Tillerson: US will keep troops in Syria indefinitely; Russia subs sniff around undersea cables; Budget talks heat up; Innovation board’s advice to Mattis; and just a bit more...

SecState Tillerson “committed the United States to an indefinite military presence in Syria” on the same day he walked back the U.S. military’s messaging on that coalition-trained Border Force in Syria, the Washington Post reports.  

The purpose for the enduring commitment: “to ensure that neither Iran nor President Bashar al-Assad of Syria take over areas that have been newly liberated with help from the United States,” The New York Times reports off the same speech Tillerson gave at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Calif.

A bit more on why: “We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria… ISIS has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.”

Tillerson said the U.S. has five key goals in Syria, the Times reports:

  1. “Ensuring that the Islamic State and Al Qaeda never re-emerge;
  2. supporting the United Nations-led political process
  3. diminishing Iran’s influence;
  4. making sure the country is free of weapons of mass destruction;
  5. and helping refugees to return after years of civil war.”

The big picture: “Mr. Tillerson’s comments were the first time a senior Trump administration official pledged to keep American troops in Syria well after the current battle ends,” the Times writes. “They also marked another step in President Trump’s gradual evolution from a populist firebrand who promised to extricate the United States from foreign military entanglements to one who is grudgingly accepting many of the national security strategies he once derided.”

About that Border Security Force — initially described over the weekend by coalition spokesman, U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon: “We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson said Wednesday. “It’s unfortunate that entire situation has been mis-portrayed, mis-described, some people misspoke… What we are doing is we’re trying to ensure that local elements are providing security to liberated areas...this is just more training and trying to block ISIS from their escape routes.”

Says the Hoover Institute’s Kori Schake of what Tillerson laid out: The “Trump Admin[istration] isn't committing anywhere near the resources to achieve these ambitious goals.”

Adds the Times: Tillerson "is working on a reorganization of the State Department, which so far has resulted in steep budget cuts and the departure of some of its most senior diplomats, including some top Middle East experts. Such expertise is vital to any military or diplomatic ventures in the Middle East, where contradictory and crosscutting rivalries are endemic."

On that note: “60 percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats have left and new applications to join the foreign service have dropped by half,” McClatchy reported Wednesday.  

From Defense One

Russian Subs Are Sniffing Around Transatlantic Cables. Here's What to Do About It // Magnus Nordenman: First, realize that they carry more than just phone calls and email.

Here's How to Stop Squelching New Ideas, Eric Schmidt's Advisory Board Tells DoD // Patrick Tucker: An exclusive preview of the Defense Innovation Board's new recommendations for James Mattis.

The Specter of a Chinese Mole in America // Amy Zegart: The case of a suspected turncoat couldn't come at a worse time for the intelligence community.  

White Supremacists Killed More Americans Last Year Than Any Other Domestic-Extremist Group // Jonathan Greenblatt: One day after a Justice Department report excluded domestic terrorism from its tally, a new report highlights the danger of racist rhetoric and hateful ideas.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Email us. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free.

Return of the continuing resolution. The Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., "has introduced a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the federal government open through Feb. 16, his office announced late Jan. 16," Defense Daily reports this morning.
What you need to know: "If enacted into law, the CR (H.J.Res. 125) will replace the one that expires Jan. 19, becoming the fourth such stopgap measure for fiscal year 2018. The CRs are needed because Congress has not reached agreement on an FY 2018 budget."
The outlook: "Whether Congress will pass the latest CR and avert a government shutdown is unclear, partly because many lawmakers assert that CRs are hurting military readiness. CRs lack the certainty and robust funding of an annual defense appropriations bill." A tiny bit more, here.
What do servicemembers want from Congress? “[T]o stop the political gamesmanship and pass a budget to fund the military,” according to Joint Chiefs Chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford. Military.com has more from the CR beat, reporting from Brussels, here.  

Happening today: SecNav Spencer and CNO Richardson on Capitol Hill where the House Armed Services’ “readiness and seapower and projection forces subcommittees will host a joint hearing Thursday afternoon” with the two officials, U.S. Naval Institute News reports.

President Trump says Russia is helping North Korea evade sanctions, Reuters reported after sitting down with the president for 53 minutes on Wednesday.
POTUS: “Russia is not helping us at all with North Korea… What China is helping us with, Russia is denting. In other words, Russia is making up for some of what China is doing.”
On talks with North Korea: “I’d sit down, but I‘m not sure that sitting down will solve the problem… We’re playing a very, very hard game of poker and you don’t want to reveal your hand.”
On DPRK’s ability to reach the mainland U.S. with a nuke: “They’re not there yet, but they’re close. And they get closer every day.” Read the rest, here.
Extra reading: Why “North Korea Is China's Double-Edged Sword,” from Joseph Bosco of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, formerly a China country desk officer in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, writing in The National Interest.

America’s top general in Europe says Russia’s military will be more dominant than the U.S. “if we are not adapting” to Moscow’s military upgrades over the next five years, Stars and Stripes reports. NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, U.S. Army Gen. Curtis M. Scaparrotti, spoke with reporters from Brussels Wednesday.
What Scap’s doing at NATO: “During two days of talks in Brussels, alliance defense chiefs worked on plans to set up two new command headquarters to deal with a more aggressive Russia. The plans call for dual headquarters to focus on ensuring the faster movement of forces across the Atlantic Ocean and around Europe.”
For the record, Stripes writes, “the roughly $1 trillion in defense spending by the U.S. and its NATO allies still dwarfs Moscow’s. IHS Jane’s, a defense industry analysis publication, estimated Russia’s defense spending in 2017 at less than $50 billion.” A bit more here.

The U.S. wants to sell $133M in “supersonic ballistic missile interceptors to Japan,” The Diplomat reports after a Jan. 8 notice from the U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).
Involved: four Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missiles and four MK 29 missile canisters, along with a logistics and support package.

A majority of Americans believe U.S. foreign policy has gotten worse in the past year under President Trump, according to a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out this morning.
As well, "overwhelming numbers [71 percent] say they are concerned about the possibility of war with North Korea."
And "More than half (58 percent) disapprove of how Trump has handled the rising tensions with the nuclear power, [while] just over a third approve."
On the plus side: “Americans give Trump relatively positive marks on his handling of ISIS and the state of the economy — no small things.” However, NPR writes, “on just about every other issue, they disapprove of his handling of them or they think things have gotten worse.” More, here.

Saudi Arabia says it will give $2 billion to help stabilize Yemen, The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. “The cash deposit, ordered by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, follows a sharp fall in Yemen’s currency against the U.S. dollar in recent days.”
How bad has the Saudi-led intervention been for Yemen’s economy? “The currency’s fall, combined with soaring inflation that the International Monetary Fund projects to be 29.5% this year, are adding to the country’s myriad economic woes. The war has halted most oil production and other exports needed to drive economic growth and fund government services.”
FWIW, part 1: “Yemen’s currency, the rial, now trades at around 530 to the U.S. dollar, compared with around 365 last year, according to exchange-house executives in Aden.”
FWIW, part 2: “The money comes on top of another $1 billion the kingdom said it gave Yemen’s central bank in 2012 in an earlier bid to stabilize the currency as the country went through a post-Arab Spring political transition that unraveled with the rise of the Houthis.” Read on, here.

And stay tuned here at Defense One for an upcoming deep dive into the Yemen war, with moving maps and charts as well as a podcast.

SF-86 status report: A year into his job, White House senior advisor Jared Kushner doesn’t have a full security clearance, Newsweek reports. Trump’s son-in-law, whose portfolio includes resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is still working under a provisional clearance. “Legal experts specializing in security clearance law told Newsweek that Kushner’s clearance should be suspended until investigators can determine whether his failures to include dozens of Russian contacts on his forms constitutes an intentional false statement—a chargeable offense.” Read on, here.

Finally today: De oppresso liber on the big screen. In case you’ve been living in a cave — like, say, in the Tora Bora mountains — we can now all watch actors portraying Green Berets riding on horses during the 16-year Afghan war’s most encouraging hours. The just-released film telling that story — “12 Strong” — features Thor and comes out of Doug Stanton's 2009 book “Horse Soldiers.” We haven’t seen it yet, but trailers for the film do a great job illustrating the film’s link with the book’s title (and bitterly reminding your D-Brief-er that he never got to ride a horse while in the ‘Stan.)
The Hollywood Reporter’s BLUF: Acclaimed film producer “Jerry Bruckheimer has achieved the impossible: a feel-good movie about the war in Afghanistan.” More here.