WH reversal on Syria; Best/worst cases for Trump-Kim II; Iran plans submarine-missile tests; NATO should rethink 2%; And a bit more.

Not a full withdrawal from Syria. The U.S. will keep 200 or so troops in Syria instead of a full exit for now, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders announced Thursday evening. It's music to Kurds’ ears (Reuters) and a key reversal from repeated claims from senior officials working to implement President Trump's December directive that all U.S. troops return home home, Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams reports.

How long will the 200 be there? Unclear, not that we’d find that out immediately. For the record, the White House statement was only one line and the Pentagon has stayed officially silent.

And location? One senior Trump administration official told the New York Times that the troops would be based in northeast Syria and a small base in the southeast, al-Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan. CNN’s Ryan Browne backed up that reporting, noting that the troops staying behind will focus on “logistics, intelligence, surveillance, [and] calling in airstrikes that would encourage coalition countries (France & UK) to also keep troops in Syria to secure a safe zone.”

The news followed another Trump phone call with Turkey's President Erdogan, who considers U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in the region terrorists and has threatened to attack them. This is one of the key reasons even Trump allies like Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have been so opposed to the withdrawal. But it's also the second time Trump has made a major decision on Syria after a phone call with Erdogan. (Recall that Trump agreed to the original withdrawal after a phone call with the Turkish president in mid-December.)

So what's next? “Truckloads of civilians” are exiting the last village held by ISIS in Syria in what could be the last hours of the group’s hold, Reuters reports from Baghouz, Syria. For the wider conflict, Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Dunford are hosting their Turkish counterparts in Washington this week for further talks on the so-called "safe zone." (There's lots of questions about that too.)

Watch U.S. allies. The Pentagon is hoping that the decision will help convince America’s European allies in the fight against ISIS to keep their own residual forces in the country, to help prevent a full-blown resurgence of ISIS and help protect the Kurds.  

From Defense One

Rethink 2%: NATO ‘Defense Spending’ Should Favor Cyber // Cybèle Greenberg: Today, a dollar or euro spent on network security goes farther than one spent on conventional arms.

Bring a Measure of Justice to the End of the Afghanistan War // Steven Katz: An Iraq War veteran reminds us of the debt owed to Afghans who helped American troops.

Global Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: US CEOs skip IDEX; Growler export greenlit; US orders drone subs, and more.

White House Orders Agencies to Defend the Skies From Cyberattacks // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: In its National Strategy for Aviation Security, the Trump administration called on the government to be more proactive in spotting threats to U.S. airspace.

When Humanitarian Aid Is Used as a Weapon to Bring Down Regimes // Dylan Baddour, The Atlantic: As the United States offers crucial humanitarian aid to Venezuelan migrants, it is doubling down on its opposition to Venezuela’s president.

Supply-Chain Attacks Rose 78% Last Year, Cyber Researchers Found // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: But general phishing attempts dropped for the fourth year in a row.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson, Bradley Peniston, and Katie Bo Williams. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1972, President Nixon met with Mao Tse-tung in Peking and Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai in Beijing. “Nixon’s historic visit began the slow process of the re-establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and communist China,” The History Channel writes. More on that trip’s impact, here.

Previewing next week’s big event in Hanoi: The White House said Thursday that President “Trump expects to talk to Kim about what kind of future North Korea could enjoy if he commits to full denuclearization,” Reuters reported.
But Ankit Panda notes: “It should be a bigger red flag than it seems to be right now that US officials in the same breath acknowledge a lack of a common definition on denuclearization with North Korea and underscore that Kim agreed to denuclearize at the Singapore summit.”
And here’s MIT’s Vipin Narang: “My reading of the last couple days’ news on the Hanoi summit is that we should expect, at best, modest progress on what are still exceedingly maximalist goals. The reverse approach—max progress on modest goals—would have been more realistic.”
Another take from David Maxwell of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a former Special Forces colonel who spent most of his 30-year career in South Korea: “One of the major issues from the Singapore Summit is the two opposing positions of the North and the U.S. on the process. North Korea wants a changed relationship, building trust, then negotiate denuclearization. The U.S. wants denuclearization, building trust, then change the relationship.”
Word of caution: “Past negotiations in 1994, 1999, 2005, 2007, 2012 all were predicated on the North’s linear process. And each time North Korea cheated, reneged, or did not follow through.”

Maxwell’s range of outcomes for Trump-Kim II:

  1. No substantive agreement on denuclearization coming out of the second summit and there does not appear to be a positive way forward.
  2. Some kind of nominal agreement from the summit but over time it becomes apparent that Kim is not sincere in pursuing denuclearization of the north.
  3. Kim may believe that he can make a direct deal with Trump (which is why he delayed working-level talks for so long.)
  4. The best case, highly unlikely (though I would be happy to be proven wrong): Kim agrees to a framework, timeline, and substantive actions such as dismantling of Yongbyon, declaring its nuclear program and allowing inspections.
  5. Worst case: “Trump goes against all his advisers’ advice and makes significant and possibly damaging concessions at the summit.  Some examples could be an end-of-war declaration that results in troop withdrawal, some kind of partial normalization (e.g., liaison offices in Pyongyang/DC – which appears very likely based on recent press reports) or even complete normalization and partial lifting of sanctions (despite his lack of authority to do so – UNSC and US Congress must approve). The [very]worst case: the ICBM-for-troop withdrawal trade.”

Remember that 5-minute video the White House made about just this thing for last June’s Kim-Trump summit? See it again here.

France says it killed a leading al-Qaeda fighter during a battle in Mali on Thursday, AFP reports this morning.
The name of the deceased: Yahya Abou El Hamame, an Algerian-born commander in Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. He was reportedly killed when “French land and air forces ambushed a column of vehicles he was travelling with north of Timbuktu.” A bit more, here.

U.S.-Taliban talks hit a speed bump when the Taliban’s political chief declined to attend next week’s scheduled meeting, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported Thursday evening.  
Not gonna make it: Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Recall that he was "released from a Pakistani jail in October," which may account for the given reason for not attending next week's talks in Qatar: "he has had difficulties obtaining travel documents."

Remember when the U.S. sent F-22s to blow up Taliban drug labs in Afghanistan? That mission has now quietly come to an end, Time’s Bill Hennigan reported Thursday.
The gist: “The military’s strategy became the latest high-priced failure to slow endemic poppy cultivation and drug trafficking in Afghanistan. The U.S. has spent $8.9 billion in U.S. counter-narcotics efforts since 2001, yet the war-torn country has consistently produced about 85% of the world’s illicit opium supply.” Read more about operation Iron Tempest, here.
Other telling metrics: POGO’s Mark Thompson noticed "these [Afghanistan parachute resupply] numbers show a superpower sinking ever deeper into Taliban quicksand."

Iran plans to fire off some submarine-launched cruise missiles this weekend during naval drills that stretch from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, Reuters reports.
For what it’s worth, some footage allegedly showing a U.S. drone feed hacked by Iran surfaced this week. Read that link for a series of interesting insights from Nike Waters of Bellingcat.

In this time-lapse video tweet on Thursday, President Trump falsely claimed his border wall (some call it a “monument to xenophobia”) is under construction “right now.”
The problem is that the footage he referenced is ordinary fence repair from five months ago. Task & Purpose explains why — with comment from the man behind the time-lapse footage — here.
Also from T&P: At least four U.S. veterans were in the group that was arrested in Haiti with arsenal of weapons and tactical gear. Story, here.

A stateside victory for Army families. “Executives from seven real estate companies, which manage some 87,000 Army housing units at more than 40 bases, pledged a series of reforms following a Pentagon meeting earlier this week with the Army’s three senior leaders – Secretary Mark Esper, Chief of Staff Mark Milley and Sergeant Major Daniel Dailey,” Reuters reports after a series of investigations into the matter. (Find those here.)

Here’s a very odd story of China needing U.S.-made technology, and how it goes to extraordinary lengths to get anything and everything it can — even when it involves “build[ing] a massive DNA database to surveil and oppress Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim group.”
In a hurry? Here’s the author’s quick read: “China used Thermo Fisher’s equipment to map the genes of its people, according to five Ministry of Public Security patent filings. Authorities in Xinjiang said that Thermo Fisher's machines are important for DNA inspections in criminal cases and have ‘no substitutes in China.’”

Finally this week: Don’t miss our two-part podcast series on the U.S.-China relationship from:

  1. The history of tensions the South China Sea to…  
  2. The future of Beijing’s ambitions in the fields of AI, quantum computing, facial recognition and much more.

Listen on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Have a great weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!