Desperation in Syria; F-35 vs. F-15; New NATO commander; Pompeo’s top threats; And a bit more.

Scenes of desperation are still piling up in Baghouz, Syria, where U.S.-backed troops have begun to cut into ISIS’s final enclave. Reuters reports on location this morning that “The enclave resembles an encampment, filled with stationary vehicles and rough shelters with blankets or tarpaulins that could be seen flapping in the wind during a lull in fighting as people walked among them… People leaving the area have spoken of harsh conditions inside, under coalition bombardment and with supplies of food so scarce some resorted to eating grass.”

For your eyes only: Here’s a bit of footage purportedly from the camp that matches that description strangely well. See also these new images from AFP’s Giuseppe Cacace, just posted this morning. Reuters reports a hardened group of ISIS fighters still remains. Read on, here.  

Back stateside, the Joint Chiefs office batted down a WSJ report about a plan to reduce the U.S. military presence in Syria by half — from 2,000 or so to 1,000 U.S. troops. Said Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford in a statement Sunday evening:

  • “A claim reported this evening by a major U.S. newspaper that the U.S. military is developing plans to keep nearly 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria is factually incorrect. There has been no change to the plan announced in February and we continue to implement the President's direction to draw down U.S. forces to a residual presence. Further, we continue to conduct detailed military planning with the Turkish General Staff to address Turkish security concerns along the Turkey-Syria border. Planning to date has been productive and we have an initial concept that will be refined in the coming days. We are also conducting planning with other members of the Coalition who have indicated an intent to support the transition phase of operations into Syria.”

According to CNN, “The plan was to have a combined force of about 1,500 troops overall to ensure the safe zone in northern Syria, and the US planning would be informed based on how many allies have pledged contributions. To date, there have been no firm pledges from allies, meaning the US level would have to go up.” More on that, here.

From the region: Turkey and Iran just linked up in a joint operation against alleged Kurdish units in eastern Turkey, Reuters reports this morning in a developing story.

From Defense One

The U.S. and North Korea Are Back to Talking Tough // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: Pyongyang’s latest threats don’t necessarily mean diplomacy is dead. But they are a sign of just how deadlocked nuclear talks have become.

No One Wants to Help Bashar al-Assad Rebuild Syria // Krishnadev Calamur: The Syrian president appears comfortably in power, but his supporters in Moscow can’t afford to pay for reconstruction; his adversaries in the West can, but won’t.

Who Are the Private Contractors Fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan? // Ori Swed and Thomas Crosbie, The Conversation: An inside look at this invisible military force.

Lockheed Martin is Waging War on Boeing’s F-15EX // Marcus Weisgerber: The F-35 makers sees the Pentagon’s plans to buy new F-15s for the first time in 19 years as a threat.

Trump Picks New Top NATO Commander // Kevin Baron: Top US Air Force general in Europe will lead alliance as Trump officials continue to berate members for more money.

How White-Supremacist Violence Echoes Other Forms of Terrorism // Kathy Gilsinan: Their enemies are different, but their tactics are often the same.

Here’s the Key Innovation in DARPA AI Project: Ethics From the Start // Paulina Glass: A new effort to build patrol drones for urban fights began by forming an ethics advisory board.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Bradley Peniston and Ben Watson. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 2003, the clock was ticking for Saddam Hussein after U.S. President George W. Bush had just given Saddam and his sons 48 hours to leave Iraq in a televised address to the world. “Their refusal to do so,” Bush said, “will result in military conflict commenced at a time of our choosing.” Three days later, the war began.

New this morning: The Pentagon this year is requesting $22.95 billion for its intel budget — that is, the Military Intelligence Program’s top line budget request for FY 2020. The nearly $23 billion “includes both the base budget and Overseas Contingency Operations funding,” the department announced in a statement this morning.
Last year’s budget request, by comparison: $21.2 billion for FY19, and $20.7 billion for FY18 — according to Defense News.
But don’t ask for much more just yet, since “No other MIP budget figures or program details will be released, as they remain classified for national security reasons.”
Trend-hunting? See this late October report from our own Marcus Weisgerber entitled, “Military Intelligence Spending Just Posted Biggest Spike in a Decade

NATO’s next commander: U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters. Currently the double-hatted leader of U.S. air forces in Europe and Africa and the region’s joint air command, Wolters will take over as Supreme Allied Commander, officials announced Friday.
Here’s what they didn’t announce: “The White House originally had wanted Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to take command of NATO, Defense One has learned from multiple sources.” Read on, here.

Happening today: Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan welcomes his French counterpart, Florence Parly, to the Pentagon at 2 p.m. EST.

Pompeo’s top five threats don’t include climate change. A Fox morning host asked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday, “Everyone’s talking about global warming and the threat to this country. When you look at the top five threats to this nation, where do you rank global warming or climate change?”
Pompeo: “Yeah, I wouldn’t put it in the top five. [Fox: “Why?”] Because I can count to five that get you to things that present more risk to the people I used to represent in Kansas and citizens all across America, whether it’s the threat that we’ve talked about today from China, the nuclear proliferation risk that extends from Pakistan, through all those folks who have these weapon systems – places like North Korea where they can sell these weapons. I think I’m at five already.”
Oh, and about North Korea:USFK chief dismisses worries about scaled-back allied exercise,” Seoul’s Yonhap News agency reports in an exclusive interview.

BTW: Offutt Air Force Base is largely underwater today. Swelled by record winter precipitation, the Missouri River burst its banks over the weekend. Airmen at the Nebraska base — some 75 miles north of Kansas — tried to build a sandbag levee, but gave up as the water rolled in, the Omaha World-Herald reports. “By Sunday morning, one-third of the base was underwater, she said. Thirty buildings, including the 55th Wing headquarters and the two major aircraft maintenance facilities, had been flooded with up to 8 feet of water, and 30 more structures damaged. About 3,000 feet of the base’s 11,700-foot runway was submerged.”
More is coming, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports: “Because of heavier than normal snowpack, early rain and — yes — climate change — both the Missouri and Mississippi rivers are swelling, likely to top their banks in some locations in coming days and weeks,” including along the Kansas-Missouri border. And: “Strap in. With even an average amount of rain, this spring is going to be a soggy, and potentially deadly, one.”
Meanwhile, hurricane-flattened Tyndall AFB is rebuilding for harsher weather. Though some had suggested moving the squadrons housed at the Gulf Coast installation, the Air Force has decided to rebuild — with construction certified to withstand 180 mph winds. NPR, here.

The White House’s Afghan war envoy took to social media to recapture the narrative of America’s negotiations with the Taliban on the future of Afghanistan. U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad wrote on Friday, a day after a top Afghan national security official accused Khalilzad of plans to ultimately become “viceroy” of the country, the envoy said he continued to brief secretaries and ministers on his progress despite “a slight chill in the air yesterday.”
And on Saturday, Khalilzad defended his one-man approach in the talks — for a war whose impact touches many of the 28-member NATO alliance — writing on Twitter, “Working closely with NATO and other partners and allies has been a priority from day one. We came together. We will coordinate adjustments in our presence together. And if we leave, we will leave together. Together for peace and security for Afghanistan and for us all.”

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is in annexed Crimea, Ukraine, for the anniversary of that illegal power grab, Reuters reports from Sevastopol, Ukraine.
And speaking of power, Putin’s marking the occasion with the formal opening of two new electric utility stations, which — Putin says, according to Reuters — can generate "as much electricity as Crimea used to get from Ukraine pre-annexation" and "cover 90 percent of Crimea’s power needs."
Also on the docket: “Putin is due to speak at a music concert later on Monday and to hold talks with local people about what Russia has achieved in Crimea in the last five years and where it has fallen short.” More here.

Apropos of nothing, via Russia-watcher Oscar Jonsson, “Here’s the next monarch of Sweden, Princess Victoria, practising blowing up doors with the Swedish special forces.”

Finally today, a #LongRead for the week ahead: “The strongmen strike back.” Brookings’ Robert Kagan has a 10,000-word piece in the Washington Post warning, “Authoritarianism has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic world — a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge. And we have no idea how to confront it.” What’s more, “It has returned armed with new and hitherto unimaginable tools of social control and disruption that are shoring up authoritarian rule at home, spreading it abroad and reaching into the very heart of liberal societies to undermine them from within.”
Kagan’s parting line: “Liberalism is all that keeps us, and has ever kept us, from being burned at the stake for what we believe.” Read on, here.