Obama’s azimuth check on Iraq; A growing Turkish-Saudi alliance; Sounds of the South China Sea; GI Bill for small business?; And a bit more.

“I don’t think we’re losing.” President Barack Obama opened up—at length—with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg about his administration’s strategy in Iraq and the Middle East, attributing the fall of Ramadi to the fact the Iraqi troops who abandoned the city were not “trained or reinforced” by U.S. forces.
Who’s to blame?: “I know that there are some in Republican quarters who have suggested that I’ve overlearned the mistake of Iraq…[but] if the Iraqis themselves are not willing or capable to arrive at the political accommodations necessary to govern, if they are not willing to fight for the security of their country, we cannot do that for them.”
Owning up to the limitations of the U.S. mission: “[T]he training of Iraqi security forces, the fortifications, the command-and-control systems are not happening fast enough in Anbar, in the Sunni parts of the country.” Ramadi, Obama reminded Goldberg, “had been vulnerable for a very long time”—with the first U.S.-led airstrikes falling on the provincial capital a mere 70 miles west of Baghdad as early as the start of October.
Pivoting to Saudi Arabia in the shadow of nuclear talks with Iran: “There has been no indication from the Saudis or any other” state in the region “that they have an intention to pursue their own nuclear program...” adding, at any rate, any “covert—presumably—pursuit of a nuclear program would greatly strain the relationship they’ve got with the United States.”
And, finally, on Israel: “…if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology…then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake.” But, as Goldberg pointed out, the president made clear, too, “that he would not stop criticizing Israel when he believed it did not live up to its own founding values.” Read the full exchange here.

Meantime, the U.S. airstrikes against ISIS in Syria likely killed two children in the northwestern city of Harem in early November, U.S. Central Command officials said yesterday. The Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Karen DeYoung have more on that and three other pending investigations into alleged civilian casualties in the now-10-month U.S.-led campaign.

China’s foreign minister said today Beijing is “strongly dissatisfied” with the U.S. Navy’s P8-A Poseidon patrol plane’s flyover on Wednesday (with CNN’s Jim Sciutto on board) of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea, Reuters reports this morning.
The Pentagon just released its own video of this week’s “maritime domain awareness mission” and our own Marcus Weisgerber provides the color commentary of the video and the mission right here.

From Defense One

ISTANBULTurkey and Saudi Arabia, since King Abdullah died, are teaming up to help rebels escalate the fight in Syria, frustrated the United States won’t. The problem for Washington: wrong rebels. The new bedfellows are “drastically improv[ing] the fortunes of Syrian rebel fighters struggling to make significant gains against the armies of President Bashar al-Assad,” journalist Carmen Gentile reports.

Almost three-dozen Shiite militias have joined the fight against ISIS in Iraq, but Baghdad is beginning to lose control of the nearly 100,000-strong force—and ordinary Iraqi citizens are losing their patience with them, too, as journalist Peter Schwartzstein reports from Baghdad.

U.S. generals need to be disciplined for the U.S. Army’s never-once-used $36 million command-and-control center in Helmand province, the watchdog for reconstruction in Afghanistan says. Government Executive’s Charlie Clark has more.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Defense One. You can subscribe here or drop us a line at the-d-brief@defenseone.com. If you want to view it in your browser, click here.

Rebels from the al-Nusra Front have reportedly taken “complete control” of a hospital in northwest Syria where roughly 150 Syrian troops have been holed up for almost a month while the Assad regime faces setback after setback in Idlib province, AFP says this morning.
And WaPo’s Adam Taylor shares this bit about the little-known “brutal prison” on the outskirts of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra seized by ISIS earlier this week.

What increasingly looks like an Iraq-and-Syria-to-Libya corridor of ISIS fighters could test the Obama administration’s counter-ISIS strategy. FP’s Lara Jakes has more on Libya and the divisive and heated debate in Washington over possibly expanding an already unwieldy war.

Up north, Canada is trying to step up its counterterrorism game. Yesterday, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his intention to beef up the investigative powers of his intelligence agents and police to prevent the sort of “violent jihadism” that commanded headlines back in October. Full details on the plans from Ottawa here.

At Portugal’s Lajes Field, where some 650 U.S. personnel are stationed, “It’s really bad for everybody here that the Americans are leaving,” The New York Times’ Raphael Minder reports ahead of an imminent U.S. Air Force “major downsizing” in the Atlantic’s Azores archipelago that's expected to yield $35 million in annual Pentagon savings.
Speaking of Futenma replacement, the governor of Okinawa is headed to Washington in early June in an effort “to stop the relocation of the U.S. Marines’ Air Station Futenma to Henoko, a more remote part of Okinawa’s main island,” WaPo’s Anna Fitfield writes from Tokyo. Anybody remember the Pacific realignment?

Meanwhile in Kabul, this is just a beautiful photo overlooking the Afghan capital from AFP photog Farshad Saeed. (For all the heat and dust, your D Briefer misses sights like this.)

Want to use your GI Bill money to start or purchase a small business, instead? House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs member Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., is about to float legislation making it much easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to help veterans do just that. It’s an innovative and timely twist in an age where actual skills are increasingly emphasized over a handful of degrees (and often mounting debts). More on that one from The Hill’s Kristina Wong.
More than 5.5 million veterans live in rural America, and Military Times’ Leo Shane III reports on the struggling but expanding efforts to better understand and address that enormous population’s access to resources as we approach Memorial Day.
As the NSA debate in the Senate carries over into the weekend, the folks at the Heritage Foundation just released a report with three policy proposals on “Responsible Options for the Way Forward,” including storing some of the metadata at a “third party entity house” where “[c]ourt orders from the FISC would authorize select employees of the private entity, with appropriate security clearances, to query the database.” Read the full report right here.

Coordinating Messages: Pentagon and State Department officials are trying get on the same page with each other when they attend international arms shows, Puneet Talwar, assistant secretary in State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, told members of the Aerospace Industrial Association, the defense industry’s chief lobbying arm, during a closed-door meeting in Williamsburg, Va. “[W]e in government need to project power in a more coordinated way at trade shows,” he said. “We need to do a better job coordinating our meetings, delivering consistent messages, and identifying areas we want to target.”
Talwar also said the government needs to be “more transparent and responsive to industry.” In July, State will launch a “a senior-level, quarterly industry outreach forum” that will “will allow us to get input from you, assess upcoming sales, and build an advocacy strategy rooted in unity.”
The Pentagon’s No. 2 (and Democrat, for what it’s worth here) Bob Work told the defense aerospace industry last night that “a return to sequestration funding levels would be an unmitigated disaster and that lower funding levels are harmful to national security," according to a readout of his remarks provided by the building's spin machine. "He repeated Secretary of Defense Ash Carter's criticism of the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) mechanism for circumventing spending caps as a gimmick that fails to resolve the funding crisis facing the department," at the Aerospace Industries Association Board of Governors meeting, in Williamsburg, Va.

Today: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus closes out Commissioning Week at the United States Naval Academy graduation in Annapolis, Md., at 10 a.m. EDT. Enjoy the Blue Angels flyover at 10:04 a.m. EDT.
And a half-hour before that begins, some 750 miles south in the Florida sun beside Mayport Naval Station, the end of the Perry-class frigates moves one step closer with the decommissioning of the USS Samuel B. Roberts, whose engine room was torn open by an Iranian mine in 1988, yet whose crew fought fire and flood and saved her to fight again. Designed in the 1970s as the decidedly low end of the Navy’s high-low ship mix, the Perrys nevertheless stood out for their operational flexibility and ruggedness. The USS Samuel B. Roberts heads to Philadelphia next; follow the latest from the crew over here.

Not traveling on a plane this holiday weekend? Or just simply have extra frequent flier miles on-hand? Donate them to a wounded veteran and members of his or her family facing expensive summer travel and few dollars to fund it. Find out more about the Fisher House “Hero Miles” program right here. And whatever benevolence, travel or backyard celebrations you have planned this weekend, here’s to hoping everyone has a great Memorial Day!