Trump’s ISIS war plans are in the works; The determination of Russian hackers; Manning and Cartwright get early release; Gabbard goes to Syria; And a bit more.

Military readies ISIS war options for Trump. While Iraqi special forces celebrate retaking the eastern half of Mosul from Islamic State fighters this morning, the Pentagon is set to present more aggressive war plans to defeat the group, which could include sending additional U.S. troops into direct combat, CNN’s Barbara Starr reported Tuesday. It appears the Pentagon may offer a wide range, from sending a few more trainers to a few combat brigades of thousands each. Although, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford already said Wednesday they did not include “any large US ground combat force.” More on that later.

None of it is new, really, Obama always had these same options. Now it’s up to President-elect Donald Trump to write his first orders to the troops.

Option No. 1: “...would put hundreds, if not thousands, of additional US troops into a combat role as part of the fight to take Raqqa. Depending on progress in arming and training the full Syrian Democratic Forces—a local fighting force—in the coming months, the Pentagon could put several US brigade-sized combat teams on the ground, each team perhaps as many as 4,000 troops… The US troops would not enter Raqqa but would focus on territory outside the city, calling in airstrikes and controlling roads and towns around Raqqa. In addition, heavily armed US Special Operations Forces could be put in a direct combat role for the first time, beyond their current mission to advise and assist local forces.”

Critical caveat: “There is no consensus on the size of any US deployment being proposed, because a final decision on how many to send would depend on what is done with issues like arming the Kurds, who are also US partners in the fight.”

Option No. 1: “...for Trump to authorize the Pentagon for the first time to [explicitly] arm Kurdish fighters, who would be used to control villages and roads around Raqqa… The move would be highly controversial because it would surely anger Turkey—a NATO ally—which does not want to see Kurdish elements gain further military strength.” (And that’s a tricky dynamic The New York Times’ Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt broke down Tuesday in greater detail, here.)

Another plan in the works “aims to counter Iran's growing influence in the region… US military commanders would like more authority to stop Iranian weapons shipments into Yemen through the Bab al-Mandab waterway between Yemen and the Horn of Africa,” CNN reported. “This authority could extend to trying to stop the buildup of shore installations along the Yemen coast using Iranian-supplied weapons to attack shipping and US military vessels transiting through the area.”

Gen. Dunford told reporters in Brussels Wednesday he’s ready to pitch the plans to Trump’s pick for defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis, The Wall Street Journal reports this morning. "The options wouldn't include deploying any large U.S. ground combat force to Syria or Iraq...[and they] would move tactical authority from the White House back to the military and easing restrictions on the number of troops used in specific missions," the Journal’s Julian Barnes writes, citing U.S. officials. That, here.

In Syria, the Pentagon is increasing airdrops of weapons and ammo to its partner forces, USA Today reported Tuesday. Two of the more notable pull-outs from that: “The Air Force conducted 16 airdrop missions in Syria last year, including six in December… [and] The U.S.-led coalition is directly providing supplies only to the Arab contingent within the Syrian Democratic Forces, partly to avoid antagonizing Turkey, a key ally.” More here.

Speaking of allies, is Blackwater founder Erik Prince a Trump advisor? The folks at The Intercept say so: “A former senior U.S. official who has advised the Trump transition told The Intercept that Prince has been advising the team on matters related to intelligence and defense, including weighing in on candidates for the defense and state departments.” Story here.

Before we leave Syria entirely, Hawaii Democratic veteran Rep. Tulsi Gabbard “just departed war-torn Damascus following a trip her aides described as a “fact finding” mission to work toward ending the nearly six year conflict in Syria,” Foreign Policy reports this morning. “In describing the purpose of the trip, Gabbard spokeswoman Emily Latimer said she “felt it was important to meet with a number of individuals and groups including religious leaders, humanitarian workers, refugees and government and community leaders.” Latimer declined to comment on whether Gabbard met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the trip. More here.

From Defense One

Russian Hackers Will Try 'Again and Again,' Warns Samantha Power // Patrick Tucker: In her parting speech, Obama's UN ambassador says it is 'naive' to think Russia won't keep meddling to destabilize the West.

The Complicated Relationship Between John McCain and Frank Kendall // Marcus Weisgerber: The Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer for the past five years says he’s lowered the cost of arms, but the watchdog senator never seemed satisfied.

Did Trump's Team Just Threaten War With China? // Michael H. Fuchs: Rex Tillerson said the U.S. should threaten to keep China from its new man-made islands. That requires a naval blockade. And that is war.

Obama's Cyber Legacy // Joseph Marks: He did (almost) everything right and it still turned out wrong.

Can James Mattis Protect Trump From Hubris? // Dominic Tierney: The president-elect and the risks of overconfidence.

Welcome to the Jan. 18 edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Kevin Baron. On this day 14 years ago, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Walnut (WLB-205) departed from homeport in Honolulu, Hawaii and to begin a 10,000 mile, 45-day lightning trek to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Enjoy the D Brief? Send your friends this link: And let us know your news:

Obama commutes the bulk of Chelsea Manning’s sentence, paving the way for his release in May. Writes Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey over at Lawfare blog: “We do not think Manning was justified in her decisions. We believe her actions did more harm than good. And we certainly are not advocates of indiscriminate disclosure outside of lawful authority of mass quantities of classified information—by anyone.”

But, they add, “President Obama was right to reduce Manning’s sentence. And given the extent to which last-minute presidential clemency actions often gin up mini-scandals, he acted courageously as well... The story of Chelsea Manning is more complicated than the crime she committed, as Alex Gibney’s first-rate documentary We Steal Secrets vividly portrays.”

Their key emphasis: “The power of clemency was designed to empower the President to make precisely the fine moral distinctions that say that one should not forgive Manning’s crime but that she should not serve the full term of a horrifically long sentence. ...This is one of those cases where justice requires course correction.”

Manning’s critics were having none of it. She and Obama received scathing condemnation from House Speaker Paul Ryan, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Tom Cotton, among many others.

James “Hoss” Cartwright, the general and former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who admitted to leaking the Stuxnet virus story, was also let off the hook on Tuesday, The Daily Beast reported. He pled “guilty in September 2016 to falsely denying he was the source of leaks on details about the so-called Stuxnet computer virus, which the U.S. government reportedly used to sabotage centrifuges at an Iranian nuclear facility in 2008 and 2009.”

Lithuanian officials signed a document “formalizing the presence of U.S. troops in the small Baltic country bordering Russia and Belarus,” AP reported Tuesday. “The agreement will facilitate the deployment of U.S. forces and support staff as well as the implementation of joint exercises and training. According to the Lithuanian military, 140 U.S. troops are currently based permanently in Lithuania, and other units frequently visit for military drills... The agreement has yet to be ratified by parliament but is not expected to meet any significant opposition.” More here.

Lithuania is also planning to build a two-meter-tall wire fence along its border with Russia's Kaliningrad enclave, Reuters reported Tuesday. “The new fence, which will cost 3.6 million euros and is due to be completed this year, will cover some 50 km of the border not already protected by lakes, rivers and swamps.” Story here.

ICYMI: See “what the U.S. gets for defending its allies and interests abroad” in this great visualization from The New York Times.

You want to know who’s really winning the cyber war? Squirrels, and not the “secret” kind. Ars Technica has the story, here.

An airstrike intended for Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria on Tuesday killed at least 70 civilians and aid workers, AFP reports this morning.

And elsewhere in Africa, a suicide attack in Mali killed 40 pro-government fighters. AFP also has that one, here.

In new military toys, Turkey says it’s getting its first six of 10 locally-made armed Anka drones later this year, Defense News reports. “The Anka-S can fly with a payload of 200 kilograms at a maximum altitude of 30,000 feet for a duration of 24 hours. The satcom-compatible Anka-S features a high-definition day and night vision camera.” More here.

NEXT STORY: Obama's Cyber Legacy