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Friday, June 15, 2018

Russia Challenges Ukraine in the Sea of Azov

By Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is conducting hybrid operations to secure a combined land and sea arc spanning from the occupied Crimean Peninsula through the Sea of Azov to Eastern Ukraine. Russia’s Caspian Sea Flotilla deployed naval vessels to the Sea of Azov in late May 2018. The ships ostensibly will defend a new bridge connecting Russia to Crimea. The Kremlin also used signature irregular warfare methods including information operations and snap military exercises to sow confusion and instability in port cities held by Ukraine along the Sea of Azov. The Kremlin holds a long-standing interest in obtaining de facto control over the region in order to secure economic resources and block Ukraine’s access to maritime industries. Russia may also intend to use these operations as a venue to destabilize Ukraine ahead of the scheduled 2019 Ukrainian Presidential and Parliamentary Elections. The Kremlin could also leverage a long-term consolidation around the Sea of Azov as a base from which to intensify military pressure on NATO in the Black Sea.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Contours of Anti-U.S. Iraqi Government Emerge

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri, Patrick Hamon, and Omer Kassim 

Key Takeaway: Key Iraqi Shi’a and Kurdish leaders have signaled their support for a new Iran-backed political alliance, setting up a potential coalition with enough parliamentary seats to form the next Iraqi government. Such a governing coalition would further strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq and undermine the U.S. ability to secure its own interests in Iraq.

Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Iranian proxy and Badr Organization head Hadi al-Ameri formed an alliance on June 12, 2018. Their respective electoral lists represent the two winningest alliances in Iraq’s federal legislative elections that occurred on May 12, 2018. Former Iraqi Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki, Shi’a cleric Ammar al-Hakim, and two major Kurdish parties have signaled their support for the Sadr-Ameri alliance. A formal coalition emerging among these actors and the electoral lists they lead would clear the 165-seat majority threshold required to form a government. A Sadr-Ameri alliance under this scenario would not need support from blocs led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and secularist Ayad Allawi.


Al-Hakim’s Tayar al-Hikma al-Watani (National Wisdom Trend, NWT) is likely to join the Sadr-Ameri alliance. The NWT had previously announced its intention to ally with Sadr. An NWT leader indicated the group is a “cornerstone” of the Sadr-Ameri alliance, although the NWT has not yet formally announced its participation in the alliance. Maliki - the leader of the Itilaf Dawlat al-Qanoun (State of Law Alliance) – maintains an antagonistic relationship with Sadr but close ties to Iran and is positioning himself to join the alliance. Maliki seeks to leverage his electoral weight and strong ties with Ameri to secure a key position in the Iraqi government by overcoming a potential Sadr veto against his participation. The Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are likely setting conditions to join the Sadr-Ameri alliance following a joint statement declaring the Sadr-alliance “a positive step.”

This emerging coalition may encounter obstacles before it can proceed to form the next Iraqi government. Disagreements over the position of Prime Minister and key ministerial posts may drive the different factions within the coalition apart. There will likely be a partial manual recount of votes following allegations of widespread electoral fraud that may change the final election results.


Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Iran-Backed Political Alliance Forms in Iraq

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri, Patrick Hamon, and Omer Kassim

Key Takeaway: Iraq may form a government that undermines U.S. interests, tries to eject the U.S. from the region, and supports Iran. Nationalist Iraqi Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has allied with Hadi al-Ameri, the leader of the coalition of Iranian-backed militias and their political wings. Sadr and Ameri lead the two winningest alliances in Iraq’s federal legislative elections and are nearing the 165-seat threshold necessary to form a government if Shi’a cleric Ammar al-Hakim (19 seats) and secularist Ayad Allawi (21 seats) follow through on their previously announced intention to ally with Sadr.

Sadr and Ameri will likely attempt to woo current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi or former Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki to gain support of one of their coalitions, or alternatively seek to fragment both leaders’ respective coalitions to form a government. They may also seek to gain support from some or all Kurdish parties and Iran friendly Sunni parties in order to reach the government formation threshold. Both Sadr and Ameri may push for the full expulsion of U.S. forces from Iraq and will further the entrenchment of Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in the Iraqi security apparatus.


For the full Iraq Council of Representatives seat allocation figures, see ISW's election results graphic.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Syria Situation Report: May 2-29, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period May 2-29, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the map is accurate as of May 25, 2018.




Thursday, May 24, 2018

Breaking Down Iraq's Election Results

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri and Patrick Hamon

Iraq held a federal election on May 12, 2018 – the fifth nationwide election since Saddam Hussein’s ouster in 2003. The election was marked by a historically low turnout rate and fraud allegations, yet witnessed fewer security incidents than elections in previous years.

None of the electoral lists secured the 165-seat majority required to begin forming the next government. Preliminary results that Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court has yet to certify indicate populist Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his “Toward Reform” list won the election with 54 Council of Representatives seats. The Iran-backed “Conquest Alliance” led by Iranian proxy and Badr Organization Secretary General Hadi al-Ameri took second place with 47 seats, while the “Victory Alliance” list led by current Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – in power since 2014 – finished third with 42 seats. Sadr and other key powerbrokers are in negotiations to form a governing coalition that reaches the 165-seat threshold.

The accompanying graphic below breaks down Iraq’s Council of Representatives seat allocation based on initial election results.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) will provide continuous updates on the government formation process and the attendant implications for U.S. interests and policy in Iraq. You can sign up for e-mail updates on ISW’s website.

Click the image below to view an enlarged version.



Monday, April 30, 2018

Syria Situation Report: March 21 - April 17, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

These graphics mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. The maps depict significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from March 21 - April 3, 2018 and from April 4 - April 17, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the maps is accurate as of April 17, 2018.

Map Text Credit: Sana Sekkarie




Thursday, April 12, 2018

Military Movements after the April 2018 Chemical Weapons Attack


By Matti Suomenaro, Aaron Hesse, and the ISW Research Team

The U.S. has assessed that the Bashar al Assad regime is responsible for a chemical weapons attack in Damascus, Syria on April 7, 2018. The Assad-Russia-Iran coalition has been relocating its military assets and personnel in advance of an expected U.S.-led military operation intended to deter future use of chemical weapons. Iranian proxies are repositioning in order to mitigate the effects of a strike. The map accompanying the data below identifies key pro-regime military movements from April 8 – 12, 2018.


*Correction issued April 18, 2018: The map above has been updated since its original publication on April 12, 2018. The previous iteration of the map included ranges for two S-300 surface-to-air missile systems at Tartous and Latakia in Syria. ISW has changed the map to reflect the updated assessment that Russia likely had one S-300 system in Syria, based at Tartous, and that it withdrew that system in June 2017 (Russia deployed a new S-400 system to Masyaf in the months following this withdrawal). The previous iteration of this map also included a note regarding Russia’s deployment of multiple additional S-300 systems at unknown locations in Syria. ISW has removed this note based on a re-evaluation of reporting from 2016 on Russian deployments and the updated assessment regarding Russia’s current S-300 systems in Syria. Forthcoming ISW products will include updated assessments of Russia’s military posture in Syria and of the movement of the broader Russia-Iran-Bashar al Assad regime coalition’s movements since the April 14, 2018 U.S.-U.K.-France operation in Syria

Bashar al Assad Regime-Russia-Iran Coalition

Two Russian Su-24M ‘Fencer’ attack aircraft conducted several low-altitude passes in close proximity to the USS Donald Cook and the French frigate Aquitaine in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on April 11. The Russian Navy conducted a firing drill off the Syrian coast in a likely attempt to deter U.S. and allied naval maneuvers near Syria on April 11.

Russia reportedly deployed four Tu-95MS ‘Bear’ and Tu-160M ‘Blackjack’ strategic bombers as well as an unspecified number of Il-78M tanker aircraft from the Engels Air Base in Southern Russia. Their final destination is unknown although they may be bound for Syria or the Hamedan Air Base in Western Iran. Russia previously targeted locations in Eastern Syria from the Engels Air Base. 

Russian and regime forces enhanced the air defenses around Syria’s capital, Damascus, where the regime conducted its chemical weapons attack on April 7. Pro-regime forces deployed short- to medium-range surface-to-air missiles, including six Russian Pantsir-S2s, to the Mezzeh Military Air Base and other sites in Damascus. Pro-regime officials also reportedly issued an alert to the Syrian Arab Army to evacuate personnel and assets from military bases across Syria.

Regime and Russian aircraft relocated closer to heavily-defended commercial airfields across Syria. Aircraft relocated from the Seen (Sayqal), Dumayr, Shayrat, and the T-4 (Tiyas) Air Bases to the Bassel al Assad International Airport in Latakia Province, the Nayrab Air Base outside Aleppo City, and the Damascus International Airport.

Iranian proxies, including Lebanese Hezbollah, reportedly began exiting Syria. Hezbollah reportedly relocated a number of fighters from Syria into Lebanon. Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies reportedly also entered Iraq from positions along the Syria-Iraq border, including Abu Kamal in Eastern Syria.

Unspecified pro-regime elements reportedly evacuated a branch of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Jamraya near Damascus. The SSRC is a Syrian government body responsible for research and development on advanced weapons systems, including ballistic missiles and chemical weapons.

Yemen

The Iranian-backed al Houthi movement escalated its series of ballistic missile strikes targeting Saudi Arabia. The strikes fit a pre-existing escalatory pattern but also coincide with Saudi Arabia’s expressed support for a military response in Syria. The al Houthi movement targeted Riyadh and two other locations in Saudi Arabia with a ballistic missile and kamikaze drones on April 11. It remains unclear if Iran directed the escalation against Saudi Arabia.

United States

The U.S. Navy announced that the guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook departed from Larnaca, Cyprus to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea on April 9. The guided-missile destroyer USS Porter is also operating in the Navy’s Sixth Fleet area of operations. The U.S. Navy announced on April 11 that the USS Harry Truman Carrier Strike Group departed from Norfolk, Virginia for a regularly scheduled deployment in support of ongoing operations by the Navy’s Fifth and Sixth Fleets, the headquarters for which are located in Bahrain and Italy, respectively.  

France

The cruise missile-capable French frigate Aquitaine is stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea.

United Kingdom

Britain reportedly ordered the deployment of an unspecified number of cruise missile-capable submarines to the Mediterranean Sea within range of Syria.

Turkey

Turkey maintains at least one warship stationed near Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The Turkish Navy originally deployed to block offshore hydrocarbon exploration by Italy and France in the territorial waters of Cyprus on February 3, 2018.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman announced his “readiness to work with allies on any military response in Syria if needed” following a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on April 10.

The Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute contributed to the Yemen-related content in this publication.

America's Interests in Syria Beyond Deterring Chemical Weapons Use

By Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: President Donald Trump will likely authorize a campaign of strikes in Syria to deter future use of chemical weapons. The strikes would add credibility to American deterrence efforts worldwide by affirming American resolve to uphold stated “red lines”. They would fall short of halting the pro-Bashar al Assad regime war effort, however. The U.S. must do more in Syria to affect the war’s outcome, and must use tools beyond the military instrument. President Trump should use this opportunity to reset his entire Syria strategy. Vital American interests in Syria include: defeating al Qaeda and ISIS and replacing them with a viable and legitimate alternative; expelling Iranian military and proxy forces; limiting Iranian influence; facilitating the emergence of Sunni Arab armed forces and governing structures; bringing the war in Syria to a stable and enduring end that allows refugees to return; and de-escalating great power and regional competition in Syria that risks regional war and sets conditions for a great-power conflict.

President Trump will likely authorize a campaign of strikes against Syrian regime military targets in coming days in order to punish and deter chemical weapons use. American and British intelligence assessments have determined that the Assad regime is responsible for a chemical attack using a nerve agent against an opposition enclave in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus on April 7, 2018. President Trump first authorized a missile strike on a Syrian airfield in April 2017 after Syrian President Bashar al Assad conducted a similar attack using sarin gas on an opposition-held town. President Trump has reiterated his commitment to deterring future use and is now considering his military options.

A new round of strikes will most likely impose costs and degrade the regime’s capability to launch such attacks by damaging Assad’s remaining air force. President Trump’s 2017 strike destroyed twenty percent of Assad’s air force. President Trump may attempt to destroy Assad’s remaining air capabilities in addition to destroying his chemical weapons facilities. He may also strike targets that impose costs on Iran and Russia. He has publicly stated his intent to hold them accountable for supporting Assad’s crimes. Russian and Iranian forces collocate on many bases across Syria.

The strikes will reaffirm President Trump’s commitment to deterring chemical weapons use but will not solve the Syria problem. They are unlikely to alter the overall trajectory of the Syrian civil war and will not prevent Assad from continuing to slaughter his rebelling population with conventional munitions. They will not weaken Russian and Iranian resolve to continue supporting Assad, even if they destroy Assad’s air force. Alone, tactical military action is not a strategy.

The U.S. must do more and must use tools beyond the military instrument. President Trump should use this opportunity to reset his entire Syria strategy and remove the constraints on American action in Syria that he inherited from President Obama.

The U.S. has vital national security interests in Syria beyond deterring chemical weapons use. These include:
  1. Defeating al Qaeda, as well as ISIS, and facilitating the emergence of a viable and legitimate Sunni Arab leadership that will prevent the re-emergence of jihadist actors. 
  2. Expelling Iranian military forces and most of Iran’s proxy forces from Syria in order to secure American allies and partners in the region, to deny Iran access to Syrian economic resources, to reduce the regional sectarian conflict that is driving Sunni jihadist recruitment, and to constrain Russia’s ability to project force through Iranian basing; 
  3. Limiting Iranian influence over the Syrian government and territory; 
  4. Facilitating the emergence of a Sunni Arab armed force and governance structures that are: seen as legitimate by the Sunni Arab communities in Syria; willing and able to expel ISIS and al Qaeda and keep them out; and willing and able to serve as interlocutors for Syria’s rebelling Sunni community in negotiations with the pro-regime Alawite community and others; 
  5. Bringing the war in Syria to a stable and enduring end in a negotiated settlement acceptable to all sides that allows refugees to return in a manner that ensures jihadist actors do not gain sanctuary within a resettled and insecure population; and 
  6. De-escalating the competition among Turkey, Russia, Iran, and the Gulf States that risks regional war and is setting conditions for a great-power conflict in the Middle East. 
President Trump faces no easy decisions in Syria. Desirable options vanished over the eight years of vicious civil war. The cost and difficulty of acting in Syria will only continue to grow the longer the US tries to avoid these problems, however. The war continues to escalate. Russia, Iran, Assad, and Turkey are all attacking American forces and local partners in Syria. Israel and Iran are in an escalation pattern that could quickly become a regional war. The withdrawal of America’s limited forces in Syria would create a vacuum that leads to further escalation or enables American adversaries to grow stronger.

The growing international consensus behind striking Assad for chemical weapons use and holding his backers accountable provides an opportunity. President Trump should assert the leadership that the Obama administration shied away from and chart a new way forward in Syria.

Map: Russia and Iran in Southwest Syria

By ISW's Syria Team