Rebel alliances shift in Syria; Trump’s unexpected offer to Pakistan; Mosul progress slows; Ukraine tests put Russian troops on alert; and just a bit more...
Baghdad’s elite Golden Division special forces say they are 3.5 kms from the Tigris river that splits Mosul in two, Iraqi news reports this morning. Progress has been slower as the forces chip away at Islamic State defenses around the city, followed by continued reports of unearthed mass graves while the humanitarian situation inside the city worsens during the seventh week of the Mosul offensive.
“Almost 80 percent of [the nearly 70,000] displaced people have sought accommodation in camps prepared by the Government and UN,” the UN said this morning. “To the east and north-east of Mosul, Khazer M1, Hasansham U3 and Qaymawa (Zelikan) camps are at full capacity. Additional space is available now in seven camps for a further 67,284 people. Plots are under construction or planned for 452,382 more people by the end of the year.” More here.
“Two officials, speaking from Turkey, said the new alliance would be called the ‘Aleppo Army’ and led by the commander of the Jabha Shamiya rebel faction, one of the major groups fighting in northern Syria under the Free Syrian Army banner," Reuters reports. “An official with a second rebel group confirmed that the Jabha Shamiya's Abu Abdelrahman Nour had been selected as the leader. In an interview with Reuters last week, Nour urged greater support from foreign states that back the opposition...The Jabha Shamiya group, known in English as the Levant Front, has received support from Turkey and other states that want Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad removed from power.”
CENTCOM chief, Gen. Joseph Votel warns against throwing Syria’s “moderate” rebels under the bus, Stars and Stripes reports. “I can think of a number of groups…who we have been working with, who have been very, very good partners to us and done our bidding with our support, with our coalition support. So I think we should look to do that, and I hope we will find a way to continue to do that,” he told a conference in Washington on Wednesday.
Get to better know the Assad regime’s militias and Shi’ite jihadis thanks to a new report from the open source investigators at Bellingcat.
Syrian Democratic Forces killed at least 37 pro-Turkey rebels north of Aleppo on Wednesday, Kurdish ARA News reports this morning. For a little more on the background there, ARA writes: “SDF troops have been trading mortar and small arms fire with Turkish forces and Turkey-backed rebels for weeks. Last week, Turkey and its allies renewed their campaign to capture the Manbij Subdistrict in northern Aleppo. They advanced into the villages of Ilan, Qart Weran and Nassir but withdrew after fierce clashes.” More here.
Erdogan clarifies. Turkish President Recep Erdogan got himself into a bit of trouble on Tuesday when he said Turkey’s operation into northern Syria was designed to "end the rule of the cruel Assad.” Russian President Vladimir Putin, for one, didn’t like that one bit and rang him up on the phone shortly afterward.
"Before making any judgments, we expect that this position will be clarified," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters, according to state-run RT news.
This morning Erdogan did indeed clarify those remarks, saying “Turkey's military operation in support of rebels in northern Syria did not target any one country or individual, but was aimed at terrorist organizations,” Reuters reports this morning. That short hit, here.
U.S. Navy rolling deep in the MidEast: All three of the Navy’s deployed battle groups in region, the USNI reported Wednesday: “The Makin Island ARG, which includes amphibious transport dock USS Somerset (LPD-25) and dock landing ship USS Comstock (LSD-45), joins the Wasp ARG and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group in 5th Fleet. USS Wasp (LHD-1) has been in U.S. 6th Fleet and northern 5th Fleet areas of responsibility, while the ships in its ARG operated lower in the 5th Fleet AOR and into the Indian Ocean. The Ike CSG is supporting Operation Inherent Resolve air strikes against the Islamic State.” More, here.
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb attacked two airports in Mali on Wednesday using GRAD rockets, truck bombs and mortars, The Long War Journal reported. The assaults “targeted the airports of Timbuktu and Gao in northern Mali. The jihadist group claimed a suicide attack in Gao, while a rocket barrage targeted a French base at the Timbuktu airport… Al Murabitoon, a battalion of AQIM which has been led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, was quick to claim the assault on social media. The last successful suicide bombing in Mali was on May 31, also in Gao perpetrated by Murabitoon.” Details, here.
From Defense One
The Coming War on “Radical Islam” // The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman: How President-elect Trump’s government could change America’s approach to terrorism.
Don’t Put the Pentagon in Charge of Private Industry’s Cybersecurity // Council on Foreign Relations’ Robert Knake: There are few ways that the military could intervene effectively without doing more harm than good.
Welcome to the Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1941, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito gave the final go-ahead for war with the United States. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Trump’s unexpected offer to Pakistan: “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems,” the president-elect told Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, according to the transcript of a phone call released by Islamabad. U.S. leaders typically take a far more measured line in dealing with the nuclear-armed subcontinent. Nikhil Kumar, Time’s South Asia bureau chief, explains why: “As India reels from [a Nov. 29 attack in which militants operating from Pakistan killed seven Indian troops], with analysts around the world watching closely for any retaliatory steps that could trigger a full-scale war, the readout of Trump’s call throws up a host of problematic questions. Will Trump’s America openly side with Pakistan on the country’s dispute with India? And where does that leave India, an increasingly important U.S. ally under recent American Presidents? How will India now react to any US attempt to cool tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad?” Read on, here.
Incidentally, “Several of Mr. Trump’s real estate ventures in India — where he has more projects underway than in any location outside North America — are being built through companies with family ties to India’s most important political party.” NYT, here.
About those conflict of interests: Trump’s declaration that he intends to alleviate such concerns drew an...enthusiastic? sarcastic? certainly unusual response from the Office of Government Ethics, which tweeted its “congratulations” for “divesting” his business. The president-elect has promised no such thing. Read on, here.
Ukraine missile tests put Russia’s occupying troops in Crimea on high alert. “The two-day military drills near the Black Sea peninsula are a first for the former Soviet republic and a sign that it is regaining assertiveness in the face of its arch-foe Russia,” Agence France Presse reports. “An unnamed source in the Crimean military told Russia's RIA Novosti state news agency that his region's anti-missile systems had been put on a heightened state of alert.” Reuters writes Russia began maneuvering ships in the Black Sea as a precaution.
Tweeted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko: “No one will stop us.”
Russia’s reax: With zero irony, Kremlin spox Peskov said, “In the Kremlin we wouldn't want to see any actions by the Ukrainian side that breached international law and that might create dangerous conditions for international flights over the territory of Russia and adjacent regions," reportedly adding Russia will shoot down the missiles if it feels threatened. Story here.
In the Baltics, Lithuanian civilians prepare for a Russian invasion, thanks to a government-issued preparation manual on counterinsurgency, AP reports.
Putin’s fig leaf to Trump: "We don't want confrontation with anyone," the Russian president told an audience of senior officials and lawmakers in an ornate, white-marble Kremlin hall. "Unlike our foreign colleagues who are seeing Russia as an enemy, we have never been looking for enemies. We need friends," he said, adding Russia is "ready for cooperation with the new American administration," with the hopes of cooperating with the U.S. in fighting terrorism. AP has more, here.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has a message for Russia: “The United States does not seek a new cold war with Russia, let alone a hot war,” he wrote in a recent journal article. “We do not seek an enemy in Russia; rather, we have long sought a peaceful relationship. But no one—neither in Moscow nor anywhere else—should forget that the United States will defend its allies, the principled international order and the positive future that order affords all of us. We will counter attempts to undermine our collective security. And we will not ignore attempts to interfere with our democratic processes.” That is, at least until January 20...
Also in Washington on Wednesday, a bill to combat foreign propaganda passed a key hurdle in Congress, the Washington Post reports this morning. “The measure, part of the National Defense Authorization Act approved by a conference committee, calls on the State Department to lead governmentwide efforts to identify propaganda and counter its effects. The authorization is for $160 million over two years. If approved by the full House and Senate, the measure could reach President Barack Obama in December. It would be the most significant initiative against foreign governments' disinformation campaigns since the 1990s.” More here.
Happening today: The Stimson Center is hosting a discussion with Jameel Jaffer, Founding Director of the Knight First Amendment Institute and Charlie Savage of The New York Times on counter-terrorism and the future of the U.S. drone program. That gets under way at 3:30 pm EDT in Washington. Details here.
Finally today, a task for you this evening: “Step 1. Find some whiskey. Step 2: Drink it. Step 3: Check out Slide 15 of this brief on nuclear weapons safety,” tweeted FlightGlobal editor Stephen Trimble after getting eyes on a pretty remarkable instance of near-mishaps in this 2011 report on “Challenging Design Projects at Sandia National Laboratories.” Rest easy, everyone. And we’ll see you again tomorrow!