Battle for Mosul begins; Who’s breaking the Syrian ceasefire?; Philippines fights ISIS; That’s a lot of classified medals; and a bit more.

The battle for Mosul has begun, and it’s going to be the biggest U.S. operation in Iraq since the end of the last war, said Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford on Monday.

Multinational forces have begun to cut off the city’s supply and communications lines, and to encircle and isolate Islamic State fighters with cyber and air and ground attacks, writes Defense One’s Kevin Baron. Some coalition forces are already going after ISIS inside Mosul, and the final thrust to retake it should be expected sooner than the distant future, Dunford said.

The idea: “Rather than sending brigades of U.S. forces to reinvade Mosul, the Obama administration has deployed special operators to target ISIS leaders and dispatched thousands of advisors, who have spent months preparing Iraqi, Kurd, and other local forces to do the job,” writes Baron.

But the strategy has drawn “blistering criticism from seasoned diplomats, former generals, and Republican leaders and presidential candidates, who have argued that greater U.S. military intervention could have broken ISIS sooner and saved innocents.”

Still, the push into Mosul will require more American forces than were involved in the recent retaking of the southern Iraqi city of Ramadi, and will be shaped by lessons from that earlier campaign.

How so? Read on here.

The runup to Mosul itself: Iraqi security forces launched a morning offensive to retake areas north of Baghdad from Islamic State control. “The ‘new offensive’ began at dawn in a swath agricultural area northwest of the city of Samarra, 95 kilometers (60 miles) north of Baghdad, with the aim to cut IS supply lines and to tighten the grip around the IS-held northern city of Mosul,” writes the Associated Press. Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said paramilitary forces, mostly Shiite militias, and the Iraqi air force were all involved, though the statement left unclear if the U.S.-led coalition had any role.

The push comes after a particularly violent string of bombings on Monday and Sunday that killed some nearly 110 Iraqi civilians and troops across Baghdad and western Iraq. Catch up on all the grisly violence—spanning the cities of Tarmiyah (north of Baghdad), Youssifiyah (south of Baghdad), Haditha (northwest of the capital), Muqdadiyah (to the northeast), and of course the capital itself—here.

The Syrian cease-fire working group met Monday to discuss alleged violations of the “cessation of hostilities” agreement, but that’s about as far as they got in terms of hammering out who did what to whom when since the deal went into effect on Saturday. Reuters has more, here.

Meantime, Russia’s defense ministry showed its idle flightline in Latakia, Syria, to reporters on Monday to illustrate how restrained it is during the lull in fighting. AP has that glimpse, here.

So what’s happened in the world of ISIS over the last, oh, 29 days or so? The folks at the Institute for the Study of War have worked up a couple new maps to help answer the question. First, is the wider regional developments spanning the MENA—find that here; and just for kicks, they also worked up a look at Russian airstrikes pre- and post-ceasefire, here.

The Philippine military carried out a “major assault” against ISIS sympathizers in the south, killing two dozen fighters. The operation culminated a weeklong campaign involving some 2,000 Philippine troops in Butig, located in the southern Lanao del Sur province, a military spokesman from Manilla told the AP.

The Philippines has dealt with a southern insurgency for years—the New York Times wrote that a Muslim insurgency has “bedeviled the largely Catholic country for over a century”—and recent fighting has displaced nearly 30,000 residents across 10 villages.

What prompted this latest operation? “About 40 militants attacked an army camp in Butig on Feb. 20 in the predominantly Muslim region about 840 kilometers (520 miles) south of Manila. More militants, some wearing black arm and head bands with Islamic State group-style symbols, later joined in the fighting, prompting the military to deploy three battalions of troops backed by assault helicopters and artillery fire, according to the military.”

A bit more about these fighters: “The militants initially were affiliated with an Indonesian terror suspect known only as Sanusi who was killed in Marawi city in the volatile region in 2012,” reports AP. “They later used black flags and arm and head bands with Islamic State group symbols in an attempt to capture the attention of the Middle East-based terrorist group and possibly secure funding, military officials said.” More here.

Tokyo wants to help Manilla hold off the threat from China in a big way, The Telegraph reported Monday. The two nations are on the verge of signing a defense pact that helps the Philippines fill critical gaps in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

Elsewhere in the region, take a look at North Korea’s enormous military, branch-by-branch, ahead of the annual U.S.-South Korea war games scheduled for next week.

The skinny: Pyongyang claims 950,000 troops, 4,200 tanks, 2,200 armored vehicles, 8,600 pieces of field artillery, 60,000 sailors, 430 patrol combatant ships, 260 amphibious landing craft, 20 mine warfare vessels, about 70 submarines, over 800 combat aircraft, 300 helicopters, more than 300 transport planes, "somewhere around 180,000" special forces troops, 50 ballistic missiles with 800-mile range, 6 KN08 missiles with a range of 3,400-plus miles, unknown number of Taepodong-2 missiles with roughly same or longer range—and, of course, "possibly more than a dozen" nukes. All that and more, here.

From Defense One

When it comes to tech and terrorism, the government is asking for the wrong kind of help. There are many ways the tech industry can help turn up the heat on terrorists without compromising the rest of us. Quartz, here.

Welcome to the Tuesday edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1917, the U.S. government releases the Zimmermann Telegram to the public. Hey, tell your colleagues to get The D Brief: Got news? Let us know:

The Taliban have reportedly just moved onto new turf in southern Afghanistan, and this time it’s not Helmand—it’s in Oruzgan, just north of Kandahar. “Provincial government spokesman Dost Mohammad Nayab said around 100 troops and police had been pulled from checkpoints in two areas in Shahidi Hassas district and sent to the neighboring district of Deh Rawud,” Reuters reports this morning. “The Afghan Taliban, seeking to topple the Western-backed government in Kabul and reimpose Islamic rule 15 years after they were ousted from power, said the move, which came after heavy fighting late on Monday, had left the entire area around the village of Yakhdan under their control.” More here.

Libya cannot defeat ISIS without American help, an American special forces general says. “Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, the commander of U.S. special-operations forces in Africa, estimated that American military involvement would be needed in Libya even if a unity government were formed,” writes the Wall Street Journal.

“While discussions are under way, the U.S. military and some allies, also including France and the U.K., have for months been preparing plans for a second intervention in Libya. They have already established a Coalition Coordination Center in Rome, Gen. Bolduc said.”

What a joint operation might look like: “The main partner for American special-operations forces would be a small Special Forces unit that the U.S. initially helped establish and train after the 2011 revolution that ousted Col. Moammar Gadhafi,” Bolduc said. “This unit is currently affiliated with the internationally recognized government,” the Journal writes. But at any rate, “U.S. special-operations forces aren’t cooperating with the administration in Tripoli,” Bolduc said. He also added that his boys aren’t “working directly with Gen. Khalifa Haftar, the controversial strongman in the east who has advocated ridding Libya of both radical and moderate Islamists.”

And for what it’s worth: “Niger’s President Mahamadou Issoufou, whose country hosts French and American troops helping to secure the vast desert abutting Libya—and who opposed the campaign against Gadhafi—has come out in favor of another Western intervention in Libya.” Read the rest, here.

Libya #LongRead: How did the 2011 intervention in Libya shape Hillary Rodham Clinton when it comes to U.S. foreign policy? The New York Times’ Scott Shane and Jo Becker count the ways in an exhaustive, two-part series that begins here.

The Air Force desperately needs to replace the helicopters it uses to guard its vast ICBM bases in the northern plains. Service officials have known this since at least 2004, but recent exercises are showing just how poorly their aging Hueys are doing the job. Roll Call reports, here.

Looking for a thoughtful overview of the defense problems NATO faces? Try “Alliance At Risk,” the Atlantic Council’s examination of European vulnerabilities and recommendations on the way forward. “The project highlights six leading nations from NATO’s north, south, east, and west, which also serves to illuminate the many perspectives and diverse defense priorities that exists within the Alliance today.” Read the report, here.

Finally: Since 2001, almost 1 in 5 of the top medals awarded by the U.S. military have been for classified missions. “The secrecy surrounding more than 200 Service Cross and Silver Star awards reflects the reliance on special operations forces involved in classified missions to capture or kill terrorists and free hostages,” USA Today reports, here.

NEXT STORY: The Battle for Mosul Has Begun