Mosul offensive’s bloody turn; White House offloads some authority to Pentagon; Russian defense spending drops 25%; Three questions about Trump’s anti-ISIS plan; and just a bit more…

The civilian toll of the Mosul offensive is rising as coalition-backed Iraqi troops inched their way past the city’s old train station to within blocks of the picturesque mosque in the western half of Mosul this weekend. Here’s a pretty clear video of that al Nuri mosque, shot by Italian photojournalist Gabriele Micalizzi on Sunday.

The numbers: “More than 750 civilians have been killed or wounded since the fight for western Mosul began a month ago, front-line medics say, a number they expect to spike as Iraqi forces push into the old city,” AP reports. “Airwars, a London-based group that tracks civilian deaths from airstrikes targeting IS in Iraq and Syria, estimates the number of casualties to be much higher, claiming more than 300 civilians have been killed in western Mosul over the last month.”

On the ISIS side of the violence, the group “has fired at least 4,284 mortars, rockets, and artillery rounds ‘indiscriminately’ in western Mosul since January, showing ‘complete disregard of human life,’” U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Joseph Martin, the commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq, told AP.

For some perspective: By the end of January, “some 1,600 civilians were killed or wounded during the 100 days of fighting to recapture Mosul’s less densely populated east,” AP writes. “The Pentagon, which has yet to release casualty figures from the last month, has acknowledged 220 civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since the U.S. campaign against IS began in 2014.”

On the displaced: “Of the nearly 300,000 people who have fled Mosul since the operation to retake Iraq’s second largest city began in October, more than 100,000 have left in the past month alone, according to the United Nations.”

Adds Reuters: “The last week has seen the highest level of displacement yet, with 32,000 displaced between March 12 and 15.”

Meanwhile, AFP photographer Aris Messinis dodged sniper fire with Iraqi troops in West Mosul for about an hour on Sunday. See that here.

And Iraqi security forces recently seized an ISIS remote-controlled gadget laboratory. Snapshots of that, here.

ISIS is painting their car bombs to confuse Iraqis. See some of that, here.

In other open-source news, see a 360° video of ISIS’ uparmored Kia SUV car bomb hidden in house, seized by the ISF in West Mosul.

AFP’s Aris Messinis shared alleged photos of some of the dead being carted away by family on Saturday.

“President Trump is shifting more authority over military operations to the Pentagon,” The New York Times reported Sunday, “reversing what his aides and some generals say was a tendency by the Obama White House to micromanage issues better left to military commanders.” Explainer, here.

For another window into operations inside the White House, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster are pushing Trump to be a globalist, “but that’s not the vision he was elected on,” the Washington Post reports.

Elsewhere in the global ISIS fight—to Mara, Chad, specifically— “Trump officials have shown few other signs that they want to back away from Mr. Obama’s strategy to train, equip and otherwise support indigenous armies and security forces to fight their own wars instead of having to deploy large American forces to far-flung hot spots,” the NYT’s Eric Schmitt reports. “That leeway carries its own perils. Last week, the Pentagon went to unusual lengths to defend an airstrike in Syria that United States officials said killed dozens of Qaeda operatives at a meeting place — and not civilians at a mosque, as activists and local residents maintain.” More here.

By the way, Jenan Moussa, reporter for Arabic Al Aan TV, visited the scene of that strike in northwest Syria. She gathered the names of 31 people killed in the strike, and presented her on-the-ground findings in an illuminating Twitter thread, here.

What’s next for the U.S. military in Syria? The AP takes a look “at how the U.S. mission has evolved, how it stands today and challenges facing the Trump administration it contemplates speeding up the fight.” Find that, here.

This weekend in Syria: Rebels assaulted the capital city of Damascus, unsuccessfully. “The most recent fighting has focused on the areas around Qaboun and Barza, which the army has isolated from the rest of the main rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta and the eastern districts of Damascus.” More from Reuters, here.

From Defense One

Three Lingering Questions For Trump’s New Plan to Fight ISIS // Gayle Tzemach Lemmon: If the president sends more American boots to Syria, who will fight alongside them, and — still — what comes next?

US and Russian Military Leaders Are Meeting Again, Breaking a Long and Dangerous Drought // Peter Zwack, former U.S. attaché to Russia: Over three years had passed without direct senior-level contact between the world’s preeminent nuclear powers.

Boeing Might Be the Biggest Winner in Trump’s Military Buildup // Marcus Weisgerber: The Chicago aerospace company leads more than a half-dozen contractors whose programs stand to get 9- or 10-figure boosts if the president’s budget proposal becomes law.

What Will Replace the Third Offset? Lessons from Past Innovation Strategies // CSIS’ Kathleen Hicks and Andrew Hunter: Whatever the name, it’s crucial to have a framework for directing and harnessing advancements in defense technology.

The Hidden Potential of NATO’s Gator Navies // Lt. Col. Gregory DeMarco and RAND’s Gene Germanovich: Improving U.S.-European amphibious interoperability would bolster the alliance’s defense posture in a non-provocative manner that complements recent moves in land forces.

Get “Foreign Military Sales Under the Trump Administration,” a new ebook from Defense One. During the eight years of the Obama administration, the defense industry’s requests to export weapons were approved at a record clip. Now companies are waiting to see how Donald Trump will do business. Download the ebook, here.

Welcome to this first day of Spring edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1922: USS Langley, built as the USS Jupiter, is commissioned as the U.S. Navy’s first aircraft carrier. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us:

Russia is decreasing its defense spending about 25 percent this year, Janes reported Thursday off numbers released by the Russian Federal Treasury. That brings 2017 spending back down to 2014 levels: 2.8 trillion rubles, or about $48.6 billion, after a six-year run in which spending increased an average of almost 20 percent per year. The decrease was first outlined last October with the release of the 2017-19 defense budget. Read a bit more, here.

Speaking of 2014: Russia annexed Crimea three years ago last Saturday, and the U.S. State Department marked the occasion: “The United States again condemns the Russian occupation of Crimea and calls for its immediate end,” Acting Spokesperson Mark Toner said in a press release. “Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine.”

In the meantime, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has a short-and-sweet explainer about using open-source info to track Russian military moves near the Ukraine border, here.

In a look back, Moscow Times notes that the annexation plan was hastily concocted to rescue Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval ratings, which had fallen to a low of 60 percent. “Not only has the Crimea gambit paid off, but Russia’s superpower status has been confirmed and sealed by Donald Trump’s unexpected victory in the U.S. presidential election. With a like-minded leader in the White House, Putin now feels he is the ‘half-emperor of the world, and his reelection in March 2018 has global significance,’ says Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst.” Read that, here.

A majority of Americans want Congress to investigate Trump’s ties to Russia, according to a Fox News poll released Thursday: “Sixty-six percent want a Congressional investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the election, and 63 percent want lawmakers to look into possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia.” Read more, here.

When FBI director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill today, says Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes, the less he says, the more dire his Russia probe is for Trump. Read his reasoning, here.

Germany’s defense minister rejected Trump’s Saturday claim that Berlin owes NATO and the U.S.“vast sums” of money for defense, the Washington Post reports. “NATO does not have a debt account,” said German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. “What we want is a fair burden-sharing, and in order to achieve that, we need a modern understanding of security.”

Adds the Post: “The rather unusual rebuke of Trump by a German defense minister indicates growing concerns in Berlin over transatlantic relations. The percentage of Germans who view the United States as a trustworthy ally has dropped from 59 percent in November to 22 percent in February.” More here.

ICYMI: Germany’s chief of intelligence told Der Spiegel that Russia has doubled the size of its military on its western border. “The Russian threat has intensified. Russia has doubled the fighting power on the western border, which can not be judged as a defensive against the West,” said Bruno Kahl, the head of the Federal Intelligence Service. Read more of his concerns, here.

White House takes its time responding to Pyongyang’s latest provocation.U.S. officials offered a muted response to North Korea’s assertion over the weekend that it had successfully tested a new high-thrust rocket engine, as the Trump administration worked to determine the accuracy of Pyongyang’s claim,” The Wall Street Journal reports. “North Korea said last year that it had tested a high-thrust rocket engine, similar to the one Pyongyang said was tested Saturday at dawn at a launch site in the country’s northwest at region. A successful test of another would put North Korea a step closer to being able to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile, which Mr. Kim has said his country will test.”

Get a closer look at some of the high-tech missile defense ships the U.S. has brought to exercises off the Korean coast, via this report from Newsweek.

Elsewhere in the region, “Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Sunday that his militarily inferior country can’t stop China’s actions in contested waters, responding to a reported plan by Beijing to construct an environmental monitoring station in a disputed shoal off the northwestern Philippines,” AP reports.

Duterte: “What will I do? Declare a war against China? I can, but we’ll all lose our military and policemen tomorrow, and we are a destroyed nation.” Story here.

PACOM’s Harris is in Nepal today to observe the 28-nation Exercise Shanti Prayas III. More on the event—which runs through early April—and its participants, here.

Closure in Somalia, sort of. The skipper and seven of his sailors on the oil tanker seized by Somali pirates last week have been freed, AP reports—but with “no details about their captivity or how their freedom was secured.” More: “The ship, which had a crew of eight Sri Lankans, docked at the port of Bossaso, the region’s commercial hub, under heavy security by local naval forces who boarded the ship after pirates released it as a result of negotiations with local elders and regional authorities…The pirates told authorities that they did not seize the ship for ransom but to protest of the illegal fishing in the area by international vessels that has threatened the ability of local fishermen to earn livelihoods.”

Lacking closure still: What exactly happened to that refugee ship reportedly attacked by a military helicopter last week, killing more than 40 on board. Somalia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs wants answers, it announced this weekend.

Shortly after that demand, the “Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen called on Sunday for the United Nations to place a strategic port under its supervision,” Reuters reported. “While the Arab alliance denied responsibility for the attack on Friday, it called for jurisdiction over Hodeidah port to be transferred to the UN…It is still unclear who was behind the assault.” More here.

Estimating the cost of life in Afghanistan: “Nearly 16 years since invading Afghanistan, the United States has no standardized process for making compensation payments to the families of thousands of Afghan civilians killed or injured in U.S.-led military operations,” Reuters reports. Worth the click—as we’re now in a Trump era of relaxed constraints on civilian casualties—here.

And lastly today: Afghanistan’s drunken, Wild West lawmakers, brought to you by the NYT’s Rod Nordland and Jawad Sukhanyar, reporting from Kabul: “Kabulis are all too familiar with the spectacle of powerful political figures charging around town and running roughshod over those who get in their way, even police officers. In fact, attacks on the Kabul police are far more common from such politicians than from the Taliban, though the insurgents’ attacks are typically more deadly.”

Their jump for the story: Parliamentarian Lalai Hamidzai’s “drunken rampage” on Friday that involved shots fired at a hotel, a chase through Kabul, and an attempt to cover up his actions by shooting at his own house before police could arrive. All that and more, here.

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