The war in Syria is getting uglier as Aleppo teeters on the brink of falling to Russian-backed forces. With weekend advances, Assad’s allied troops have reportedly “recaptured about 70 percent of eastern Aleppo in just over a week,” the BBC reports this morning.
Rebels may have no choice but to withdraw from Aleppo, Reuters writes this morning on word from rebels that they will not leave the city.
For what it’s worth: “The U.N. estimates that close to 30,000 people have been displaced by the latest fighting, 18,000 to government-held areas, a further 8,500 to the Kurdish-controlled neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud and the rest within rebel-held areas. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura has said more than 100,000 people may still be in the rebel-held area. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that reports on the war, said it could be as many as 200,000 people.” More from Reuters, here.
Monitor the turf gains in Aleppo via this map from the Washington Institute.
The U.S. and British militaries are mulling air drops to besieged Syrians—including via “edible drones,” the Guardian reported this weekend. Not that these methods are the most certain way to deliver food and medical supplies to isolated residents. “We have been asked for our opinion on it and we have provided our views,” Gen Joseph Votel, CENTCOM commander, told the Guardian. “It would be extraordinarily difficult and it’s not the ideal way to move the kind of quantities you need.” Full story, here.
The UN Security Council is set to vote today on a measure drafted by Egypt, New Zealand and Spain demanding a seven-day ceasefire to allow for humanitarian access to Aleppo.
Shifting stateside, briefly, House members on Friday authorized the Trump administration to arm Syrian rebels with anti-aircraft missiles, al-Monitor reported Friday. “The new provision was added in while the House and Senate worked out differences between the [FY2017 defense] bills they passed earlier this year. The original House bill expressly prohibited the transfer of MANPADs to ‘any entity’ in Syria, while the Senate version made no mention of them… The new provision ‘would require the secretary of defense and secretary of state to notify the congressional defense committees, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee should a determination be made to provide MANPADs to elements of the appropriately vetted Syrian opposition,’ according to the explanatory statement accompanying the compromise bill.” Read the rest, including a bit of dissent from House lawmakers like Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., here.
And check out other Middle East provisions in the FY2017 defense bills in a handy chart from al-Monitor, here.
Back to Syria once more, where airstrikes Sunday in northwest Syria’s Idlib province killed 73, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “The bombardment included barrel bombs, improvised ordnance made from oil drums filled with explosives and dropped from helicopters,” Reuters writes.
Some good news/bad news for Russia. The good news: Its defense ministry says it killed an ISIS leader in the Caucasus, The Guardian reported this weekend: “The FSB said a joint operation with the interior ministry had cornered [Rustam] Aselderov and his fighters in a private house in the city of Makhachkala, where it found 'automatic weapons and a large amount of ammunition and explosives.' The FSB said 35-year-old Aselderov was involved in blasts in the southern Russian city of Volgograd which killed 34 people in 2013. He was fighting for another Caucasus insurgent group at the time. It also linked him to twin car blasts in Dagestan in 2012 that killed 14 and injured at least 120. The FSB said he also organised a foiled attack that was to take place in Moscow’s Red Square on New Year’s Eve in 2010 involving two female suicide bombers." More here.
The bad news: Militant shelling in Aleppo reportedly landed on an improvised Russian military hospital, killing a female paramedic and injuring two other workers, Russian state-run Sputnik news reports, adding the U.S., U.K. and France share responsibility for the strike.
And Russia’s military reportedly just lost another fighter jet—this time an Su-33—to a snapped arresting cable on the Admiral Kuznetsov carrier in the Mediterranean. That makes two jets lost in three weeks. The previous loss occurred in November when a similar malfunction led to an MiG-29K crashing while attempting an emergency landing shortly after takeoff, the Washington Post writes this morning.
President-elect Donald Trump followed up last week’s “protocol-shattering phone call” with Taiwan’s leader with a pair of tweets in which he noted China’s fake-island-building in the South China Sea (true), its high import tariffs (mostly true), and the devaluing of its currency (not so true anymore). The Sunday afternoon tweets, which followed vows to reduce regulations on U.S. businesses and raise tariffs on goods made by offshored factories (plus a complaint about his portrayal on Saturday Night Live), stunned just about everyone interested in the U.S.-China relationship. “By going after China’s policies on trade and security, Mr. Trump appeared to be confirming his intent to take a tougher line with the Chinese leadership across a broader range of issues,” reported the New York Times.
What else? Well, President Trump might not send a budget to Congress, unnamed GOP congressional sources tell federal finance guru Stan Collender, who wrote it up for Forbes. Why? Collender hypothesizes that Trump wants to avoid the inevitable criticism that comes with doing what presidents have been doing for generations, even at the cost of ceding budget choices to Congress and federal agencies. CRS analyst Matt Glassman has more, here.
Meanwhile, here’s a new example of the ways Trump and his family are mixing his public office — and foreign relations in particular — and their private gain. Trump daughter Ivanka, who sat in on the president-elect’s Nov. 17 meeting with Japan’s prime minister “is nearing a licensing deal with the Japanese apparel giant Sanei International, both parties told The New York Times. The largest shareholder of Sanei’s parent company is the Development Bank of Japan, which is wholly owned by the Japanese government.” That, from the Times, here.
From Defense One
Littoral Combat Ship, at a Crossroads // Caroline Houck: With the ship's purchase plans in doubt, detractors exchange fire with Navy supporters at contentious Senate hearing.
How Trump Can Heal U.S.-Gulf Rifts // Ahmed Al-Hamli of Trends Research: The president-elect has an opportunity, and an obligation, to reengage with Gulf Cooperation Council members.
Welcome to the Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Bradley Peniston and Marcus Weisgerber. On this day in 1963, the first Medal of Honor of the Vietnam War is received by Capt. Roger Donlon, a Green Beret. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Mosul can be recaptured from the Islamic State before the Trump administration takes office, Defense Secretary Ash Carter suggested this morning. Adds Reuters: “Carter did not say how the recapture could be completed before Jan. 20 in the face of resistance from Islamic State.” More on the broader Mosul situation, which is largely as it was Friday—moving at a snail’s pace in the face of snipers, tunnels, suicide bombers, etc.—here.
Spotted in Kurdistan: Trump Fish, complete with a lightning-yellow shock of hair on the man’s face. Check it out, here.
Iraqi troops sifted through the relics of an ISIS training camp located inside Mosul, the Washington Post reported Saturday. And what they found was a significant degree of detail and planning goes into ISIS squad-level tactics. “One printed sheet detailed the equipment that fighters were told to take on operations. In addition to weapons and ammunition, each group should have two TNT mines and 10 molotov cocktails, it said, as well as a shovel, ladder, hammers and nails, and stretchers. Fighters also were instructed to take two large smoke bombs, or four small ones, night-vision goggles and binoculars. The list continued in minute detail: a knife, torch, lighter, first-aid kit and small notebook and pen.” Story here.
Elsewhere in the global ISIS fight, “Libyan forces took control on Monday of the final cluster of buildings where Islamic State militants were holding out in their former North African stronghold of Sirte, and were securing the area,” a spokesman for brigades from the western city of Misrata told Reuters, which adds, “The statement could not immediately be verified and there was no official announcement that Sirte had been taken.” That, here.
NatSec elites gather in SoCal to talk Trump. They might have been in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, but all anyone there could talk about was President-elect Donald Trump. At the fourth-annual Reagan National Defense Forum – created by California Republican Rep. Buck McKeon as a place to hold a bipartisan dialog about national security – there was lots of optimism among attendees that the Trump would end the budget caps that defense officials say have hampered their ability to properly prepare the military for war against a major power.
“I heard euphoria, in a way, about the possibilities of defense spending for the future,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James told Defense One on her flight back to Washington on Sunday, the day after the event. “The belief, hands down, that sequestration would be lifted and that we’re going to ‘rebuild’ the Defense Department. But then I heard some interesting cautions.”
Among those cautions came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., noting federal budget caps, sometimes called sequestration, are still on the books until 2021, unless bipartisan support can be found to lift them. “It’s easy to say we will increase defense spending,” Graham said. “It’s going to be harder than it looks, but we will get there because failure is not an option.” Said James: “Nothing’s quite as easy as it seems.”
So if you had more money, what would you buy? Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, said more Marines. “Do we need to get bigger? We do,” he said. “How fast do we do that? And that’s kind of really the question.” Also on his wish list: Buying F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, Joint Light Tactical Vehicles “and other aircraft and other ground systems” faster. “We’ve got programs that are there that are going to modernize and increase our capability,” Neller said. “They just need to be done faster.” James, who was in the same panel, also said additional aircraft and people would help the Air Force if there were two major wars simultaneously. She also mentioned buying the F-35 faster.
CEOs want budget stability at Pentagon. “Predictability from the strategic level through the budget provides stability in the industrial base,” Jerry DeMuro, president and CEO of BAE Systems, said. “If you don’t have that, it undermines the industrial base and the ability to come back and do what needs to be done.” Michael Strianese, chairman and CEO of L-3 Communications, said: “In and of itself, the will to fund the military objectives is a deterrent.”
What does the general in charge of the Marine Corps think about Mattis? “I’ve worked for Gen. Mattis twice. I’ve never met anybody who tried harder to win without fighting, that understands information, relationships, how to negotiate, how to engage below the level of conflict,” Neller said. “He’s a very accomplished thinker, leader, fighter, he’s a historian, very measured guy.…I’m confident that when he makes his calls and he goes up to testify that everyone will see that he certainly has the capabilities, the intellect, the drive and the knowledge to serve in this particular position.”
More pressing budget matters to deal with: While Congress will soon pass the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the defense policy bill, it’s not that lawmakers will pass an appropriations bill, meaning a temporary funding measure that freezes spending at 2016 levels. And that so-called continuing resolution could remain in place several months into next year. “That would be the ultimate irony to me in a year when so many people are saying, ‘yes we agree we are going to do more,’” James said. Many defense officials have warned that the Pentagon could face financial penalties for not meeting the terms of their contracts.
Quote of the day. It goes to Adm. Harry Harris, the head of U.S. Pacific Command, when asked if China’s seven new military bases in the South China Sea’s Spratley Islands have deterred the West. “I have to, now, as a military commander think about those bases. I do not think they have deterred us as all. … [I]n a conflict scenario they’ve given us seven additional targets.”
The reaction in the room? A murmur of chuckles and in a classic ‘Oh snap” moment. Reaction from one attendee: “Get ready for more comments like that when Mattis is SecDef.”
Make sure you check out the Global Business Brief on Thursday for more on the Reagan Forum.
Very alarming #LongRead for Af-Pak hands: “How the FBI mistook a U.S. diplomat’s Skype calls with a Pakistani contact for espionage and then destroyed her life.” That’s how The Wall Street Journal’s Adam Entous describes the long, sordid tale of Robin Raphel, veteran “American diplomat in Islamabad’s elite E-7 sector,” whose investigation by the FBI began “falling apart” as recently as October 2015.
Entous and colleague Devlin Barrett write, “Unbeknownst to Raphel, as she had made her rounds in Islamabad in the fall of 2014, and spoke to contacts on the phone and on Skype, law-enforcement officials half a world away had been listening. Raphel’s old-fashioned way of doing business—working outside the confines of the embassy compound—had run headlong into the realities of America’s global surveillance web, on which the U.S. had increasingly come to depend. Since receiving a tip from an intercepted communication months earlier, the FBI had obtained warrants to monitor Raphel’s private accounts and to secretly search her home. They had transcribed information she had discussed with Pakistanis and taken it to intelligence officials, who had told them the topics were beyond her security clearance. The message, according to a former senior intelligence official, was that ‘Robin needs to shut up.’”
Lots of shadiness to unpack in this story, so set aside some time to read the full feature, here.
Lastly today: Army-Navy (Hockey) Game tonight in DC. Gen. Mark Milley, the Army chief of staff, will be behind the bench for Army and while Vice Adm. Ted Carter, superintendent of the Naval Academy, will be behind Navy’s bench for the pick-up-style game tonight at the Verizon Center (after the Capitals-Sabres game). The game is a warm-up act of sorts for this weekend’s Army-Navy football game in Baltimore. “We’ll see who prevails in that [hockey] game, as a prelude [to the football game]. And fighting will be authorized,” Milley quipped at Adm. Harris, the PACOM commander, on a panel at the Reagan forum.