When Congress reconvenes on Nov. 12, it will have roughly four full weeks to pass: A $1 trillion-plus omnibus spending bill, including a roughly $550 billion defense appropriations bill, with nearly $60 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (or another stop-gap measure to extend the continuing resolution expiring Dec. 11); the National Defense Authorization Act; the specific authorization for the Pentagon’s program to train and equip vetted Syrian rebels, also expiring Dec. 11," and more, including what to do about the potential new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Iraq and Syria.

Reuters this hour: China hits back at the U.S. over an anti-missile radar system sent to Kyoto on Tuesday. Reuters, here.

Apropos of Nothing: We just like this headline in the NYT today: “Beijing Unsoothed by a Kenny G Visit.” We would have guessed a Kenny G visit could actually send folks screaming through the streets. That story here.

GD is up, Northrop is down. The WaPo’s Amrita Jayakumar on defense contractors beating Wall Street expectations: “Three of the nation’s largest defense contractors released their financial results this week and offered hints of improvement despite a slowdown in federal spending. General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin all performed much better in the quarter than Wall Street expected.

Michael Lewis, managing director of McLean-based Silverline Group: “Their businesses appear to be stable and their backlog [of orders] continues to grow,” he said. “The only weak link across the board is the services and information technology business.” Read more about why here.

Homegrown terrorism fears sharply rise to the north as Canada suffered the second deadly assault on its armed forces in three days. Ian Austen and Rick Gladstone for The New York Times: “Downtown Ottawa, ordinarily bustling on a workday, was both shut down and traumatized as police officers rushed to secure the Parliament building, move occupants to safety and hunt for what they initially said could be two or three assailants. The lockdown at Parliament dragged into the evening, when armed officers began herding people who had been confined all day into city buses, but the emergency was not lifted…

At 9:52 a.m., calls flooded into Ottawa’s 911 system to report a shooting at the war memorial, which sits isolated southwest of Parliament Hill in a square ringed by busy roads. Television images showed passers-by trying to revive Corporal Cirillo before an ambulance arrived. His service rifle lay by his side…

“Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an outspoken critic of the Islamic State movement and other militant groups, had been expected to introduce new antiterrorism legislation on Wednesday. ‘We will not be intimidated,’ Mr. Harper said in a television address Wednesday night. He linked the attacks to radicalism inspired by the Islamic State and called them ‘despicable.’

“There was no official account of how the gunman was shot. But Craig Scott, a member of Parliament, credited 58-year-old Kevin Vickers, the sergeant-at-arms and a man better known for carrying a ceremonial mace, with shooting the gunman just outside the party caucus rooms. In a Twitter posting, Mr. Scott said he and his colleagues ‘owe their safety, even lives,’ to Mr. Vickers.”

Read the rest of Austen and Gladstone’s tick-tock of the terrible episode in Ottawa here.

In a U.S. troop-centric follow to Tuesday’s WaPo story about the daring but ultimately botched ISIS kidnapping attempt in Turkey, Jeff Schogol of Military Times has this: “The incident occurred in Sanliurfa about 220 miles east of Incirlik Air Base, which is home to thousands of U.S. airmen and their families. Air Force personnel also are stationed in Ankara and Izmir, and the Army maintains two Patriot missile batteries—a rotational force of about 250 soldiers—in Gaziantep, about 150 miles west of Sanliurfa… No one is taking the threat lightly, though. Earlier this month, U.S. military officials in Europe told local-level commanders they should consider instructing U.S. troops not to wear their uniforms off base. Similarly, when the U.S. began airstrikes against the Islamic State in September, the U.S. embassy in Ankara issued a message telling Americans throughout Turkey to be cautious and monitor local news.”

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative think tank based in Washington: “In Turkey, you have this significant presence in the south of [Islamic State], of al-Qaida — and they’re active in other parts of the country as well,” he said. “I would definitely say that it is something that should be a concern, something that is on the radar of soldiers because they could, perhaps, be targeted.” More here.

The latest issue of Foreign Affairs has a full deck of experts taking on the problems and fixes that have emerged from the last decade-plus of war. There’s lots of great stuff to pick from—Max Boot on counterinsurgency; Richard Betts on ditching counterinsurgency for conventional war prep; Rick Brennan on the bungled Iraq exit; Daniel Byman and Jeremy Shapiro on the over-hyped threat of returning jihadists; Peter Tomsen on the takeaways from Afghanistan so far; and William Lynn III on the “fourth phase of the military-industrial complex” and the Pentagon's need to fully adapt to an interconnected, globalized world today. That all went live online Wednesday. Read more here.

Former Pentagon press secretary and now Veep of Communications at BP Geoff Morrell says: “BP didn’t ruin the Gulf.” Morrell, in Politico, his BLUF: “…BP has said consistently, for more than four years, that it would do the right thing…But we should not be accountable for damages caused by the acts of others, or those conjured up by opportunistic advocacy groups. And we should certainly not be liable for damages that stem from problems that have plagued the Gulf for decades. After all the faulty forecasts, it’s time to base our understanding of the Gulf’s condition and the spill’s impact on facts—not fiction.” The rest here.