Today's D Brief: Israel under pressure; Russia’s 'reconstituted' military; US strikes Houthis; NATO turns 75; And a bit more.

Israel's plans to push ground forces into southern Gaza, and their recent strikes against Iranian troops inside Syria, could further destabilize the region, America’s top Air Force official in the Middle East told reporters Wednesday in Washington. Israel has so far not shared the details of their plans for Rafah, Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich of Air Forces Central Command said; but he warned an invasion into Rafah would bring more harm to civilians, Defense One’s Audrey Decker reports.

Background: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argues that Israeli forces must take Rafah to win the war against Hamas. But U.S. officials have expressed concern about the planned operation because the city is filled with over a million civilians who have nowhere else to go and some who have been displaced multiple times. 

Still, he said, there is “robust dialogue” between the U.S. and the Israelis. For example, Grynkewich said he speaks with the Israeli Air Chief a couple of times a week and U.S. and Israeli air operation centers communicate almost daily. However, AFCENT doesn’t conduct any on the ground advising or helping the Israelis with targeting. Those discussions are “higher level” and they emphasize to Israel the “importance of minimizing civilian harm and collateral damage,” he said. 

New: Israel’s military is bracing for blowback from Iran following their apparent Monday airstrike in Damascus that killed a top Iranian paramilitary commander and his deputy, but no civilians. The Israeli Defense Forces have reportedly called up additional reserve soldiers to bolster air defense units and they have halted leave for all combat units, according to Fox’s Trey Yingst and Idrees Ali of Reuters news. 

Update: Israel “needs to stop killing civilians and aid workers today,” demanded renowned chef José Andrés, whose food charity World Central Kitchen lost seven people when Israeli jets attacked their automobiles Tuesday in the southern Gaza Strip, killing all seven—Saifeddin Issam Ayad Abutaha, John Chapman, Jacob Flickinger, Zomi Frankcom, James Henderson, James Kirby and Damian Sobol. “The Israeli government needs to open more land routes for food and medicine today,” he wrote Wednesday in the op-ed pages of the New York Times.

“You cannot save the hostages by bombing every building in Gaza. You cannot win this war by starving an entire population,” Andrés warned Wednesday in the op-ed pages of the New York Times. “The Israeli government needs to open more land routes for food and medicine,” and “It needs to start the long journey to peace today,” he insisted. 

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin expressed his “outrage” over that WCK strike in a phone call with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant Wednesday. “Austin stressed the need to immediately take concrete steps to protect aid workers and Palestinian civilians in Gaza after repeated coordination failures with foreign aid groups,” the Pentagon said in readout afterward. “Austin stated that this tragedy reinforced the expressed concern over a potential Israeli military operation in Rafah, specifically focusing on the need to ensure the evacuation of Palestinian civilians and the flow of humanitarian aid,” according to that readout. 

Developing: “The Israeli army has marked tens of thousands of Gazans as suspects for assassination using an AI targeting system with little human oversight and a permissive policy for casualties,” the left-leaning Israeli news site +972 Magazine reported Wednesday. 

The system is allegedly known as “Lavender,” and it’s “designed to mark all suspected operatives in the military wings of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), including low-ranking ones, as potential bombing targets,” +972 reports. “This was despite knowing that the system makes what are regarded as ‘errors’ in approximately 10 percent of cases, and is known to occasionally mark individuals who have merely a loose connection to militant groups, or no connection at all.” Read on, here.

Elsewhere in the region, U.S. forces Wednesday “destroyed one inbound anti-ship ballistic missile and two unmanned aerial systems launched by Iranian-backed Houthi terrorists from Yemen towards [the] USS Gravely” on the Red Sea, CENTCOM officials announced in the evening. U.S. forces in the region also destroyed a mobile surface-to-air missile system evidently prior to launch inside Houthi-controlled territory, CENTCOM said. 

By the way: The U.S. military is using imagery from spy satellites and drones to drive those preemptive self-defense strikes around Yemen, AFCENT’s Lt. Gen. Grynkewich said Wednesday. U.S. forces in the region have a “layered” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance collection strategy to obtain information to carry out pre-emptive strikes, he said. Commanders receive imagery from “national sources” and also use an airborne layer of ISR, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, to collect information, he explained.

“We kind of pull all that together and then we have a small cell that fuses this very rapidly, so as tipping and queuing comes in, we can even rapidly retask assets to go take a closer look at it,” said Grynkewich. “And then, we're looking for the telltale signs that something’s set up, something's on a launch or something's ready to go; sometimes that's backed up by other intelligence that we understand some of the intent behind what we might be seeing,” he said. Defense One’s Decker has more, here.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1949, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson and representatives from 11 other countries signed NATO’s founding treaty, officially establishing the alliance. Seventy-five years later, the Russia-focused alliance has grown to 32 members, and virtually every one still eyes Moscow warily after two years of Vladimir Putin’s ongoing and unprovoked invasion of his Eastern European neighbor Ukraine. 

President Biden describes NATO as “the greatest military alliance in the history of the world.” But that greatness “didn’t happen by accident, nor was it inevitable,” he warned in a statement marking the occasion Thursday. “Generation after generation, the United States and our fellow allies have chosen to come together to stand up for freedom and push back against aggression—knowing we are stronger, and the world is safer, when we do,” the president said. 

He cited the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, and NATO’s response to Russia’s full-scale Ukraine invasion as examples of alliance unity. “As our adversaries have plotted to break our remarkable unity, our democracies have stood unwavering,” Biden said, and noted he’s planning to host this year’s alliance-wide summit in Washington. 

SecDef Austin: “In the aftermath of World War II, in the face of the new threat of Soviet aggression, the original 12 NATO Allies resolved to promote security in the North Atlantic area, to safeguard freedom and democracy, and to stand together for their collective defense,” Defense Secretary Austin said in his own statement Thursday. “Today’s 32-member alliance is larger than ever, after the historic recent addition of the proud democracies of Finland and Sweden; stronger than ever; and more united than ever,” he said. 

Bipartisan celebration: NATO is stronger today than it was in 1949, New Hampshire Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen and her North Carolina Republican colleague Thom Tillis said in a joint statement this week. “But it is important that the alliance remain clear-eyed and united against those who seek to upend global stability—from Russia’s continued attempts to undermine peace in Europe to the pacing challenge posed by the People’s Republic of China,” said Shaheen and Tillis, who the bipartisan Senate’s NATO Observer Group, which was reactivated in 2018 after an 11-year hiatus. 

“What started as twelve countries committed to maintaining peace in Europe has grown to a partnership of thirty-two allies committed to advancing transatlantic security,” the senators said, and emphasized their desire for alliance members to increase their defense spending to at least two percent of GDP. “By the end of this year, it’s expected that 18 countries will fulfill that commitment,” Shaheen and Tillis said. “We are proud of this progress,” they continued, “and know that by remaining in lockstep as global partners, NATO can shepherd in another 75 years of stability and transatlantic unity.”

State Secretary Antony Blinken is in Brussels to mark the occasion alongside foreign ministers from across the alliance. The defense provided by NATO “permit[s] us to get on with the real business of government,” that is “achieving a fuller and happier life for all our citizens,” Blinken said Thursday at alliance headquarters.  

Blinken also announced a new joint effort with new NATO member Finland to combat disinformation and propaganda. “In recognition of the threat to all democratic societies, the United States and Finland will expand information sharing about foreign disinformation, share best practices for countering it, and align policies along the five key action areas established in the U.S. Department of State’s Framework to Counter Foreign State Information Manipulation,” the State Department said in a statement Thursday.  

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And lastly, in a bit of uplift ahead of this year’s election, Americans still seem to agree on most core American values—including the right to vote, the right to equal protection under the law, the right to privacy, and freedom of religion. Each of those tracked at 84 percent or greater as far as whether folks said those issues are important to U.S. identity, according to new polling published Wednesday by AP-NORC.

But there is notably less consensus when it comes to the right to bear arms, which still polled at a majority with 54 percent viewing the issue as important. 

Other notables: “About three-quarters of U.S. adults agree that a democratically elected government is extremely or very important, and about 8 in 10 think the same about the ability of people living in the U.S. to get good jobs and achieve the American dream,” AP reports. But as is often the case, just what exactly the “American dream” means varies significantly, depending on whom you ask, which has implications for the politics of immigration. 

For example, according to AP: “Democrats are more likely than Republicans — 71% to 38% — to believe that the ability to come to the U.S. from elsewhere in the world to escape violence or find economic opportunities is core to the country’s identity. A majority of Republicans, 58%, think a culture grounded in Christian values and beliefs is an essential characteristic, compared to only 18% of Democrats.” Read the rest, here.