4 US troops believed dead in Syria; DIA’s China report; Shutdown, Day 25; DPRK negotiator in DC; And a bit more.

Developing: four Americans are believed to have been killed along with nearly a dozen nearby Syrians in an ISIS-claimed suicide attack today in Manbij, Syria, at about 1 p.m. local time. Initial reports of the attack surfaced on social media shortly before the sun rose in Washington. According to the BBC’s Riam Dalati, the bomber struck a restaurant in Manbij hosting commanders of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

American troops were on patrol nearby when the bomb detonated, Dalati reported. A witness in Manbij confirmed that to Reuters: “An explosion hit near a restaurant, targeting the Americans, and there were some forces for the Manbij Military Council with them.”

Said a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in a tweet around 8:30 a.m. EDT: “CJTF-OIR is aware of open source reports regarding an explosion in Syria. Coalition forces conducted a routine patrol in Syria today. We are still gathering information and will share additional details at a later time.”

Then about an hour, the same spox tweeted: “U.S. service members were killed during an explosion while conducting a routine patrol in Syria today. We are still gathering information and will share additional details at a later time.”

Update: Later in the day, CENTCOM officials announced the death toll was indeed four Americans — and that included "Two U.S. servicemembers, one Department of Defense (DoD) civilian and one contractor supporting DoD." Three other servicemembers were injured. 

Here’s alleged video of the attack as seen from CCTV nearby. And here’s a photo of the scene after the smoke cleared, via YPG-linked Hawar News. The BBC’s Dalati shared video of alleged the evacuation here.

Also happening today: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford met with Turkish Defense Chief Gen. Yaşar Güler today in Brussels on the sidelines of NATO’s Military Committee in Chiefs of Defense meeting. The two were were slated to discuss “the details of a safe zone in Northern Syria,” among other topics, the Middle East Eye’s Ragip Soylu reported after the Manbij attack this a.m.

What does the YPG think of that safe zone idea? They won’t accept one “under the supervision of Turkey in Northern Syria. It must be controlled by international parties.” That from Syrian Kurdish PYD leader Aldar Khalil.

One big question now, according to Charles Lister: “What does this do to President Trump's withdrawal order from Syria? ISIS is now demonstrably not defeated. But Trump's gut says 'get the hell out...'”

According to the White House this morning, President Trump has been "fully briefed and we will continue to monitor the ongoing situation in Syria," CBS News reports.  

One more thing: The detained American ISIS fighter in Syria does not regret his decision. NBC News’ Richard Engel spoke to the American who was captured fighting with ISIS in Syria.

Said the detained man: "I’m from the United States, from Texas. They like to execute people, too. So I really don’t see any difference.” That interview aired Tuesday evening. Read/watch more here.

From Defense One

China’s Military Is Getting Better at a Lot of Things at Once: Pentagon Intelligence // Kevin Baron: The DIA’s first public report cites rapid advances, extended reach, and increasing confidence.

Trump’s Wall Fixation Is Impeding Border Security // David Fidler, Council on Foreign Relations: The president’s push to “build the wall” fails to grasp the role of modern technology in policing U.S. borders.

Donald Trump's Pattern of Deference to the Kremlin Is Clear // David A. Graham, The Atlantic: Any specific incident might be explained away fairly easily. As a pattern, they’re too weird to dismiss with a shrug.

What Kissinger Knew That Pompeo Does Not // Martin Indyk, The Atlantic: Don’t promise the world if you can’t deliver.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Patrick Tucker and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! On this day in 1979, Iranian “Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi abandoned his Peacock Throne and left his nation, never to return home, setting the stage for the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution a month later.” AP remembers the day, here.

Parts of the U.S. government are shut for a 25th day because Trump wants $5.7 billion for border wall barriers more than he wants more than 800,000 federal employees doing their jobs.
A stark message from the Coast Guard commandant: “Today you will not be receiving your regularly scheduled mid-month paycheck,” wrote Adm. Karl L. Schultz to his 41,000 active-duty and 8,500 civilian subordinates. “Stay the course, stand the watch, serve with pride.”
The Trump administration has ordered 50,000 feds back to work without pay, including air traffic controllers and food and drug inspectors, in an attempt to blunt the effect of the shutdown. Washington Post, here.
The shutdown is expected to trim U.S. economic growth by 0.1 percent per week, a Trump administration official told NBC News.

China’s military is getting a lot better at a lot of things, fast. “It’s military power remains limited and its leaders want no war with the United States, but its desire for regional hegemony, global reach, and advanced technology means the U.S. military has much more to watch out for in the years ahead,” writes Defense One’s Kevin Baron off a new unclassified assessment by the Pentagon’s intelligence agency.
DIA’s first public China report. The Pentagon proper has long released an unclassified annual “military power” report on its chief near-peer adversaries, starting with the Cold War’s “Soviet Military Power.” More recently, and at Congress’ bidding, it has been producing a similar report on China. (Here’s the 2018 edition.) But the report released Tuesday is the Defense Intelligence Agency’s first such, and it follows one on Russia.
Its goal: To educate the public, Congress, military leaders, and the Trump administration about DIA’s top concerns about Beijing’s military plans, leaders, and weapons.
Bottom line: The PLA’s tech and tactical proficiency are improving rapidly, and will “in the coming years” reach parity with other modern militaries, Dan Taylor, senior defense intelligence analyst at DIA, told reporters Tuesday.
Expect China to extend its influence in the South China Sea and Africa,  the report suggests.
But don’t mistake the top priorities of President Xi Jinping and his regime: to maintain economic and political stability in the world’s most populous country. Read on, here.
Also worth noting: China’s nuclear-armed submarine force is nearing a kind of critical mass, according to page 73 of DIA’s China report. "To maintain a continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, the PLAN probably would require a minimum of five Jin SSBNs; four are in service."
Background:China Has More Nuclear Subs Than the West Believed,” by Patrick Tucker.

Al-Shabaab terrorists attacked a hotel in Nairobi and killed 14 people before they were killed by Kenyan security forces Tuesday, the Associated Press reports.
Location: "the DusitD2 hotel complex, which includes bars, restaurants, offices and banks and is in Nairobi’s well-to-do Westlands neighborhood with many foreign expatriates."
What happened: "Surveillance video showed the attack that began Tuesday afternoon involved at least four armed men...The coordinated assault began with an explosion that targeted three vehicles outside a bank, and a suicide bombing in the hotel lobby that severely wounded a number of guests.” Kenyan special forces put down the attackers.
Spotted nearby: a U.S. SOF-like patch, here.
The big picture: “Like the attack at the Westgate Mall [in 2013 that killed 67 people], this one appeared aimed at wealthy Kenyans and foreigners. It came a day after a magistrate ruled that three men must stand trial in connection with the Westgate Mall siege.” More, here.
Recall that the U.S. military significantly escalated its air campaign against al-Shabaab in neighboring Somalia in 2018 — and continues apace in 2019, according to airstrike data compiled The Long War Journal, here.

And the Afghan Taliban detonated a car bomb in East Kabul on Monday that killed four security guards and wounded a whopping 110 others nearby, Reuters reported Tuesday after the smoke cleared from that scene.
Location: The Green Village compound, “which houses several international companies and charities.”
Aren’t the Taliban involved in peace talks with the U.S.? As before, Reuters reports, “Fighting has not subsided even as the talks intensify, with the Taliban and other insurgent groups carrying out near daily attacks, mainly targeting security forces and government officials.”
The Taliban, meantime, seem to be pitting regional players against one another, telling Reuters, “Iran and Qatar are supporting Taliban’s way but Pakistan and Saudi Arabia are saying what Afghan government and U.S. want.” A bit more from Afghanistan’s Tolo News, here.

Mattis is gone, but the Army, at least, will follow his strategy. “The Army is pursuing a path totally in line” with the National Defense Strategy, said Army Gen. Mark Milley — aka the incoming Joint Chiefs chairman — speaking this morning at an AUSA breakfast in northern Virginia. “It’s a solid strategy. It’s written in history. It’s written in the blood of generations past and we subscribe to it.”
Yet his commander in chief is far more ambivalent about the NDS, as D1’s Baron wrote last week: Trump “promised to defeat terrorism, and also to bring troops home. Both are not possible simultaneously, and the first one is supposed to happen first. Special operations commanders in Syria said before Trump even took office that they worried he would not have the patience for their plans to build foreign fighters into proxy, professional armies and forces. Their fears are being borne out.”
The Army is focused on high-intensity conflict, Milley says, “with an emphasis on operating in complex terrain, urban terrain, electronically degraded environments, under constant surveillance, under attack from fixed-wing, under missile and rocket attack. Training is tough. It’s realistic, it’s iterative.”
Syrian confusion? Milley brushed aside a question on how well the Pentagon, White House, State Department and allies were coordinating on a Syria policy that seems to be constantly in flux, saying that such criticisms of cross-agency coordination were constant and that he saw “nothing novel” in them. “From what I’ve seen, we have an effective means of coordinating amongst ourselves, and we develop relatively decent strategies and processes.”
He said he had just returned from the CENTCOM AOR. “We’ve got the remnants, a relatively small amount of remnants of ISIS, Daesh organization, bottled up in a small geographic area and we are determined to finish that off and then hand the battle off to our indigenous partners.”

Happening tomorrow: North Korea’s top negotiator arrives in the U.S. — and just a short time after Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un exchanged letters about a possible new summit in 2019. (Trump favors Bangkok and Hanoi. Kim? Unknown just yet.)
Who: North Korea’s former spy chief, Kim Yong Chol. (More on him from Jeffrey Lewis, here.)
Why: He’s visiting Washington Thursday, a day ahead of his latest meeting with U.S. State Secretary Mike Pompeo and White House Special Representative to North Korea, Steve Biegun. More on all that from CNN, here.