Mideast conflict enters a ‘new phase’; Amazon fires; Stratospheric drones; Afghan peace talks; And a bit more.

We have entered a “new phase” of military action in the Middle East, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly reports this morning after a weekend of new Israeli airstrikes and renewed chaos out of the Saudi-led war in Yemen. 

The short story: “Iran allies in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were all hit in suspected Israeli strikes in the space of less than 24 hours,” Sly wrote on Twitter after filing her report from Beirut. And that fast, three-country barrage means, at a minimum, “Israel is getting more assertive and the pressure is on for Iran's allies to retaliate.”

Locations hit included: 

  1. “An alleged Qods force base near Damascus,” which triggered Syrian air defense systems southeast of the capital overnight Saturday. This was the only airstrike that Israel has admitted to, Sly notes.
  2. A short while later, an alleged drone strike hit a Hezbollah media office in Beirut — Israel’s first suspected strikes inside Lebanon since 2013, and “hours after… [Hezbollah] threatened to strongly respond to [two] alleged Israeli drones that crashed in Beirut’s southern suburb, an area where the militant and political group has a strong presence,” the Wall Street Journal reports, noting, “Israel’s military also declined to discuss this drone incident.”
  3. And on Sunday, Sly reports, “a Kataeb Hezbollah leader in al-Qaim, Iraq,” was killed in an alleged drone strike on the border with Syria; Reuters reports two strikes occurred in the vicinity of al-Qaim, killing one soldier and wounding another.
  4. And an Israeli drone is believed to have killed a Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command leader in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on Sunday evening. 

Israel’s position: “I don’t give Iran immunity anywhere. Iran is a country, a power, who has declared its desire to annihilate Israel. It is trying to establish bases against us everywhere. In Iran itself, in Lebanon, in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Israeli TV Thursday evening. 

“This is a new phase imposed by the enemy, and we are up for it,” said Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah in a speech Sunday evening, according to Sly’s reporting. “What happened last night will not happen without response,” he added.

And the strikes in Iraq? None of them have sit very well at all in Baghdad, the BBC’s Jane Arraf noted Friday. Iraqi officials were already pissed about the other apparent airstrikes inside its borders, the ones that caused arms depots around Baghdad and north of the capital to erupt into flames, occasionally killing soldiers and often wounding Iraqis nearby. 

Or, to describe Iraq’s predicament another way, “One state friendly to [the] US is bombing a security institution of another state friendly to [the] US,” former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford summarized on Twitter this weekend. 

The Israeli strikes have sparked a call for the U.S. to leave Iraq. The call came, however, from Iran, as the LA Times reported from neighboring Jordan on Friday. Making that call: “Grand Ayatollah Kazem Haeri, a powerful Iraqi cleric based in Iran who is thought to be a mentor to some of Iraq’s top militia leaders.”

An indication of the complexity and nuance at play in Iraq: Mosuli-born analyst Rasha Al-Aqeedi, sees the targets Israel has been striking inside Iraq — those of the Iranian-aligned Popular Mobilization Forces — a bit differently from Ford. She views the PMF as “A security institution that is illegally placing weapons in civilian areas, openly violating Iraqi law, and publicly stating its loyalty to a neighbor country that is at odds to the US.”

These Israeli strikes could wind up harming the U.S., Ford warned: The “PMF is part of [the] Iraqi state [security apparatus] even as it also operates at times outside the state. US and its other friends need to understand Iraqi subtleties, [and] operate w that understanding. [A] Black and white approach wont help.”

And in Yemen, the Houthis say they’ve conducted more drone strikes in Saudi Arabia a day after firing ballistic missiles at the Saudi city of Jizan. And today, Reuters reports Saudi officials are racing to patch together the coalition’s warring factions in the southern city of Aden. 

What’s going on in the vicinity of Aden: The Saudis and Emiratis are trying to get their proxies to stop shooting each other. And to do that, the two countries’ officials just “formed a joint committee to oversee a truce between UAE-backed southern separatists and Saudi-backed government forces in the [nearby] provinces of Abyan and Shabwa.” 

One big-picture perspective on Yemen, from Bloomberg’s Bobby Ghosh on Thursday: “Yemen is a Matryoshka of conflict: a civil war (south v. govt) within a civil war (Houthis v. govt) , within a war (Saudi coalition v. Houthis), within a regional war (Saudi v. Iran). And then, there's the global war on terror.” Read his take, here

And all this fragmenting in Yemen could easily spell trouble for President Trump, New America’s Alexandra Stark argued late last week in Foreign Policy. The quick reason why: “The UAE’s decision to reposition itself to avoid a costly war with Iran will significantly complicate the Trump administration’s Iran strategy.” Read on, here

For your ears only: Hear what it’s been like for Yemeni artist Murad Subay trying to work in exile from Cairo and London, unable to return to his home city of Sana’a. Subay spoke to the BBC for a nearly half-hour episode of “The Cultural Frontline” this weekend. 

From Defense One

The Amazon Fires Reveal the Dysfunction of the Global Community // Franklin Foer, The Atlantic: The case for territorial incursion in the Amazon is far stronger than the justifications for most war.

Brazil's Bolsonaro Is Endangering the World // Robinson Meyer, The Atlantic: As a store of carbon, the giant rain forest is fundamental to the survival of every person. If destroyed or degraded, is simply beyond humanity’s ability to get back:

A Defining Moment for Trump’s Foreign Policy // Uri Friedman and Peter Nicholas, The Atlantic: A nation that itself broke free from colonial control has, under Trump, struggled to come up with a clear, consistent position on a massive demonstration from people in Hong Kong chafing at Chinese rule.

Trump Told the VA to Order ‘a Lot’ of Ketamine for Vets // James Hamblin, The Atlantic: The president wants to make a controversial new nasal spray available to depressed veterans. The agency says it will consider incorporating the drug after it has more data.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not a D Brief subscriber, sign up here. 

North Korea says it tested a “super-large” multiple-rocket launcher on Sunday. That’s from the state media agency, via Reuters
South Korea was more guarded in its public assessment, saying that it had tracked the firing of what appeared to be two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast, the South Korean military said.
Kim Jung Un loves his rocket technicians, according to photos released by Pyongyang and gathered by Arms Control Wonk Jeff Lewis.
Another violation? If confirmed as ballistic missiles, the launches would be yet another in a recent series that have violated the terms of United Nations sanctions. At the G7 meeting over the weekend, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said as much. Trump said*: “I’m not happy about it, but again, he’s not in violation of an agreement.”

Aviation and tech giants are now sending drones into the stratosphere, the Wall Street Journal reports. There, they can “fly unaided for months and take pictures or beam down internet services some 60,000 feet or more to the ground.” The companies involved include “subsidiaries of Airbus, Boeing Co., and Japanese tech conglomerate SoftBank Group Corp.”
Why fly drones this high? At least in part to “create markets with military or commercial customers.” At stake is possibly as much as “$1.7 billion in revenue over the next decade.”
One application includes using the drones “as relays between satellites and ground stations to improve data transfer, reducing the infrastructure needed on the ground and in space, according to the European Space Agency, which has studied the technology.”
Worth noting: Facebook tried one of these and failed. So it’s not exactly a great bet just yet. Read on, here

Under pressure, Brazil sends military to fight Amazon fires. As the number of fires in the world’s largest rain forest grew into the tens of thousands — far more than last year — President Jair Bolsonaro had denied it was a problem. Then he blamed the obviously blameless. On Friday, he finally bowed to a combination of pressures, including (via NYT): “European leaders threatened to cancel a major trade deal, protesters staged demonstrations outside Brazilian embassies and calls for a boycott of Brazilian products snowballed on social media.”
In a rare scripted speech on Friday, Bolsonaro professed an apparently newfound love for the Amazon and commitment to enforcing laws designed to protect it. But he offered no details about what the military would or even could do, and “it was unlikely that his plan could address the underlying crisis without a fundamental shift in his environmental policies, which have emboldened miners, loggers and farmers to strip and burn protected areas with a sense of impunity,” the NYT reported.
By the numbers: “There are 80 percent more fires this year than there were last summer, according to the Brazilian government. This surge in burning has accompanied a spike in deforestation in general. More than 1,330 square miles of the Amazon rainforest have been lost since January, a 39 percent increase over the same period last year,” Robinson Meyer writes in The Atlantic. “As a store of carbon, the Amazon is fundamental to the survival of every person. If destroyed or degraded, the giant rain forest is simply beyond humanity’s ability to get back.”
What should the world do? “The case for territorial incursion in the Amazon is far stronger than the justifications for most war,” writes Franklin Foer in an interesting piece in The Atlantic. Read on, here.

Afghan peace talks update: President Ashraf Ghani’s National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, says a peace agreement with the Taliban is not going to materialize before this year’s presidential election, slated for September, Voice of America - Dari reports today. 
Next Sunday is the unofficial deadline for a U.S.-Taliban deal, the Washington Post reported this weekend. And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., is using the remaining time to warn President Trump against a withdrawal plan that would reduce the U.S. troop level in Afghanistan below the 8,600 mark. “To go below that, I think, would be really risky,” Graham told CBS News’ Face the Nation on Sunday. 
Graham’s warning to Trump: “In one day, we lost 3,000 Americans because we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan. . . . Mr. President, if you don’t have a counterterrorism force left behind, even if you gotta deal with the Taliban — which I doubt, but you might — they don’t have the capability or will to protect the American homeland,” the senator told CBS.
FWIW: Trump’s lead Afghan negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, chimed in on the peace process today on Twitter. “A Reuters report quoting two unnamed Talib commanders alleges we will cease support of the Afghan forces as part of any agreement. Not true! No one should be intimidated or fooled by propoganda! Let me be clear: We will defend Afghan forces now and after any agreement w/ the Talibs. All sides agree Afghanistan’s future will be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations.” 

And finally today: The satirists at Duffel Blog delivered a perhaps uncomfortable headline this weekend about the current situation in Afghanistan. That one: “Lindsey Graham volunteers to remain behind in Afghanistan and fight Taliban if troops withdraw.” Read that joke, datelined from Greenville, S.C., here.