Pentagon says Syrian oil will go to SDF; Houthis attack Yemen port city; Iran downs drone; Measure civilians’ readiness; And a bit more.

The Pentagon confirmed U.S. forces are going to control some Syrian oil fields, and insisted Thursday that that was part of the plan all along. That was one of the messages Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman and Joint Staff vice director Rear Adm. Bill Byrne Jr. delivered when they briefed the press ahead of Defense Secretary Mark Esper's trip to Asia next week — a trip al-Monitor’s Jack Detsch tweeted is meant to “reassure allies concerned about China's rise.”

Task & Purpose’s headline for Thursday’s presser: “Pentagon claims with a straight face that the US mission in Syria isn’t all about the oil (It is).”

Said Hoffman: “Just to be clear, we've been in this area with the same mission of preventing ISIS from getting those oil fields for the last four years. This is not a new mission. Everybody seems to be — believe that that has changed. That is not — that is not the case.”

Added Rear Adm. Byrne: “The mission is the defeat of ISIS. The securing of the oil fields is a subordinate task to that mission.”

Reminder: the oil fields belong to the Syrian government, much as the U.S. may dislike and not trust the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As well, President Trump has said he wants some portion of their proceeds to flow to the United States, and that could possibly expose the U.S. to war-crime allegations under Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. For the record, Hoffman insisted Thursday the proceeds would go to the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

And in more apparent examples of mission improvisation, this one regarding U.S. forces reportedly moving around in Syria this week, AP reports “In one case, U.S. troops arrived in a base they had evacuated only days before in Hassakeh.”

Another thing Hoffman emphasized in Thursday’s briefing: The “rules-based international order.” This was in the context not of Syria, but of SecDef Esper’s trip to the Pacific region next week — “our priority theater,” as Hoffman referred to it. 

Esper plans to hit up the cities of Seoul, Bangkok, Manila and Hanoi. And it’s in Vietnam that Esper will see other Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministers. 

The Pentagon’s goal at the ASEAN defense ministerial: “We will assess common challenges such as the militarization of the South China Sea and predatory Chinese commercial and economic activities… [as] a reflection of the department's focus on our concerns with Chinese efforts to undermine the rules-based international order in the region.”

And on the U.S.-led counter-Iran naval coalition, aka “the International Maritime Security Construct,” Hoffman said it’s now officially operational and based in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. 

The commander of this IMSC: U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Alvin Holsey. Hoffman said the IMSC is being staffed by personnel from Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom Australia, and (news to us) Albania. Find Hoffman’s full remarks on Thursday’s in DOD’s transcript, here.

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Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1942, the Allies landed in North Africa as part of Operation Torch, which the U.S. Navy remembers as a mission “intended to draw Axis forces away from the Eastern Front, thus relieving pressure on the hard-pressed Soviet Union.”

After weeks of relative calm, Yemen’s Houthis resumed drone and missile attacks on the Red Sea port city of al-Makha, killing at least eight people on Wednesday, AP reported. A spokesman for government forces on Yemen's western coast told AP “at least four missiles fired by the Iran-aligned rebels struck warehouses used by the allied forces known as the Giants Bridges in the port town of al-Makha or also known as al-Makha.” According to that same spox, at least three other missiles were allegedly intercepted. 
Bigger picture: “The escalation could jeopardise a UN-brokered ceasefire in Hodeida,” which is up the coast a bit from al-Makha. Hodeida “is the main entry point for humanitarian aid to Yemen, where more than five years of war have spawned the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with near-famine conditions in some areas.” Read on, here.

Today: Iran says it shot down a foreign drone over its coast on the northern limit of the Persian Gulf, Reuters reports from state news agency IRNA. Said an Iranian official: “The downed drone definitely belonged to a foreign country. Its wreckage has been recovered and is being investigated.” 
CENTCOM: It’s not ours. Or, more fully, via Twitter: “Alleged reports of a U.S. drone being shot down are incorrect. If a UAS had gone down in the CENTCOM AOR it was not a #DoD asset. All U.S. equipment has been accounted for.”
For what it’s worth, Reuters reports, “Iran’s arch-foe Israel declined to comment on the incident.”

ICYMI: Iran briefly held an atomic energy inspector and seized her travel documents last week, Reuters reported Thursday. "Hours after Reuters reported the incident, Iran confirmed that it had prevented an inspector from accessing its Natanz site - the heart of its uranium enrichment program - last week, because of a concern that she might be carrying 'suspicious material', according to the Fars news agency."
Wider context: “The incident is the first flare-up between Iran and the IAEA, which monitors Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, since it was implemented in January 2016. Before the deal, Iran repeatedly denied IAEA inspectors access to sites and accused the agency of sending in spies,” the Wall Street Journal reports. As well, Reuters notes, “The International Atomic Energy Agency is also in transition, with a new chief taking over next month.”
Make no mistake, tweeted Columbia’s Richard Nephew, who formerly served as Principal Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the Department of State from 2013 to 2015: “This is another big problem that no one should downplay.  Harassment of IAEA inspectors -- and, if this escalates, preventing them from doing their work -- is both unacceptable and massively provocative.” Added Nephew: “It should go without saying that none of this probably would have happened had it not been for the unwarranted US withdrawal from the JCPOA. But, that does not and should not excuse Iran's responsibilities in this regard.”

BTW: Iran appears to have supplied Baghdad with “many of the 40mm ‘less lethal’ grenades which have been used to kill so many protesters,” Amnesty International reported Thursday.

Turkey’s military just crushed a protester to death by driving over him in northern Syria, AP reports from Ankara’s ongoing cross-border incursion. It happened “in the village of Sarmasakh near the border by a Turkish vehicle which was conducting a joint patrol with the Russians,” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Elsewhere in northern Syria, a suicide bomber “detonated a truck outside a police station in the northern town of Rai that is controlled by Turkey-backed opposition fighters,” killing three people, according to the Observatory.
And as of Tuesday, the UN announced this morning, “92 civilians have died so far as a result of Turkey’s incursion into northern Syria,” AP writes. More here

European courts are beginning to hear cases about how to take back captured ISIS fighters, the Wall Street Journal reports today from Brussels and the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria. “Most are widowed women and their children, although some cases involve male fighters now being held by Kurdish forces in Syria.” 
Already, “A Brussels court on Oct. 30 ordered the government to repatriate a 23-year-old woman and her two children within 75 days; the government said it would appeal.” 
Making matters more difficult: “The Belgian government’s official policy is to facilitate the repatriation of children under 10 years of age, but not their mothers.” Elsewhere, “In Germany, a lower court ruled in July that the government must bring back a mother and her three children from a Kurdish-run refugee camp in Syria. But the government appealed and that legal battle continues. France, which has organized the repatriation of orphans, has also been sued for refusing to repatriate adults.” Read on, here.

It’s been a violent last few days across Africa, with an attack on a gold mine in Burkina Faso that killed more than three dozen people and wounded 60 others, Reuters reported Thursday from the West African nation just south of Mali. “The assailants’ identity was unclear, but Burkina Faso is struggling to combat surging Islamist violence in remote eastern and northern scrubland areas of the West African state... It was unclear exactly how many people were in the convoy, what their nationalities were or how many were missing. But two security sources said dozens may still be unaccounted for.”
ICYMI this past weekend, an attack in Mali killed more than 50 soldiers, CNN reported. And on Tuesday, the French military said back in October it killed a Mali-based militant leader named, Ali Maychou, “the No. 2 in command of the of Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin,” Germany’s DW reported Wednesday. “Maychou was a former radical Imam who was added to international sanctions list by the United Nations for his links to the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) militant group and al-Qaeda.”
Then Thursday, the U.S. Department of State designated JNIM’s Amadou Kouffa as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist. “Amadou Kouffa is a senior member in Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, an al-Qa’ida affiliate active in the Sahel region of Africa, which the Department of State designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization and SDGT in September 2018.”
Get to better know JNIM and other African militant Islamist groups in this review from the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. 

And now for something completely different. Back stateside, “Marines Can Now Use Umbrellas Instead of Just Holding them Up for Presidents,” reported Thursday. “The change follows an April survey on the matter from the Marine Corps' uniform board. Officials declined to say how many Marines who answered the survey viewed the addition of umbrellas to the uniform lineup favorably.”
Fineprint: “Leathernecks in camouflage combat utility uniforms will still need to brave the rainfall.”

And finally this week: Here’s what a robot army could look like, given the level of research and expertise available today. The video comes to us from the Biomimetic Robotics Lab at MIT's Department of Mechanical Engineering. Read all about the Cheetah’s ongoing evolution in research summarized and curated, here.

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again next week!