Make no mistake, the war on ISIS is far from finished, according to a new inspector general report released by the Pentagon this week. “Despite losing its territorial ‘caliphate,’ the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) solidified its insurgent capabilities in Iraq and was resurging in Syria this quarter,” begins the report (PDF), which covers April to June.
So, why is ISIS resurgent in Syria? Sentence two says that is “in part because the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) remain unable to sustain long-term operations against ISIS militants.” And that’s because the SDF were busy training and preparing their troops for a U.S. withdrawal, and did not direct the primary thrust of their efforts at crushing what remains of ISIS in their vicinity, including, e.g., around the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
In Iraq, ISIS “solidified its insurgent capabilities” because the ISF — after billions in U.S. presence, training and assistance — remains a fledgling force that today, here in mid-2019, still “often lacks the ability to maintain hold forces in cleared territory.” (Recall that this was a quiet refrain of America’s efforts at building partner capacity that we knew back in 2015.)
In terms of what could lie next in Iraq, ISIS “is attempting to expand its influence over populations in the Sunni-majority provinces north and west of Baghdad, and has reorganized its leadership and established safe havens in rural Sunni-majority areas.”
By the numbers, ISIS “likely retains between 14,000 and 18,000 ‘members’ in Iraq and Syria, including up to 3,000 foreigners,” according to the report. Lots of other details in the report strike your D-Brief-ers as legacy problems from the ISIS war. And some of those include:
- ISIS fighters crossing the Syria-Iraq border without much difficulty “following the fall of the last ISIS stronghold in the MERV in March 2019.” That has given the group the ability to carry out “asymmetric operations” and "exploit tension between Iraq’s Shia and Sunni communities and popular discontent over the perceived failures of the Iraqi government."
- ISIS also exploits gray zones in Iraq, like “the gaps between the security forces of Iraq’s central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a swath of territory claimed by both sides.”
- ISIS is burning crops to sow discord and unrest, as well as carrying out assassinations in both Iraq and Syria.
- Meanwhile, “Iran continues to field Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers, support the Lebanese Hezbollah, and command a Shia foreign fighter network that includes militias from Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.”
As for the ISIS prisoners held by the SDF, they number around 10,000 — with 2,000 of them classified as foreigners. And the facilities are described as “pop-up prisons” (page five), which doesn’t instill much confidence.
The recipe for SDF success against ISIS in Syria: “build trust with local communities and to develop the human-based intelligence necessary to confront ISIS resurgent cells and insurgent capabilities in Syria.”
But it’s unclear, of course, how or if that will pan out. At a July cabinet meeting, President Trump said, “We have 100 percent of the caliphate, and we’re rapidly pulling out of Syria. We’ll be out of there pretty soon. And let them handle their own problems. Syria can handle their own problems—along with Iran, along with Russia, along with Iraq, along with Turkey. We’re 7,000 miles away." Read the rest of the IG report, here.
And speaking of Turkey: After three days of talks at the Turkish Defense Ministry, the U.S. State Department put out a terse statement Wednesday regarding “the establishment of a safe zone in northern Syria” in coordination with Turkey’s military. According to the announcement, both nations’ officials agreed to three things:
- “the rapid implementation of initial measures to address Turkey’s security concerns;”
- “to stand-up a joint operations center in Turkey as soon as possible in order to coordinate and manage the establishment of the safe zone together;”
- and “that the safe zone shall become a peace corridor, and every effort shall be made so that displaced Syrians can return to their country.”
That agreement, according to Louisa Loveluck, the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief, “reads like an attempt to buy time” since “contentious specifics” like the “depth of the [safe] zone, who will patrol it, and [a] timeline for implementation” were not included.
The Kurds in Syria, meanwhile, are taking a wait-and-see approach to that agreement between the U.S. and Turkey, according to this AFP report from northeastern Syria’s Qamishli.
From Defense One
A Reformed White Nationalist Says the Worst Is Yet to Come // Kathy Gilsinan and Yara Bayoumy: Christian Picciolini discusses the mainstreaming of white nationalism, what it takes to de-radicalize far-right extremists, and why the problem is metastasizing.
Former Defense Secretary Mattis Is Returning to General Dynamics Board // Marcus Weisgerber: The retired general had been a member of the defense contractor’s board until he became defense secretary in January 2017.
DARPA Is Taking On the Deepfake Problem // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: The agency wants to teach computers to detect errors in manipulated media using logic and common sense.
The Strategy of Violent White Supremacy Is Evolving // J.M. Berger, The Atlantic: The failed approach of “leaderless resistance” gets a second chance in the information age.
White House Pauses Some Diplomatic Spending // Eric Katz, Government Executive: The move could provide a path for OMB to circumvent spending levels spelled out by Congress.
Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. On this day 11 years ago, the Russian military invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Defense Secretary Esper travels to Mongolia, keeps up the tradition of receiving a horse. Here’s the lede from AP’s Lita Baldor: “With one hand resting on the mane of a sturdy Mongolian horse, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper invoked the name of one of America’s great soldiers as he sought to strengthen the military bonds between the U.S. and this landlocked democracy sandwiched between Russia and China.”
The name Esper gave to the steed: “Marshall, after Gen. George Marshall,” he told a crowd of observers today outside the defense ministry in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar.
And in case you were wondering officially why Esper is in the land of Genghis Khan, Baldor writes “Esper said he had no specific goals for the visit involving how the Pentagon can expand its military cooperation with Mongolia. Instead, he said he wants to build stronger relationships at senior defense levels.”
One more perhaps odd detail from Lita’s report: “Just last week, the Mongolian government gave one of the horses to President Donald Trump’s 13-year-old son, Barron, who named it Victory.” More, here.
Separatists in southern Yemen have gone to war with presidential guard forces in the southern port city of Aden, Reuters reports. The clashes follow last week’s ballistic missile attack by the Houthis on a military parade in Aden, a deadly scene that not only killed 36 Security Belt (separatist) soldiers, but it has also “increased frictions between Aden’s parties,” Reuters writes.
FWIW, Oxford University’s Elisabeth Kendall echoes that assessment in her reading of recent developments in Aden.
To put it mildly, Reuters writes, the separatists and the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi “have rival agendas for Yemen’s future.”
What are some ways forward for the parties warring in Yemen? Peter Salisbury of the International Crisis Group laid out a few dire, but possibly promising avenues in a Twitter thread on Tuesday, before clashes picked up in Aden. The quick read: “we believe there is only a political solution to the war, that such a solution will necessarily have to involve a wide range of #Yemeni groups inc. south and be augmented by some kind of Saudi-Huthi agreement.”
A rocket engine exploded at a military testing site near the Russian village of Nyonoksa in the Arkhangelsk region Thursday. And the explosion appears to have caused “a short-term spike in radiation levels,” Reuters reports from Moscow.
Alaska’s sea ice has all melted, the earliest that’s ever happened. The nearest sea ice is now 150 miles off the coast, according to the National Weather Service, which offers this graphic. (Via Ecowatch.)
Warmest Bering Sea ever. “Early summer (May-July) average sea surface temperatures in the northern Bering Sea were the highest of record in the @NOAANCEIclimate ERSSTv5 data,” tweeted Rick Thoman, a climate specialist at the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy. “Each of the past six years is among the warmest of record.”
Multiplier effect. A warming Arctic speeds up global warming in several ways that don’t go away when winter comes. Ice reflects some of the sun’s heat back into space, so open water retains more of that heat. Second, permafrost that melts releases gases that trap heat in the atmosphere. Read about three more ways, here.
The U.S. military is already struggling to repair bases damaged by weather, and harden others against the fiercer storms to come, as Ben Watson explored in Defense One Radio Ep. 41. Listen, here.
But the Navy quietly shut down its Task Force Climate Change. The group, created in 2009 to plan and develop “future public, strategic, and policy discussions,” closed in March without publicly issuing a customary final report. E&E News has a bit more, here.
Food around the world is becoming “more expensive, scarcer and even less nutritious” because of human-caused climate change, the Associated Press writes off a new report from the UN that lays out ways to keep certain of its destructive cycles from accelerating. The report was “written by more than 100 scientists and unanimously approved by diplomats from nations around the world at a meeting in Geneva.”
Some of the observed effects on food include wheat that produces “6 to 13% less protein, 4 to 7% less zinc and 5 to 8% less iron” when there are high levels of carbon in the air.
Some possible countermeasures include “reducing red meat and increasing plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables and seeds,” which “can save as much as another 15% of current emissions by mid-century.” Lots more to dig into at AP, here, or via the multiple PDFs from the UN’s analysis, here.
Don't expect to hear about that problem from the USDA. Headed by known climate-denier Sonny Perdue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has routinely buried new findings about the effects of climate change on food security, as Politico reported in June.
Indeed, a USDA climate scientist has become the latest federal official to resign after the Trump administration repressed scientific findings. According to Politico, “One of the nation’s leading climate change scientists is quitting the Agriculture Department in protest over the Trump administration’s efforts to bury his groundbreaking study about how rice is losing nutrients because of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” More, here.
His departure follows a State Department senior intelligence analyst who was blocked from testifying to Congress about the effects of climate change on national security. Read his July 30 op-ed in the New York Times Magazine.
That departure also followed a National Park Service employee who says she lost her job in February after refusing to change descriptions of human-caused climate change in a peer-reviewed paper that was set to publish, she wrote in The Guardian.
And finally today: Careful navigating the Hormuz Strait if you’re relying on GPS. The United States Department of Transportation issued a warning Wednesday to “Vessels operating in the Persian Gulf, Strait of Hormuz, and Gulf of Oman” that they may “encounter GPS interference, bridge-to-bridge communications spoofing, and/or other communications jamming with little to no warning.”
The risk: Your boat could wander into Iranian waters, giving the Revolutionary Guard Corps a pretext to seize the vessel. Business Insider has more here if you’re not keen on parsing the bullet points in that DoT warning.
Wanna read about the Pentagon’s effort to replace GPS with less jammable ways to mark position and timing? We’ve got an ebook for you.