US shrinks ops at Incirlik; Mattis warns Russia about Syrian gas attacks; Conditions set on N.Korea summit; US now has 15,000 troops in Afghanistan; and just a bit more...

Drawdown in Incirlik. We may have just witnessed the next casualty of the U.S. policy in Syria: a sharply scaled-back U.S. presence at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend. Built with U.S. help in the 1950s to help counter the Soviet Union, the base has in recent decades become a key node in the war on terror.

Driving the decision: “tensions between Washington and Ankara” regarding the former’s support for the YPG, a Kurdish militia in Syria. “In recent weeks, Turkey has pressed an assault on the Kurdish-dominated Afrin region of Syria, seeking to keep Kurdish-controlled territory away from its border. On Wednesday, the Turkish government demanded the U.S. prevent Kurdish fighters from moving toward Afrin.”

What’s changed at Incirlik? For starters, “A squadron of American A-10 ground attack jets was moved from Incirlik to Afghanistan in January, leaving only refueling aircraft currently at the Turkish base.” As well, “the U.S. military has gradually reduced the number of military family members living on the base, shrinking its footprint in Turkey.”

Another contributing factor, of course, is the “overall decline in the tempo of U.S. military operations against Islamic State. The decline reduces the need to base U.S. jet fighters and logistics aircraft at Incirlik... But the challenge of the U.S.-Turkish relationship has spurred the pointed discussion about the American military’s posture at Incirlik, according to U.S. military officials."

Read some of the arguments that have been made for drawing down, or leaving entirely: “Get Ready to Walk Away from Incirlik” (October 2016) and “Hey, NATO, Let’s Move Those 50 US Thermonuclear Weapons Out of Turkey” (May 2017).

This weekend, SecDef Mattis again warned the Assad regime against using chemical weapons again in Syria — and he warned the Russian military as well, the Journal reported separately Sunday from Oman.

In his own words: “We have made it very clear that it would be very unwise to use gas against people, civilians, on any battlefield… The president has full political maneuver room to take the decision that he believes appropriate.”

Said Mattis of alleged gas attacks throughout the Syrian war: “Either Russia is incompetent or in cahoots with Assad.”

And he had something to say about Putin’s claims of new nuclear weapons: “Each of these systems [Russian President Vladimir Putin was] talking about are still years away. I do not see them changing the military balance.”

Related: Putin wants us to keep talking about his weapons, so Russia released a video Sunday purporting to show the launch of its hypersonic missile, the Kinzhal (Dagger). Agence France-Presse has more, here.

We turn briefly back to the war on ISIS in Syria, where “Two A-10 Thunderbolt II pilots received Distinguished Flying Crosses for their actions in support of U.S. ground forces near al-Shaddadi, Syria, on May 2,” Air Force Times reported Saturday.

The pilots: Maj. Tyler Schultz and Capt. Samantha Harvey, who said, “It was dark, but I had a job to do. I thought to myself, this is the moment that I’ve been training for.” Story, here.

While we’re talking ISIS: the Philippine military continues its fight against the group’s affiliates — this time in a town called Datu Saudi Ampatuan, which is about 200 kms south of the previous five-month battle in Marawi City, Reuters reports this morning from Manila. The latest: “At least 44 pro-Islamic State militants were killed and 26 more were wounded when Philippine soldiers shelled positions held by the rebels in southern Maguindanao province,” the Philippine army said Sunday.

Fighting reportedly began on Thursday when “about 50 members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters,” but the number rose to “about 100” after the Philippine military began shelling the BIFF militants. Manila officials said they expect to find about 300 fighters total before the episode winds down. More from Reuters, here.

From Defense One

A Trump-Kim Summit: ‘Why the Hell Not?’ // Mark Bowden: Direct talks between America's and North Korea's heads of state have never been tried, and nothing else has worked.

If War Comes, Russia Could Disconnect from the Internet. Yes, the Entire Country // Patrick Tucker: Robust internal networks will keep the military and government operating, says Putin's top IT advisor.

The Administration Must Explain Its Use-of-Force Theories. Today. // Rita Siemion: That's not just a good idea; it's the law. A report to Congress is due today, March 12.

Foreign Governments Are Funneling Money into Trump's Hotels. We Still Don't Know How Much. // Steven L. Schooner and Kathleen Clark: The Trump Organization's response to the problem of foreign governments trying to curry favor with the president is an empty gesture.

Comptroller: Pentagon's First Audit Will Be Worth Its Nearly-$1B Pricetag // Charles S. Clark: At a Senate hearing, DoD's David Norquist defended the cost of the first-ever financial accounting and provided new details about the effort.

Trump Risks Trading Away the US-South Korean Alliance // Thomas Wright: Kim Jong Un is offering a deal at a price that could be way too high—and that the president could easily accept.

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. OTD1947: The Truman Doctrine, aka containment policy, is announced.

The White House says it hasn’t made any concessions yet to North Korea, the Washington Post reports this morning of the high-profile talks about talks taking place ahead of a possible Trump-Kim summit in May.
According to admin officials, these are the conditions President Trump set for the May meeting: “Kim would halt nuclear or missile testing until the talks occur and allow joint military exercises between South Korea and the United States to proceed. The North Korean regime has also committed to saying ‘complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearization’ is on the table, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said Sunday.” More, here.
Said POTUS, Saturday evening in Pennsylvania: “They want to denuclearize. Nobody had heard that,” Trump said of North Korea — though experts said that is exceptionally unlikely. Of his meeting, Trump said, “I may leave fast or we may make the greatest deal for the world.”
Replied analyst Jeffrey Lewis: “Trump still thinks Kim Jong Un offered to denuclearize. He hasn’t.”
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.: “But the important thing is the diplomatic work that has to go in before such a meeting. A meeting like that would be kind of an afterthought after things are negotiated. Here it looks as if, you know, that’s kind of the opening gambit. And that’s a little worrisome.”
SecDef Mattis declined to comment about the diplomatic push over North Korea’s nuclear program, speaking from Oman. “When you get in a position like this, the potential for misunderstanding remains very high,” he said.

Meanwhile, North Korea is building monuments at a few of its missile sites. Satellite images reveal work on monuments at the first Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15 launch sites — and just maybe a glimpse into Kim’s thinking. Read on at Lewis’ Arms Control Wonk site, here.
F-35Bs are headed to exercises in Korea, South Korea’s Yonhap News agency reports this morning. A squadron of the advanced aircraft are already onboard the amphibious assault ship, the USS Wasp. The Wasp and its roughly 2,200 Marines are headed to the drills, which are expected to begin on April Fool’s Day.
Probably not a part of those drills: an aircraft carrier, unlike last year, Yonhap writes. A tiny bit more, here.

There are now roughly 15,000 American troops fighting in Afghanistan, the Associated Press reported Sunday.
New to the ’Stan: "Just last month the bulk of an Army training brigade of about 800 soldiers arrived to improve the advising of Afghan forces. Since January, attack planes and other aircraft have been added to U.S. forces in Afghanistan."
But the same old concerns still linger, the AP writes. Among those: whether or not "the war, which began in October 2001, is going as well as the U.S. had hoped seven months after President Donald Trump announced a new, more aggressive strategy. The picture may be clearer once the traditionally most intensive fighting season begins in April or May." A bit more, here.

The Pentagon says President Trump’s military parade will happen, just without tanks to tear up Washington’s roads, CNN reported this weekend after getting its hands on the Defense Department planning memo. The document was issued Thursday and sets a date of Veterans Day for the parade — a presidential request made after witnessing France’s Bastille Day event this summer in Paris.
Involved: “wheeled vehicles only, no tanks" and "a heavy air component" with military aircraft flying overhead at the end of parade, including older aircraft "as available."
Admin notes: “The Joint Staff will be responsible for planning the parade and Northern Command, which oversees US troops in North America, will be responsible for executing it,” CNN writes. “The parade route will run from the White House to the Capitol, with the memo saying that veterans and Medal of Honor recipients will surround Trump in the reviewing area of the Capitol during the event.” More here.
Read the parade planning memo, via Military Times, here.

In Beijing, it’s now official: China’s Xi Jinping can rule his country long after his old 2023 term limit since the National People’s Congress “approved a plan to abolish presidential term limits” on Sunday, the Washington Post reported. The move, teased more than a week ago, provides “the clearest evidence yet that Xi plans to rule beyond the end of this second term, in 2023, taking China back to the era of one-man rule just as it steps up its role in global politics.” Read on, here.

Britain has deployed about 180 members of its military in response to the alleged nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy in the UK, the BBC reported this weekend. “Those deployed include instructors from the Defence Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear Centre and the 29 Explosive Ordnance Group, who are experts in bomb disposal... They include Falcon Squadron from the Royal Tank Regiment, which uses specialist Fuchs vehicles — effectively mobile laboratories — to carry out tests and decontamination.”

Finally today: One way to get a presidential pardon. The U.S. Navy sailor who in August 2016 pleaded guilty to taking illegal photos inside a classified submarine just received a pardon from the president after taking his case to the “Fox & Friends” morning show. Huffington Post has the story of Kristian Saucier, here. Or you can read the Fox News take, here.