Shutdown is here; Turkey-Russia vs. US in Syria?; Mattis to Asia; Army developing self-aiming rifle; and just a bit more...
The federal government has shut down, furloughing all but “essential” employees. Even those who must still report to work, including all active-duty members of the military, won’t get paid until Congress stops failing to pass a new spending bill that would replace several earlier temporary ones.
Other impacts on the troops: “Most commissaries on military bases in the United States will be shut down. Overseas commissaries will remain open as well as those in five remote stateside locations, but the remainder will follow an orderly shutdown to reduce the amount of perishables on hand and properly safeguard equipment and facilities.” That’s from CNN, which also reports that providing NFL football broadcasts to troops abroad has been deemed an essential service of the federal government, resumed after protest when the rest of the American Forces Network went dark at midnight Saturday.
Finger-pointing from halfway around the world. Vice President Mike Pence used part of his 13 minutes with Air Force and Army troops at a military base near the Syrian border to blame Democratic lawmakers. His remarks were covered by the Los Angeles Times, which noted, “It is unusual for a sitting vice president to use a meet-and-greet with service members to make political attacks,” and continued, “Pence did not mention that a Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, had tried on Saturday to push a measure in the Senate that would guarantee military pay throughout the shutdown. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blocked that proposal.” Continue reading, here.
From Defense One
What A Nuclear Missile Attack On Hawaii Would Look Like // Patrick Tucker: A blast over Honolulu would be catastrophic. That doesn't mean the government shouldn't help the public prepare for one.
What We Didn't Learn from Twitter's News Dump on Russiagate // Peter W. Singer: The social-media company downplayed its role in Russia's election meddling. But it's still more transparent than Facebook.
UPDATED: See Who Gets Sent Home in a Shutdown // Eric Katz: Some agencies would furlough virtually everyone, while others would remain completely open if there is a lapse in appropriations.
How Should the Pentagon Reshape Its Mideast Posture? Four Indicators to Watch // Melissa G. Dalton and Mara E. Karlin: A tour of possible scenarios reveals what U.S. policymakers ought to be focused on as they chart the future of regional force posture.
Rex Tillerson's Syria Policy Is Sensible—But It's Fanciful // Kori Schake: The resources the administration is willing to commit are at yawning variance with its ambitious goals.
We Don't Need a Bigger Nuclear Button // Nathan Kohlenberg: The plan outlined in a draft of the Nuclear Posture Review would cost trillions of dollars — and make Americans no safer.
America Quietly Starts Nation-Building in Parts of Syria // Paul McLeary: The U.S. has escalated its presence in the country, and has signaled no timetable for when it will end.
Mattis: Pentagon Shifting Focus to Great Power Competition — 'Not Terrorism' // Kevin Baron: The first national defense strategy in 10 years puts on paper what Mattis, McMaster have signaled for months: the U.S. is refocused on China and Russia.
Welcome to this Monday 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.
Turkey and Russia appear to be teaming up to counter the U.S.-backed Kurds in northern Syria, Reuters reports this morning from Ankara. On Friday, Turkey’s military “and its allied Free Syrian Army factions” began shelling Kurdish positions in the northwestern canton of Afrin — which is reportedly “encircled from all sides by Turkish-backed Syrian fighters, Turkish troops and Syrian government forces.” On Saturday, Turkey gave a name to its new incursion: “Operation Olive Branch.”
Turkey’s goal, according to the Associated Press: “to create a 30-kilometer (20-mile) deep ‘secure zone’ in Afrin, the Kurdish-controlled enclave that straddles its borders.”
Worth noting: U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis had a heads-up: "[Turkey] warned us before they launched the aircraft they were going to do it, in consultation with us. And we are working now on the way ahead… We are very alert to it. Our top levels are engaged ... And we’re working through it.” he told reporters en route to Asia on Sunday.
“Turkey has legitimate security concerns," the SecDef added, noting — per Reuters — [Turkey] “was the only NATO ally with an active insurgency inside its borders, pointing to PKK terrorists tied with the YPG.”
Progress since Saturday seems to be marginal. AP: “The U.S-backed Kurdish militia said Monday it has repelled Turkish troops and their Syrian allies from Shinkal and Adah Manli, two villages they seized a day earlier in Afrin, the enclave the Kurdish militia controls in northwestern Syria.”
But that’s not keeping Turkish officials from talking tough: “Our investors should be at ease, the impact will be limited, the operation will be brief and it will reduce the terror risk to Turkey in the period ahead,” said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek. A second unnamed "senior Turkish official" told Reuters Olive Branch ops will “move fast.”
Why the Turkish confidence? Perhaps because Erdogan says he has an agreement with Russia, he said in a speech from Ankara this morning.
And Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov piled on, “accusing Washington of encouraging Kurdish separatists in Syria,” the BBC’s Will Vernon reports this morning.
Said Lavrov on Sunday: America’s “unilateral actions” have “infuriated Turkey.”
Also in Syria today: Rescuers in a rebel-held area of Damascus say regime forces just gassed Syrians again, Reuters reports. “The White Helmets civil defense rescue force, which operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, said 13 civilians including women and children had been 'injured after (the) Assad regime used Chlorine gas in Douma city in Eastern Ghouta,'" Reuters writes.
About the location: “Douma is in the eastern Ghouta, a suburb east of Damascus where almost 400,000 people have been under siege by the Syrian government and allied militia since 2013. Eastern Ghouta is the last major rebel position close to the capital.”
As far as evidence: "The health directorate for opposition-held areas in the Damascus region said patient symptoms 'suggest they have been exposed to chlorine gas inhalation.' It said patients said the smell around the attack site resembled chlorine.” As well, "The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights... said a gas was also used during a rocket attack last week on the enclave." Read on, here.
More U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan? Washington Post: “The U.S. Army is readying plans that could increase the total force in Afghanistan by as many as 1,000 U.S. troops this spring beyond the 14,000 already in the country, senior military officials said. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has not signed off on the proposals for the new forces, which are part of a broader strategy to bolster Afghan forces so that they can pound the Taliban during the upcoming fighting season.” More, here.
Deadly siege of Kabul hotel: After six gunmen opened fire in the Intercontinental Hotel, Afghan forces waged a 14-hour siege that ended Sunday with all of the attackers dead, along with 19 civilians, some of whom had been thrown from third- and fourth-story windows. Wall Street Journal, here.
NYTs has more: “The siege capped a violent 24 hours across Afghanistan, where about 50 people were killed in four provinces as the 16-year war continues to spiral more violently, with no tangible signs of a resolution.” More, here.
Mattis heads to Asia as Trump’s Navy just conducted its fifth FONOP. Today he is in Jakarta, Indonesia, Voice of America reports — “the first stop on a week-long trip that will also take him to Vietnam.”
On the docket: "North Korea will come up in his talks in Vietnam and Indonesia,” VOA reports the SecDef said in a preview. “Counterterrorism and Islamic State are also likely to be a focus in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country."
However, “A major focus of the trip will be the South China Sea, where Beijing has built up military and other facilities, overriding the territorial claims of its smaller neighbors.”
In his own words: "Every nation matters and there should not be any bullying or shredding of trust toward others,” Mattis said. “What we want out here [is] ... a peaceful, prosperous, and free Asia, with a free and open regional order defined by the rule of law.”
Meantime: FONOP 5 of Trump administration happened last Wednesday “when the USS Hopper, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the uninhabited reef, Scarborough Shoal,” Fox News reported this weekend.
Some short background on the relevance of FONOPs: “Twelve nautical miles from land is the internationally recognized territorial limit for all nations. But since the international community doesn’t recognize many claims by China in the South China Sea, including its claim to the Scarborough Shoal, the U.S. demonstrates its displeasure with China by conducting ‘freedom of navigation’ operations with Navy warships.”
China was none too pleased with the action, emphasizing in a statement that the USS Hopped made its passage “without gaining permission” from China.
An op-ed in an influential Chinese paper, People’s Daily, went much further: “If the relevant party once more makes trouble out of nothing and causes tensions, then it will only cause China to reach this conclusion: to earnestly protect peace in the South China Sea, China must strengthen and speed up the building of its abilities there.”
And this whole tussle over the Scarborough Shoal: It’s “America’s problem,” according to the Philippines. The Washington Post reports this morning Duterte’s spokesman, Harry Roque, told local media outlets, “We have reached a point where we have independent foreign relations, and a problem of America is no longer a problem of the Philippines."
From the region: Tokyo just held a missile attack drill, Reuters reports “with volunteers taking cover in subway stations and other underground spaces that would double as shelters for the Japanese capital in the event of a North Korean missile strike.” Story and video, here.
And in offbeat tech news: “China has used a powerful gene-editing tool to edit the DNA of 86 people,” The Wall Street Journal reports (paywall alert), here.
McMaster picks a new deputy national security adviser. It’s Nadia Schadlow, a well-respected SAIS Ph.D. who was the lead author of the administration’s National Security Strategy. She replaces Dina Powell, who had been brought onto the Trump team by Ivanka Trump after the 2016 election. Politico: “Schadlow will beef up the academic credentials on the team but leaves the national security adviser without an insider to guide him through Trump world.”
Army developing auto-aiming rifle. Put the sights on your target and pull the trigger. The gun’s computer will take it from there, aiming the barrel, which “free-floats independently in a protective exoskeleton with electromechanical actuators” to “continuously compensate for shooter instability, vehicle motion, target movement, azimuth, airspeed, velocity and range.” All this “dramatically increases hit probability.” All that is from an Army press release about the AIMLOCK weapon, now under development at Picatinny Arsenal, N.J. Read on, here (ht Army Times).
And now for something completely different. Here are a few things you'll find in a Crimean hotel restaurant: Four pages of rules, written "in accordance with Russian consumer rights law," and that’s before you even open the menu, NPR’s Moscow correspondent, Lucian Kim tweets this morning. And once you open that menu, you'll learn that it's forbidden to: “dance on tables, ride piggyback, use fireworks, and bare [your] private parts.” Duly noted.
Finally today: Facebook says it may not be so good for democracy, Reuters reports this morning from San Francisco, where company officials say FB is “trying what it could to stop alleged meddling in elections by Russia or anyone else.”
Said a product manage from FB: “I wish I could guarantee that the positives [of FB use] are destined to outweigh the negatives, but I can‘t.” The company, he wrote, has a “moral duty to understand how these technologies are being used and what can be done to make communities like Facebook as representative, civil and trustworthy as possible.” More here.
See also: Peter “Ghost Fleet” Singer’s take on Twitter’s recent similar report, here