5 terrorist attacks in 5 cities; Syria war heats up; Grappling with Russian hacking; Trump on China, IC, F-35; and just a bit more...
While U.S. lawmakers and officials turned their eye to Russia’s influence warfare on democracy this weekend (more on that below), terrorists across five countries killed nearly 200 people, and the Syrian war escalated on multiple fronts.
U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Saturday announced the Pentagon would send 203 new special operations troops to Syria. Washington Post: “The newest tranche of Special Operations forces headed to Syria represents the third time since October 2015 that the Pentagon has committed more troops there. The initial deployment was billed as a small group of about 50 that would look for local forces that could potentially fight the Islamic State. The second deployment, announced in April, was for 250 troops that would partner with the forces identified and initially assisted by the first detachment. Now, with approximately 500 of the elite forces in Syria, it means U.S. forces will be able to better manage the local forces they are embedded with, meaning troop movements probably will go smoother, and targeting for airstrikes could occur in more places than before.” More here.
Twenty-four hours after the announcement, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces said they’d added six liberated villages to their tally as they advance in their new phase of operations, moving south toward the ISIS-held city of Raqqa.
The SDF just picked up some new fighters: “elite forces” from former chief of the Syrian National Coalition Ahmad Jarba, “a prominent Syrian opposition figure and leading member of the Shammar Arab tribe” who works “with support from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates,” Kurdish ARA news reported Sunday.
If you’re keeping tabs at home, “The SDF now consists of approximately 45,000 fighters, more than 13,000 of which are Arab,” U.S. Col. John Dorrian said. More here.
The SDF have “already liberated dozens of villages and more than 700 square miles” of ISIS-held turf in the vicinity of Raqqa, CENTCOM says this morning of the new phase of the Euphrates Wrath operation, which has seen the U.S.-led coalition send “more than 300 strikes delivering more than 850 munitions… to enable the isolation of Raqqah and defeat of ISIL in Syria.”
Also this weekend: The Pentagon said it killed Boubaker al-Hakim, an ISIS “leader and longtime terrorist with deep ties to French and Tunisian” jihadists on November 26 in Raqqa. “Al-Hakim, who also went under the nom de guerre Abu Muqatel, Arabic for 'father of killing', also appreared in IS propaganda videos hailing the deaths of Tunisian politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. He was born in Paris and first travelled to Damascus in 2002, before travelling to Iraq, according to Huffington Post. During America's invasion of the country in 2003, al-Hakim was quoted in French media telling his friends to come join him ‘wage Jihad against America.’” More here.
But ISIS is anything but finished in Syria. Indeed, the group retook large parts of Palmyra from Syria’s allied troops, nine months after losing it to Russia, who celebrated with an orchestral rendition at the time.
Russia claimed by Saturday to have beaten back ISIS. But a return on Sunday saw the group advance further.
Quick sidebar on Russia’s perceived advantage over the West: “The ability of Russia’s political system to order the use of force on short notice, without public debate and with a high tolerance for casualties, is now viewed as Russia’s competitive advantage over the West,” Russian political analyst Vladimir Frolov, in The Moscow Times. “Military force, and the threat of it, becomes Moscow’s most effective foreign policy tool that compensates for the country’s soft power deficit.” Worth the click, here.
A heavy bombardment of Aleppo persisted overnight, Reuters reports as Syrian allied troops forced a rebel withdraw “from all districts on the east side of the Aleppo river after losing Sheikh Saeed in the south of their pocket in overnight fighting.”
About those allied troops: They’re largely non-Syrian militiamen supported by Iran and Russia, ABC News reported this weekend.
Russia’s defense ministry announced this morning “728 rebels had laid down their weapons over the previous 24 hours and relocated to western Aleppo. It said 13,346 civilians left rebel-controlled districts of Aleppo over the same period.”
Prospects for a cessation of hostilities remain grim, Reuters writes, as “Rebel groups in Aleppo received a U.S.-Russian proposal on Sunday for a withdrawal of fighters and civilians from the city's opposition areas, but Moscow said no agreement had been reached yet in talks in Geneva to end the crisis peacefully.”
For what it’s worth, Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday accused the Syrian regime of “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes” with its seemingly indiscriminate bombing of Aleppo.
To the northwest, the Turkish military has airdropped leaflets to residents of the ISIS-held city of al-Bab: “Dear people of al-Bab, do not let the Daesh (Islamic State) terrorist organisation, which serves the devil, use you. Help us, and bring your loved ones to safety as soon as possible, until we clean your land of these traitors. With God's will, victory is near," reads the leaflet, according to Reuters.
Meantime, “Turkish warplanes struck 29 Islamic State targets in northern Syria on Sunday while four militants and two Turkish-backed Syrian rebels were killed in clashes on the ground, the military said on Monday.” More on all that, here.
Five cities, five attacks. “Each was a product of local conflicts further fueled by regional rivalries, which exploded in seemingly unconnected attacks in Cairo, Istanbul, Aden, Somalia, and Nigeria,” writes Patrick Skinner of the Soufan Group. “Almost two hundred people were killed between the five terror incidents, and hundreds more wounded. The victims were Egyptian Coptic Christians, Turkish police officers, Yemeni soldiers, Nigerian civilians, and Somali police officers.” Skinner’s full write-up is worth the read. You can find that here.
The Pentagon is working up a more aggressive war plan to fight militants, The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend. “Military officials said they are considering presenting options on a number of fronts. They are likely to include easing restrictions on the precise number of American troops needed to carry out a particular mission, and relaxing rules that set the level of Washington review needed before an operation or airstrike may be conducted, officials said.”
One consequence, of course, “is the potential for deploying more U.S. forces. The Obama White House’s approach has been to use local forces and carefully limit the exposure of American personnel to combat.”
Also on the table: “more leeway to go after militants, military officials said. For example, the U.S. military has been conducting an effective campaign against Islamic State within the coastal city of Sirte, in northern Libya, under current authorities allowing it to take necessary measures in the city. But if U.S. forces need to target a militant or group of fighters as little as 3 miles outside of the city—beyond what is known as the ‘area of active hostilities’—doing so currently requires White House approval, a senior military official said.” More here.
From Defense One
Obama Orders 10-Year ‘Deep Dive’ into Election Hacking // Patrick Tucker: And he wants the intelligence community to deliver it before he leaves office.
Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy // Larry Diamond: Nothing will more profoundly shape our world than how the Trump administration responds to the challenge.
Want to Hurt the Taliban? Legalize Opium in Afghanistan // Abigail Hall-Blanco: Economics explains how anti-drug operations have undermined the war on terror.
A Dictator Among the Ruins: What Comes Next in Syria // Uri Friedman: Putin and Assad’s victory in Aleppo will usher in a new phase of the conflict, rather than its end.
The US Navy Hopes a Reporting App Can Reduce Sexual Assault // Ananya Bhattacharya: A six-month, $150,000 pilot project is testing an app initially created to prevent campus gun violence.
Welcome to the Manic Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Kevin Baron, Marcus Weisgerber, and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1862, a Confederate special-ops team sank the USS Cairo, the first armored ship to succumb to a mine. (Send your friends this link: http://get.defenseone.com/d-brief/. And let us know your news: email@example.com.)
China v. Trump: A week after talking with Taiwan’s president in a breach of nearly-four-decade-old diplomatic protocol, Trump doubled down on Sunday by telling Fox News that he wouldn’t feel “bound by a one-China policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade.”
“Chinese state media were quick to respond to Trump’s comments,” NPR reported. “The Global Times printed an op-ed stating the one-China policy is not for sale.”
AP chimes in: “A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said that any damage to the ‘political foundation’ of the U.S.-China diplomatic relationship could make further cooperation between the two countries ‘out of the question.’”
And all was after China flew a nuclear-capable bomber past Taiwan on Thursday.
Trump discredits the intelligence community. In yet another extraordinary and head-shaking move, the president-elect has launched an attack on his own intelligence community before he has stepped foot in the Oval Office. Trump has continued to deny all claims, reporting, and evidence that Russia attempted to influence the American presidential election with cyberattacks. On Sunday, Trump told Fox News the claims were “ridiculous. I think it's just another excuse. I don't believe it.”
On Monday morning, Trump tweeted, “Can you imagine if the election results were the opposite and WE tried to play the Russia/CIA card. It would be called conspiracy theory!”
To be sure, it is not Democratic sore losers playing a political card. The CIA and other agencies have presented President Obama and Trump with their case. Republican and Democratic members of the Senate and House intelligence committees have backed the findings publicly. And for good measure, Obama ordered an investigation into all of it.
But mostly it boils down to evidence — as long as the intelligence community is unable to share how they know who did what in cyberspace, it seems Trump is going to continue to play dumb, no matter the harm to the credibility of those American analysts and officers.
Intelligence fights back. Current professionals and former officials have responded with gasps and demands that Trump apologize. Not only is the president-elect discrediting U.S. intelligence officers and analysts to the American people, he is hurting American credibility with foreign intelligence agencies that rely on and trust U.S. findings.
George Little, former spokesman for CIA and the Pentagon called it unprecedented. “The next commander-in-chief, President-elect Trump, dismisses the work of the Agency and calls its findings ‘ridiculous.’ His sustained disrespect for the CIA and the wider intelligence community is nothing short of shameful,” Little wrote on Sunday.
When Trump’s spokesman went back on TV to claim Trump “respected” the intelligence community, Little fired back on Twitter, “Then...he should apologize.” Let’s see what other intelligence leaders have to say about trust and accuracy and their new commander in chief, as the week unfolds.
Trump vs. F-35: The president-elect also took aim at a new Pentagon project: the $400 billion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The latest shots were fired today at 8:28 a.m. EST: “@realDonaldTrump: The F-35 program and cost is out of control. Billions of dollars can and will be saved on military (and other) purchases after January 20th.”
Unlike Trump’s tweet and subsequent comments last week calling for the cancellation of a new multibillion project to build a new Air Force One — which is expensive, but not over budget — this morning’s salvo takes aim at the F-35, which has a long history of out-of-control costs, delays and underperformance. While the project has been on a better course of late, the Pentagon and Lockheed Martin — the project’s lead contractor — have been at odds over the cost of the jet.
Trump’s tweet comes a pivotal time for the F-35 program as production is slated to quadruple in the coming years. Unlike in his Air Force One tweet, it’s worth pointing out that the president-elect did not call for canceling the F-35 project. Probably because 146,000 jobs in 45 states (and Puerto Rico) as said to be tied to the program. That and there is no other American-made fifth-generation fighter in production.
Meanwhile, the pick for deputy national security adviser “has fueled concerns that Trump is not taking seriously enough the need for a top-flight foreign policy team at a moment of high global instability.” Politico offers this profile of Fox News analyst K.T. McFarland, who is stepping back into government three decades after a public-relations job in the Reagan administration. “Though less visible than the national security adviser, a job Trump has given to retired general Michael Flynn, the National Security Council’s principal deputy carries an even more crushing workload, NSC veterans say. Coordinating the government’s foreign policy, intelligence and national security arms is a Herculean task requiring endless hours of meetings among deputy officials who develop policy options for cabinet and agency chiefs, and the president himself, to consider.” Read on, here.
Iraqi commanders are moving some 4,000 federal police to the east of Mosul to help relieve some of the troops that have faced relentless counterattacks from ISIS. The police are “waiting for advances elsewhere on the eastern front, where elite Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) have made steady street-by-street progress,” Reuters writes. “For weeks, commanders have also talked about opening a new front in southwest Mosul to stretch Islamic State defences. But the despatch of the units to the southeast may delay that plan. The forces in Qaraqosh had been due to join other police units who have reached within 3 or 4 km (2 or 3 miles) of the airport on Mosul's southwestern edge, and were expected to open the new front inside the city on the west bank of the Tigris.” More here.
And American special operators are training Sunni and Shi’a fighters in northern Iraq—the latter from the militia, Hashd al-Shaabi. Here’s a decent roll-up of what you need to know about them, via a report by the Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press from back in June 2015.
Lastly today: Just in time for Christmas—it’s a 1,184-piece Lego replica of the Panama Canal. Popular Mechanics: “The canal uses its three levels to allow boats to rise and descend as they travel through, like a staircase. By showcasing all three levels, and a double gate, ‘it is a very good model of the Canal locks,’ [Canal administrator Jorge] Quijano says. The set also comes with a written explanation of the Canal.”
It doesn’t come cheap, though, and “It will only be available in stores in Panama and only 40,000 are being made. It'll come with an initial price tag of $250, but expect that to considerably rise once the sets hit eBay.” Consider this your reminder that you have less than two weeks until Christmas. Read on, here.