Dramatic firefight in Syria; Russia’s AI supercomputer; China wants 6 carriers; Top US, Russian generals meet; And a bit more.

The “final battle” against ISIS in Syria features huge balls of fire in broad daylight as the group’s final clutch of fighters hide away in “a warren of tents and tunnels,” the Washington Post’s Louisa Loveluck reported Monday from Baghouz.

ICYMI over the second half of last year, the Pentagon rerouted millions of dollars’ worth of weapons and vehicles from Iraq to Syria during that last six months of 2018, al-Monitor’s Jack Detsch reported Monday.

That’s just part of what has been America’s rather half-hearted war effort in Syria, a French artillery officer wrote in a Paris military journal. “Yes, the Battle of Hajin was won, at least on the ground, but by refusing ground engagement, we unnecessarily prolonged the conflict and thus contributed to increasing the number of casualties in the population,” Col. Francois-Regis Legrier, who leads the French artillery supporting Kurdish forces in Syria, wrote in France’s National Defense Review. Gil Barndollar, a former Marine officer, wrote about the piece in Defense One: “Colonel Legrier contended that a few thousand Western infantrymen could have made short work of ISIS’ final sanctuary. Repeating our infamous mistake at Tora Bora in Afghanistan, we chose not to employ our conventional troops in sustained combat. ‘This refusal raises a question: why have an army that we don’t dare use?’ Legrier asked.”

And why, Gildollar asks, haven’t U.S. military leaders spoken up about it? Continue reading, here.

“Central” ISIS just fired the leader of its West African affiliate, ISWAP, Nigerian investigative journalist Ahmad Salkida noticed Monday on Twitter.

  • Out: Abu Mus'ab Albarnawi
  • In: Abu Abdullah Ibn Umar Albarnawi

Says West Point’s Jason Warner: “Despite territorial losses in Iraq and Syria, IS Central is showing its grip remains in its global provinces.” Hear more from Warner and his research into other ISIS-affiliated groups in Africa in our August podcast discussion on just that topic, here.

Also in Africa: “Hundreds of Wagner mercenaries are backing [rogue Gen. Khalifa] Haftar in Libya,” The Telegraph reported over the weekend. But that’s not all: Russia has also apparently sent political consultants to Zimbabwe and armed men to protect an oil site from protests in Madagascar.

Extra reading on the region:Building the Somali National Army: Anatomy of a failure, 2008–2018,” by George Washington University’s Paul Williams. It’s in front of the paywall for a short time, so take advantage soon…  

From Defense One

Russia’s New ‘AI Supercomputer’ Runs on Western Technology // Samuel Bendett: The 1-petaflop Zhores is built on California circuitry, and it’s hardly alone.

A French Officer Speaks the Truth about the War in Syria // Gil Barndollar: Half measures are having predictably ill effects, Col. Legrier wrote. Why are American military leaders silent?

Investigating Trump: It’s Not Just About Russia Anymore // Natasha Bertrand, The Atlantic: House lawmakers issue broad call for documents relating to a wide array of the commander-in-chief’s “abuses of power.”

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1770, British government troops came under attack by a club-wielding mob in Boston and fired back, killing several citizens — and in short order galvanized a revolution.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford spoke with his Russian counterpart on Monday in Vienna — in a very golden room packed with the entourages of both generals. See four images from the scene, here.
Discussed: “the deconfliction of Coalition and Russian operations in Syria,” and “views on the state of U.S.-Russia military relations and the current international security situation in Europe.” The two also talked about “other key topics,” just don’t ask what those were — according to the readout given by the Pentagon.  
One more kinda important Russia-related thing from Monday: “President Vladimir Putin suspended Russia’s participation in a nuclear arms treaty the Trump administration already decided to leave, alleging Monday that Washington and not Moscow was in violation of the 1987 pact,” the Associated Press reported from Moscow. That story, here.
For your ears only: As assessment of the future of U.S.-Russian relations in our latest episode Defense One Radio. Find it on Overcast, here.

China wants six aircraft carriers by 2035, the South China Morning Post reported Monday in a story headlined “China keeps lid on military spending for fourth year in a row.” China will also hold a naval parade in the city of Qingdao on April 23, as well as “a National Day parade on October 1 involving thousands of troops [and] several months of training — all off budget,” Andrew Erickson of the U.S. Naval War College noted on Twitter.
For what it’s worth: “In January, Beijing reported 6.6 per cent growth for 2018, its lowest figure for 28 years,” SCMP writes.
What this means: China’s 2019 defense spending will rise by 7.5 percent to about 1.19 trillion yuan — or about $177.61 billion, Erickson flagged Monday evening.
Erickson’s bottom line: “7.5% growth is rapid. It’s only a slowdown if measured vs. previous PRC defense budget growth, including last yr.'s 8.1%. Funded by what's at very least the world’s 2nd-largest economy, PRC defense budget's long been growing at rate sustained by no other major power.”

The more you know: “Most of China’s weapons go to its neighbors — countries in Asia bought more than 80% of Chinese arms between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s,” according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies China Power project. More on that, with charts and graphs, here.
One more bit of semi-related trivia: America’s unofficial Ambassador to Taiwan, Brent Christensen, “was the person who in 2007 purchased the U.S. embassy in Beijing's air quality monitor,” Taiwan-based journalist Chris Horton wrote Monday after reading this Monday profile in the Taiwan Times. What’s more, “The embassy's AQI tweets eventually shamed CCP into admitting/monitoring its pollution problem.” Former USAID man David Roberts wrote a breezy op-ed on all that exactly four years ago today in Wired, here.

This week in national security podcasts, hear H.R. McMaster of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in a 45-minute (or so) interview on FDD’s Foreign Podicy podcast, which was just released Monday.
Some highlights:

  • On Afghanistan: “It hasn’t been a 17 year campaign; it’s been a one-year campaign 17 times."
  • On Iran: "What Iran is trying to do, I believe, is keep the Arab world perpetually weak so it can apply a Hezbollah model to the greater Middle East and the Arab world."
  • On Moscow and Beijing: "Russia wants to regain national greatness. China wants to achieve national rejuvenation and in large part they want to do it at our expense."
  • On Syria: "Half of the Syrian population is dead, wounded, or displaced. It is a humanitarian catastrophe of colossal scale."

For what it’s worth, McMaster and FDD’s Cliff May mention China 17 times in their chat; Russia and North Korea both at 13 mentions; Iran with 12; Afghanistan with eight, and ISIS merited just three mentions. Listen to the full conversation, here.

In Afghanistan today, “A former US Army base rots in the hands of overwhelmed Afghans,” and Stars and Stripes has the story.
Location: Forward Operating Base Shank in Logar province — aka “Zombieland.” It was once one of the largest coalition bases in the country, playing host to “a 50-shop bazaar, four beauty salons, three restaurants and an academy to train soldiers in the counterinsurgency doctrine officials had hoped would end the war. It’s now a much different sight.”
But today, "Roaming packs of feral dogs now bed down at what was once Shank’s busy helicopter landing pad. Crows pick over scrap heaps amid metal tent skeletons whose torn plastic skins whip in the wind. Snow blows through collapsed walls of wood huts that once housed military offices." Read on, here.

The latest in India-Pakistan tensions includes this whopper of a stat: “If intense warfare broke out tomorrow, India could supply its troops with only 10 days of ammunition, according to government estimates.” That’s according to NYTs reporting Monday.  
Food for thought:Are nuclear weapons keeping the India-Pakistan crisis from escalating — or making it more dangerous?” via WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog.

And finally today: Take a visit to “The Least Politically Prejudiced Place in America,” via The Atlantic’s Amanda Ripley.
This strange place is called Watertown, N.Y. — and some of our readers may know it better as the home of the 10th Mountain Division.
The gist: “Using an original national poll, voter-registration files, and other large data sets, PredictWise determined that Jefferson County and several nearby counties in the North Country are distinct from other parts of America. These are places where people can disagree on politics but still, it appears, give one another the benefit of the doubt.” Worth the click, here.