The D Brief: Pentagon to send 400 trainers, hundreds more personnel for Syria rebel training; An attack thwarted in Belgium; A SEAL’s swagger: too much?; Hagel’s blue socks; And a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Ben Watson

Exclusive: The Syria train-and-equip mission is taking form. The Pentagon will deploy more than 400 U.S. military trainers and hundreds more supporting personnel to four training sites in three countries as early as March as part of a long-awaited plan to help rebel forces to stabilize Syria, Defense One has confirmed.

In addition to the trainers, the U.S. military expects to deploy hundreds of additional U.S. military personnel as so-called enabling forces who will deploy alongside the trainers to provide security and other support at the training sites, according to senior defense officials Coalition partners are expected to contribute forces as well for an effort that for now is envisioned to train about 5,400 rebel forces each year for three years.”

The number of U.S. forces planned for the effort, which the Pentagon has not yet announced publicly, provides a sense of the scope of a mission that has taken months to get off the ground. It comes amid frustration from critics arguing that the Obama Administration has not moved faster to assist the floundering moderate forces inside Syria and growing recognition that the U.S.-led airstrike campaign against the Islamic State in Syria has not been effective. The Defense Department’s train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels is not expected to change the dynamic on the ground anytime soon. But after months of planning, and after Congress provided funding late last year, it is now beginning to take form.

Pentagon spokesperson Cmdr. Elissa Smith: “We’ve identified numerous groups that we believe are suitable for training based on our current understanding of the environment and we continue to evaluate the situation.”

A senior defense official on the train-and-equip program for Syrian rebels: “This is not going to be an easy enterprise here.” Read the rest of Lubold’s story here.

The U.N. wants to re-start talks with the Assad regime to end fighting around Aleppo, but how that might play out is anyone’s guess at this point. NYTs Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva, here.

Two Italian aid workers believed to have been captured by the Nusra Front in northern Syria last summer have been freed. CNN’s Steve Almasy: “Wearing winter clothes and carrying rucksacks as they disembarked from the plane that transported them home, Greta Ramelli and Vanessa Marzullo were greeted on the tarmac in Rome Thursday by officials, including Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni…

“A video posted on New Year's Day showed two young women identified as the hostages dressed in Islamic garb with only their faces showing. They appeared to be seated against a wall. One read a brief statement in English, which included: ‘We are in big danger and we could be killed.’ There were no other details divulged Thursday about the release.” More here.

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Belgian police killed 2 and arrested another during an anti-terrorism raid about 75 miles east of Brussels. Police also carried out other raids in the area, issuing a total of 10 search warrants. The WaPo’s Michael Birnbaum from Paris: “Belgian counterterrorism police conducted raids across their nation Thursday, killing two suspected Islamist militants and disrupting an alleged plot to launch an attack that would have been the second instance of homegrown Islamist violence in Europe in just eight days.

“A spokesman for the Belgian national prosecutor’s office, Eric Van der Sypt, told reporters that counterterrorist police raided a cell of returnees from Syria who were planning “a major imminent attack” in Belgium. Two of the suspects died in a shootout, and a third was severely wounded, he said. Van der Sypt said the suspects, armed with what he described as weapons of war, immediately opened fire on security forces who carried out the operation in the town of Verviers.” More, here.

Fifteen detained in Belgium, Reuters this morning, here.

And as Kerry arrives in Paris, officials arrest 12 in connection with the Paris attack. Reuters, here. 

In the wake of those attacks, “some politicians are proposing the kind of Internet censorship and surveillance that would do little to protect their citizens but do a lot to infringe on civil liberties.” That according to the NYTs Editorial Board, over here.

It's time to admit the dismal parade of half-measures the U.S. is taking to fight jihadism has officially—and dangerously—stalled, writes The Washington Post's Editorial Board. That, here.

The more you know: Only 29 detainees named in the Senate’s torture report are still being held at Guantanamo. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Crofton Black reports, here.

Who’s up to what today – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has wrapped up his domestic trip and provides closing remarks at the U.S. Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Summit at 11:45 a.m. at Andrews Air Force Base… Hagel will participate with Air Force Secretary Debbie James there… The remarks will stream live here and will broadcast on the DoD News channel… The Air Force summit, we’re told, involved participation by the “Total Force”—active duty, Guard and the Reserves to “develop, implement and assess policies and programs to eliminate sexual assault and empower every Airman to serve as a catalyst for behavior and attitude change that fosters an environment free of sexual assault and its effects,” an Air Force spokesman said.

Also noting today: Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh is doing a Google Hangout today to speak with airmen around the world for the first time ever, and you can participate/watch it here. … Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert left Peru yesterday and arrived in Colombia last night for a two-day visit with his counterpart, the last stop of his South American tour that also included Chile… Department of Homeland Security’s Jeh Johnson speaks today at the Aero Club…

And tomorrow – Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey leaves tomorrow for a series of meetings in Europe with his counterparts, including stops in Brussels and Rome

Starting today, there are a lot fewer travel restrictions for Americans who want to go—or rather, who’s “business” takes them—to Cuba. NYTs lays out the conditions for travel, here.

Also today is the last day of work for Derek Chollet, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs at the Pentagon. He’s headed to the German Marshall Fund, as The D Brief reported last month. This week, he sat down with us to talk about NATO and Europe and international security affairs generally.

Ukraine didn’t break NATO. Chollet spoke with The D Brief on a range of issues but pointed to how the NATO alliance remains strong, if not stronger, he said, despite Russia’s aggression last year into Ukraine and Putin’s hopes to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe. Indeed, Russia’s actions in the past year was a reminder of how strong the NATO alliance remains as it stands for the collective defense of its nations, he said. Nations have committed to additional defense spending, allies are contributing to military air, land and sea rotations and there’s generally a collective sense that NATO is the better for what took place last year, he said. 

Chollet to The D Brief: “This isn’t an end zone dance, where the work is over. If you look at it from the Putin perspective, what he was hoping to see, predicting he would see, which was a break between the U.S. and the Europeans, an unwillingness among the Europeans to go with the United States on everything from rotating their own forces through central and eastern Europe to defense spending issues… I’m sure he thought that there’s no way that the U.S. and the Europeans were going to stay together on this… he was wrong… It’s not where most people predicted it would be, and that wasn’t an unreasonable prediction… it was the conventional wisdom a year ago that we wouldn’t be able to see this.”

As he prepares to leave, Chollet is a strong believer in “defense diplomacy,” building and maintaining relationships on a mil-to-mil basis, he said. Chollet cited critical relationships with countries like Israel, where he visited 11 times during his tenure at the Pentagon. “One of the things I’m proud of personally is that the U.S.-Israel defense relationship is as strong as it is, and that’s something the Israelis will say, it’s never been stronger, so don’t take my word for it… We’ve had our ups and downs in the last few years, but the defense relationship has remained very strong.” 

Meantime, just as he walks out the door, Hagel speaks up on an issue on which he was uniquely qualified to promote: military pay and compensation reform. Military Times’ Andrew Tilghman on what the former Army sergeant had to say: “Big changes are probably coming soon to military pay and benefits, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told troops Wednesday. That has been the drumbeat for months, and Hagel said he expects it to come to a head as a top political issue in the next few weeks when a commission impaneled by Congress releases the results of a massive two-year study.

Hagel aboard the amphib assault ship America in San Diego this week: "I think this will be as big an issue ... over the next year as there is, and it should be, because when you are talking about that entire compensation package for all of you and your families, I mean that is key… I think this year will be the beginning with those commission recommendations of where we start moving forward on making some of these calls.”

“Hagel was referring to the Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, which Congress created in 2013 to study potential changes to military pay and benefits and make detailed recommendations for Capitol Hill to consider. The commission's report is complete and will be released publicly by Feb. 1. It is likely to recommend significant changes to the 20-year cliff-vesting retirement pension that the military has offered for generations.” Read the rest of Tilghman’s piece here.

A greater understanding of how the U.S. military’s decreased exposure to the rest of the nation—especially on the more emotional, day-to-day front—is required to bridge the civilian-military divide. Senior Navy fellow at the Atlantic Council, Cmrd. Mark Seip, writes in Defense One about what James Fallows missed in his recent essay, “The Tragedy of the American Military.”

It ends where it began: Chuck Hagel just wrapped his last trip as Defense Secretary with a visit to Fort Bliss, Texas, yesterday. Our own Marcus Weisgerber has been traveling along and sends this:

Hagel returned to the base where he went through basic training nearly 50 years ago to give his final troop address before a few hundred NCOs at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy. Hagel was more comfortable during his off-the-cuff remarks than he’s been at any other speech throughout his nearly two-year tenure as defense secretary.

Asked by one sergeant major what is the biggest challenge facing the military, Hagel, without hesitation, said budget uncertainty. “Our demands aren’t getting any less and I don’t think the demands on the Department of Defense will be less over the next few years, I think they’ll be more,” he said. More from his speech, here.

After his speech, Hagel’s motorcade drove around Bliss for a “window tour” showing the secretary how much the base has changed since he was last here in the 1960s. He popped into the base’s Red Cross building, one of the few buildings remaining from the old days. Hagel had phoned home to Nebraska from there during basic training.

Hagel also visited the White Sands Missile Range, a sprawling weapon test complex north of Fort Bliss. After a 20-minute Blackhawk flight from Bliss into New Mexico, he was briefed on two of the military’s premier missile defense interceptors, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and the Patriot. Hagel was stationed at White Sands in the late 1960s when he was part of the Redeye program, a classified, shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile project. One of the since-decommissioned weapons was there waiting for him.

And—true to Marcus Weisgerber fashion—no trip with the SecDef would be complete without a Hagel sock reference: Hagel sported a navy blue pair of socks on Thursday that appeared to match his wife Lilibet’s shoes. 

Fat Leonard entered a guilty plea yesterday in a San Diego court, forfeiting $35 million in “ill-gotten” proceeds as he now faces up to 25 years in prison. WaPo’s Craig Whitlock, here.

ICYMI: The Pentagon will ask Congress for money to buy 2 more F-35s in 2016, up slightly from the 55 it had previously on order. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio with more, here.

The Army will put approximately 60 female soldiers through its Ranger school for the first time in history beginning April 20. "We're just going to let the statistics speak for themselves as we go through this," Army Chief Gen. Ray Odierno said. More on that from Michelle Tan for Army Times, here.

When has a SEAL’s swagger gone too far? U.S. News’ Paul D. Shinkman: “[T]he military is left with attempting to harshly enforce the [nondisclosure agreements] it maintains with former operators, who somehow believed they could get away with taking a shortcut around what can be a laborious process of government agencies' reviewing a manuscript…

“I’m glad they told their story, as I believe the country has an emotional need to know…The problem with that,’ says [Dalton Fury, the pen name for former Delta Force CO] of the most secretive units, ‘is there is no welcoming system for guys that want to break the oath.’” Read the rest, here.

Wanna know how administrations pressure reporters not to run a story on sensitive security matters? It either tells the reporter the story isn’t true (even if it is) or presses said reporter that revealing the information could put national security at risk. Condoleezza Rice tried both tactics in 2003. Read about her testimony yesterday in the leak trial of former CIA officer Jeffrey Sterling, here.

Speaking of the administration, add CAP’s Larry Korb to the list of names of people saying President Obama should press reset if he wants to still be “transformational.” Korb’s BLUF: “…Now that most of these individuals have left the administration and Obama does not have to worry about Presidential or Congressional elections, he may be able to become the transformational president he wanted to be. Restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and getting a climate change agreement with China are good first steps. Closing Guantanamo, supporting Senator Gillibrand’s bill to remove prosecution for military sexual assault from the military chain of command, unilaterally reducing nuclear weapons to 1,000, and concluding a nuclear deal with Iran would be even more significant steps towards leaving behind a transformational national security legacy that President Obama wants and deserves.” In the National Interest, here.

When it comes to mass data collection, there’s just no substitute, says a new report. The NYT’s David Sanger: “A federal study released on Thursday concluded that there was no effective alternative to the government’s ‘bulk collection’ of basic information about every telephone call made in the United States, a practice that civil rights advocates call overly intrusive.” More here.

Debbie James says it was unfortunate that thing about the Elon Musk comment about the United Launch Alliance. Air Force leaders did a “State of the Air Force” briefing at the Pentagon yesterday. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio snagged this nugget, here.

John Campbell says the Islamic State is recruiting in Afghanistan. Gen. John Campbell, the Afghanistan war commander, spoke with Army Times’ Michelle Tan: “The Islamic State terror group is recruiting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan said Thursday.”

Campbell: “We are seeing reports of some recruiting… There have been some night letter drops, there have been reports of people trying to recruit both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, quite frankly."

“The Islamic State, or ‘Daesh’ as they're called in many parts of the Middle East, have a ‘hard message to sell’ in Afghanistan, but leaders are still concerned about any potential for the group to spread, Campbell said.” More here.

In talking with the Taliban, should the Constitution be a point of negotiation? Sean Kane, who returned from more than two years in Afghanistan working for the U.N., just wrote a piece published by the U.S. Institute of Peace that looks at political strategies for negotiations with the Taliban with an emphasis on how to address the organization’s likely demand to see the Afghan Constitution completely overhauled. Read that here.

Afghan authorities arrested 5 members of the Pakistani Taliban suspected of helping carry out the massacre of 150 students at a school in Peshawar last month. WSJ’s  Margherita Stancati and Nathan Hodge with more, here.

North Korea’s attack on freedom of speech with the Sony hack is what triggered the “unprecedented” U.S. response, writes Ellen Nakashima for The WaPo, here.

The CIA freaked a bunch of people out yesterday with a tweet in Cyrillic. It turned out to be a humble brag about how the agency distributed copies of the banned book “Doctor Zhivago” throughout the USSR during the Cold War. The Guardian’s Alan Yuhas has the background, here.