Europe fears Syrian war will spread; US-Taliban deal Saturday?; WH tries to control COVID-19 message; Somalia’s tough new enemy; And a bit more.

European officials fear a large war could break out of northwestern Syria after Turkey lost nearly three dozen soldiers Thursday in an airstrike by Russian-backed Syrian regime forces in Idlib province. The Associated Press called the Thursday attack "the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016," and "a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces." The BBC reports “The air strike came after the opposition retook the key town of Saraqeb, north-east of Balyun.” 

Turkey says it responded with drone and artillery attacks, state-run Anadolu Agency news reports today. According to Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, “Turkish forces destroyed five Syrian regime choppers, 23 tanks, 10 armored vehicles, 23 howitzers, five ammunition trucks, a SA-17, a SA-22 air defense system as well as three ammunition depots, two equipment depots, a headquarter[s] and 309 regime troops.” 

The actual number of regime forces killed is 16, Agence France-Presse reports from Istanbul. (And Turkey shut off much of the country’s internet after news of the 33 surfaced Thursday.)

From the POV of Russia’s defense ministry, the Turkish troops hit by Syria “were in the battle formations of terrorist groups” from the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance (formerly the Nusra Front), the Telegraph reported Thursday evening off a statement from Russia’s military. 

Today, Russia says it had nothing to do with the airstrike; and, at any rate, Turkey never told Russia its troops were in that location at Balyun, or Behun, the Washington Post reports this morning from Moscow. 

“There is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation,” the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, tweeted Thursday evening. “It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”

NATO ambassadors met in an emergency session today in Brussels, AP reports. From there, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg asked Syria and Russia “to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N efforts for a peaceful solution.” Stoltenberg also said alliance members “expressed full solidarity with Turkey,” the Post reports. 

For the record, AP notes that “France in particular has tried to launch a debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.”

Turkey and Russia’s presidents spoke by phone today, after “Moscow announced that two of its warships were transiting through the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul in plain sight of the city,” AFP reports. 

BTW: The Kremlin today warned Turkey not to let any of its citizens or property get hurt or damaged while in Turkey. That from Reuters, here

And Turkish President Erdogan is about to ask the U.S. for “real support” in NW Syria, Reuters reports separately today ahead of a phone chat between the two leaders. Erdogan also wants a no-fly zone in NW Syria. But it’s not clear at all right now how that might take shape.

And as Erdogan threatened previously, Turkey is now openly allowing Syrian migrants to travel to Europe; but don’t worry — Erdogan said — because it won’t hurt Turkey’s relationship with the West. Recall, AP writes, that “Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the EU agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to ‘open the gates,’ playing on European nervousness about a new surge.”

Within hours of the announcement, hundreds of migrants arrived at the border with Greece, AFP reported.

And so Greece began tightening its border control measures in response, Reuters reported

Bulgaria, too, is tightening its border security in response to Turkey, sending its army, national guard and police to the border, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports this morning. Reuters has still more from families who heard the word from Turkey Thursday and headed northwest almost immediately.

Reminder: The U.S. and the Taliban could sign some sort of deal on an American troop withdrawal on Saturday from Qatar. Today is day seven of the weeklong “reduction in violence” plan drummed up by the Trump White House in an effort to end the war in Afghanistan before election day in November.

However, the Taliban don’t expect a full withdrawal sooner than May 2021, AP reports today from Kabul.  “Taliban leaders told The Associated Press that if everything goes according to plan, all U.S. soldiers would be out of Afghanistan in 14 months. Washington has not confirmed such a timeline. 

Should we all make it to Saturday satisfactorily, the next step is getting the Taliban and the Afghan government to talk. That’s supposed to happen within 15 days of signing whatever document is produced tomorrow. That’s no small task, since AP reports that in that tentative meeting “Negotiators will try to figure out how to re-integrate tens of thousands of Taliban insurgents and thousands more militiamen loyal to warlords in Kabul, who have grown powerful and wealthy during 18 years.” Read on, here

The Taliban and Afghan officials mulled a prisoner swap today in Qatar, Reuters reports from Doha. One procedural stumbling block: “The Afghan delegation has no authority to agree on a prisoner swap,” Reuters writes, which means “It will consult and report back to the president” before authorizing the release of any of the 5,000 or so estimated Taliban prisoners in the Afghan government’s custody. The Taliban say they have an estimated 1,000 prisoners of their own to release in exchange. 

The overall mood at this juncture is cautious optimism. More from Reuters, here

From Defense One

A New Nuclear Warhead? STRATCOM Chief Can’t Answer Yes or No // Patrick Tucker and Marcus Weisgerber: The W93 has been the focus of questions since it appeared in the 2021 budget proposal.

America Must Shape the World’s AI Norms — or Dictators Will// Ash Carter, Chuck Hagel, Leon E. Panetta, and William Cohen: Four former U.S. defense secretaries issue a warning about China and a wake-up call to Americans on artificial intelligence.

Pentagon Taps Leader to Implement New AI Ethics // Brandi Vincent, Nextgov: It's Alka Patel, a lawyer who has been working for the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center.

Enacting Trump’s Revenge Campaign at the NSC // John Gans, The Atlantic: The cuts to the National Security Council have less to do with making government better than with making it purer.

Beware a Peace Deal That May Spell War // Tara Sonenshine: There are important questions still to be answered about Afghanistan and the United States.

Welcome to this Friday 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 1844, a 300-mm muzzle-loaded naval long gun exploded during a demonstration onboard the USS Princeton steam warship during a dignitaries’ cruise on the Potomac River, outside of Alexandria, Va. The explosion killed President John Tyler's Secretary of State Abel Upshur, and Navy Secretary Thomas Walker Gilmer, and four other people — including Tyler's valet, a black slave named Armistead.

White House orders federal scientists, health experts to clear all COVID-19 statements through VP Pence. For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the country’s leading experts on viruses and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, “told associates that the White House had instructed him not to say anything else without clearance,” the New York Times reported. Officials said the move is intended “not to control what experts and other officials say, but to make sure their efforts are coordinated.” More, here.
If that’s indeed what’s happening, “it is a danger to public health,” tweeted Ronald Klain, who was the White House’s Ebola Response Coordinator in 2014 and 2015 under President Obama.
Other observers quickly noted that this White House has a record of suppressing scientific facts while Trump and other administration officials spread misinformation. And on Thursday, Trump said of COVID-19, “It's going to disappear. One day it's like a miracle, it will disappear,” while acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told a conservative audience that the media was exaggerating the danger to “bring down the president.” All this followed statements by federal health officials earlier this week that the nation should brace for possible serious disruption.
Whistleblower: the U.S. workers who helped coronavirus evacuees had no protective gear. Washington Post: “Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services sent more than a dozen workers to receive the first Americans evacuated from Wuhan, China, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, without proper training for infection control or appropriate protective gear, according to a whistleblower complaint.” The workers were not tested for the virus, according to lawyers for the whistleblower, a senior HHS official based in Washington who oversees workers at the Administration for Children and Families, a unit within HHS.
“Improperly reassigned”: The whistleblower is seeking federal protection, alleging she was unfairly and improperly reassigned after raising concerns about the safety of these workers to HHS officials.” Read on, here.
Special powers coming soon? The Trump administration is considering invoking special powers through the Defense Production Act to “rapidly expand domestic manufacturing of protective masks and clothing to combat the coronavirus in the United States,” Reuters reports.
U.S. Navy warships in the Pacific that have visited “countries with moderate or greater risk” of the coronavirus must “remain at sea for at least 14 days before pulling into another port in order to monitor Sailors for any symptoms of the virus.” (Via CNN’s Ryan Browne)
Needed: a “military-style campaign.” That’s the argument from Carl Henn, MPH, an infectious disease specialist with more than 30 years’ experience in the field, mostly in Africa. “Such campaigns are effective against these kinds of infectious diseases,” Henn argues at Defense One, “because the way viruses operate fits, conceptually. into a military model.”
That means:

  1. A national strategy with global containment and initial border security initiatives. 
  2. An army of disease experts and health care providers.
  3. Weapons, in the form of health care facilities, virus test kits and protective apparel, and then a vaccine.
  4. Resources, including funds, information, and community leadership and involvement. Henn offers more detail, here.

Shangri-La, still on. IISS says its Shangri-La Dialogue will take place in Singapore as scheduled on June 5-7.

Not just al-Shabaab: Somalia’s military is now battling a well-armed militia in fighting that’s spread to two different towns, Reuters reports from Mogadishu. 
What’s going on: “Tension spilled over on Thursday evening between the Somali National Army and the Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama’a (ASWJ) militia, a group of moderate Sufi Muslims which has played a key role in the fight against the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab insurgency. Clashes began in Dhusamareb, administrative capital of central Somalia’s Galmudug state, and spread to Guriel town, 60 km (40 miles) away, on Friday.” Recall that “Somali government troops, supported by a 21,000-strong African Union peacekeeping force, launched a limited offensive against al Shabaab last year,” Reuters writes. 
But just this week, “a top American diplomat said progress had petered out with the internal rivalries.” That official: Rodney Hunter, the U.S. political coordinator to the United Nations. Read on, here

Apropos of nothing: What the heck do sanctions ever accomplish? CNAS has a report which attempts, in part, to answer the question, here.  

Cancer and K2, continued. “A member of Congress at a hearing about a toxic base in Uzbekistan used by the U.S. military shortly after 9/11 revealed on Thursday that he was also deployed there and has been diagnosed with two cancers,” McClatchy’s Tara Copp reported Thursday from a congressional hearing on U.S. military operations at Karshi-Khanabad, Uzbekistan, also known as “K2.” 
The lawmaker in question: Rep. Mark Green, R-Tenn. He “served as an Army special operations flight surgeon with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment,” Copp reports; and he was once deployed to K2. “I think many of the people in the room know that I have had colon cancer and thyroid cancer. Who gets two primary cancers at the same time?" he said Thursday. "It’s just unheard of.” Continue reading, here

Seek my face: Buzzfeed News obtained a “leaked list of organizations using the controversial Clearview AI facial recognition system,” and found that the list “includes many of America's biggest companies,” including Best Buy and Macy’s. 
That system has been accessed by “people associated with 2,228 law enforcement agencies, companies, and institutions have created accounts and collectively performed nearly 500,000 searches — all of them tracked and logged by the company,” which offered 30-day free trials.
One big takeaway: “Clearview has taken a flood-the-zone approach to seeking out new clients, providing access not just to organizations, but to individuals within those organizations — sometimes with little or no oversight or awareness from their own management.”
Tweeted reporter Tom Gara: "In many cases the companies simply aren't aware their staff are using it, or deny it completely." Read on, here.

And finally today: The Utah Jazz’s legendary “Mailman” piloted a B-52 earlier this month. The Drive has the story, and video, 20-year NBA veteran Karl Malone at Barksdale Air Force Base in early February, here

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!