New rules for the Syria war; The problems with China; F-35, ready-ish for war; NATO air intercepts shoot up; And a bit more.

New rules for the Syrian war. After months of uncertainty that led to Pentagon officials’ inability to answer U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration has authorized American air power to defend its newly trained moderate rebel force inside Syria against the myriad insurgent groups roaming the war-torn country and—most significantly—against the Assad regime in Damascus, though “U.S. military officials played down the chances of a direct confrontation [with Assad’s forces], at least in the near term,” the Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous reported this weekend.

This latest twist comes two days after al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, threatened to attack all U.S.-trained units inside Syria. News broke last week that these Nusra Front fighters had captured the leader of Division 30, a rebel group that includes at least some U.S.-trained fighters.

“Alistair Baskey, a White House National Security Council spokesman, declined to comment on the specifics of the new rules of engagement,” Entous reports. “But he said the administration has made clear it will ‘take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission,’” including “defensive fires support to protect them.”  

The moral imperative behind it all: “For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them,” said a senior military official. “We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”

The caveat: Entous writes that the expanded U.S. airpower applies to Pentagon-trained rebels that “are currently only in northern Syria, and officials made clear the new rules won’t apply to forces backed by the U.S. in southern Syria,” where the CIA has refocused its anti-Assad fight after the Nusra Front pushed it out of northern Syria last year.

Meantime, Turkey has made huge strides in cutting off the flow of foreign fighters across its borders into Syria, the Washington Post’s Erin Cunningham reported from Turkey.

An independent monitoring group called Airwars alleges the U.S.-led air war against ISIS has led to “at least 459 suspected civilian fatalities in 57 airstrikes it believes the coalition carried out in Iraq and Syria over the last year. It says the same strikes also caused at least 48 suspected ‘friendly fire’ deaths,” AP reports this morning.

And for those keeping tabs on contract work in Iraq: since Jan. 1, the New York-based SOS International has raked in more than $400 million for doing “everything from meals to perimeter security to emergency fire and medical services at Iraq’s Besmaya Compound, one of the sites where U.S. troops are training Iraqi soldiers,” Kate Brannen writes for The Daily Beast. SOS’ board of advisors includes “former Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz—considered to be one of the architects of the invasion of Iraq—and Paul Butler, a former special assistant to Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld.”

U.S. State Secretary John Kerry is in Qatar today selling the Iran deal to the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar’s foreign minister took the occasion to pressure Washington to urge Israel stop its “illegal blockage of Gaza,” AP’s Matt Lee reports from Doha.

What brings Kerry to the region: To “follow up on a May meeting that President Barack Obama hosted for Arab leaders at Camp David. At that meeting, Obama promised Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates enhanced security cooperation and expedited defense sales to guard against a potential Iranian threat.”

Also on the docket today for Kerry: Discussing Syria with the foreign ministers from Russia and Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday in Cairo, Kerry told Egyptian officials their fight against terrorism will send more “misguided people” to violence until Abdel Fattah el-Sisi begins showing greater respect for human rights, NYT reported from the one-day “Strategic Dialogue,” the first held between the two countries since 2009. A half-dozen U.S. lawmakers last week asked Washington not to forget its non-military goals as it renews its relationship with Cairo.

Why is this a sticking point? It is “clear that Egyptian authorities maintain a vastly different view of the more than 40,000 people who have been arrested in the two years since the military seized power,” WaPo’s Carol Morello reports. “Some have been secular, pro-democracy protesters; some are journalists; and others have been accused of links to the Muslim Brotherhood, which the Egyptian government has labeled a terrorist group.”

But on the military side, Kerry said the U.S. was interested in resuming a joint exercise with Egypt that Obama cancelled two years ago after Sisi’s generals cracked down on supporters of ousted former President Mohamed Morsi.

And a day before Kerry arrived in Cairo, the U.S. Embassy took to Twitter to plug the arrival of eight new U.S.-made F-16s to Sisi’s air force.

Beijing officials want no talk of the South China Sea at tomorrow’s 48th Association of Southeast Asian Nations  Foreign Ministers Meeting in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

“This is not the right forum. This is a forum for promoting cooperation. If the U.S. raises the issue we shall of course object. We hope they will not,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said this morning.

The U.S. response: the issue will be at the “center” of the meeting since, “The ASEANs, like us, are concerned about the scale, the scope, the pace, and the implications of China's reclamation work,” a senior U.S. State Department official told AFP.

The White House has reportedly decided to retaliate against China’s alleged data breach of the Office of Personnel Management, but has found few options that won’t unravel the complex relationships it’s nursing with Beijing, NYT’s David Sanger reported this weekend.

The options include sanctions on Chinese officials, but those could trigger crippling countersanctions against U.S. businesses. Criminal prosecutions aren’t likely to yield any change since “any legal case could result in exposing American intelligence operations inside China — including the placement of thousands of implants in Chinese computer networks to warn of impending attacks.” And a cyber response “could lead to a cycle of escalation just as the United States hopes to discuss with Chinese leaders new rules of the road limiting cyberoperations,” Sanger writes.

Despite all the hand-wringing in Washington, “This is one of those cases where you have to ask, ‘Does the size of the operation change the nature of it?’” one senior intelligence official said. “Clearly, it does.”

And underscoring all of this is the intel analysts’ belief that U.S.-levied “tit-for-tat cyberattacks” could open up a new front across the World Wide Web, as Los Angeles Times reported Friday, noting that “Even though the Internet was invented by American computer scientists, existing defenses on U.S. computer systems may not be strong enough to withstand a series of counterattacks.”


From Defense One

Hillary Clinton calls for lifting the Cuba embargo, and in doing so began to return fire at GOP rivals who have painted her foreign policy stances as old and stale. “Most Republican candidates still view Cuba – and Latin America more broadly – through an outdated Cold War lens. Instead of opportunities to be seized, they see only threats to be feared,” Clinton said Friday at a speech in Florida, home to Sen. Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush. Defense One Politics Reporter Molly O’Toole reports.

F-35B reaches initial operationing capability. Seven years late and billions of dollars over its original budget, one of three versions of the Joint Strike Fighter is deemed ready to fight, writes Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber.

Two women advance to final phase of Ranger school. Of the three still vying to graduate from the first gender-integrated course for the Army’s elite, two women will move on to the swamp stage and the other will get another shot at qualifying. O’Toole, again.

Congress OKs shifting $3 billion to bail out cash-strapped VA. Without the fix, the Veterans Administration said it would have had to close hospitals, furlough workers and issue a hiring freeze starting in August. GovExec’s Kellie Lunney has the story.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Brad Peniston. Want to share The D Brief with a friend? Find our subscribe link here. And please tell us what you like, don’t like, or want to drop on our radar right here at the-d-brief@defenseone.com.


Joe Biden may jump into the 2016 presidential race, the New York Times’ Amy Chozik reported Saturday, citing “several people who have spoken to Mr. Biden or his closest advisers.” Several times the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden built a Senate record as a liberal interventionist who could reach across the aisle to find GOP allies. But the vice president faces an uphill battle against Hillary Clinton’s campaign organization and bulging war chest.

What did Col. Lindsey Graham do to earn his full bird? The South Carolina senator has more time in military service than anyone else in the 2016 race, but Freedom of Information Act requests reveal that the Air Force “afforded him special treatment as a lawmaker, granting him the privileges of rank with few expectations in return,” the Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock reported Sunday. And for nearly a decade, Graham “gave inaccurate public descriptions of his job assignment.” More here.

Air-to-air interceptions along international borders are up — way up, reports The Guardian. NATO members’ air forces scrambled jets more than 500 times last year, a four-fold increase, mostly reacting to Russian aircraft approaching, or even entering, their airspace. And it’s not just a European thing: “Japan has been scrambling aircraft in record numbers because of Chinese activity.”

The former head of the Pentagon’s counter-IED group, JIEDDO, has a stern warning on the Iran deal: the head of the Quds Force, Major General Qassem Suleimani, “will receive a large infusion of cash to wreak more havoc and terror,” Michael Barbero wrote Sunday in The Weekly Standard.

Lastly today, how’s this for a commencement message: “Just remember: You’re an idiot.” That’s from retired one-star Robert Giffen to new Air Force Academy graduates. “Giffen graduated from the academy’s class of 1965 and went on to serve as a pilot on missions to rescue downed fliers,” Tom Roeder of Colorado Springs’ The Gazette reported.

“Thirteen months after graduation, I was flying missions over Vietnam and I knew everything,” Giffen said. He warned that — in Roeder’s words here — “officers with an overly generous view of their intellect can get killed quickly” and admonished them “to listen to sergeants and stay open to unexpected opportunities.”

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