Friday, July 22, 2016

Assault on ISIS in Libya; Trump’s plan to win quickly; Erdogan’s strong position; NCS chief dispatched to China; and a bit more...

The D Brief
July 22, 2016   
 
 

Counter-ISIS forces in Libya are advancing on the coastal city of Sirte—its biggest stronghold outside of Iraq and Syria—capturing a neighborhood and a hotel used by the Islamic State following nearly two months of delays due to "snipers, suicide bombers and mines as they have closed in on the city center," Reuters reports.

"After a lull in fighting earlier this week, the government-backed forces launched a fresh assault on several fronts after first pounding IS positions with artillery and air strikes. The brigades, made up mainly of fighters from the western city of Misrata, said in a statement...they had foiled three attempted car bomb attacks and destroyed an armored vehicle. A Reuters witness saw a tank belonging to the brigades being blown up, though it was not clear what caused the explosion."

The government-backed forces claimed to have killed nearly 50 ISIS fighters on Thursday, while "at least 25 brigade members were killed and 200 wounded, according to Misrata's central hospital. Since the campaign for Sirte began in May, more than 300 fighters from the brigades have been killed and more than 1,300 wounded, a spokesman for the forces said." More here.

In northern Syria, ISIS has reportedly ignored the Syrian Democratic Forces calls to leave Manbij within 48 hours—and so fighting there has resumed today, AP reports with little further detail.

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Also in Manbij, alleged ISIS fighters were reportedly captured by SDF on Thursday trying to dress up as women. Watch video of the scene from the SDF, here.

And the BBC's Feras Kilani became "the first international journalist to get inside Manbij since the start of the battle to force IS out," filing this fairly harrowing video report from the city—where some 25,000 civilians remain trapped—on Thursday.

Back to Geneva: Russian, American and UN officials are scheduled to return to the negotiating table for Syrian peace talks, the UN's special envoy for the war said this morning. Previous talks on the crisis were suspended in April.

Read the previously "untold story" of how Russian airstrikes nearly killed U.S. and British special operators in Syria,

Don't look now, but a "massive tragedy" is in the making in rebel-held Aleppo, the Washington Post reports as "pro-government forces have cut off the only road into those areas, leaving an estimated 300,000 people at risk of starvation."

How is this different from the dire news out of Aleppo over the last few months? Cutting off those portions of the city could deal a significant blow to "the rebellion and its main outside supporters, Turkey and Saudi Arabia," the Post's Hugh Naylor writes, "which supply Assad's opponents with money and weapons. That scenario also signals another significant setback for U.S. policy in Syria, which backs the moderate opposition to Assad's government and formally calls for his departure as part of a transition to end the conflict." Read the rest, here.

 

Here's Donald Trump's three-part strategy to defeat ISIS, which he laid out while accepting the GOP nomination for president Thursday night: Collect "absolutely the best" intelligence, stop "the failed policy of nation-building and regime change," and "work with all of our allies who share our goal of destroying ISIS and stamping out Islamic terrorism." Outcome: "We're going to win. We're going to win fast!" OK, then.

Of course, those allies might be a little wary of working with a United States that doesn't honor its treaty obligations, as national-security experts across the spectrum spent all of yesterday pointing out. Reacting to Trump's "extraordinary interview" (as Ron Fournier put it) with the New York TimesThe Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, "Trump is making it clear that, as president, he would allow Russia to advance its hegemonic interests across Europe and the Middle East. His election would immediately trigger a wave of global instability—much worse than anything we are seeing today—because America's allies understand that Trump would likely dismantle the post-World War II U.S.-created international order. Many of these countries, feeling abandoned, would likely pursue nuclear weapons programs on their own, leading to a nightmare of proliferation."

Jim Stavridis, the NATO supreme commander-turned-Fletcher School-chief and now reportedly a potential Hillary Clinton vice-presidential pick, defended NATO as not just an operational but a moral force. It's quite worth reading, here.

NATO leaders themselves were incensed enough to take the unusual step of responding to a political candidate's words. Wall Street Journal, here.

But even as defense-and-foreign-security heads exploded around the world, Fournier explains how Trump's "comments are consistent with his populism—they appeal to his base and, more importantly, could find appeal beyond his nominating coalition." Read that, here.

For what it's worth, a Green Beret friend of The D Brief had this to say about Trump's NATO remarks: "Understand that he doesn't even have to be elected for this kind of thing to be dangerous. He's just so monstrously out of his depth."

 

After nearly a week of working off generators, the U.S. troops at Incirlik air base are finally working once again on commercial electricity, U.S. European Command announced this morning.

Meanwhile in Turkey, Erdogan vows to restructure the military. Reuters: "Erdogan said the government's Supreme Military Council, which is chaired by the prime minister, and includes the defense minister and the chief of staff, would oversee the restructuring of the armed forces. 'They are all working together as to what might be done, and ... within a very short amount of time a new structure will be emerging. With this new structure, I believe the armed forces will get fresh blood,' Erdogan said. That, here.

Make no mistake: "Erdogan has the West over a barrel," U.S. News' Paul Shinkman reports, writing that "many Western officials and observers" believe the Turkish president now "has everything in place he needs to continue transforming Turkey's parliamentary republic into an autocracy, and nobody, including the U.S. or NATO, is going to stop him."

 
 
 
 
D  From Defense One

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The White House is dispatching National Security Advisor Susan Rice to Beijing to "urge restraint on all sides" in the South China Sea, she told Reuters in an exclusive this morning. "With less than six months remaining of President Barack Obama's tenure, Rice's broader mission in her July 24-27 trip is aimed at keeping overall ties between the world's two largest economies, which she called 'the most consequential relationship we have,' on track at a time of heightened tensions."

Her visit also includes a stopover in Shanghai that coincides "with visits by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to Laos and the Philippines where he is expected to try to reassure Southeast Asian partners of Washington's commitment. The United States is also using quiet diplomacy to persuade claimants like the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam not to move aggressively to capitalize on The Hague ruling."

Washington isn't "looking to do things that are escalatory," a U.S. official said. "And at the same time we don't expect that they (the Chinese) would deem it wise to do things that are escalatory."

Nevertheless, Reuters adds, "two Chinese civilian aircraft conducted test landings at two new military-length airstrips on reefs controlled by China in the Spratly Islands shortly after the arbitration ruling...[and] a Chinese state-run newspaper said that up to eight Chinese ships will offer cruises to the South China Sea over the next five years."

Boeing eats another $393 million on KC-46 tanker.  The week started off with good news for the project when the Air Force said the new plane had passed a crucial test clearing the way for the Pentagon to buy more aircraft. The week ends with bad news: the fix for the problems with the plane's refueling boom, which delayed the project five months, will cost Boeing $393 million($573 million before tax, according to the Wall Street Journal). That latest "charge" brings the total cost of the overruns for the new tanker to $2 billion. But since the Air Force signed a fixed price contract with Boeing, those extra charges are all on them, not the taxpayer. More here.

For your ears only: Listen along as movie director Alex Gibney discusses the Stuxnet virus believed to be responsible for damaging Iranian nuclear reactors—and the difficulties that Gibney, director of "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," faced making a movie about a top secret program that few people will publicly acknowledge ever existed." That via Christian Science Monitor's Passcode blog, here.

Finally this week: a reason to rejoice for refugees: former Afghan refugee brothers just developed a mine-hunting drone, AFP reports from the Netherlands.

But first a brief review of work they've already received high praise for: "In 2013, they won worldwide acclaim for the 'mine kafon'—a giant ball shaped like a dandelion-seed head that rolls around with the wind, its plastic stalks tripping landmines in the process. Inspired by their childhood toys, the kafon—short for 'kafondan' which in the Hassanis' native Dari language means 'something that explodes'—drew high praise from anti-landmine organisations."

Now in 2016, their new "mine-hunting device combines drone technology, 3D printing and robotics with a metal detector to find and ultimately destroy landmines. Hinged on six arms with rotors that creates lift, the 4.5 kilo (10-pound) drone consists of a blue hard plastic casing that contains batteries, computer hardware and software and a global positioning system. A robotic arm slung underneath is fitted with pincers that can remotely be opened and closed. The pincers can carry a metal detector or a small explosive charge, which the brothers say can be used to destroy a landmine. The on-board GPS allows it to plot its course via computer."

The drone is intended to work "in three stages: mapping, detecting and destroying… When deployed, a 3D mapping system scans the section that needs to be demined. Secondly, the mapped area is meticulously [swept] by the drones carrying a metal detector on a pre-programme path... Finally, the plan is to destroy the mines by using the drone to place a small charge on every mine to detonate it."

One of the inventors, Massoud Hassani, said he believes mine-clearance can be achieved "almost 20 times faster than what they are now." Read the rest from AFP, here. And have a great weekend, everyone!