Deadliest virus day; Russian mercs vs. US troops; UAE’s multinational force in Yemen; Space Forcers?; And a bit more.

73 died in China on Wednesday of the novel coronavirus, bringing the toll to 563, the Wall Street Journal reports.

U.S. tells citizens: two airliners departing Beijing on Thursday night are your last chance to get home for a while.  

Get live updates on the 2019 nCoV dashboard from Johns Hopkins.

Global tourism takes hit. “Thirty airlines have suspended service to China and 25,000 flights were cancelled this week alone, according to OAG, a travel data company. Hotel rooms in China are largely empty; Chinese hotel occupancy plummeted 75% in the last two weeks of January,” AP reports.

So do U.S.-China academic programs. American universities are cancelling summer exchange programs, or considering it. U.S. academic conferences are trying to figure out what to do about Chinese speakers and attendees. It’s an “unprecedented disruption” for academic ties that have become far broader and more complex since SARS disrupted things in 2003, said Brad Farnsworth, vice president of global engagement at the American Council on Education. (AP)

Chinese scientists seek to patent anti-virus drug invented in California. The drug, remdesivir, was invented by Gilead Science, which has applied for a patent in China. But the government-run Wuhan Institute of Virology now wants that patent, and is set to begin tests of the drug this week, state media tells AP.

China’s Xi, Saudi king discuss ways to control the virus. (Reuters

Russia rejects Saudi proposal to further cut OPEC oil production as global demand softens. (WSJ

From Defense One

What Do You Call the Troops of the US Space Force? // Marcus Weisgerber: The Pentagon wants your input — and space cadets and spacemen are not under consideration.

Trump’s Bid to Go Big on Nuclear Arms Looks Like a Fizzle // Steven Pifer: Russia has no interest in negotiating from scratch. China has no interest in negotiating at all.

Don’t Blame Foreign Hackers for the Chaos in Iowa // Zeynep Tufekci, The Atlantic: Blame an ill-considered push for untested technology. Securing our elections means getting the simple things right.

New Counterintelligence Strategy to Boost Sharing on Cyber Threats // Mariam Baksh, Nextgov: To be rolled out Monday, the strategy adds the private sector as a customer of the intelligence community.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1945, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur declared “Manila had fallen,” as American troops began day four fighting Japanese forces in the Philippine capital. MacArthur’s announcement was premature, and it would in fact take another two weeks or so before Japanese troops finally withdrew. 

Happening now: Defense Secretary Mark Esper is delivering a keynote speech at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. Watch the livestream on DVIDS, here.

Russia’s military contractors “are engaging in potentially dangerous standoffs with U.S. troops on highways in northeastern Syria,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Photos circulating on social media have shown U.S. military trucks blocking civilian vehicles that local journalists say are carrying Russian contractors on the highways. The encounters, while tense, haven’t involved the use of force.”
“These are not daily occurrences, but they have been increasing in number, and thus it is troubling,” said U.S. envoy James Jeffrey on Wednesday.
Recall that almost exactly two years ago, some 500 troops, including dozens of Russian mercenaries, tried to attack a U.S. military outpost in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor. The attackers were wiped out in a battle that lasted nearly four hours. We pick up the story in our latest podcast all about Russian mercenaries, here
Elsewhere in Syria, regime forces fought off rebels and Turkish artillery as Assad’s military tried to retake the northwestern city of Saraqeb, what Reuters calls “the last rebel stronghold” in the country, based in Idlib province.  
Also: Possible Israeli airstrikes fell on Damascus overnight, killing Syria’s Gen. Ismail Badran, the chief commander of Mezzeh Airbase. If true, Middle East analyst Charles Lister calls Badran “the most senior victim of [Israeli air force] strikes in Syria of the whole post-2011 war.”
By the way: ISIS hasn’t collapsed. But they haven’t recovered from the devastating blows dealt by the U.S.-led coalition, according to the latest DoD inspector’s general report (PDF) on the ongoing ISIS war. 
"The reality is more subtle," writes Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan on Twitter. "ISIS biggest achievement is that it’s shown ability to endure immense pressure without fracture or collapse, but hasn’t (yet) been able to fully recover & re-emerge." Otherwise, he adds after reading the IG report, the "US government says that ISIS command control is intact, despite the half-decade campaign against it and the killing of almost all its known leaders and commanders. That’s an important assessment." 

From the region: “Bitterness has poisoned the [U.S.-Iraq] partnership,” AP reports today from behind closed doors in the Iraqi capital. 
What’s going on: “The government told the Iraqi military not to seek U.S. help in operations fighting the Islamic State group, two senior Iraqi military officials told The Associated Press — a sign that authorities are serious about rethinking the strategic relationship.” 
However, “At stake are vital U.S.-provided weapons, military technologies and aircraft that have been key in countering the threat of Islamic State group militants trying to make a comeback in northern and western Iraq. The prospect of losing that help is one reason why Iraqi politicians have cooled their demands for American forces to go immediately.” Much more to the story, here.

America should go play “Great Power Competition” somewhere else. That's one of the messages today from visiting Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta to U.S. President Donald Trump, according to AP, reporting from Nairobi. The two leaders “are widely expected to discuss the establishment of a free trade agreement between the U.S. and Kenya,” AP writes. And that would be a big deal since “It would be the first time the U.S. has signed such an agreement with a country in sub-Saharan Africa… as the U.S. tries to counter the influence of China.”
President Kenyatta dropped by the Atlantic Council think tank in D.C. on Wednesday. There, he told the audience (video) that global powers like the U.S. are “behaving like Africa is for the taking.” On the other hand, he said, “We must begin to look at Africa as the world’s biggest opportunity, and I believe that you can dare to look at it with a fresh eye.”
Bigger picture considerations: “Kenya is struggling to finance its debt due in part to borrowing from the Chinese to finance large infrastructure projects such as a $3.8 billion standard gauge railway line,” AP reports. “Part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the majority-Chinese financed railway is Kenya’s largest infrastructure project since independence from Britain in 1963.”
Meanwhile, “Progress is unclear on an agreement between the U.S. and Kenya to build a highway to link the capital, Nairobi, with the port city of Mombasa. The project is seen as Washington’s countermeasure to China’s growing influence.” Continue reading, here.

Saudi Arabia uses its counter-terrorism court to imprison and sometimes execute “peaceful critics, activists, journalists, clerics and minority Muslim Shiites,” AP reports today off a newly-released investigation from the human rights group Amnesty International. "Established in 2008 to try terror-related crimes, the [Specialized Criminal Court] started trying critics of the government in 2011 under broadly worded counter-terrorism laws that criminalize acts such as insulting King Salman and the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman."
Some things that can get you into trouble: 

  • “disobeying the ruler” of Saudi Arabia; 
  • “questioning the integrity” of officials;
  • “seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder by calling for demonstrations”; 
  • and “disseminating false information to foreign groups,” which AP writes can “hinge on speaking to human rights groups or the use of social media.” Read on, here.

Today we learned: The forces fighting for the UAE in Yemen include Chadian, Chilean, Colombian, Libyan, Panamanian, Nigerien, Somali, Salvadoran, Sudanese, and Ugandan contract soldiers. And that’s not even a full list. Read more in the latest report from Carnegie’s Middle East Center, authored by Zoltan Barany of the University of Texas. 

A senior Russian diplomat raised concern about the U.S. deployment of a new sub-launched nuclear missile. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Wednesday that the new missile shows that U.S. leaders think that “it is possible to wage a limited nuclear war and win such a war.” Its deployment is “very alarming,” Ryabkov said. (NBC News)
U.S. leaders have argued that the W76-2 warhead, built to hit Russia with a smaller nuclear explosion than the Trident missile, improves deterrence and will thus prevent war.
Many analysts have noted that there’s no way for Russia to know whether an incoming missile carries a large or small nuclear warhead, and there’s no way to be sure that a limited nuclear attack would not ultimately lead to massive nuclear exchanges. See Nuclear Weapons Are Getting Less Predictable, and More Dangerous by Defense One’s Patrick Tucker.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. admiral raised concerns about increased activity by Russian submarines off the Atlantic coast. “Our new reality is, when our sailors cross lines over and set sail, they can expect to be operating in a contested space once they leave” Virginia, Vice Adm. Andrew "Woody" Lewis, who commands U.S. Second Fleet, said at a Tuesday event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Our ships can no longer expect to operate in a safe haven on the East Coast, or merely cross the Atlantic unhindered to operate in another location.” (

And finally today: U.S., Russian military leaders meet on the edge of the Caspian Sea. The meeting involved Chief of Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov and U.S. Air Force Gen. Tod Walters in Baku, Azerbaijan. NPR’s Lucian Kim summarized the highlights in a semi-awkward photo over on Twitter, here. (Find a few other previous awkward Gerasimov photo ops here and here.)