Friday, October 12, 2018

Syria Situation Report: September 23 - October 10, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period September 23 - October 10, 2018.

Click image to enlarge.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Russia in Review: October 4 - 11, 2018

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Reporting Period: October 4 - 11, 2018 (The previous Russia in Review INTSUM is available here.)

Authors: Jack Ulses and Catherine Harris

Forecast: The Kremlin will use subversive political lines of effort over the near-term to destabilize the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Russia likely identifies a growing opportunity to expand its influence in the Balkans after federal elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina led to an outcome amenable to the Kremlin. This interference risks exacerbating ethnic tensions that could break down the tenuous stability of the Balkans. Russia may also be setting conditions to integrate the separatist region of Transnistria in Moldova through its interference in the 2019 Moldovan Parliamentary Elections. This development would allow Russia to obstruct further integration of Moldova into the West and increase its military threat to Western Ukraine.

Russia is acting to undermine Western-led peace settlements in the Balkans in order to block Balkan integration into the EU and NATO. Pro-Russian Bosnian Serb nationalist Milorad Dodik won election as the President of the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska on October 6. The Kremlin will likely provide diplomatic support to Dodik and his calls for the secession of the Republika Srpska from Bosnia-Herzegovina - a demand which would undermine the 1995 Dayton Accords. The Kremlin will also likely work with Dodik to secure favorable energy and diplomatic deals in Bosnia at the expense of the EU. Russia could use the election results to increase its military cooperation - including training - with the Republika Srpska and ultimately establish a footprint in Bosnia-Herzegovina through Serbia. Russia is conducting similar influence-building operations across the Balkans. Russia supports actors in both Greece and Macedonia that oppose a referendum to change the name of Macedonia. The vote would remove the last obstacle to the accession of Macedonia into NATO. The Kremlin’s efforts to block further expansion by NATO in Southern Europe risk fueling still-precarious nationalist and ethnic tensions across the Balkans.

The Kremlin is setting conditions to federalize the disputed region of Transnistria following elections in Moldova in February 2019. Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken recent steps to restart negotiations over Transnistria in Moldova.[1] Putin appointed Dmitry Kozak - the author of a failed plan to federalize Transnistria in 2003 - as the Special Envoy for Economic Relations with Moldova in July 2018. Kozak is a close ally to Putin and previously served as his de facto representative in several high-priority assignments critical to the Kremlin.[2] His appointment suggests that the Kremlin may intend to relaunch negotiations over the federalization of Transnistria.

Kozak organized the inaugural Moldova-Russia Economic Forum on September 26. He also opened discussions on negotiated settlement plans with leaders from both Transnistria and Moldova.[3] Russia is simultaneously acting to fracture and delegitimize opposition parties that support the EU ahead of February 2019 Moldovan Parliamentary Elections in order to install a majority government that supports a negotiated settlement and eventual federalization for Transnistria.[4] The Kremlin likely intends to use federalization to ultimately integrate Transnistria - which it effectively controls through a contingent of Russian Armed Forces - into official government structures in Moldova. Russia could thereby gain a more stable mechanism to reinforce or resupply its landlocked forces in Transnistria as well as greater freedom of action to threaten the vital port city of Odessa in Southern Ukraine. This development would further divide the resources and attention of the Government of Ukraine in its conflict with Russia in Eastern Ukraine.

[1] Madalin Necsutu, “Moscow Plots Revival of Federal Scenario for Moldova,” Balkan Insight, October 2, 2018, http://www.balkaninsight(.)com/en/article/moscow-plots-revival-of-federal-scenario-for-moldova-09-28-2018; [“Kozak: MREF will allow to bring the relations of the two countries to a new growth trajectory,”] Sputnik, September 21, 2018, https://ru.sputnik(.)md/economics/20180921/22026180/kozak-zajavlenie-moldova-russia-otnoshenija.html; [“Representation of Rossotrudnichestvo in the Republic of Moldova received support in Transnistria,”] Sputnik, September 10, 2018, https://ru.sputnik(.)md/society/20181009/22384359/ rossotrudnicestvo-pridnestrovie-podderzhka.html.
[2] “From Olympics to Crimea, Putin Loyalist Kozak Entrusted With Kremlin Mega-Projects,” Moscow Times, March 28, 2014, https://themoscowtimes(.)com/news/from-olympics-to-crimea-putin-loyalist-kozak-entrusted-with-kremlin-mega-projects-33409; [“Moscow and a possible federalization plan for Moldova,”] G4, October 7, 2018, https://www.g4media(.)ro/moscova-si-un-posibil-plan-de-federalizare-a-moldovei.html.
[3] [“Russia is ready to restore relations with Moldova, Kozak said,”] Ria Novosti, September 26, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/world/20180926/1529385600.html.
[4] [“Moldovan Parliament did not reach consensus on amendments to the European Integration Constitution,”] TASS, October 9, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/5652895.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Russia in Review: September 26 - October 3, 2018

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list.

Reporting Period: September 26 - October 3, 2018 (The previous Russia in Review INTSUM is available here.)

Authors: Jack Ulses and Catherine Harris with Scott DesMarais and the ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: Russia is leveraging limited military expansion in multiple theaters to reduce the geopolitical influence of the West. The Kremlin is setting conditions to bolster its security role in Afghanistan as a low-cost means to undermine the U.S. and NATO. Russia may also leverage the deployment of advanced military hardware in the Arctic to secure new trade routes and deter expansion in the area by the West and China. Russia continues to block access to economic resources in the Sea of Azov to Ukraine and could further intensify its threat of military escalation to delegitimize the current Ukrainian Government.

Russia is using the threat of deteriorating security in Afghanistan to expand its footprint in Central Asia. Russia has intensified its rhetoric and engagement surrounding the terrorist threat in Central Asia.[1] The Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) - a regional cooperation organization in the Former Soviet Union led by Russia - announced that it will conduct several large-scale counter-terrorism drills in late 2018.[2] China, India, Iran, and Afghanistan also agreed to create a joint terrorist database using data from the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB).[3] The Kremlin likely fears that Salafi-Jihadist groups will exploit safe havens in Afghanistan to threaten Central Asia as well as Russia. The Kremlin has blamed the lack of stability on the U.S. in Afghanistan. Russia is attempting to broker peace talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban in order to sideline the U.S. and NATO. The Kremlin is nonetheless unlikely to push for an imminent full withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan. Russia does not possess the military capacity to replace the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan. Russia instead will likely provide increased diplomatic and military support to both the Afghan Government and the Taliban in order to incentivize participation in a peace process led by the Kremlin. Russia could thereby both bolster its own international standing as a legitimate peace broker and undermine the long-term presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Russia may be forced to reconsider its relatively limited military investments in the Arctic. The Kremlin is pursuing military expansion to open trade routes and bolster its sphere of influence in the Arctic. The Russian Defense Ministry deployed Bastion Coastal Defense Missile Systems to the 99th Tactic Arctic Group on Kotelny Island in a likely effort to bolster the capabilities of Russia’s Northern Fleet.[4] Russia nonetheless currently lacks the resources to deter long-term expansion into the Arctic by the West and China. The Kremlin decreased its budget allocations for infrastructure in the Arctic from $209 billion to $12 billion in 2018 - 2020.[5] Rival powers have meanwhile expanded their operations in the Arctic. The United Kingdom will send 800 Royal Marines to conduct regular cold weather training in Norway. China recently began production of its first icebreaker (expected to be operational in 2019) and has outlined a policy objective to turn the Arctic into a Polar ‘Silk Road’.[6] The Kremlin will therefore likely be forced to recalculate its military investments in the Arctic. The Kremlin could use potential increased maritime commerce to justify military expansion in the area. A Danish shipping vessel recently completed a trial voyage through the Northern Sea, which will likely prompt other companies to consider low-cost trade routes through the Arctic. The Kremlin may also attempt to secure investment from other regional actors in order to block access to investment opportunities in the Arctic. Russia could also increase the rapid reaction or advanced hardware capabilities of its own military forces in the Arctic in order to threaten - or at minimum deter – further expansion in the region by the U.S., NATO, and China.

Russia likely will not be deterred from further aggression in Eastern Ukraine despite a military buildup by Ukraine in the Sea of Azov. Ukraine is bolstering its military presence near the Sea of Azov to counter recent aggression by Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced that Ukraine will open a new naval base in Berdyansk in Eastern Ukraine while the U.S. agreed to supply two patrol boat cutters to the Ukrainian Navy.[7] The Ukrainian Defense Ministry also recently conducted a series of coastal exercises to enhance interoperability between the Ukrainian Navy and Ukrainian Ground Forces.[8] These developments will likely not successfully deter Russia from blocking access to the Sea of Azov. Russia continues to intimidate local populations in the area in a likely bid to block shipping and commerce by Ukraine via Mariupol. The Kremlin will likely continue to block access to the area in order to strain local coastal communities and posture for the threat of military escalation in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin likely calculates that sustained economic pressure will ultimately delegitimize the Ukrainian Government and lead to favorable results for Russia in the March 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections.

What to Watch For

The Kremlin may retaliate against domestic opposition parties following the September 2018 Russian Regional Elections. Russian President Vladimir Putin directly endorsed several candidates from his political party - United Russia - in an effort to secure their victory in the September 2018 Russian Regional Elections. These candidates nonetheless lost several key races to domestic opposition parties. The Kremlin also reportedly failed in efforts to bribe several opposition candidates to withdraw from the election in exchange for government positions.[9] Putin may therefore systematically punish political parties that won local elections against United Russia. The Kremlin may deny opposition parties the right to run in future elections in Russia. Putin may also interfere in remaining runoff elections scheduled for December 2018 in order to ensure victory for new candidates from United Russia.
[1] [“Russian Foreign Ministry: IG is preparing to escalate the political situation in Central Asia,”] TASS, September 30, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/5621031
[2] [“Russia and six countries of the CIS began large-scale military aviation exercises,”] RBC, September 27, 2018, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/27/09/2018/5bac6f789a794770fa0bd642; [“In the CIS until the end of the year will be four major military exercises,”] MK.RU, September 26, 2018,
[3] “Afghanistan, Iran, China back creating terrorist database shared with Russia,” The Nation, September 27, 2018,; [“Four countries supported the creation of a common database of terrorists with Russia,”] RT, September 26, 2018, https://russian.rt(.)com/world/news/558173-baza-dannyh-terrorizm; [“Dossier terrorists,”] RG.RU, September 26, 2018, https://rg(.)ru/2018/09/26/patrushev-zaiavil-ob-opasnosti-povtoreniia-v-afganistane-sirijskogo-scenariia.html
[4] [“The Northern Fleet completes the next Arctic campaign,”] MK.RU, October 1, 2018, https://murmansk(.) social/2018/10/01/severnyy-flot-zavershaet-ocherednoy-arkticheskiy-pokhod.html; [“Russia develops "Bastion" in the Arctic,”] YTPO.PY, September 25, 2018, https://utro(.)ru/army/2018/09/25/1375055.shtml
[5] [“The government is thinking about reducing the cost of the Arctic 17 times,”] RBC, June 30, 2017, https://www. rbc(.)ru/business/30/06/2017/59550a479a794700f2cca257?from=center_4
[6] [“China launched the first self-produced icebreaker,”] RIA Novosti, September 10, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/economy/ 20180910/1528169823.html; “China’s Arctic Policy,” The State Council: The People’s Republic of China, January 26, 2018,
[7] “Ukraine creating naval base in Sea of Azov – Poroshenko,” UNIAN, September 23, 2018, https://www. unian(.)info/politics/10271577-ukraine-creating-naval-base-in-sea-of-azov-poroshenko.html
[8] “Ukraine conducts exercises on the coast of the Azov Sea,” UA Wire, September 27, 2018, https://uawire(.)org/ ukraine-conducted-exercises-on-the-coast-of-the-azov-sea#; “Ukrainian Navy conducts exercises in the Black and Azov Seas,” UA Wire, September 30, 2018, https://uawire(.)org/ukrainian-navy-conducted-exercises-in-the-black-and-azov-seas
[9] [“The main beneficiary of the gubernatorial election was the Liberal Democratic Party,”] Vedomosti, September 24, 2018, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/politics/articles/2018/09/24/781849-glavnim-benefitsiarom-gubernatorskih-okazalas

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

ISIS's Second Resurgence

By Brandon Wallace and Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is reconstituting a capable insurgent force in Iraq and Syria despite efforts to prevent its recovery by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. The U.S. Department of Defense stated in August 2018 that ISIS retains nearly 30,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria and is “more capable” than Al-Qaeda in Iraq - ISIS’s predecessor - at its peak in 2006 - 2007. ISIS is waging an effective campaign to reestablish durable support zones while raising funds and rebuilding command-and-control over its remnant forces. On its current trajectory, ISIS could regain sufficient strength to mount a renewed insurgency that once again threatens to overmatch local security forces in both Iraq and Syria. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is issuing a map update depicting ISIS’s current operating areas based on an analysis of its activity from January 1, 2018 to October 1, 2018.

Note: This map depicts ISIS’s operating areas in Iraq and Syria as of October 1, 2018. The graphic presents an assessment of ISIS’s control, support, and attack zones based on openly available reporting from January 1, 2018 to October 1, 2018. ISW’s rigorous methodology conforms to the doctrinal definitions used by the U.S. Armed Forces. Control zones are areas in which ISIS controls and governs civilian populations. Support zones are areas in which ISIS retains the ability to conduct logistics and administrative support functions. Attack zones are areas in which ISIS conducts kinetic attacks against civilians, infrastructure, and local security forces. ISW will publish updates to this assessment as appropriate.

The U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign has not eliminated the global threat posed by ISIS despite largely accomplishing its stated objectives in Iraq and Syria. The campaign aimed to destroy ISIS’s physical caliphate and “drive down [its] capability” to the point where local forces could maintain security with limited international support. In Iraq, the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition accomplished this mission by April 2018 after finishing the last urban clearing operations in Anbar Province in Western Iraq. The Coalition scaled down its operations to a Building Partner Capacity (BPC) effort aimed at enabling Iraqis to “independently manage” a continued insurgency by ISIS. In Syria, the U.S. and its local partner forces are now attacking a final ISIS territorial stronghold near the Syrian-Iraqi border. ISIS has nonetheless already restructured its operations to return to a regional insurgency. The Pentagon stated in August 2018 that ISIS retains nearly 30,000 fighters across Iraq and Syria and is “more capable” than Al-Qaeda in Iraq - ISIS’s predecessor - at its peak in 2006 - 2007. ISIS is now waging an effective campaign to reestablish durable support zones while raising funds and rebuilding command-and-control over its remnant forces. On its current trajectory, ISIS could regain sufficient strength to mount a renewed insurgency that once again threatens to overmatch local security forces in both Iraq and Syria despite support from the Coalition.

Detecting ISIS’s Reconstitution

ISIS is finding new sources of revenue and rebuilding command-and-control over its scattered remnant forces in order to prepare for a future large-scale insurgency in both Iraq and Syria.

Revenue Generation

ISIS was able to smuggle as much as $400 million out of Iraq and reinvest it into legitimate businesses across the wider Middle East. It also continues to engage in lucrative criminal activity including extortion, smuggling, theft, and money laundering. ISW has observed multiple additional indicators of efforts by ISIS to generate additional revenue, including:
  • Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) accused ISIS of taking hostages and extorting their families for sums worth tens of thousands of dollars in Northern Syria. 
  • The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition has interdicted large caches of drugs including Captagon and other amphetamines being trafficked by ISIS in Southern Syria. 
  • ISIS reportedly stole an unspecified quantity of drugs during a raid on a healthcare facility near Kirkuk in Iraq in mid-September 2018. ISIS could intend to sell these drugs for a profit. Alternatively, it may be restocking provisions for injured fighters ahead of future operations. 
ISW cannot assess the full scale of revenue being generated through these and other efforts by ISIS. Revenue generation is nonetheless a requirement for any military force to scale up its combat operations. 


ISIS can only wage an effective insurgency if it maintains command-and-control over its estimated tens of thousands of remaining fighters. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign has forced some of ISIS’s cells to go to ground and it is unclear how many fighters its senior leaders can directly command. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released an audio message on August 22 calling for his followers to “wage attack after attack” and “unite and organize” against their opponents. ISIS similarly appealed in publications in March - April 2018 for the activation of sleeper cells. These messages suggest that ISIS deliberately embedded operatives to conduct future attacks in recaptured areas across Iraq and Syria. The public orders nonetheless signal that ISIS may lack control mechanisms to issue direct commands to its forces. ISW has observed at least four indicators that ISIS is reconstituting an operational-level command structure in Iraq and Syria as of October 1.
  • ISIS announced the formation of two new wilayats (provinces) for Iraq and Syria on July 20. ISW assesses that these new structures are operational-level headquarters responsible for directing ISIS’s military campaign and bureaucratic functions across Iraq and Syria. ISIS retains a roughly equal combat force in each country. The U.S. Department of Defense estimated in August 2018 that ISIS commands 15,500 to 17,000 fighters in Iraq and 14,000 fighters in Syria. 
  • Iraq conducted an airstrike targeting a reported ISIS “operations command” at an unidentified location in Syria on August 16. Iraqi officials reported that the strike disrupted a planned suicide vest (SVEST) attack in Iraq. If true, ISIS continues to coordinate cross-border operations despite efforts by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition to secure the Syrian-Iraqi border. The strike may have damaged this command element and thereby disrupted ISIS’s reconstitution. 
  • ISIS’s official media outlets have implemented a new format of attack claims aligned with the new wilayats announced by ISIS on July 20. Previous claims had preserved the provincial command structure in place prior to the loss of ISIS’s de facto capitals in Mosul and Ar-Raqqa City. This standardization of communications guidelines indicates a centrally-controlled media campaign across Iraq and Syria. A parallel military command that reports and authorizes the release of content typically accompanies this type of media effort. The standardization of attack claims also allows ISIS to more effectively measure the progression of its own campaigns. 
  • ISIS launched a new weekly report on its military activities on August 2. The report details attack statistics in Iraq and Syria as well as Afghanistan-Pakistan, Egypt, Nigeria, Somalia, and the Philippines. This detailed product is similar to the annual reports released by ISIS during its resurgence after the U.S withdrew from Iraq in 2011. It demonstrates that ISIS remains capable of tracking its campaigns across Iraq and Syria as well as its most active wilayats abroad. 

ISIS’s Operating Areas


ISIS is waging an effective campaign to reestablish durable support zones across Iraq and deny the rehabilitation of communities liberated by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign. ISIS retains a small control zone where it continues to govern a local population north of Baiji in Northern Iraq.[1] It also retains established support zones in areas south of Kirkuk City including Daquq, Hawija, Riyadh, and Rashad Districts as well as rural areas around Lake Hamrin in the Diyala River Valley. ISIS possesses the ability to move freely across this terrain at night and is actively waging attacks to expand its freedom of movement during the day. Its activities have thus far been limited to small arms attacks, targeted assassinations, and suicide vests (SVESTs). ISIS is steadily scaling up the rate of these attacks, conducting as many as four assassinations per week across Northern and Central Iraq. This violence has expelled civilians from small villages in Diyala and Kirkuk Provinces.[2] ISIS also retains a durable support zone in the Hamrin Mountains, where it appears to base some of its leadership. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) regularly claim to kill senior militants during clearing operations in the area.[3] In Baghdad, ISIS’s attack pattern indicates that it is likely reconstituting support and logistical networks throughout the Baghdad Belts, replicating its safe havens in 2006 - 2007. ISIS has not yet returned to the systematic use of vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDs), which were a hallmark of its resurgence in 2011 - 2013. ISIS may cross this threshold soon. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior claimed to disrupt an ISIS VBIED cell north of Baghdad on September 6.[4]

ISIS has also established a support zone along the Iraqi-Iranian border that it is using to project capability into Iran. ISIS remnants (including Kurdish Salafi-Jihadist group Ansar al-Islam) have maintained a support zone in the Halabja Mountains in Iraqi Kurdistan since late 2016. Ansar al-Islam pledged allegiance to ISIS in 2014 but remained a distinct unit within its command structure. ISIS fighters from Ansar al-Islam conducted the major spectacular attack in Tehran during Ramadan in June 2017. A similar cell later deployed into Iran and clashed with the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in January 2018. A senior leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Peshmerga stated in February 2018 that Ansar al-Islam is leveraging its cross-border links and local knowledge to facilitate infiltration into Iran.[5] ISIS is expanding its support base in Iraqi Kurdistan beyond the Halabja Mountains. Local Kurdish forces have detained numerous alleged cells in Sulaymaniyah Province in Northern Iraq since January 2018.[6]


ISIS is also reconstituting as an insurgent force across Syria. ISIS has lost all its territorial control in Syria except a twenty-kilometer-long stretch of terrain along the Euphrates River in Eastern Syria near the Syrian-Iraqi border. The area is currently under attack by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. ISIS is nonetheless reconstituting in areas nominally under the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. ISIS negotiated evacuation deals from Damascus and the Golan Heights to relocate its forces to the Syrian Desert east of Damascus in May - July 2018. ISIS has exploited its underground tunnel networks in order to regroup and launch local counter-attacks in this area against both the Russo-Iranian Coalition and the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. ISIS is also infiltrating Al-Qaeda’s areas of operations in Northern Syria in order to gain access to logistics routes through Turkey. It may also intend to tap into flows of Al-Qaeda-aligned foreign fighters. ISIS has also demonstrated that it retains the ability to mount attacks in areas held by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) including Ar-Raqqa City, Hasaka City, and Qamishli. ISIS is likely regenerating support networks across its former territorial holdings in Northern and Eastern Syria.

Future of the Anti-ISIS Campaign

ISIS’s resurgence will likely accelerate as the Anti-ISIS Campaign falls down the priority list of the Government of Iraq. Iraq shifted its focus towards Iraqi Kurdistan in October 2017 after the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) held a contested independence referendum in September 2017, triggering a military response from both Iraq and Iran in the contested city of Kirkuk. The subsequent military standoff between the Government of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan disrupted operations against ISIS and created opportunities for ISIS to expand in the Disputed Internal Boundaries (DIBs) with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraq’s May 2018 Parliamentary Elections and subsequent political developments have further disrupted the ability of the Government of Iraq to prioritize the Anti-ISIS Campaign. A growing protest movement in Southern Iraq divided the government and disrupted clearing operations against ISIS. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi redeployed part of the elite Iraqi Counterterrorism Services (CTS) to secure government installations in Southern Iraq on July 13.[7] The CTS is the preeminent force against ISIS in Iraq and works closely with the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Abadi similarly redeployed part of the Iraqi Emergency Response Division from the DIBs to Southern Iraq on September 9, further degrading security in Northern Iraq.[8]

The U.S. risks finding its options against ISIS in Iraq further constrained by the outcome of the ongoing government formation process in Baghdad. Iran is making a concerted effort to shape a Government of Iraq that is hostile to the U.S. and could demand a full withdraw of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. The U.S. is meanwhile using its economic leverage - and threats to revoke bilateral military support - in order to block powerful proxies of Iran from occupying key positions in the Government of Iraq. The outcome of this showdown remains unclear but it could lead to a violent confrontation between rival powerbrokers that would provide new openings for ISIS. The U.S. and its allies must take action to set the political conditions necessary to sustain a long-term campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS otherwise threatens to return yet again in a form even more dangerous and more capable than its rise to global prominence in 2014.

[1] [“Successive Clearing Operations in Five Provinces After Monitoring the Movements of ISIS,”] Al-Mada Press, September 26, 2018, http://almadapaper(.)net/Details/213471/%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%91%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B4%D9%8A%D8%B7-%D9%85%D8%AA%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD%D9%82%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-5-%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%A7%D9%81%D8%B8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%AF-%D8%B1%D8%B5%D8%AF-%D8%AA%D8%AD%D8%B1%D9%91%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%84%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4.
[2] [“Source Reveals the Displacement of Families from South of Kirkuk,”] Sot al-Iraq, June 20, 2018, https://www.sotaliraq(.)com/2018/06/20/%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%8A%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D8%B9%D9%86-%D9%86%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%AD-%D8%B9%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%AC%D9%86%D9%88%D8%A8-%D9%83%D8%B1%D9%83%D9%88%D9%83/; [“Kurdish Lawmaker: 200 Kurdish Families Displaced from Villages of Daquq District Because of ISIS,”] Sumaria, June 26, 2018, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/240307/%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%A8-%D9%83%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D9%86%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%AD-%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%84%D8%A9-%D9%83%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86-%D9%82%D8%B1%D9%89-%D9%82%D8%B6%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D9%82%D9%88%D9%82-%D8%A8%D8%B3%D8%A8%D8%A8/ar.
[3] [“Popular Mobilization Announces the Killing of an ISIS Leader Northeast of Diyala,”] Sumaria, June 15, 2018, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/239447/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B4%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%B9%D8%A8%D9%8A-%D9%8A%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%AA%D9%84-%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%8A-%D8%A8%D9%80%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D8%B4%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%84-%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%82%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7%D9%84/ar; [“Death of a Senior Commander for ISIS in Clashes with Iraqi Forces in the North of the Country,”] The New Arab, June 26, 2018,
[4] [“Source: Interior Intelligence Thwarted Plan to Revive ‘Wilayat Baghdad’ of ISIS,”] Al-Ghad Press, September 6, 2018, https://www.alghadpress(.)com/news/%D8%A3%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%82/173347/%D9%85%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AE%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A3%D8%AD%D8%A8%D8%B7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%AE%D8%B7%D8%B7%D8%A7-%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D8%A5%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%A1-%D9%88.
[5] [“ISIS Fails in Declaration of ‘Wilayat Halabja’ and Reveals Its Hideouts in Sulaymaniyah,”] Sot al-Iraq, February 5, 2018, https://www.sotaliraq(.)com/2018/02/05/%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D9%8A%D9%81%D8%B4%D9%84-%D8%A8%D8%A5%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%AC%D8%A9-%D9%88%D9%8A%D9%83%D8%B4%D9%81-%D9%85%D8%AE/.
[6] [“Asayish Official: ISIS Militants That Clashed with Iranian Forces Entered Iran Through Borders of Kurdistan,”] Sumaria, January 27, 2018, https://www.alsumaria(.)tv/news/228070/%D9%85%D8%B3%D8%A4%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%B4-%D9%85%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%88-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%B4-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%AA%D8%A8%D9%83%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%8A/ar; [“Sulaymaniyah...The Arrest of Two Groups of Terrorists Before the Implementation of Their Plans in the Kurdistan Region,”] Rudaw, January 8, 2018, http://www.rudaw(.)net/arabic/kurdistan/080120186.
[7] [“Basra Police to Mirbad: Incoming Forces Will Protect Facilities and Their Movement Under the Order of Abadi Exclusively,”] Mirbad, July 14, 2018, http://www.almirbad(.)com/news/view.aspx?cdate=14072018&id=41fdb375-61bd-4121-8283-81cb054e4446.
[8] [“Emergency Response Announces the Deployment of Their Formations in Basra to Protect Vital Centers,”] Mirbad, September 14, 2018, http://www.almirbad(.)com/news/view.aspx?cdate=14092018&id=9b320244-1d0d-4ff7-805c-a7b2b2e50d94.

Friday, September 28, 2018

Syria Situation Report: September 13 - 26, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period September 13 - 26, 2018.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Russia in Review: September 14 - 25, 2018

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list at

Reporting Period: September 14 - 25, 2018 (The previous Russia in Review INTSUM is available here.)

Authors: Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses with the ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: Russia is setting conditions to escalate militarily in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin may seek to use this buildup to intimidate and influence the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election; to respond to pushback by the U.S. and Turkey in Syria and Ukraine; to distract from continued domestic discontent in Russia; or all of the above. The Kremlin is simultaneously driving protests in Latvia in a likely effort to confuse the West and preclude a swift response by NATO to Russia’s main effort to destabilize Ukraine. NATO must be prepared for the Kremlin to escalate one or more of these conflicts simultaneously in order to uphold the alliance and deter further aggression by Russia.

Russia is setting conditions to escalate militarily in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is assembling new military units under its command and control to deploy in Eastern Ukraine. Russia may be repurposing preexisting (or building new) units of Russian Cossacks to function as rapid reaction forces under the Russian 8th Combined Arms Army positioned near the Russia-Ukraine Border. Ukrainian Military Intelligence reported that some of these detachments are deployed alongside other separatist forces led by Russia in Eastern Ukraine as of September 13.[1] The size of these new units remains unclear.

Russia is also consolidating control over its existing proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine. Elements likely backed by the Kremlin assassinated separatist Donetsk People’s Republic President Alexander Zakharchenko on August 31. Zakharchenko had reportedly refused to integrate his militias into command structures led by Russia. The Kremlin may be tightening control over its proxies to dampen ongoing militia infighting and protect its efforts to influence the March 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election. These efforts also set conditions for a future escalation by Russia in Ukraine, even if that is not their present purpose.

The Kremlin attempted to use large-scale military exercises to conceal its condition-setting on the Russia-Ukraine Border. The Kremlin capitalized on international focus on its scheduled Vostok-2018 military exercises to shift assets from Eastern and Central Russia to the Russia-Ukraine Border. The Ukrainian Defense Ministry reported that Russia transported artillery units from Eastern Russia to the Russia-Ukraine Border during Vostok-2018 from September 11 - 17. The Kremlin in recent weeks also reportedly shifted large numbers of T-62 tanks from Eastern Russia to the Russia-Ukraine Border.[2] Estimates of the transfer range from five hundred to one thousand tanks. The Kremlin may intend to assign some of this equipment to its proxy forces during large-scale snap military exercises that will occur in the Southern Military District through the end of October 2018.[3]

Russian President Vladimir Putin may escalate in Eastern Ukraine in response to recent deterrence efforts by NATO. The Trump Administration’s decision to prolong its military engagement in Eastern Syria places long-term constraints on Russia. The U.S. also backed a successful effort by Turkey to block an offensive by Syria, Russia, and Iran in Northern Syria. Turkey is also contesting other areas of strategic interest for the Kremlin. Turkey and Ukraine agreed to strengthen defense cooperation on the Black Sea on September 7. The Kremlin likely perceives this agreement as a threat to Russia. The Kremlin uses the Black Sea to project power into both the Mediterranean Sea and Ukraine. Turkish Eastern Orthodox leadership may also soon erode another tool of political leverage for the Kremlin in Ukraine by granting a writ of autocephaly (self-rule independent of the Moscow Patriarchate) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.[4] The Kremlin could turn to military escalation in Eastern Ukraine as a means to regain leverage in the face of these positive steps by the U.S. and Turkey to counter a revisionist Russia.

Putin could also use a foreign policy distraction in Ukraine to divert attention from increasing discontent in Russia. Putin faces mounting domestic unrest over controversial results in the September 2018 Russian Regional Elections. Putin’s direct endorsement of preferred political candidates failed to ensure victory in several key districts across Russia. The Kremlin allowed local party branches to use slogans linking Putin directly to his political party - United Russia.[5] Several candidates nonetheless lost in districts where the slogan was used.[6] The Kremlin also fabricated election results in Eastern Russia to guarantee victory for a candidate from United Russia but subsequently annulled the results to save face after public outcry.[7] The Kremlin thus may seek to refocus the domestic population on its foreign policy. This effort will likely fail. Putin’s approval ratings remain at their lowest level since February 2014.[8] An independent polling center also recently found that only 16% of Russians approve of the foreign policy pursued by Putin with citizens growing increasingly frustrated with spending abroad at the expense of social services in Russia.[9] Putin continues to demonstrate that he is out of touch with his population and might miscalculate that displays of a strong foreign policy could alleviate domestic pressure on his government.

The Kremlin still remains most likely to use the threat of military action to support its ongoing low-costs efforts to destabilize Ukraine. Russia stands to pay a high cost for military escalation at this time. The U.S. and EU are likely to pass additional sanctions on the Kremlin in response to any operation in Eastern Ukraine. Russia would also be forced to fund a sustained ground operation at a time when its economy is weakening. The Kremlin will likely wait until the conclusion of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election to determine whether or not a military escalation would produce a net gain for the Kremlin. Indicators of such a future escalation include the mobilization (rather than just reinforcement) of the Russian Armed Forces along the Russia-Ukraine Border, the deployment of military assets to reinforce separatist rear areas within Eastern Ukraine, and Russia’s formal withdrawal from the Minsk II Agreement.

NATO must nonetheless be prepared for a near-term escalation in multiple theaters by the Kremlin. Russia is simultaneously attempting to escalate tensions among ethnic Russians in Latvia. Kremlin-backed elements held demonstrations in Latvia on September 15 ahead of the October 6 Latvian Parliamentary Elections.[10] The protests condemned a controversial language law that will phase out the use of Russian in schools in Latvia. Russia is likely attempting to garner additional support ahead of the elections in an effort to secure a new government of Latvia friendlier to the Kremlin. These protests are the latest reflection of the multiple subversive campaigns undertaken by Russia at minimal cost to contest the U.S., EU, and NATO. The U.S. and its allies must be prepared to counter and respond to escalation by Russia in multiple theaters over a relatively short amount of time in order to demonstrate their strong commitment to NATO.

[1] [“The Kremlin got into an interesting dead end, in the Donbass,”], June 18, 2018, https://inosmi(.)ru/politic/20180618/242514038.html ; “Russian-led forces ban military-age males from leaving "LPR/DPR" to Russia,” UNIAN, September 24, 2018 https://www.unian(.)info/society/10272453-russian-led-forces-ban-military-age-males-from-leaving-lpr-dpr-to-russia-intel.html
[2] [“Radio Svoboda traced the route of Russian tanks from Buryatia to the Ukrainian border,”] Radio Svoboda, September 4, 2018, https://www.radiosvoboda(.)org/a/russian-tanks-from-buryatia-near-ukrainian-border/29470360.html
[3] [“About 45,000 military of the South-Eastern Military District are involved in the exercises until the end of October,”] RIA Novosti, September 17, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/defense_safety/20180917/1528683799.html?referrer_block=index_archive_1
[4] “Patriarch of Constantinople Pledges to Grant Autocephaly to Ukraine Church Soon,” Sputnik, September 23, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/world/201809231068271418-patriarch-constantinople-ukraine-autocephaly/
[5] [“"United Russia" party declared himself president in crisis regions,”] Svoboda, August 22, 2018, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/29447068.html
[6] “United Russia loses ground, as the Communist Party gains it. Here are the main results of Sunday's regional elections,”, September 10, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/en/feature/2018/09/10/united-russia-loses-ground-as-the-communist-party-gains-it-here-are-the-main-results-of-sunday-s-regional-elections
[7] [“The Bell: the purpose of rigging elections in Primorye was not the victory of the governor, but the cancellation of results,”], September 19, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/news/2018/09/19/the-bell-tselyu-falsifikatsiy-na-vyborah-v-primorie-byla-ne-pobeda-gubernatora-a-otmena-rezultatov
[8] “Putin’s Approval Ratings,” Yuri-Levada Analytical Center, http://www.levada(.)ru/en/ratings/
[9] [“Relationship with Putin,”], August 9, 2018, https://www.levada(.)ru/2018/08/09/otnoshenie-k-vladimiru-putinu-3/
[10] “About 5,000 rally in Riga against reform of Russian-language schools in Latvia,” TASS, September 15, 2018, http://tass(.)com/society/1021758 

Friday, September 14, 2018

Russia in Review: August 28 - September 13, 2018

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them. Receive future Russia in Review INTSUM products via-email by signing up for the ISW mailing list at

Reporting Period: August 28 - September 13, 2018 (The previous Russia in Review INTSUM is available here.)

Authors: Catherine Harris, Jack Ulses, and Mason Clark, with Jennifer Cafarella, Elizabeth Teoman, Matti Suomenaro, John Dunford, and Michael Land

Key Takeaway: Russia is setting conditions to attack the U.S. and its partner forces in Syria in a limited and plausibly-deniable way in the near term. The Kremlin is also reshaping its proxy governments and their military forces in Ukraine to continue undermining Ukrainian integration into the West. These condition-setting activities would allow Putin to escalate militarily to challenge U.S. strategic interests in multiple theaters simultaneously if he so chose.

Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime will likely attack U.S. forces in Syria in the near-term. Western diplomatic support to Turkey likely reinforced Turkey’s ability to block a Russia-led ground offensive into Idlib Province in northwestern Syria, bordering Turkey. Pro-regime forces may now shift resources east to attack U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria. Pro-regime forces already responded militarily to the U.S. decision to remain in Syria. U.S. defense officials stated Russia warned the U.S. that pro-regime forces are prepared to attack a U.S. base on the Jordan-Syria-Iraq border after pro-regime forces fired on this location on September 1. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has repeatedly warned that Russia, Iran, and the regime are preparing to attack U.S. forces and the U.S. primary ground partner – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – in Eastern Syria. Russia will attempt to conceal its role in an attack on U.S. forces. The outcome of previous probing attacks in Eastern Syria indicate the U.S. will not hold the Kremlin accountable for attacks on U.S. forces conducted by non-uniformed Russian personnel. The Kremlin will likely use a mixture of plausibly deniable forces and attempt to foment a pseudo-insurgency in U.S.- and SDF-held terrain. Alternatively, Russia may bring to bear substantial conventional force against the U.S. and the SDF under the guise of counter-ISIS operations in Eastern Syria in a most dangerous scenario. An increase in the scale of advanced Russian hardware deployments into Syria may indicate the Kremlin is preparing to undertake this option.

The Kremlin may be preparing to escalate militarily in Donbas, Ukraine if its political efforts to destabilize Kyiv fail. Russia reportedly shifted between 500-1000 T-62 tanks from eastern Russia to the Russia/Ukraine border at the end of August. The Kremlin is also consolidating control over its proxies in a possible effort to exert more effective command and control before a military operation. The Kremlin will likely pursue a low-cost political course of action before a military operation, however. Russia is pushing to hold elections in Donbas in November 2018. Its new proxy leadership supports these elections. The Kremlin seeks to create the perception that its proxies are functioning political entities ahead of Ukrainian elections in 2019 in order to reset negotiations between newly elected Ukrainian officials and its proxies. Russia’s long-term objective is to integrate its proxies into Ukrainian government structures in order to acquire a degree of control over decision-making in Kyiv. This approach – if successful – would de facto legitimize Russia’s proxies and undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty from within its own government. Ukraine’s progress toward integration with Western structures, namely NATO and the EU, would be at risk of stalling or reversing.

What to Watch For

Russia is attempting to acquire naval basing on the Red Sea that will allow it to constrain U.S. freedom of movement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced plans to build a Russian logistics center at an undisclosed port in Eritrea following talks with Eritrean officials in Moscow on August 31. The Kremlin may deploy anti-access area-denial systems to this facility providing Russia with significant leverage to contest access to the Bab al-Mandab Strait. This position will also give Russia access to the Yemeni conflict that it may use to support Iranian-backed elements in the war and strengthen its regional coalition with Iran. This position will also allow the Kremlin to rotate private military contractors and deploy more advanced hardware, such as armored vehicles, into conflicts in Africa if desired.

Syria Situation Report: August 28 - September 12, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period August 28 - September 12, 2018.