Syrian partition, on the table; F-35 chief offers some advice; North Korean hackers pour it on; What do the Taliban actually control? And a bit more.

The world’s “major powers” are talking about partitioning Syria as a way out of the five-year-plus war that’s killed at least 250,000 and caused an exodus of nearly 5 million to all points elsewhere. “A U.N. Security Council diplomat said some major Western powers, not only Russia, have also been considering the possibility of a federal structure for Syria...that would maintain its unity as a single state while granting broad autonomy to regional authorities,” Reuters reported Thursday night.

It’s just one of the ideas being presented to the UN’s Syrian envoy, Stefan de Mistura. But as before, “The biggest sticking point in the peace talks remains the fate of Assad.” And as before, that issue seems to be going absolutely nowhere. But on the question of a partition, the Kurdish PYD is on board (naturally). They’ve been holding patches of turf in the north since 2012.

However, the reaction from some elements of the opposition wasn’t so kind: “Any mention of this federalism or something which might present a direction for dividing Syria is not acceptable at all. We have agreed we will expand non-central government in a future Syria, but not any kind of federalism or division,” Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab said. The next round of peace talks is scheduled for Monday in Geneva.

In case you were curious: The Carter Center has a pretty robust map of territorial control in Syria, and you can find that here.

The Pentagon is working to destroy the Islamic State’s chemical weapons capability in Iraq, and it’s made a few temporary enemies in the press along the way. “The U.S. has ‘disrupted and degraded’ the Islamic State's ability to produce chemical weapons by launching multiple airstrikes in Iraq based on information provided by a militant leader who was captured last month and turned over to the Iraqi government on Thursday,” the Associated Press reported Thursday. But the tensions stemmed from its daily tally of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the AP writes, noting “the U.S.-led coalition reported on Sunday that it conducted two airstrikes Saturday near Mosul against an ISIS ‘weapons production facility,’ but it did not specify that this was a chemical weapons facility. [Pentagon spokesman Peter] Cook declined to specify which airstrikes were carried out on the basis of al-Bakkar’s information, saying to do so could compromise future military action against the Islamic State.” Considering the U.S. military’s reliance on the expeditionary targeting force in Iraq and Syria, don’t expect this OPSEC wall to come down any time soon. Catch the AP story, here.

North Korea orders more nuclear tests after a month of aggressive cyber attacks on Seoul. That’s the word from state-run media and South Korea’s spy agency, respectively. “The National Intelligence Service told a parliamentary committee meeting that the North unsuccessfully tried to hack into the railway control system and computer networks of financial institutions in South Korea, according to the office of lawmaker Joo Ho-young who attended the private meeting,” AP reports. “The NIS also accused North Korea of having tried to hack into the smartphones of 300 foreign affairs, security and military officials in South Korea between late February and early this month. According to the NIS, North Korea succeeded in hacking the phones of 40 of those 300 officials and stole their text and voice messages and phone logs… [but] The NIS didn't say whether the stolen messages include any sensitive information.” More, here.

THAAD meets opposition from China and Russia. The push-back follows word that Washington and Seoul last week began formal talks on deploying the sophisticated system—which Defense One has written about here and here. “The plans,” said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “exceed any conceivable threats that may come from North Korea, even taking Pyongyang’s current actions into account.”

China put it a little more directly: Deploying the system would “inflict direct harm to the strategic security interests of China and Russia.” A bit more on China’s growing military capabilities in the region below.

F-35 chief: think very, very hard before making another joint fighter. Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan has a bit of advice for the generals and admirals envisioning their next tactical aircraft. “I’m not saying they’re bad. I’m not saying they’re good. I’m just saying they’re hard,” the current F-35 program director told Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber on Thursday. Leaders “ought to think really hard about what you really need out of the sixth-generation fighter and how much overlap is there between what the Navy and the Air Force really need.” It’s advice the services ought to take to heart; the one thing they know about the so-called 6th-generation fighter is that its development program must go better than the F-35’s. Read on, here.

From Defense One

U.S. ballistic missile defense needs a boost. Hudson Institute’s Richard Weitz wonders: Amid ominous tests by Iran and North Korea, why is the Missile Defense Agency’s budget shrinking? That needs to change, he argues, here.

Let’s talk about the federal drones flying over U.S. soil. An alphabet soup’s worth of government agencies are exercising their ability to look down on ordinary citizens. It’s time to have a public debate about it, says The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf, here.

Welcome to the Friday edition of the D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1941, FDR signed the Lend-Lease Act, allowing the still-neutral U.S. to ship arms and gear to friendly nations. Give your friends this link: Got news? Let us know:

Biz roundup: Lockheed layoffs. Lockheed Martin’s aeronautics division is planning to lay off 1,000 employees, the company announced earlier this week. The company said on Tuesday that it was looking for “mid-level employee groups” to volunteer for the layoff at seven sites across the U.S. “The action is necessary to position Lockheed Martin Aeronautics to be competitive in the future marketplace, secure future business opportunities, and keep an infrastructure appropriately aligned with customer demands,” the company said in a statement.

The nation’s three top weapons makers are now headed by women, after Boeing Co.’s announcement that as of March 1, Leanne Caret would be CEO of the aerospace giant’s Defense, Space, & Security business, Bloomberg reported this week.

Notes Defense One’s Weisgerber: “If you want to get technical, Boeing is led by a dude, Dennis Muilenburg; General Dynamics is the No. 5 weapons maker; Raytheon and BAE (not American) are bigger. If you group them by total revenue, defense, non-defense, then GD is No. 3. Still, yes, it is a big deal that the top firms have women in so many top billets. Also, worth noting the Air Force secretary and undersecretary are women. And BAE (U.S. division) used to be run by a woman, Linda Hudson. Lockheed CEO Marillyn Hewson and GD CEO Phebe Novakovic have been around for a bit, so Boeing naming a woman defense chief helps catch them up.”

On Wednesday, we wrote that the Taliban control “almost one-third” of Afghanistan. We heard from a few folks on that one — including U.S. public affairs in Kabul — saying the number sounded high, and so they wondered where we got the figure. We cited this AP story, which was later edited and reposted without that figure. But AP was hardly the first to make that claim. Recent statements that the Taliban have “control or a significant presence” in 30 percent of the country can be found at The Washington Post (December), Voice of America (January), NBC News (late January), and the New York Times back in October citing a UN report which has not been released publicly.

The word from Resolute Support’s Col. Michael Lawhorn in Kabul: “This has been a tough one to nail down…Aside from discussing the meaning of ‘control,’ we’re not seeing the Taliban in anything resembling ‘control’ in more than say, about 6 percent of the country, but that percent varies week to week (by 1 to 2 percent maybe, not anything close to ‘a third’)”

The bottom line: “I guess in the long run, I do think it’s appropriate for people to stop repeating this claim that they ‘control’ a third of the country, or at least do enough due diligence to get back to the UN report, if that report does indeed make that same claim,” Lawhorn said.

Do you have any input on this one? Drop us a line.

ISIS in Libya is trying to export violence throughout North Africa. “‘The Islamic State attack into the heart of the southeastern Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane (on Monday) opens up a new zone of conflict,’ said a report released on Wednesday by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group,” Stars and Stripes reports.

And a new U.N. report details the flow of arms to Libya—in direct violation of a UN embargo, the Wall Street Journal reports. “The report devotes separate sections to nation states and individuals that investigators believe are complicit in sanctions violations. It includes more than 100 pages of documentation including copies of arms orders, invoices, end-user certificates, as well as serial numbers and photos of armaments which were once held in national militaries but that have ended up in the country.”

Egypt and the UAE are two of the nations fingered in the report. “The report says Egyptian military hardware, including attack helicopters, ended up in the arsenal of the Tobruk regime. It cites photos of the helicopters, including tail numbers,” the Journal wrote, adding, “A person familiar with the situation said the U.A.E. government wouldn’t be issuing any comment about the report.”

Also allegedly involved: Sudan, Ukraine, and two U.S.-based companies. More here.

We end this week with a letter for a dying soldier from none other than Walt Whitman, brought to our attention by the Washington Post. “The rare Whitman ‘soldier letter,’ one of only three known to exist, was discovered last month by a National Archives volunteer who is part of a team preparing Civil War widows’ pension files to be digitized and placed online.”

“My dear wife,” it began, “you must excuse me for not having written. . . . have not been very well.” The letter explained that it was penned by “a friend who is now sitting by my side.”

Said Jackie Budell, an archive specialist who oversees the project: “It doesn’t get much bigger, in my eyes. It’s just simply stunning….We’re not going to find another one like this, probably, for a while.” Much more to this story, and you can catch it all here. Have a great weekend, everyone!