Bolton and Mattis clash on Syria strikes. Discussions between the Pentagon leadership and President Trump’s National Security Council continue today over a possible military response to the alleged chemical weapons attack late last week in the formerly rebel-held Douma suburb of Damascus.
The quick take, according to Just Security’s Kate Brannen, citing two sources with knowledge of the talks: “There remains tension between what President Trump and National Security Adviser [John] Bolton want and what the Pentagon is advocating. Defense Secretary [James] Mattis and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [Gen. Joseph] Dunford are concerned with managing escalation and preventing blowback on U.S. troops.”
The New York Times echoes that take, reporting from Capitol Hill earlier on Thursday: "Mattis pushed for more evidence of President Bashar al-Assad’s role in the suspected chemical attack” on April 7, “telling the House Armed Services Committee that retaliation must be balanced against the threat of a wider war."
Said Mattis to lawmakers: “We’re looking for the actual evidence,” said Mattis, noting that UN inspectors would arrive in the country “probably by the end of the week.”
Mattis’s fine line: “We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people... But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control — if you get my drift on that.”
This hesitation, a senior defense official told the Times, “was an acknowledgment of a lesson from the Iraq war about what can go wrong after a military assault without a plan... It also sought to ensure that the United States and European allies could justify the strike to the world in the face of withering criticism by Russia — Mr. Assad’s most powerful partner.”
FWIW, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said Thursday: “We definitely have enough proof... now, we just have to be thoughtful in our action,” she told Andrea Mitchell of NBC News.
Speaking of proof: U.S. officials say blood and urine samples show a nerve agent was used in Saturday’s alleged chemical weapons attack outside of Damascus, Syria, NBC News reported Thursday.
Discovery and caveat: "The samples suggested the presence of both chlorine gas and an unnamed nerve agent, two officials said," adding "they were 'confident' in the intelligence, though not 100 percent sure."
What’s more, “Officials also said that the U.S. has compiled intelligence from the U.S. and other countries, including images, that indicate the Syrian government was behind the weekend attack.”
Russia, on the other hand, seems quite comfortable in conspiracy land. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov says this morning that Moscow has "irrefutable evidence” that the alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma last Saturday was “staged with the help of a foreign secret service,” AFP reports from Moscow.
Lavrov: "We have irrefutable evidence that this was another staged event, and that the secret services of a certain state that is now at the forefront of a Russophobic campaign was involved in this staged event."
Worth noting: The last time Russia claimed "irrefutable evidence" from Syria, it used pics from a computer game and year-old footage, the UK Press Association’s Alastair Reid wrote this morning on Twitter, linking to the relevant faked imagery.
The latest rumors suggest the U.S. is reportedly considering eight potential targets inside Syria, NBC News reported Thursday citing “a source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.”
Those include “two Syrian airfields, a research center and a chemical weapons facility,” which leaves four targets unstated. More background than news to the rest of that story, here.
From Defense One
Mattis Confirms Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria, But No Trump Decision to Strike Yet // Caroline Houck: The National Security Council discussed options with the president for responding to the attack, but the administration was still syncing up with allies Thursday evening.
Google is Pursuing the Pentagon's Giant Cloud Contract Quietly, Fearing An Employee Revolt // Patrick Tucker: A fierce internal debate may undermine the company's bid for the JEDI program.
Special Operators Are Getting a Bit More Much-Needed Rest // Caroline Houck: At least two SOF components are on a 'glide path' to the Pentagon's desired optempo.
Global Business Brief, April 12 // Marcus Weisgerber: Less Navy at Sea-Air-Space; A talk with new Phantom Works chief; Shipyard update; and more.
Welcome to this Friday the 13th edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. And if you find this useful, consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. They can subscribe here for free. OTD last year, the U.S. dropped the largest non-nuclear weapon ever used in combat, the GBU-43 MOAB, on an ISIS target in Afghanistan.
A new U.S. airstrike in Somalia hit “an al-Shabaab vehicle-borne improvised explosive device near Jana Cabdalle” on Wednesday, U.S. Africa Command announced in a typically terse statement this morning.
Sudan has military troops in Yemen, but would rather not talk about it. Especially after dozens of their soldiers were killed in Yemen last week, AFP reports in a bit of color from Khartoum.
Related: Qatar-based al-Jazeera is here this week with a review of recent Middle East arms deals.
Leading the pack: Saudi Arabia with $3 billion since January 18.
A distant second: Qatar with $490 million since March. Dive in, here.
The Taliban overran a new district in eastern Afghanistan. Ghazni’s Khwaja Omari fell when Taliban fighters "killed at least eight people, including the district governor [Ali Shams Dost]," when they stormed the Dost's compound at 2 in the morning, The Long War Journal reported Thursday.
Not exactly holding territory: “The Taliban torched the governor’s compound before withdrawing its forces. The police claimed that 27 Taliban fighters were killed in retaliatory airstrikes.”
The more worrisome takeaway: “The fact that the Taliban was able to easily overrun the Khwaja Omari district center indicates that the Taliban presence in the district is far greater than assessed by Resolute Support.” More — including a map of the not-so-great hold Kabul has on districts across the country — here.
Pentagon names first head of software acquisition. In another sign of DoD’s desire to change the way it buys and develops software for its weapons, Ellen Lord, the undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, has tapped Jeff Boleng — a former Air Force cybersecurity operations officer who is now the acting chief technology officer at Carnegie Mellon University — as her special assistant for software acquisition.
“Software is the thread that runs through all of our programs,” Lord told reporters Friday morning at the Pentagon. “It is the functional area that I have focused on.” A Pentagon statement said Boleng will “provide strategic focus and overall policy guidance on all matters of defense software acquisition.” The Pentagon has had troubles with software across a breadth of weapons, everything from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to the ground control stations for new GPS satellites. Boleng starts his new job on Monday.
And a first for the U.S. Marine Corps: “Col. Lorna Mahlock has been nominated to serve as the first black female brigadier general,” CNN reported Thursday off a Tuesday announcement from the Pentagon. She's currently the USMC HQ's deputy director of the Operations, Plans, Policies, and Operations Directorate. A tiny bit more from ABC News, here.
We turn briefly now to Capitol Hill, where Thursday U.S. Army Chief Gen. Mark Milley spoke with senators about his service’s overall posture.
The top line read: "Increased funding has helped the Army restore some of the combat readiness eroded in recent years by budget cuts and increased workload, but... a return to sequestration in 2020 would rapidly diminish those improvements," Stars and Stripes reported off the hearing. Details and numbers, here.
There was also a notable exchange between New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Milley on the subject of transgender troops — specifically Gillibrand asked: “Are you aware of any problems with unit cohesion arising... Have you [heard] anything about how transgender service members are harming unit cohesion?”
Replied Milley: “No, not at all. We have a finite number. We know who they are and it is monitored very closely because I am concerned about that and want to make sure that they are in fact treated with dignity and respect and no, I have received precisely zero reports of issues of cohesion, discipline, morale and all those sorts of things. No.” A bit more on that angle from the Washington Examiner, here; and Federal News Radio, here.
In Wisconsin, a suspected white supremacist blew himself up when his homemade bomb detonated inside his apartment at Beaver Dam, about 70 miles northwest of Milwaukee, in early March. When investigators arrived to the kitchen of 28-year-old Benjamin Morrow, The Daily Beast reports from an unsealed search warrant from last week, they “found Morrow dead in front of a still-lit stove. An ‘overpressure blast’ had destroyed much of the room, blowing out the doors and windows and burying Morrow under the collapsed ceiling. Containers with more chemicals were spilling out an open refrigerator door.”
But that’s hardly the full story. “In addition to more bomb-making materials, Morrow also had a collection of guns and accessories including a rifle scope, masks, vests, a ballistic helmet, and thousands of rounds of ammunition.” The place was so dangerous, it had to be burned to the ground. Much more to what’s being discovered about Morrow’s operation, interests and apparent motivations, here.
And finally this week: The U.S. should have its own fake island in the South China Sea in the form of a mobile offshore base built atop a secondhand oil platform. That’s the argument from Naval War College prof Sam Tangredi, who suggests that deploying a self-stabilizing, untethered vessel in international waters would be a firm but relatively non-confrontational way to show that the U.S. is committed to repudiating Beijing’s territorial claims. Read the rest of his take, including a bit of historical background to bolster his case, over at USNI Proceedings, here.