Mattis: No near-term Syrian drawdown; China flaunts carrier; Iran boosts psyops; More Venezuelans flee; And a bit more...

When is the U.S. leaving Syria? Not for a while. Speaking at his first formal Pentagon press conference in months, Defense Secretary James Mattis said Tuesday that a U.S. drawdown must wait for more diplomatic progress toward a United Nations-negotiated peace in Geneva that deposes Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. (Recall that in March, President Donald Trump said troops would be coming home “very soon.”)

Mattis also scoffed at Russia’s efforts to play third-party peacekeeper. “What are they doing in Syria in the first place, other than propping up someone who has committed mayhem and murder on his own people? They have no business there, and our goal is to move the Syrian civil war into the Geneva process so the Syrian people can establish a new government that is not led by Assad, and give them a chance for a future that Assad has denied them with overt Russian and Iranian support.” More on that, here.

FWIW: Keep an eye on Idlib province, says Michael Dempsey, a former acting Director of National Intelligence: “Idlib is home to thousands of the most extreme al-Qaeda and self-proclaimed Islamic State fighters left in the country, as well as more than two million civilians, and the regime has stepped up its airstrikes and troop deployments there in the past few weeks,” he told an interviewer with the Council on Foreign Relations.

On Afghanistan, Mattis echoed the generally positive outlook offered outgoing war commander Gen. John Nicholson, who said last week that the Taliban’s bloody four-day incursion into Ghazni represented little more than an attempt to gain leverage in upcoming peace talks. More about that, here. (And more about the Taliban’s next moves below the fold.)

About those “cancelled” exercises with South Korea: Mattis initially seemed to threaten that the U.S. might resume the large joint U.S.-South Korean exercises that Trump cancelled after his summit with Kim Jong-Un. But then he appeared to backtrack, saying that he was talking about smaller exercises. (Even SecDef’s own staff was confused: DoD posted a press release about the matter at 1:15 p.m., and later took it down.) Washington Examiner has a good rundown, here.

While we’re talking North Korea, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said that Iran might become the next member of the nuclear club. Speaking Tuesday at a Washington think tank, she offered an explanation for why Trump pulled out of the West’s deal with Iran. “You give literally millions of dollars” in economic relief “and they don’t stop their ballistic-missile testing, they don’t stop selling arms, and they continue to support terrorism,” Haley said of a deal that was not intended to stop the latter three efforts, though it is generally believed to have frozen Iran’s nuclear work.

The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman: “Yet the course the Trump administration is pursuing with North Korea—imposing sanctions to pressure Kim Jong Un into negotiations over his nuclear program—is remarkably similar to the course the Obama administration pursued for years ahead of the Iran deal.” Read Friedman’s take here, or get the full transcript and video here.

From Defense One

Mattis: US Troops Can’t Leave Syria Until UN Peace Talks Advance // Kevin Baron: They’re still fighting ISIS remnants, holding ground, and waiting for a political solution.

Nikki Haley Warns That Iran Could Become ‘the Next North Korea’ // Uri Friedman: The UN ambassador offered an explanation for abandoning one nuclear deal while pursuing another.

Downplaying Ghazni, Mattis Defends Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy // Katie Bo Williams: The Taliban’s apparent willingness to negotiate is the more important signal of progress in America’s longest war, the defense secretary said Tuesday.

Keep an Eye on Syria’s Idlib Province, Says Former Acting Spy Chief // Michael P. Dempsey, Council on Foreign Relations: President Obama’s primary intelligence briefer shares thoughts about U.S. national security, emerging trends, and hotspots.

Venezuela Has Lost 2.3 Million People, So Far // Kabir Chibber, Quartz: UN officials say the flow of Venezuelan refugees into neighboring countries is building to a Mediterranean-style crisis.

Welcome to this Wednesday 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.

Happening this morning: U.S. Army Secretary Mark Esper is speaking with reporters at a meeting of the Defense Writers Group in Washington.
Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams is there, and tweets this from the outset:

  • Esper says he is "very satisfied" with the performance of the U.S. Army’s Security Force Assistance Brigades, or SFABs, in Afghanistan. Recall that the SFABs are a new American iteration of advise-and-assist units to help transition the burden of war to host nation forces — in this case Afghanistan; perhaps in the future, other places as well. (By the way: The Army wants you for its SFABs!).
  • The one SFAB currently in the ‘Stan? They need "more knowledge of employment and use of mortars,” Esper said. “We sent people with artillery backgrounds [but the Afghans use mortars]."
  • And so far there are "no plans" yet on where SFAB #2 will deploy. The second one is training up at Fort Bragg. (The 1st SFAB stood up from Fort Benning, Ga., last fall.)
  • For what it’s worth: SFABs 3, 4 and 5 aren’t going to begin training for another few years, and those are slated for Fort Hood, Texas; Fort Carson, Colo.; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., according to Army Times back in June. Follow Katie Bo Williams’s Twitter feed for a bit more, here.

Going home for the week: the U.S. Senate, after they got a deal on a package of 27 executive branch nominees and seven judicial nominations nominations on Tuesday, The Hill’s Jordain Carney tweets this morning —  along with a “Sound of Music” gif.
Their next day back: Tuesday, September 4, following the Labor Day weekend.

So Rep. Devin Nunes tried to meet with British spies this past week in the UK. But the agencies — MI5, MI6, & GCHQ — were wary that he was “trying to stir up a controversy" and, according to a source — chose not to meet with Nunes, the California Republican who is leading the House investigation into the Russian attack on the 2016 election. The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand has the story, here.

For your ears only: Hear Natasha explain the national security relevance of the Trump-Russia investigation in episode 14 of our Defense One Radio podcast, here.

Two officials overseeing the VA's multibillion-dollar electronic health record upgrade have abruptly resigned, NextGov’s Jack Corrigan reported Tuesday from resignations that occurred last week. One of the officials — Genevieve Morris, the program’s chief administrator — leaves just two months after taking over the project. The second official, Ashwini Zenooz, “the chief medical officer in charge of implementing the new system, announced she would leave her post next week.”
Background — and a rising tab: “After wasting more than $1 billion over six years on failed attempts to overhaul its outdated EHR system, VA in May signed a 10-year, $10 billion deal with Cerner Corp. to put the agency on the same health record platform as the Pentagon,” Corrigan writes. “Meanwhile, VA will spend about $1 billion per year to keep its old system, VistA, up and running, according to Government Accountability Office calculations.”
What lies ahead: “The departures come during a critical planning period when VA is working to finalize the new platform for an initial launch on Oct. 1.” Read on, here.

There is an apparent Iranian influence operation targeting internet users across the globe — and it’s considerably larger than previously thought, Reuters reports this morning after U.S.-based cyber security firm FireEye Inc and Israeli firm ClearSky reviewed Reuters’ findings.
The operation included messaging “on the battlefield gains made by the army of Iranian ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” among other themes, and spanned 11 different languages working across Facebook, Twitter and more.

After the attack in Ghazni, Afghan officials think the Taliban will assault Gardez City next, Tolo News reports from Paktia province. Said a local official: “Taliban leadership is mostly controlled by the foreign Taliban and they want to conduct the same attack on Gardez city, like Ghazni, and other districts because there are lots of insurgents that exist in parts of the city,” said Taj Mohammad Mangal Paktia provincial council member.
“We want government to pay attention to Gardez city so Gardez does not face the same fate as Ghazni faced,” a local resident told Tolo. A tiny bit more, here.
Extra reading: Why no one — seriously no one — is talking about “winning” the war in Afghanistan, by The Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn.

ISIS claimed a car bomb attack in western Iraq today that killed seven people, the Associated Press reports this morning from Baghdad.
Location: “at the southern entrance to the town of al-Qaim, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Syrian border.”
Worth noting: “A spate of kidnappings and guerrilla style attacks in desert areas in western and central Iraq this summer have stirred security concerns in the country as it seeks to rebuild... But heavy-handed tactics by the military and the Shiite-dominated PMF, and faltering efforts at reconciliation between the country’s Sunni and Shiite Muslims, have fueled resentment in Sunni Muslim areas that were most affected by the war, and where IS cells are believed to operate.” More here.
Extra reading:ISIS Is Ready For a Resurgence,” from terrorism scholar Hassan Hassan, writing for The Atlantic.

The classic carrier group photo, made in China. Folks who have been keeping tabs on Beijing’s efforts to improve its warships and missiles won’t find much new in the New York Times’ new piece, but it’s worth a quick click just for the leading photo, which shows an aircraft carrier strike group in full show-off formation across a half-mile of open ocean. It’s the kind of photo that has appeared thousands of times on Pentagon websites — but this time, the carrier and its escorts are flying China’s red flag.
Quote: “A modernization program focused on naval and missile forces has shifted the balance of power in the Pacific in ways the United States and its allies are only beginning to digest. While China lags in projecting firepower on a global scale, it can now challenge American military supremacy in the places that matter most to it: the waters around Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea.” Read, here.

And now for something completely different: Here’s almost half an hour of an unexploded floating mine being watched by Coast Guard units off the coast of Washington, near Brownsville — according to Fox News’s Twitter feed Tuesday evening.

Finally today: Pay your bills on time, y’all — especially if you’re in uniform. reports "The Department of Defense (DoD) will now 'continuously' monitor the financial status of servicemembers with security clearances."
Currently, "reviews for clearance holders look at credit and financial data of clearance holders once every five to 10 years."
But soon, thanks to "a change directed by the White House earlier this year shifts the administration of background checks from the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to the Pentagon, and with that comes the new automated monitoring plan." Read on, here.