Just hours after rebels downed a second Syrian air force jet in less than a month on Tuesday, the Syrian army—along with its Russian pals in the air and its Iranian comrades on the ground—has begun what’s being described as the “fiercest government assault” in areas south of Aleppo since the ceasefire began on Feb. 27. “Air strikes, artillery and rockets were being used in an attack aimed at recovering the town of Telat al-Eis,” Reuters reports.
About that downed plane: It’s unclear exactly who brought it down, but Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, posted video of the jet smoldering on the ground along with footage of what appeared to be its battered and bruised pilot. Another Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, said it was behind the jet’s downing—which could be true since the two groups’ fighters have linked up for offensives on countless occasions in recent months.
And how? Some rebels say it was hit by artillery fire; the Syrian military says a surface-to-air missile brought it down, just as they claim occurred on March 12. Adds Reuters: “Any confirmation the rebels now have the missile equipment [like these surface-to-air missiles, also referred to as MANPADS] would be a major escalation in their weaponry.”
For what it’s worth, Middle East analyst Charles Lister says externally-supplied MANPADS have been in rebel hands since 2012, with the most recent known shipment arriving in late 2015.
“Adding to the volatility of the situation,” writes the Wall Street Journal, “the Pentagon said late Monday that the U.S. military killed a senior Nusra commander known as Abu Firas Alsouri and several of his associates in an airstrike on Sunday while they held a meeting in northwest Syria.” Alsouri was believed to be JaN’s military leader, and the Pentagon said he was also one of the many 1980s Afghan war veterans who worked with Osama bin Laden “and other founding al Qaeda members to train terrorists and conduct attacks globally.” That near the bottom of a wider WSJ wrap-up, here.
Jabhat al-Nusra is picking the wrong fight in Syria, The Daily Beast reports. And by the “wrong fight,” they’re cracking down on the presence of a U.S.-backed group, the 13th Division, and local protests that could represent one of the most promising democratic developments in the country in years.
ISIS is taking the fight to the Assad regime’s capital in Damascus, but they’re not getting very far. “Islamic State attackers, using five bomb-laden cars, also struck military positions near the airport, southeast of Damascus, killing 12 soldiers, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based organization that tracks the war, said. Government forces responded with shelling and air strikes in that area, and jets also struck the town of Dumeir, 40 km (25 miles) northeast of Damascus, which is held by a rebel group sympathetic to Islamic State,” Reuters reports this morning.
Speaking of airstrikes in Syria (aren’t we always?), the folks at the Atlantic Council just released a mega-report on the Russian air force’s help to Assad’s beleaguered army. “We have used the power of digital forensics to expose the details of Russia’s aerial and ground attacks in Syria using information entirely from open sources, available to be viewed and verified by anyone,” they write.
A brief summary of their findings: “Russia launched air strikes on hospitals, water treatment plants, and mosques. Russia used cluster bombs. Russia almost exclusively targeted non-ISIS targets. These are the truths that Russia will not admit, and the truths that must be understood when negotiating with Russia as a potential partner.” Full report, here.
What should ISIS war planners be thinking about before ISIS is (one day) removed from its strongholds in Raqqa and Mosul? The little-discussed Wilaya AlForat, or the “Heart of Daesh’s Homeland”—an expansive smack of turf that crosses the Iraq-Syria border. The folks at Small Wars Journal have a superb deep-dive into the region that could very well hold some of the most drawn-out guerilla fighting the war against ISIS will yield in either country. That, here.
By the way: Sen. John McCain says the ISIS fight is starting to resemble the “slow, grinding failure” of Vietnam.
About a week after pulling a majority of U.S. military families from Turkey, the U.S. is now considering moving its Sinai contingent south just a bit, CNN reported. (ICYMI: “Your first question should be: “Wait – we have American soldiers deployed in Egypt?” Get the scoop, and an argument for bringing them home, here.)
From Defense One
Carter unveils his once-a-generation rethink of the military’s top leadership structure. Among other changes, the defense secretary wants to elevate the role of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in arbitrating among service branches and combatant commanders — yet keep the top flag officer out of the chain of command. He also wants to cut the number of four-star generals and admirals (and trim their staffs), give more power to the generals and admiral atop each branch of the military. The changes are among Carter’s recommendations as the Defense Department and Congress look to update the 30-year-old Goldwater-Nichols Act, the law that lays out military lines of command. Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber reports, here.
Also: Carter may elevate CYBERCOM to a full combatant command. As network warriors pound away on ISIS in the battle for Mosul, Carter says it's time to consider full-COCOM status for cyberwarfare. Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports, here.
Welcome to the Wednesday edition of The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1862, the Battle of Shiloh was joined. Subscribe to the D Brief: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. Got news? Let us know: email@example.com.
Seoul says its northern neighbor “developed a large-caliber multiple launch rocket system and could use it to strike South Korea as soon as this year,” Seoul’s defense minister said Tuesday. “This comes a day after South Korean officials said they believed that the North was now able to mount a nuclear warhead on a medium-range missile,” the Washington Post reports. “Han Min-koo, South Korea’s defense minister, said that North Korea’s recent test-firings of 300-millimeter rockets suggested that it had almost completed the development of its multiple launch rocket system. ‘Under this assessment, I think North Korea will deploy the 300-mm MLRS as early as the end of this year,’ Han told local reporters. The rockets, which are much cheaper than missiles, are thought to have a range of about 125 miles. Greater Seoul, with a population of almost 26 million people, is just 35 miles from the demilitarized zone that separates North and South Korea.” More here.
Elsewhere in the region: “I cannot conceive of any situation within the foreseeable future when the U.S. presence wouldn’t be necessary,” Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said in an interview with the WSJ that stayed largely to economic concerns, but dipped into brief talk of alliances, collective security and the U.S. presidential election.
Beijing just put a bulb in one of its three lighthouses on fake islands in the South China Sea. “China's transport ministry held a "completion ceremony", marking the start of operations of the 55-metre (180-ft) high lighthouse on Subi Reef, where construction began in October.” Reuters has that one, here.
Kuwait has finally closed its deal with Italy for 28 Eurofighter jets, six months after signaling an intent to buy,, Defense News reports. What’s more, “Kuwait has ordered its aircraft equipped with an electronically scanned radar, which is being developed for the aircraft but has yet to be adopted by Eurofighters operated by the four launch partners on the program — Italy, the UK, Germany and Spain. The radar is being developed by the European EuroRADAR consortium, which is led by Finmeccanica. In a statement, the Eurofighter consortium said the deal covered 22 single-seat and six twin-seat aircraft, all third tranche standard.”
This new weapon could revolutionize infantry warfare. It’s a shoulder-fired XM25 Counter Defilade Target Engagement (CDTE) precision-guided grenade launcher, and the U.S. Army wants 105 of them. “The XM25 will essentially destroy the value of cover and with it the necessity of long-drawn out firefights. It will also make the old infantry tactic of firing and maneuvering to eliminate an enemy hiding behind cover obsolete,” The Diplomat reports, adding the U.S. has already tested the weapon in Afghanistan.
While we’re on Afghanistan—the U.S. could help Kabul train more troops and amass a larger army to fight off the Taliban and ISIS… if only they could stop fighting the Taliban and ISIS first. Intense fighting and unprecedented casualties suffered by Afghan forces in 2015 “interfered with the glide slope we were on,” new commander General John Nicholson told Reuters. “The assumptions we made about our timelines, we have to re-look based upon the high casualties they took.” Nicholson also said he’s about a third of the way through a 90-day assessment he will present in Washington some time in June. More here.
And finally — a combat general goes to the movies. Specifically, David Barno, the retired 3-star who commanded U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2003–05, and specifically, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the Tina Fey-starring movie about a journalist who covers the war. Short version: Barno gives the movie nearly two thumbs up, noting that it “captures how U.S. military personnel often struggled to understand this complicated and very unfamiliar culture. Baker accompanies a Marine patrol (spoiler alert) as they return time and again to an Afghan village where they have built a well. Each time the marines leave, the well is blown up. As in the real-life version of this story, Baker discovers that the culprits are not the Taliban, but the burka-clad village women. They want to preserve their traditional long trek to the river to bring back water and have time to socialize away from the men.” Read the whole review, here.