Syrian drawdown starts; Shutdown, Day 21; Drone attack in Yemen; Pompeo’s partisan Cairo speech; And a bit more.

The U.S. military has begun exiting Syria, Pentagon officials confirmed to multiple news agencies overnight. The Wall Street Journal got word of U.S. equipment movement out first, followed shortly afterward by CNN, AP, Fox News and other outlets.

The quick read: “Scores of ground troops are headed toward Syria to help move troops out, and a group of naval vessels headed by the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge is headed to the region to back up troops at the vulnerable moment they are leaving the country,” the Journal’s Nancy Youssef and Dion Nissenbaum reported. “Troops tasked to help with the eventual withdrawal already are in the area, in places such as Kuwait and al-Asad air base in western Iraq.”

For the record: Today is exactly four weeks since President Trump decided to pull U.S. troops out of Syria against his National Security Advisor John Bolton’s wishes during that now-famous phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump’s decision that day was made public on December 19 — along with rumors that he’d given the U.S. military and State Departments 30 days to get completely out of Syria. The 30-day mark would be Sunday.

Recall that Bolton has been trying hard to slow Trump’s decision, Bolton being the first of Trump’s White House officials to visit the region after that December 14 phone call. And on Sunday in Jerusalem, AP reminds us, Bolton said “American troops will not leave northeastern Syria until IS is defeated and American-allied Kurdish fighters are protected.”

“We don't take orders from Bolton,” one Pentagon official told WSJ on Thursday.

So, will America’s Kurdish allies in Syria be protected from attack by Turkish allied forces? That was the big concern from former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as well as Bolton and Pompeo. And the Journal reports that it is still entirely unclear how that relationship and regional dynamic will play out in the weeks to come.

Semper Gumby: "Defense officials said the Pentagon execution order directing the withdrawal could be modified as details of the withdrawal plan are sorted out," Youssef and Nissenbaum write. "The existing order didn’t include a date for when troops must leave... allowing the military to set the pace for troop movement."

For what it’s worth: Sources inside Syria told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights the U.S. military’s Syrian withdrawal began Thursday night, "when about 10 armored vehicles and other equipment pulled out from a US base in the al-Rmelan area of ​​al-Hasaka province," Voice of America's Jeff Seldin tweeted this a.m.

BTW: Two Pentagon leaders briefed senators Thursday on classified aspects of the Syrian withdrawal plan, such as it is, Defense News reported. Briefers: Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, John Rood, and Army Lt. Gen. Richard Clarke, director for strategy, plans, and policy for the Joint Staff. The audience: the Senate Armed Services Committee. Surprise, surprise: The briefing did not answer everyone’s questions. Continue reading, here.

Or listen to our special podcast episode about what lies ahead for Syria in 2019, here.

Earlier on Thursday, U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo delivered a speech in Cairo about America’s “new beginning” in the world. It was a speech with bluster, religiosity and anger toward the previous president.

The speech’s title: "A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East." (Transcript here.) It was also a speech quickly lampooned by critics and Middle East observers like Laura Rozen of al-Monitor, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, as well as Defense One’s Kevin Baron.

How various diplomats described Pompeo’s speech, as compiled by Rozen:

  • “Tonedeaf.”
  • “Hyperpartisan.”
  • “Embarrassing and shameful.”
  • “Unstatesmanlike.”
  • “Absolutely empty.”
  •  “A joke.”
  • “It’ll be forgotten in about five minutes.”

Now with Thursday’s withdrawal news out of Syria, that last diplomat’s prediction is about to be realized.

For your ears only: What’s next for the U.S. military in the Middle East, now that the Syrian exit has begun? Defense One’s Kevin Baron, Patrick Tucker, Marcus Weisgerger and Ben Watson joined Government Executive’s Eric Katz to talk over that and the ongoing U.S. government shutdown — and its impacts on national security — in our latest episode of the Defense One Radio podcast.

Listen on Stitcher, Overcast, Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts.

From Defense One

America’s Foreign Policy in the Middle East is Not What Pompeo Claimed // Kevin Baron: In Cairo, the secretary touted stronger U.S. engagement in the region, all evidence to the contrary.

FBI Agents Say the Shutdown Is a Threat to National Security // The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand: Nearly 5,000 FBI special agents, intelligence analysts, attorneys, and professional staff have been furloughed.

Report: Iran Is Likely Setting Stage for International Phishing Campaign // Patrick Tucker: Hackers have been methodically gaining access to domain name services that allow malware-laden emails to look like they come from legitimate organizations

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Air Force gets its tanker, but wants a new boom; DOD’s phantom real estate; Shutdown bites firms; and just a bit more…

DARPA Thinks Insect Brains Might Hold the Secret to Next-Gen AI // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: They’re small, efficient and capable of basic reasoning, and researchers want artificial intelligence tools to do the same.

Thanks for joining us for this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day 25 years ago, Ukraine officials announced their plan to remove the country's 1,800-warhead nuclear arsenal inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Welcome to day 21 of the ongoing U.S. government shutdown. Paychecks for $0 have gone out to FBI agents, air traffic controllers, Coast Guard civilians, USDA food inspectors, and hundreds of thousands of other federal workers affected by Trump’s December decision to reject a Senate budget in hopes of getting money to extend the barriers along the nation’s southern border.

On Thursday:

  • Trump visited a Texas border city and threatened to declare a national emergency. Politico: “If we don’t make a deal with Congress, most likely I will do that. I would actually say I would,” Trump said in an interview aired Thursday night on Fox News.
  • He can’t simply do that. Former White House Bob Bauer explains that the “national emergency” legislation requires an actual state of emergency to exist before a president begins to exercise extraordinary powers — and it’s not up to the president alone to determine whether that’s the case. Read Bauer’s crucial piece, here.
  • Trump told lies old and new over the course of the day, “returning again and again to false claims as he attempted to promote his proposed wall project,” reports the Toronto Star.
  • Once back in Washington, the president rejected a proposal by Senate Republicans to reopen the government and continue negotiations over wall funding. Politico: “Pence told reporters on Thursday afternoon that there must be money for Trump's wall project in an agreement to fund the government: ‘No wall, no deal,’ Pence declared.”
  • FBI agents’ organization says the furloughs are hurting national security. The head of the FBI Agents Association said the shutdown, which has furloughed nearly 5,000 FBI special agents, intelligence analysts, attorneys, and professional staff has become a national-security issue. The Atlantic’s Natasha Bertrand: “Morale at the FBI had already been steadily declining for months before the government shut down on December 22, according to current and recently departed agents who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity to discuss their feelings candidly. President Trump’s open warfare on the bureau has made agents’ jobs more difficult, they say.” Read that, here.

An apparent Houthi drone attack on Yemeni troops Thursday was caught on camera, Agence France-Presse reported in video. Find an alleged alternate angle on that event, which took place in the southern Lahj province, here.
What this attack suggests: First, it’s apparently a new type of drone, The Guardian reports. Secondly, and more importantly for Yemen’s future, “The Houthis just tried to assassinate half the Yemeni Army top brass with a UAV. Hard to spin this as anything but a major, high-visibility ceasefire violation,” MidEast analyst Alex Mello wrote on Twitter. Read a bit more about that ceasefire, here.

Today’s #Likewar moment. The University of California system has warned students and faculty not to use messaging apps and social media when they visit China, “for fear their communications could be used against them by the country's law enforcement agencies,” CNN reports. “The guidance from one of the biggest school networks in the US is the latest concern to be raised over Western travel to China following the December 1 arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou at the request of US authorities.” Read on, here.

Another thing about privacy and smartphones: A new study shows how artificial intelligence can use that data to find your home, work, and other sensitive locations in minutes. WIRED’s Issie Lapowsky has the story, here.

Ocean warming faster than thought. NYT: “A new analysis, published Thursday in the journal Science, found that the oceans are heating up 40 percent faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago. The researchers also concluded that ocean temperatures have broken records for several straight years.” Read that, here.

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: A brief history of WW1, retold with a bar fight as the framing device. It’s not Angry Staff Officer’s idea (the bar fight storytelling method), but he shared his own version of the story with a group of high school students on Thursday. And you can read him retell all that in a humorous rendering right here.

And finally this week: See Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria lining up the sights on her country’s Main Battle Tank and Light Anti-tank Weapon, which looks pretty similar to the U.S.-issued Carl Gustav. Tip of the hat to Defense One contributor and friend of the podcast Elisabeth Braw for spotting and sharing this one on Twitter Thursday.