Mosul battle enters final stages; In Syria, a suicide bomb as peace talks inch forward; SECDEF calls climate change a threat; Pirates return to Somalia; and just a bit more...

The battle for Mosul is in its final stages, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this morning—a week before his first visit to President Trump in Washington. Inside Mosul, U.S.-backed Iraqi troops are advancing on the Grand Mosque this morning, the site where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the “caliphate” back in the summer of 2014, Reuters reports from the city. Overnight, federal police and Interior Ministry Rapid Response forces also seized “the Iron Bridge, linking eastern Mosul with the militant-held Old City on the west side, [which] means the government holds three of the five bridges over the Tigris.”

Heavy airstrikes have been reported inside Mosul in recent weeks, but the bombing appears to have slowed in recent days—first on account of weather (Monday) and today because of intense street-to-street fighting “amongst civilians, ruling out the extensive use of air and artillery support,” Reuters writes. “Heavy fighting was also reported on Wednesday around the Mosul museum by journalists and combatants. An Islamic State suicide car bomb exploded near the museum. Helicopters strafed the ground with machinegun fire and missiles.”

Making things even more difficult: ISIS has booby-trapped buildings around the Grand Mosque in Mosul’s “Old City” neighborhoods, so ducking into a house to find cover during a street battle isn’t always a safe bet. And many of the alleys are too narrow for military vehicles, slowing the ISF’s final progress still further. And oh yeah, the threat from ISIS drones persists this week, too, Reuters reports. More here.

In Syria, at least two dozen were killed by a suicide bombing in Damascus this morning. “The bombing took place inside the Justice Palace, located near the famous and crowded Hamidiyeh market in Damascus,” AP reports off Syrian state-owned TV. Reuters: “The explosion hit the courthouse ‘at a time when the area is crowded’ with lawyers, judges and civilians, harming a large number of people, Ahmed al-Sayyid, a senior state legal official told state-run al-Ikhbariya TV.” No claim of responsibility has surfaced yet.

So how are those Syrian peace talks over in Kazakhstan going? Rebel representatives had threatened to walk out on Monday, but now reps from the south and the north say they’re coming to this evening’s discussions, brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran, Reuters reports.

The “weaponization” of healthcare: Medical facilities have become a clear target of war in Syria, according to a study published in The Lancet medical journal on Tuesday. Reuters again: “Published to mark the sixth anniversary of the Syrian crisis, the study used data from multiple sources to assess the conflict’s impact on health care and health workers. It found a ‘weaponization’ of health care in Syria in which people's need for it was used against them by denying access...Researchers said there were almost 200 attacks on health centers last year alone and said a key feature of the weaponization of healthcare is the repeated targeting of medical facilities with the aim of shutting them down. Attacks on hospitals and health facilities increased to an estimated 199 in 2016, from just over 90 in 2012.” More here.

President Trump can continue his intent to reverse Obama-era policies by turning the U.S. military’s attention on al-Qaeda once more, Jennifer Cafarella, Fred and Kim Kagan write in a new analysis for the American Enterprise Institute. It’s the fourth in a series of reports on how to proceed in the Middle East, and came out of testing “15 different courses of action to destroy both ISIS and al Qaeda without jeopardizing wider American interests or accepting undue cost or risk.” Read the full report, here.

And speaking of al-Qaeda, the group’s affiliates in West Africa are reorganizing, The Long War Journal reported Sunday. Why? “For al Qaeda, “unity” serves multiple purposes, including: strengthening the jihadists’ cause, masking the extent of al Qaeda’s influence, making it more difficult for the West to isolate al Qaeda for counterterrorism purposes and thwarting the Islamic State’s attempts to earn the loyalty of more potential defectors.” Get to better know the region’s Macina Liberation Front, AQ in the Islamic Magreb, Al Murabitoon and more, here.

From Defense One

Flynn, Turkey, and The Long Paper Trail Trump Missed // Patrick Tucker: An Erdogan government insider had contracts with Flynn's group going back to the campaign, documents filed by Trump's former national security advisor's firm show.

China Won't Solve Washington's Problem with Kim Jong Un // Minxin Pei: Beijing's current policy risks such a disaster, but the alternatives are hardly more palatable.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1783: Gen. George Washington talks his officers out of executing a coup. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us:

Climate change is real, and a threat, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee in written answers to questions posed during his confirmation hearing. “Mattis has long espoused the position that the armed forces, for a host of reasons, need to cut dependence on fossil fuels and explore renewable energy where it makes sense. He had also, as commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command in 2010, signed off on the Joint Operating Environment, which lists climate change as one of the security threats the military expected to confront over the next 25 years,” ProPublica reports. “But Mattis’ written statements to the Senate committee are the first direct signal of his determination to recognize climate change as a member of the Trump administration charged with leading the country’s armed forces.” Read on, here.

ICYMI: A former Pentagon comptroller argues that the Trump administration ought to consider the real military value of climate and energy policies before enacting wholesale change. Read that, here.

The U.S. Army is ending its practice of leaving sets of equipment in theater for rotating units to use. Troops were taking a “rent-a-car” attitude toward the gear, but more crucially, they weren’t honing the equipment-moving skills needed for an Army that is based in the United States but may need to deploy anywhere, the leader of Army Material Command tells Defense News. (This doesn’t affect the break-in-time-of-war stocks of gear, vehicles, and ammo prepositioned around the world.) Read on, here.

ICYMI: the head of AUSA argues that the Army can’t do its job from the U.S., and must be more forward-based.

NATO’s 2 percent club will add Romania, Latvia and Lithuania in 2018, alliance Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday. Read that, along with a chart that says who else makes the grade, here.

The Marine Corps commandant got an earful yesterday from Senators furious over his response to the nude-photo scandal. After Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand noted that the Marine Corps had promised change after similar 2013 incidents, Gen. Robert Neller responded, "I own this and we are going to have to, I know you've heard it before, but we're going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we treat each other. That's a lame answer, but ma'am, that's the best I can tell you right now."

Meanwhile, Navy CNO Adm. John Richardson tried to get out in front of his service’s part in the matter, writing a 600-word message to some 3,000 COs and officers-in-charge: “Team, we have a problem and we need to solve it.  Really solve it - not put a band-aid on it, not whitewash over it, not look the other way.”

Pirates are back in action off the coast of Somalia, hijacking an oil tanker for the first time since 2012, AP reports. “The Aris 13, manned by eight Sri Lankan sailors, was carrying fuel from Djibouti to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, when it was approached by men in two skiffs, said John Steed, the director of Oceans Beyond Piracy. The EU statement said the ship's master issued a mayday alert. An official in Somalia's semiautonomous state of Puntland said over two dozen men boarded the ship off the country's northern coast, an area known to be used by weapons smugglers and members of the al-Qaida-linked extremist group al-Shabab.”

Reuters reports “the 1,800 deadweight tonne tanker is owned by Armi Shipping, a company registered in Panama, and managed by Aurora Ship Management in the United Arab Emirates, according to the French transport ministry's Equasis shipping data website. Experts said ship owners were becoming lax after a long period of calm, and that the vessel was an easy target because it was low, slow and close to the coast.” The pirates, or course, want a ransom for their work; but exactly how much isn’t yet known.

Why the return to pirating? AP reports local officials cite “rampant fishing by foreign trawlers [which] was destroying the livelihoods of coastal communities, stoking fears of a return of piracy as a way to make money. They have blamed Yemeni, Chinese, Indian, Iranian and Djibouti-flagged fishing boats and trawlers.” More here.

Apropos of nothing: We have a tiny bit of light on a massive arms shipment seized in Spain back in January. Plenty of odd stuff in there. Catch video of the find, released by Spanish police, here.

Lastly today: Find out how America’s nuclear arsenal gets around the country, via this multimedia project from the LA Times. “The covert fleet, which shuttles warheads from missile silos, bomber bases and submarine docks to nuclear weapons labs across the country, is operated by the Office of Secure Transportation, a troubled agency within the U.S. Department of Energy so cloaked in secrecy that few people outside the government know it exists.”

Why it matters: “The transportation office is about to become more crucial than ever as the U.S. embarks on a $1-trillion upgrade of the nuclear arsenal that will require thousands of additional warhead shipments over the next 15 years.”

The OST “operates a fleet of 42 tractor-trailers, staffed by highly armed couriers, many of them veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, responsible for making sure nuclear weapons and components pass through foggy mountain passes and urban traffic jams without incident.” Catch a map of the routes, as well as U.S. weapons facilities and military bases—sans two major Minuteman III ICBM bases at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana  and Warren AFB in Wyoming—here.