OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Concerns mount over Syrian chemical weapons

Concerns over the use of chemical weapons by Assad forces have also spiked on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers who have called for more U.S. action in Syria held a press conference Thursday, saying they would back the president’s use of force in Syria to stop Assad from using chemical weapons.

“If the president believes we need to use force to secure chemical weapons to stop them from being utilized to kill thousands more, we stand with him,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenate GOP urges Trump administration to work closely with Congress on NAFTA Graham: Trump will 'end North Korea’s threat to the American homeland' in his first term Sunday shows preview: Lawmakers weigh in after Texas school shooting MORE (R-S.C.) said. 

“I’m willing to do a resolution before the Senate seeking authorization to use force against Assad using chemical weapons against his own people," he added. 

Locked in: Also on Thursday, the Pentagon announced it had cemented a deal with Iraq that virtually ensures continued U.S. support for the country's security forces over the next five years. 

DOD policy chief James N. Miller, acting under secretary of State for international security Rose Gottemoeller, and acting Iraqi Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dlimi signed the agreement during a meeting of the U.S. and Iraqi Defense and Security Joint Coordination Committee in Baghdad on Thursday. 

The timing of the deal comes near the one-year anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from the country. 

Details of the pact will outline a number of cooperative efforts between Washington and Iraq in areas like joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations and counterterrorism and intelligence-sharing capabilities, according to recent reports. 

Some lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon and White House over its handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, as Congress continues to debate how best to pull American forces out of Afghanistan. 

Washington’s decision to virtually abandon Iraq with little to no residual U.S. presence to support the country’s fledgling security forces has resulted in rampant violence that threatens to tear the nation apart, according to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.).

“That ended up being a mistake,” he told The Hill on Tuesday. “We don’t want Afghanistan to suffer the same way.” 

NDAA conference completion likely two weeks away: The conference committee for the defense authorization bill will officially get under way next week, but its conclusion is not likely until the following week, according to congressional sources.

The Armed Services Committee staffs have already been meeting to work on the final bill. The House and Senate will still need to name conferees next week, when the bulk of the work on the conference report will be completed.

Both the House and Senate committees are eager to get the conference report done and passed so the defense bill will pass for the 51st straight year. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinHow House Republicans scrambled the Russia probe Congress dangerously wields its oversight power in Russia probe The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by CVS Health — Trump’s love-hate relationship with the Senate MORE (D-Mich.) said after the Senate passed the bill this week that the biggest enemy now is “time.”

There are some contentious issues to resolve — biofuels, social issues, terror detention, Afghanistan withdrawal timelines — but neither side expects any will stall the bill.

For comparison, last year’s conference committee took nine days to complete, when the committees were also working quickly in December.

Pentagon's Johnson to resign: Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) resignation was the news of the day in Washington, but it wasn’t the only major departure announced Thursday.

Pentagon general counsel Jeh Johnson told President Obama Thursday that he will resign at the end of the year and return to private law practice.

Johnson, who helped lead the work within the Pentagon to repeal “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” has served at the Pentagon since 2009. He was praised by gay and lesbian advocates Thursday after his resignation became public.

“He has earned not only our respect, but also a place in history as a warrior for fairness and equality,” said Allyson Robinson, executive director of OutServe-SLDN, a group that advocates for LGBT service members.

New CENTCOM chief named: While DOD lost its top lawyer on Thursday, it also gained a new commander for the Pentagon's Central Command. 

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Lloyd Austin was tapped by the White House to take over the critical command, taking the place of outgoing CENTCOM chief Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis. 

Pending Senate confirmation, Austin will likely help oversee the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, alongside Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was recently confirmed as the new top American commander in Afghanistan. 

Austin has experience in this sort of thing, serving as the top U.S. general in Iraq during the American drawdown in that country that wrapped up last December. 

"Gen. Austin led our military efforts at a particularly important time, overseeing the drawdown of U.S. forces and equipment while simultaneously helping to ensure that hard-fought security gains were preserved and that Iraqis could secure and govern themselves," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in a statement announcing Austin's nomination. 

That level of leadership and experience gained in Iraq and throughout his career will "pay dividends for American forces in "one of the most critical posts in the department," Panetta added.

In Case You Missed It: 

— Dem senator suggests Air Force bomb Syria 

— Cornyn to leave Senate Armed Services Committee 

— North Korea eyes new missile tests 

— Afghan intel chief wounded in suicide attack

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