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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Syria Situation Report: April 27 - May 14, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period April 27 - May 14, 2019. The SITREP includes coverage of pro-Bashar al-Assad regime attacks, Iran's consolidation of control along the Syria-Iraq border, local backlash against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria establishing greater dominance over the remaining forces in Idlib Province.

Click image to enlarge.



Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Russia in Review: May 9 - 13, 2019

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: May 9 - 13, 2019 (read the previous Russia in Review here)

Authors: Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is pressing an aggressive campaign to integrate Belarus with Russia despite some resistance from Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The Kremlin has also boosted its campaign to extend citizenship to Ukrainians and thereby expand its leverage over Ukraine, revitalize its declining population in Russia, and establish a broader principle for other Russian-speaking populations in the former Soviet Union and beyond.

The Kremlin is pressing an aggressive campaign to integrate Belarus with Russia despite resistance from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The Kremlin intensified its efforts to bind Belarus to Russia in 2018.[1] The Kremlin dispatched Russian Ambassador to Belarus Mikhail Babich - a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin - in August 2018. Babich used his tenure to push for the accelerated implementation of the 1996 Union Treaty, which calls for a federation-type state that ensures the long-term allegiance of Belarus to Russia.[2] He lobbied business leaders and opposition politicians in Belarus to build ties with Russia.[3] He threatened to condition economic benefits from Russia upon demonstrated progress towards the Union State.[4] He even went so far as to correct statements by Lukashenko.[5] The Belarusian Foreign Ministry accused Babich of “failing to understand the difference” between an “independent government” and a “federal subject” of Russia.[6] The Kremlin supported these calls by exerting additional forms of economic pressure (such as suspended gas subsidies and bans on certain fruit imports) on Belarus.[7] The Kremlin also successfully secured an implementation roadmap for the Union Treaty in December 2018 after a series of high-level bilateral talks.

Lukashenko has attempted to withstand these threats from the Kremlin. He has become increasingly vocal over the past year against encroachment on the sovereignty of Belarus by Russia. He has called on domestic businesses to find alternative markets other than Russia. He also successfully pushed Putin to recall Babich on April 30.[8] Lukashenko may ultimately seek to disperse power across the political structures of Belarus to increase their long-term resilience to the Kremlin. He has stated his intent to revise the Belarusian Constitution to “give authority to other structures and branches of power” outside of his Office of the President.[9] The Kremlin will nonetheless sustain its campaign despite these acts of resistance. Putin replaced Babich with Dmitry Mezentsev - a close associate and the former Chairman of the Russian Federation Council Committee on Economic Policy.[10] Mezentsev will likely soften his rhetoric to avoid further alienation in Belarus but he almost certainly intends to pursue the same objectives as Babich.

The Kremlin has a strategic interest in consolidating control over Belarus and ensuring the long-term alignment of its government and its people with Russia. Putin likely fears the development of a ‘color revolution’ or other political movement to integrate Belarus with the West after Lukashenko. The Kremlin also intends to expand its military basing in Belarus to expand its threat to the borders of Ukraine and NATO. Putin could even view leadership of the Union State as a viable means to remain in power after the end of his latest term as Russian President in 2024.

The Kremlin further extended its offer of citizenship and residency status to Ukrainians in order to expand the Kremlin’s influence over Ukraine. The Kremlin proposed a bill to simplify residence permits and eliminate residency term limits for Ukrainians in Russia on May 7.[11] This measure is only the most recent step in a new campaign by the Kremlin. Putin originally signed a decree streamlining the citizenship application process for Ukrainians living in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts of Eastern Ukraine on April 24. The Kremlin opened centers to distribute passports the Donbas on April 29 - 30.[12] Putin later extended the offer to all Ukrainians without dual citizenship and former residents of the occupied Crimean Peninsula on May 1.[13] Putin claimed that the Kremlin would consider extending these benefits to all Ukrainians. The Government of Ukraine condemned the issuance of passports in Eastern Ukraine and Crimea on May 8 and announced preparations for a new list of sanctions targeting Russia.[14]

This campaign to grant benefits to broad swathes of Ukrainians supports the demographic objectives of the Kremlin. Russia likely seeks to attract Ukrainians to revitalize its aging workforce and help reverse its severe demographic crisis.[15] The Kremlin has been actively refining its migration policy to simplify residency and citizenships requirements for Russian-speaking populations since 2018.[16] The Russian Center for Strategic Research developed a migration strategy calling for expanded migration to achieve a required annual population growth of 250,000 to 500,000 in 2017.[17] The Kremlin might be also attempting to redirect the labor flow of Ukrainians from the West towards Russia. Putin could ultimately intend to extend similar benefits throughout the former Soviet Union including Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Baltics.

This campaign also strengthens the Kremlin’s leverage over Ukraine. The Kremlin continues to deny its direct military intervention in Ukraine and instead frames its actions as support to the local Russian-speaking population of Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin could use the need to protect large numbers of new Russian citizens to justify open military action in Eastern Ukraine in the future. The Kremlin is also positioning to secure further advantage ahead of possible negotiations with newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky about the future of Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky condemned the recent citizenship offers but remains open to talks on the Donbas. The Kremlin may have chosen to act now in order to take advantage of the lame-duck period between Zelensky and outgoing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The timing limits the possible responses available to Poroshenko and places less direct pressure on Zelensky, allowing the Kremlin to preserve the opportunity of favorable long-term negotiations with the Government of Ukraine.

What to Watch

Russia and China continue to increase their economic cooperation in the Arctic. Putin announced that Russia and China are considering connecting Russia’s Northern Sea Route to China’s Maritime Silk Road on April 27. U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo expressed concern regarding this potential outcome on May 6. Russian Novatek also signed a deal to sell a twenty percent stake in its second gas liquefaction project in the Arctic to Chinese CNODC at the One Belt One Road Forum on April 26.[18] The Central Bank of Russia has grown the share of its yuan foreign currency reserves from 2.8% to 14.2% since 2018.[19] ISW has previously assessed that cooperation between China and Russia may limit the future freedom of movement of the U.S. in the Arctic.

The Kremlin is laying the groundwork for a multilateral Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019. Russian Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov and other officials from the Russian Foreign Ministry met with counterparts from Egypt on May 7 to discuss an inaugural Russia-Africa Summit in Sochi in October 2019.[20] The Kremlin intends to boost its ongoing campaign to expand its political and economic influence throughout Africa. The Kremlin’s talks also support its campaign to court Egypt from the U.S. and NATO.

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[1] [“Alexander Lukashenko Spoke Between the Lines: What Does the President of Belarus Fear More Than Gas Prices,”] Kommersant, December 15, 2018, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/3833073.
[2] [“Working Meeting With Mikhail Babich,”] Kremlin, August 24, 2018, http://kremlin(.)ru/catalog/persons/281/events/58363.
[3] Dennis Lavnikevich, [“Lukashenko Against Putin,”] New Times, May 6, 2019, https://newtimes(.)ru/articles/detail/180157.
[4] [“Russian Ambassador Urged Minsk to Decide on Integration Format,”] Ria Novosti, March 14, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190314/1551788602.html; [“Political Returnee: Russian Ambassador to Belarus, Mikhail Babich, Completes Work in Minsk,”] Kommersant, April 30, 2019, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/3961164; “Russian Government Recalls Ambassador to Belarus After Minsk Officials Complained He Treated the Country Like a ‘Federal Subject’,” Meduza, May 2, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/en/feature/2019/05/02/russian-government-recalls-ambassador-to-belarus-after-misnk-officials-complained-he-treated-the-country-like-a-federal-subject; Dennis Lavnikevich, [“Lukashenko Against Putin,”] New Times, May 6, 2019, https://newtimes(.)ru/articles/detail/180157.
[5] [“Russian Ambassador Commented on Lukashenko’s Statement on the Real Cost of the Ostrovets Power Plant,”] TASS, April 19, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/ekonomika/6354766.
[6] Olga Hryniuk, “A Major Diplomatic Row Between Minsk and Moscow Explained,” Belarus Digest, March 22 2019, https://belarusdigest(.)com/story/a-major-diplomatic-row-between-minsk-and-moscow-explained/.
[7] [“Rosselkhoznador’s Statement on its Reasons for Imposing Restrictions on the Supply of Apples and Pears from Belaurs to Russia,”] Rosselkhoznadzor, April 11, 2019, http://fsvps(.)ru/fsvps/news/29996.html.
[8] [“Dmitry Mezentsev Appointed Ambassador of Russia to Belarus,”] Kremlin, April 30, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/60428.
[9] “Lukashenko Offers to Hold Belarusian Parliamentary Election in 2019,” TASS, April 19, 2019, http://tass(.)com/world/1054649; “Belarusian Leader Speaks in Support of Updated Constitution,” TASS, April 19, 2019, http://tass(.)com/world/1054647.
[10] [“Dmitry Mezentsev Appointed Ambassador of Russia to Belarus,”] Kremlin, April 30, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/60428.
[11] [“The Government Will Consider the Possibility of Introducing a Perpetual Residence Permit,”] Interfax, May 7, 2019, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/660374.
[12] [“Decree on the Definition for Humanitarian Purposes of Categories of Persons Entitled to Apply for Admission to Russian Citizenship in a Simplified Manner,”] Kremlin, April 24, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/news/60358; “Kremlin Mulling Easier Rules for Granting Temporary Residence to Ukrainians in Russia,” Unian, May 7, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10541448-kremlin-mulling-easier-rules-for-granting-temporary-residence-to-ukrainians-in-russia.html.
[13] [“A Decree Was Signed on Certain Categories of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons Who Have the Right to Apply for Admission to the Citizenship of the Russian Federation Under a Simplified Procedure,”] Kremlin, May 1, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60429.
[14] “Ukraine’s Cabinet Outlaws Russian Passports Issued in Occupied Donbas,” Unian, May 8, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10542972-ukraine-s-cabinet-outlaws-russian-passports-issued-in-occupied-donbas.html.
[15] “Russia’s Population Declines in 2018 for First Time in a Decade,” Moscow Times, December 21, 2018, https://www.themoscowtimes(.)com/2018/12/21/russias-population-declines-2018-first-time-in-decade-a63926.
[16] [“The List of Do Outs following the Direct Line with Vladimir Putin,”] Kremlin, June 26, 2018, http://kremlin(.)ru/acts/assignments/orders/57847; [“Putin ordered the simplification of the process for foreigners to receive temporary residence permits and residence permits,”] Fergana, June 26, 2018, https://www.fergananews(.)com/news/30783.
[17] Irina Ivakhnyuk, “Proposals for Russia’s Migration Strategy Through 2035,” Russian International Affairs Council, September 26, 2017, https://russiancouncil(.)ru/en/activity/publications/proposals-for-russia-s-migration-strategy-through-2035/.
[18] “NOVATEK and CNODC Sign Entrance Agreement to Arctic LNG 2,” Novatek, April 25, 2019, http://www.novatek(.)ru/en/press/releases/index.php?id_4=3173.
[19] Irina Malkova, [“The Central Bank Transferred its Assets from the United States to China and Halved its Share of Assets in Dollars,”] The Bell, May 8, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/tsb-perevel-svoi-aktivy-iz-ssha-v-kitaj-i-vdvoe-snizil-dolyu-aktivov-v-dollarah/.
[20] [“On the Consultations of the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on the Middle East and Africa, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia Mikhail Bogdanov with Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Director of the Department of African Organizations and Associations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Egypt H. Amara,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, May 7, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3638250.

Monday, May 13, 2019

ISIS's Opportunity in Northern Syria's Detention Facilities and Camps

By John Dunford and Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: ISIS has a unique and dangerous opportunity to exploit conditions in detention facilities and internally displaced persons’ camps across Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) do not have adequate resources to detain the suspected 9,000 ISIS fighters and 63,000 ISIS family members currently housed in a network of detention facilities and internally displaced persons camps. The Al-Hawl Camp alone is now over capacity by roughly 30,000 individuals and holds a combustible mix of ideologically committed ISIS family members and other civilians. Female ISIS members within the camp have attacked guards and other civilians. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assesses that ISIS is already networking within Al-Hawl. ISIS may attempt a breakout of both detained fighters and displaced persons as part of its 2019 Ramadan campaign and/or its wider resurgent campaign in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. must urgently help the SDF adequately secure these facilities and process their inhabitants.

ISIS has a unique and dangerous opportunity to exploit conditions in detention and displacement facilities across Northern Syria. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) announced the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March 2019 after seizing the last kilometer of ISIS-held terrain in the Euphrates River Valley. ISIS’s losses did not dismantle its human network, however. The SDF does not have adequate resources to detain 11,000 alleged ISIS fighters and manage a wider network of at least 12 formal and informal displacement camps that hold tens of thousands of civilians and ISIS family members. Over 63,000 ISIS family members and other civilians surrendered to the SDF in Eastern Syria between December 2018 and April 2019. The SDF relocated all of these individuals to the now overcrowded Al-Hawl Camp in Northeastern Syria near the Syrian-Iraqi Border, creating an urgent humanitarian and security crisis. ISIS likely intends to target these camps and prisons as part of its plan to resurge in Iraq and Syria. ISIS may choose to intensify these actions now during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ends on June 4, in order to leverage their propaganda value for its 2019 Ramadan campaign.



The Al-Hawl Camp is already a de facto support zone for ISIS in Northern Syria.[1] The SDF separated male ISIS fighters from the population using improved screening methods and processed them using biometric measures including fingerprinting and facial recognition. The SDF then transferred these fighters to prisons deeper in SDF-held terrain. The SDF did not apply the same level of scrutiny to the thousands of indoctrinated women and children concentrated in Al-Hawl Camp. Media reports have repeatedly noted that large numbers of women in the camp remain ideologically committed to ISIS. Some of them likely played tangible roles in security or military structures such as the ISIS Hisba Police. These networks have attacked guards and burned the tents of less committed detainees in Al-Hawl. Their activities may be part of a deliberate plan. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly ordered female members to surrender en masse to the SDF in February 2019, potentially with the intent to infiltrate facilities such as Al-Hawl Camp. ISIS and its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) previously exploited conditions to recruit and radicalize individuals in detention facilities such as Camp Bucca in Iraq.

The SDF lacks the capacity to control the presence of ISIS in Al-Hawl Camp. The Al-Hawl Administration is overburdened and lacks adequate housing, medical supplies, and access to clean water, according to the UN. The camp is also not secure. SDF Spokesperson Kino Gabriel noted that the SDF lacked visibility on the presence of ISIS in Al-Hawl as of April 2019. Authorities have separated foreigners into a separate area of Al-Hawl but Syrian and Iraqi ISIS family members can still mix with the wider civilian population in the camp, raising the risk of recruitment and indoctrination. ISIS could use a networked presence within Al-Hawl to support its resurgence in Northern Syria. Al-Hawl is located less than fifty kilometers from Hasakah City and Shaddadi - both major supply and logistics hubs for the SDF and U.S.-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition. ISIS could threaten operations by the SDF across Eastern Syria from Al-Hawl.

The challenges in Al-Hawl also threaten the security of Iraq. The Al-Hawl Administration announced an agreement with the Government of Iraq on April 11 to repatriate over 30,000 Iraqi women and children held at Al-Hawl. The SDF claimed that it will only repatriate individuals unconnected to ISIS but likely lacks the detailed vetting information necessary to do so. The Government of Iraq reportedly intends to house these returnees in a new detention facility that it will establish in Northern Iraq. The same challenges of indoctrination and networking faced in Al-Hawl would also apply to any such facility in Iraq.

The SDF faces a similar set of challenges maintaining its network of prisons for detained ISIS fighters. The SDF Foreign Relations Chair stated that the SDF is incapable of continuing to maintain its prisons without additional international support as of January 2019. Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) later assessed in March 2019 that the SDF could “indefinitely” run its existing detention facilities in the absence of challenges by “external actors” in Northern Syria. The SDF in particular likely assesses that it will not be able to sustain its detention operations in the event of a cross-border intervention by Turkey, which views the SDF as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The release of detainees could further disperse ISIS cells throughout Iraq and Syria. The SDF has released Syrian and Iraqi ISIS members to decrease its resource burden and gain support from local Arabs. For example, the SDF released several hundred ISIS fighters to tribal elders in Deir ez-Zour Province, Raqqa Province, Tabqa, Hasakah City, and Manbij in March 2019. These releases will likely allow ISIS members to reconnect with their prior networks and establish new cells. The SDF is under further strain due to the refusal of many states to repatriate their nationals who fought with ISIS. Thus far only a limited numbers of countries have repatriated some fighters and family members including Kazakhstan, Morocco, Macedonia, Sudan, Indonesia, Russia, Iraq, and Kosovo. The SDF has advocated for the creation of an international tribunal to try foreign fighters, but the idea has received only limited support.

The additional threat of directed prison breaks by ISIS could overwhelm the SDF. ISIS is waging a capable resurgent campaign in recaptured areas of Syria that resembles the resurgence of AQI in Iraq after 2011. Syrian Kurdish Special Forces units prevented an attempt by 400 ISIS foreign fighters to break out of the SDF’s Central Prison in Malikiyah in Northern Hasakah Province on April 5. ISIS conducted a successful prison break in the Sosa Prison in Iraqi Kurdistan around December 11. AQI conducted at least eight major prison breaks a part of its own resurgence in Iraq between July 2012 and July 2013. ISIS can use each breakout to reintroduce hardened foreign fighters and experienced operational commanders back into its ranks and reinvigorate its insurgent campaign in Iraq and Syria.

The U.S. can mitigate these risks through a combination of short-term and long-term support to the SDF that does not substantially change its commitment on the ground in Syria.

Short-Term Steps:

The U.S. must take immediate humanitarian action including providing additional funding and material support to the SDF, UN, and other NGOs to help manage resources and provide desperately needed healthcare in Al-Hawl Camp. The current situation is a crisis that requires action for both humanitarian and national security reasons. The U.S. can both prevent the unnecessary loss of life in Al-Hawl Camp and prevent ISIS from leveraging its inhabitants to aid its resurgence in Iraq and Syria. These steps include:
  • The U.S. must provide additional biometric systems to camp administrators to help process the residents of the Al-Hawl Camp. The U.S. should assist in screening the camp’s population and detaining identified active members of ISIS. This step will allow the SDF to prevent ISIS from using the camp as a recruiting ground and safe haven for recruiters, support elements, and female fighters. It will also help address concerns from NGOs that assisting Al-Hawl Camp will help ISIS.
  • U.S. forces in Syria should work with the SDF to establish additional security procedures inside Al-Hawl Camp that will provide access to all of the camp’s population to the UN and other NGOs. The U.S. should consider deploying additional military enablers if necessary to achieve this goal.
  • The U.S. and its allies can directly provide the necessary humanitarian supplies including water purification systems, medicines, and building materials for shelter and medical facilities through its convoys that regularly resupply the SDF via Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S. is currently providing material assistance to partnered NGOs to provide food, shelter, and sanitation services.
  • The U.S. can make a leading contribution and urge coalition partners to help provide the $27 million that the UN has identified as needed to maintain Al-Hawl Camp for the “next few months”.
  • The U.S. should act to make trauma counseling and other mental health resources available to the women and children in the Al-Hawl Camp.
  • The U.S. should ensure similar conditions at other such camps currently existing (or set to be established) in Iraq and Syria.
Long-Term Steps:
  • The U.S. will need to work with the U.S.-led Anti-ISIS Coalition to establish a unified policy towards ISIS foreign fighters. This could include the facilitation of an international tribunal or an agreement on repatriation. Repatriation is a complex legal issue that creates potential risks for host countries, but the lack of a uniform international policy will continue to be detrimental to the SDF.
  • The U.S. will need to help the SDF build modern prisons and detention facilities to house foreign fighters until their trial in a tribunal or their home countries. The U.S. should commit to this support as a key component of an enduring commitment to the SDF.
  • The U.S. should lead an effort to build an international fund to support detention facilities and displacement camps over the long-term in Syria and Iraq.
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[1] ISW defines ISIS Control Zones, Attack Zones, and Support Zones as follows: a Control Zone is an area where ISIS exerts physical and/or psychological pressure to assure that individuals and groups respond as directed, an Attack Zone is an area where ISIS conducts offensive maneuvers, and a Support Zone is an area free of significant action against ISIS that permits logistics and administrative support of its forces.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Russia in Review: Balkans Campaign Update

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.

Authors: Michaela Walker, Andrea Snyder, Darina Regio, and Nataliya Bugayova

Key TakeawayRussia has sustained its campaigns to prevent the expansion of NATO and the EU in the Balkans. The Kremlin is expanding its outreach in Serbia even as EU-mediated negotiations fail to restart talks between Serbia and Kosovo. The Kremlin is also leveraging favorable political actors to block the integration of Bosnia-Herzegovina with NATO and the EU. The Kremlin has supported secessionist powerbrokers and militarization programs that could reignite ethnic tensions in Bosnia with repercussions for the fragile stability of the wider Balkans. The Kremlin could attempt to connect its military and energy projects in Serbia and Bosnia to gain greater influence in the Balkans.

Europe is struggling to restart normalization talks between Kosovo and Serbia. Germany and France hosted a summit in Berlin on April 29 - 30 to restart negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia. The summit failed to achieve progress on key items including border demarcation, trade normalization, and Serbia’s non-recognition of Kosovo. Kosovar and Serbian delegates roundly criticized one another and their hosts but agreed to meet again in Paris in July 2019. Previous negotiations stalled in November 2018 when Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on goods from Serbia after Serbia blocked Kosovo’s bid to join Interpol. The Kosovar Parliament voted to transform the Kosovo Security Force into the Kosovo Armed Forces in December 2018, prompting Serbia to threaten military intervention.

The stalled talks are expanding friction between Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU. Kosovar President Hashim Thaci stated that the EU is “too weak” and “not united” to deliver a successful deal and called for a “leading role” for the U.S. on May 2. Thaci asserted that “Kosovo remains the most isolated country in Europe thanks to Europe.”[1] Kosovar officials also blamed EU High Representative Federica Mogherini for the challenges in Kosovo’s integration into the EU.[2] Meanwhile, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic accused France and Germany of using the talks to pressure Serbia to recognize Kosovo.[3] Dacic specifically called for a larger role for Russia.[4] Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin stressed on May 2 that Serbia will find a “way to be wanted by other big and powerful countries” if Europe “does not want” Serbia.[5] Both Serbia and Kosovo have been increasingly critical of the EU.

The Kremlin will likely act to exploit these tensions between Kosovo, Serbia, and the EU to block further expansion by the EU and NATO. Russia holds a core strategic objective to halt the expansion of the EU and NATO in the Balkans. It thus maintains a stake in preventing diplomatic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo that could enable one or both of them to join the EU. The Kremlin has also long opposed the independence of Kosovo as an “illegal unilateral action” imposed by NATO on Serbia in 1999.[6] Russian President Vladimir Putin himself has consistently asserted that the intervention by NATO in Kosovo was a blatant abuse of international law by the U.S. that disregarded the interests of Russia. The Russian Parliament recently approved a bill calling on Europe to “condemn NATO’s aggression against Yugoslavia” in March 2019.[7] The Kremlin also likely fears that recognition of Kosovo would embolden similar independence claims by autonomous regions in Russia in the long term. Russia will likely continue to use diplomatic pressure to undermine progress towards normalization between Serbia and Kosovo and hinder the EU and NATO in the Balkans.

The Kremlin is increasingly prioritizing outreach to Serbia as its preferred partner in the Balkans. Putin met with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic during the One Belt One Road Forum on April 26.[8] Putin previously offered several major deals to Vucic during a “historic visit” to Serbia on January 17 including $1.4 billion in energy infrastructure investment and implied support for a bid by Serbia to join the TurkStream Pipeline.[9] Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Dacic held an extensive bilateral meeting on April 14.[10] The Kremlin will also reportedly dispatch new Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko in June 2019.[11] Putin will leverage this growing relationship to expand his influence in the Balkans and block positive momentum between Kosovo and Serbia as previously assessed by ISW.

Pro-Russian Bosnian Presidency Chairman Milorad Dodik is similarly stalling the integration of Bosnia-Herzegovina with the EU and NATO. Dodik asserted that he would block any steps to incorporate Bosnia into NATO on April 25. Dodik is also likely sabotaging closer ties between Bosnia and the EU. He submitted an incomplete and overdue questionnaire to the EU Commission regarding the potential accession of Bosnia to the EU in March 2019. He also presided over government deadlock that led to Bosnia’s temporary suspension from the Council of Europe in April 2019.[12] Dodik will retain his rotating position until July 2019. Bosnia remains far from achieving membership in the EU and NATO but its continued disunity will only further impede its progress towards the West to the advantage of the Kremlin.

Dodik has also intensified secessionist rhetoric that threatens to destabilize Bosnia. Dodik is a proponent (and former leader) of the Republika Srpska - the political entity for Serbs within Bosnia. He expressed disillusionment with a united Bosnia and called for the unification of all Serbs on March 24.[13] He also condemned the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords (which ended the Bosnian War) for creating a “divided society” and dysfunctional federal government unable to develop a common future for Bosnia.[14] Dodik has advocated for an independent Republika Srpska and its potential unification into a Greater Serbia - an idea also propagated by nationalist Russians linked to the Kremlin.[15]

Dodik is likely attempting to build an independent military force to support his aspirations for the Republika Srpska. The Republika Srpska National Assembly voted to add more than 1,000 reserve officers to the existing 7,000 Republika Srpska Police on April 18.[16] Republika Srpska Interior Minister Dragan Lukac justified the increase as a response to the migrant crisis in Southern Europe.[17] The move nonetheless raised fears of militarization across Bosnia. The Bosnian Muslim Party for Democratic Action stated that the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina - the second political entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina - “will be forced” to implement its own auxiliary police if the Republika Srpska did not halt its expansion of the Republika Srpska Police.[18] Neither the Federation nor the Republika Srpska can legally operate independent militaries since their integration into the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2006. The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords also restrict the size and capabilities of military forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The Kremlin will likely leverage its ties with Dodik to advance its strategic objectives in the Balkans. The Kremlin openly opposes the accession of Bosnia and Herzegovina to NATO.[19] The Kremlin will likely maintain its support for Dodik, who advocates for continued close ties between Russia and the Republika Srpska.[20] The Kremlin will also likely support these irregular forces in the Republika Srpska. ISW has assessed that the Russian Security Services were training local “special police” units in Republika Srpska in 2018. Russia also allegedly trains military personnel from Serbia who then develop paramilitary groups in the Republika Srpska.

The Kremlin could ultimately use its footprint in Bosnia as a vector to destabilize neighboring states as well as the wider structures of the EU and NATO. The Kremlin could push for deeper interconnections between Serbia and the Republika Srpska, including military support and participation in joint energy projects such as the TurkStream Pipeline.[21] The Kremlin could also ultimately seek to undermine the 1995 Dayton Accords (which it currently claims to support) as part of its global campaign to reverse the wider international order built after the Cold War, which Putin perceives as unfair and disadvantageous to Russia.[22] ISW will continue to examine additional indicators to assess with a higher degree of confidence the Kremlin’s intent for the Dayton Accords and Greater Serbia.

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[1] “Pristina: EU Keeps Silent About Serbia’s ‘Anti-European Behavior’,” N1, May 2, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a480674/Pristina-accuses-Brussels-for-ignoring-Serbia-s-anti-European-behaviour.html.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “Serbia’s FM: Berlin Summit Isn’t Format for Belgrade - Pristina Talks,” N1, April 30, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a480148/Berlin-summit-not-good-format-for-Belgrade-Pristina-talks-FM-says.html.
[4] [“Speech and Answers to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov During a Joint Press Conference Following Talks with First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia I. Dacic,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, April 17, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/3618519?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP&_101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP_languageId=ru_RU.
[5] “Serbia Def Min: If Europe Doesn’t Want Us, Someone Does,” N1, May 2, 2019, http://rs.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a480770/Minister-says-if-Europe-doesn-t-want-Serbia-there-is-someone-who-does.html.
[6] [“Speech by the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation A. Lukashevich at a Meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on the 20th Anniversary of the NATO Bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, March 30, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/web/guest/vistupleniya_rukovodstva_mid/-/asset_publisher/MCZ7HQuMdqBY/content/id/3595333.
[7] “Russia’s Upper House Calls for Condemning NATO Aggression against Yugoslavia,” TASS, March 13, 2019, http://tass(.)com/world/1048450.
[8] [“Meeting with President of Serbia Aleksandr Vucic,”] Kremlin, April 26, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/60385.
[9] “Joint News Conference with President of Serbia Aleksandr Vucic,” Kremlin, January 17, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/59693.
[10] [“Speech and Answers to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov During a Joint Press Conference Following Talks with First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia I. Dacic,”] Russian Foreign Ministry, April 17, 2019, http://www.mid(.)ru/ru/maps/rs/-/asset_publisher/GLz7aPgDnSfP/content/id/3618519?p_p_id=101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP&_101_INSTANCE_GLz7aPgDnSfP_languageId=ru_RU.
[11] [“Russia Will Send Its New Ambassador to Serbia at the Beginning of the Summer,”] Regnum, April 15, 2019, https://regnum(.)ru/news/2612159.html.
[12] “Bosnia Temporarily Suspended from Council of Europe,” N1, April 9, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a337048/Bosnia-temoprarily-suspended-from-Council-of-Europe.html.
[13] [“Milorad Dodik: Serbs Do Not Have a Future in Bosnia and Herzegovina,”] Regnum, February 7, 2019, https://regnum(.)ru/news/2568343.html; [“Milorad Dodik Thinks It Is Time for the Unification of Serbs Within One State,”] TASS, March 24, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/6253192.
[14] [“Dodik Threatened Reunification with Servia if Kosovo Is Accepted into the UN,”] PolitNavigator, April 16, 2019, https://www.politnavigator(.)net/glava-bosnijjskikh-serbov-prigrozil-prisoedineniem-k-serbii-esli-kosovo-primut-v-oon.html.
[15] Carstrad TV, [“Dugin Directive: Greater Serbia,”] YouTube, January 12, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf2vzDefZWo.
[16] “Bosnian Serb Region Adopts Draft Law Changes Establishing Auxiliary Police Unit,” N1, April 18, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a338944/Bosnian-Serb-region-adopts-draft-law-changes-establishing-auxiliary-police-unit.html.
[17] “Internal Affairs Minister: Nobody Should Be Afraid of Police,” N1, April 18, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a339070/Internal-affairs-minister-Nobody-should-be-afraid-of-police.html.
[18] “Parties in Bosnia’s Federation Entity Also Want Auxiliary Police Unit,” N1, April 19, 2019, http://ba.n1info(.)com/English/NEWS/a339275/Main-Bosniak-party-wants-auxiliary-police-unit-in-Bosnia-s-Federation-entity.html.
[19] [“Turning Towards NATO: In the United States, Calls to Help Bosnia and Herzegovina Resist the ‘Influence’ of the Russian Federation,”] RT, April 25, 2019, https://russian.rt(.)com/world/article/624774-ssha-bosniya-gercegovina-rossiya-vliyaniye; [“Lavrov: Russia Can Not Agree with the Entry of Bosnia and Herzegovina into NATO,”] TASS, January 16, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6004637.
[20] Alexander Borisov, [“Milorad Dodik: Serbs Want Friendship with Russia and Do Not Accept NATO Membership,”] Rossiyskaya Gazeta, March 8, 2019, https://rg(.)ru/2019/03/08/milorad-dodik-serby-hotiat-druzhby-s-rf-i-ne-priemliut-vstuplenie-v-nato.html.
[21] “Joint News Conference with President of Serbia Aleksandr Vucic,” Kremlin, January 17, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/59693; “Bosnia and Herzegovina's Leader Hopes His Country Will Join TurkStream Pipeline Project,” TASS, January 18, 2019, http://tass(.)com/economy/1040591.
[22][“Matvienko: Basic Principles of Dayton Accords Must Be Preserved,”] TASS, April 23, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/5151768; [“Lavrov Declared the Unacceptability of Turning the Balkans into the Subject of Strife Russia and the West,”] Interfax, September 21, 2018, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/630167.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Syria Situation Report: April 13 - 30, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following 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 April 13 - 30, 2019.

Click image to enlarge.



Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The Flawed U.S. Approach to Afghanistan

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: The U.S. will likely fail to secure its national security interests with its current strategy in Afghanistan. The U.S. since 9/11 has sought to deny Afghanistan as a safe haven for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and that goal remains paramount even today. The U.S. incorrectly believes it can facilitate a legitimate dialogue that leads to a stable political settlement, reconciles the Taliban, and empowers the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to defeat terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The U.S will struggle to facilitate this dialogue because the reconciliation of former militants is likely to accelerate political competition between multiple factions. Increased political competition between the Taliban and established Afghan powerbrokers could cause negotiations to collapse and risk an ethnically charged civil war. Further, the Afghan Government and the Taliban even if reconciled may prove unwilling and unable to fight together to prevent the growth of Al Qaeda, ISIS, and affiliated terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The U.S. must change its policy to account for the complexity of the reconciliation process and to prepare for these predictable future security and political challenges.

U.S. STRATEGY IN AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. has a vital national security interest in preventing Al Qaeda, ISIS, and affiliated terrorist groups from exploiting safe havens in Afghanistan to conduct international terror attacks against the West. This goal is real and indispensable. Al Qaeda, ISIS, Lashkar-e Taiba, the Taliban, and the Haqqani Network – among other designated foreign terrorist organizations – have support and attack zones in Afghanistan. Many of these groups have grown in capacity during the drawdown by the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan that began in 2011 under U.S. President Barack Obama.

The Trump Administration intends to secure this critical objective while simultaneously setting conditions for a further military withdrawal from Afghanistan. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad has engaged in direct negotiations with the Taliban both to reach an agreement that satisfies U.S. counterterrorism concerns and to facilitate negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. The U.S. ultimately desires a political settlement that establishes a stable and effective Government of Afghanistan and empowers the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) to independently contain if not defeat the terrorist groups active in Afghanistan.

The Trump Administration believes that its efforts to facilitate a dialogue between the Taliban and the Government of Afghanistan will lead to a timely and effective political settlement that sets conditions for its withdrawal from Afghanistan. It also believes that the Taliban will keep Al Qaeda and ISIS out of Afghanistan despite the Taliban’s past broken promises in this regard. However, any dialogue in reality will be a complicated, protracted, and contentious process involving the Taliban, the Afghan Government, and a multitude of other powerbrokers. It is more likely to undermine the Afghan Government than to resolve the War in Afghanistan. There is no guarantee of a stable outcome and the talks (even if successful) will represent only the first milestone in a long list of conditions required to secure the security interests of the U.S. in Afghanistan. The U.S. will ultimately fail in this regard unless it changes its policy to account for the complexity of the reconciliation process and to prepare for these predictable future security and political challenges.

TALIBAN - TERROR GROUPS DYNAMICS 

A complete and verifiable agreement to break the Taliban’s historical relationship with Al Qaeda is unlikely given Al Qaeda’s continued presence in Afghanistan.

The historical relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda likely cannot be broken easily despite the Taliban’s attempts to distance itself publicly from Al Qaeda. Former Al Qaeda Emir Osama Bin Laden pledged bay’at (allegiance) to former Taliban Emir Mullah Mohammad Omar. Mullah Omar’s successor Mullah Akhtar Mansour publicly accepted bay’at from current Al Qaeda Emir Ayman Zawahiri but later removed the pledge from the official website of the Taliban. Zawahiri pledged bay’at to current Taliban Emir Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada in June 2016 although Akhundzada has never publicly accepted it.

Al Qaeda remains active in Afghanistan and likely within the command structure of the Taliban. The U.S. continues to conduct regular operations targeting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council assessed that Al Qaeda remains active in areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban as of January 2019. One Taliban commander estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 foreign fighters from Central Asia, the Arab Gulf, and Africa operate alongside the Taliban as of November 2018.[1] Many of them are likely affiliated with Al Qaeda. The Taliban would need to take concrete and public measures to denounce Al Qaeda and expel its operatives from Afghanistan to credibly demonstrate its intent and capability to constrain Al Qaeda in a post-U.S. Afghanistan.

The Taliban is not unitary and cannot enforce peace agreements among its followers. The Haqqani Network and other radical factions of the Taliban are unlikely to reconcile with the Afghan Government and could form new organizations or defect to ISIS or Al Qaeda.

The Taliban claims that it is a cohesive organization but it remains likely that some radical elements of the group will reject reconciliation with the Afghan Government. These elements could create a new militant organization or defect to ISIS Wilayat Khorasan or Al Qaeda, further empowering terrorist groups in Afghanistan. The Afghan Government is also unlikely to be able to financially support the reintegration of the Taliban into the weak economy of Afghanistan without substantial aid from the West. This strain could lead many reconciled but disaffected fighters from the Taliban to turn ultimately towards ISIS or Al Qaeda.

FUTURE SECURITY DYNAMICS

The Afghan Government will remain dependent on military aid from the U.S. and NATO to secure the country and target remaining terrorist groups even if the Taliban reconcile.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) remains reliant on funding and aid from the U.S. and NATO. The ANDSF will not be able to secure Afghanistan after a withdrawal of foreign forces even in the event of a successful reconciliation with the Taliban. The ANDSF lacks high-end capabilities (such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets) and remains dependent on foreign combat enablers to conduct operations despite some recent improvements in its organic capabilities.[2] Former U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel testified that the ANDSF remains “dependent on…coalition support” in March 2019. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani also confirmed that the Afghan Government would “not be able to support [its] army for six months without U.S. support and capabilities” due to a lack of funding in July 2018. The ANDSF is unlikely to be able to successfully secure ungoverned spaces in Afghanistan against ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups without this sustained help from the U.S. and NATO.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and a reconciled Taliban are not capable of defeating ISIS Wilayat Khorasan.

The U.S. and the ANDSF have repeatedly targeted positions held by ISIS Wilayat Khorasan in Eastern Afghanistan as well as the group’s attack networks leading to Jalalabad and Kabul. The Taliban also regularly attack ISIS in Eastern Afghanistan. However, ISIS still retains the ability to conduct spectacular attacks in both Kabul and Jalalabad, and seize terrain from the Taliban. ISIS may be expanding even further in Southern Afghanistan. The Taliban may be willing to fight ISIS in Afghanistan, but ISIS will likely prove resilient to both the Taliban and the ANDSF.

The U.S. would need to devote significant resources to sustain any counter-terrorism force left to safeguard its vital national security interests after its withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Any small counterterrorism force would require a much larger force of enablers to support the soldiers conducting targeted operations against terrorist groups. Afghanistan in particular covers a large geographic area with substantial rugged and mountainous terrain, making it highly unlikely that a small force could adequately secure the safe havens held by terrorist groups. The idea of a light military footprint may appear attractive and effective, but it will not work in reality. Even the assets currently operating in Afghanistan lack the same breadth, tempo, and reach as their counterparts during the height of Operation Enduring Freedom.

POLITICS OF RECONCILIATION

Bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban undermine the Afghan Government’s ability to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban.

The overall trajectory of the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban remains unclear. Khalilzad has stressed that “nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to” in order to assuage concerns that the U.S. will negotiate its withdrawal from Afghanistan before facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Khalilzad has repeatedly called for a permanent ceasefire but has not offered a specific timeline for how his plan will phase the withdrawal vis-a-vis a ceasefire agreement, domestic negotiations, and the implementation of a political settlement. The Taliban will likely hold little incentive to negotiate a genuine political settlement after it reaches a deal with the U.S. on the terms of withdrawal from Afghanistan, even if the agreement is conditioned upon progress in talks with the Afghan Government.

The Afghan Government is also losing political leverage because of its exclusion from the bilateral talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. The negotiations thus far have isolated and marginalized the Afghan Government, leading to increased tensions between the U.S and Afghanistan. This tension in turn creates a perception of declining support for Afghanistan from the West, further undermining the credibility of the Afghan Government. The Afghan Government may ultimately be forced to agree to a less-than-ideal settlement with the Taliban - especially given the Trump Administration’s urgency to withdraw from Afghanistan.

The Afghan Government cannot form a unified entity to negotiate with the Taliban. Multiple powerbrokers  each with competing interests  will need to participate in any successful negotiations over the future of Afghanistan.

The Afghan Government is not a truly cohesive entity. Khalilzad has stressed the need for a cohesive and inclusive negotiating team to represent the Afghan Government. Ghani has attempted to develop a single Leadership Council for Reconciliation but any government representatives at the negotiating table will in reality represent a complicated web of different ethnic groups, political organizations, and social backgrounds. Each of these groups hold interconnected but competing interests that will lead to a long, complex, and fragile negotiation with a high risk of failure. The U.S. has tried and failed to remedy the disruptive political competition within the Afghan Government. The Taliban’s political reintegration, if achieved, will likely further exacerbate rather than mitigate these contests and increase tribal and ethnic tensions across Afghanistan.

The looming 2019 Afghan Presidential Election – scheduled for September 28 – has politicized and complicated the reconciliation process.

Khalilzad has stated that he hopes to facilitate an agreement that allows the Taliban to participate as a political entity in the 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections set for September 28. This desire has accelerated the required timeline for meaningful progress in talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. It has also politicized the reconciliation process as a whole. Fourteen of the eighteen candidates in the election – including former Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar and current Afghan Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah – are boycotting Ghani’s Consultative Loya Jirga on reconciliation with the Taliban, accusing him of using it to further his own reelection. The intense political competition that accompanies Afghan Presidential Elections will make it increasingly more difficult to unite different factions and negotiate with the Taliban.

The Taliban are not willing to reintegrate into the current Afghan Government. Many Afghans are similarly unwilling to accept a political role for the Taliban.

The Taliban has remained evasive regarding its ultimate political objectives although it has indicated that it will not accept the current Afghan Constitution. The Afghan Government, wider Afghan urban society and the international community are all unlikely to accept major constitutional revisions - especially changes that undermine or reverse the dramatic social progress achieved in Afghanistan since 2001. It also remains unclear whether the Taliban are genuinely willing to reintegrate as a political party into even a modified system or will instead attempt to reestablish the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Taliban has claimed that it does not seek to control Afghanistan and its political representatives have indicated that it is open to transforming into a political party. The Taliban also met with multiple powerbrokers including many leaders of the Northern Alliance in February 2019, suggesting that it could coexist peacefully with its historic rivals. The Taliban nonetheless continues to view itself as the legitimate “government in waiting” and it may seek to leverage its robust shadow government structures to reassert its total control over the country once the U.S withdraws from Afghanistan. The Taliban’s reconciliation will ultimately accelerate competition – either political or military – between established powerbrokers and the reintegrated Taliban for control over power and resources in Afghanistan.

---
[1] The Taliban commander – who is also a member of the Taliban’s leadership council – specifically stated that the foreign fighters hail from China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Tunisia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
[2] U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) designated Afghanistan as its main effort in February 2018 in order to shift key combat enablers to support operations by the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). The reallocation of resources slowed the Taliban’s momentum but also demonstrated the continued reliance of the ANDSF on the U.S. and NATO to secure Afghanistan.

ISIS Reasserts Global Reach for Ramadan 2019

By Brandon Wallace with Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: ISIS has orchestrated an annual campaign of intensified attacks around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan since 2012, first in Iraq and then globally. It has sustained this recurring surge in its global operations every year despite its concurrent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. ISIS’s latest Ramadan campaign began in late April 2019, two weeks before the start of Ramadan on May 5. ISIS has thus far declared a new province in Central Africa, conducted a devastating attack in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, and launched rare attacks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also released his first video statement since his declaration of the Caliphate in 2014, emphasizing his survival, foreshadowing upcoming campaigns, and shaping the future trajectory of ISIS. ISIS is likely to continue demonstrating its global reach by conducting additional major attacks during this upcoming Ramadan in order to offset its loss of core terrain and maintain its image as the world’s deadliest terror organization.

ISIS demonstrated its continued global reach with a complex attack against Christians and Westerners in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday 2019. The attack was neither an isolated success nor a last gasp of desperation. Rather, ISIS supported the attack as part of a regular annual surge in its worldwide activity around the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. ISIS has continued to wage a coordinated global campaign despite the loss of its Caliphate in Iraq and Syria as ISW warned in 2017. Sri Lanka foreshadows what will likely be a deadly campaign by ISIS during Ramadan 2019. 

This report examines ISIS’s historic pattern of operations in the weeks before and during Ramadan. It also analyzes recent attacks that likely comprise the start of ISIS’s 2019 Ramadan campaign. 

ISIS’s Ramadan Campaigns

ISIS (and its predecessor Al-Qaeda in Iraq) has conducted a coordinated campaign for Ramadan every year since 2012. The scope, scale, and focus of these campaigns vary by year but generally involve a major escalation in attacks in the weeks leading up to and throughout Ramadan. They also are often used to announce major strategic inflections for the organization. Al-Qaeda in Iraq announced its annual campaigns during Ramadan. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Caliphate on the first day of Ramadan 2014. ISIS expanded to a global attack pattern during Ramadan 2015. ISIS now typically uses the month to conduct major spectacular attacks targeting foreign countries and declare the creation of new “provinces” (or wilayats) in its Caliphate. ISIS has deliberately cultivated this global footprint in order to diversify its holdings and mitigate against its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria. ISIS tailors its campaigns across this footprint to support its wider operational and strategic objectives, highlighting its continued employment of professional military design at a grand strategic level. 

ISIS has continued to expand its operations each year around Ramadan despite its setbacks in Iraq and Syria, proving that its loss of core terrain has not significantly disrupted its ability to design and execute global campaigns. The U.S-Led Anti-ISIS Coalition had successfully recaptured Eastern Mosul and isolated Ar-Raqqa City by February 2017, contesting ISIS’s core urban centers in Iraq and Syria. Yet ISIS’s 2017 Ramadan campaign remained incredibly active with major bombings and offensive operations in Britain, Iran, and the Philippines in May - June 2017. Its 2018 Ramadan campaign was more limited but included a coordinated suicide bombings targeting churches and law enforcement in Indonesia two days before Ramadan. ISIS likely made a strategic decision to deprioritize its global operations for Ramadan 2018 in order to focus on two superseding objectives: (1) shifting back into an insurgency in Iraq and Syria, and (2) setting conditions in its provinces abroad for escalation in 2019. 


ISIS’s 2019 Ramadan Campaign Begins 

ISIS launched its latest global campaign in late April 2019, slightly more than two weeks before the official start of Ramadan. The campaign has thus far included the devastating attack on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka, the creation of a new province in Central Africa, significant attacks in Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh, and a rare video statement by Baghdadi. This section details these events in chronological order and assesses their strategic significance for ISIS in 2019. 

Congo. ISIS announced the creation of a new wilayat (province) called Wilayat Central Africa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on April 18. ISIS Wilayat Central Africa claimed responsibility for a raid targeting a barracks in Bovata near the Congolese-Ugandan Border. ISIS subsequently featured Wilayat Central Africa in Issue 179 of its digital Al-Naba Magazine, claiming three additional attacks against the Congolese Army in Butembo on April 20. Local media and non-governmental organizations confirmed the attacks. The claims originated from both local and centralized media organs that ISW has assessed as responsive to the senior leadership of ISIS. They thus effectively constituted a formal declaration of Wilayat Central Africa. 

ISIS will likely focus on further expansion in Africa during Ramadan 2019. Wilayat Central Africa demonstrates to supporters the continued global expansion of ISIS. It could directly support the resurgence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria given that external affiliates have previously contributed financial and military resources to ISIS in Syria. It could also serve as a training ground for disaffected African Muslims who seek to join ISIS. ISIS set conditions to expand into the Democratic Republic of the Congo as part of a wider surge in Africa that began in 2018. 

ISIS will likely conduct one or more major attacks in Africa during Ramadan 2019. It could aid its local affiliates to shift their tactics to align more closely with those used by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, or otherwise direct them to target interests of the West during Ramadan. It may also declare additional formal provinces in Africa. Pro-ISIS media channels recirculated a photo allegedly depicting “soldiers of the caliphate” in Mozambique on May 30. Pro-ISIS media released a similar video in the Congo in October 2017, previewing the establishment of Wilayat Central Africa. 

Sri Lanka. ISIS conducted a devastating coordinated attack against Christians and Westerners in Sri Lanka on April 21, Easter Sunday. A cell of fighters detonated seven suicide vests (SVESTs) at three churches and three luxury hotels in three separate cities, killing over 250 civilians. The blasts marked the first attack by ISIS in Sri Lanka. ISIS formally claimed the attack on April 23 and later released a posthumous video of eight attackers pledging allegiance to Baghdadi. Sri Lanka investigators had identified eight of nine suicide bombers as of April 25. 

Sri Lanka has since uncovered a robust militant network actively planning additional operations. Officials quickly identified multiple additional bombs at several sites. The wife of one of the bombers detonated an SVEST as police attempted to detain her at a private residence on April 21. Sri Lankan Police performed a controlled detonation of a van parked containing three IEDs on April 22 and the Sri Lankan Air Force defused an additional IED found near Colombo’s Bandaranaike International Airport. Raids on multiple safe houses uncovered additional SVESTs and bomb components. Three militants detonated SVESTs after clashing with security forces unit at their safe house on April 27. ISIS formally claimed the latter incident and released a posthumous photo of two of the militants, suggesting that the cell planned further attacks. It is possible that more individuals linked to the cell remain at large. 

ISIS’s cells in Sri Lanka demonstrate its continued commitment to generating global attack networks. ISW assesses that ISIS tasked external elements to enable the cells, which drew upon preexisting local militant groups in Sri Lanka. One of the attackers reportedly travelled to Syria to train under ISIS before returning to Sri Lanka and as many as four others may have travelled to Turkey, Iraq, or Syria. ISW assesses that ISIS has also built a support network in India, which may have enabled the attack network in Sri Lanka. The alleged cell leader previously travelled to preach to supporters in Kerala Province in Southern India. Foreign fighters from Kerala Province previously travelled to join ISIS in Afghanistan in 2016. 

ISIS will likely attempt to conduct additional external attacks against Christians during Ramadan 2019. Russia thwarted at least two attempted attacks in late April 2019 that could be attributable to ISIS as part of its planned surge for Ramadan.[1] These attacks are consistent with ISIS’s longstanding campaign to inflict losses on civilian populations, instill fear, and otherwise destabilize countries outside the bounds of its Caliphate. ISIS intends to provoke backlash against vulnerable populations of Muslims to divide society, fuel radicalization, and enable recruitment. 

Saudi Arabia. ISIS conducted a new attack in Saudi Arabia, where it has only conducted infrequent operations since declaring the Caliphate in 2014. Four Saudi-born militants rammed a car into a gate outside a security building in the town of Zulfi north of Riyadh on April 21. Security guards killed three of the attackers in a firefight while the fourth died while attempting to detonate an SVEST. The attack marked ISIS’s first operation in Saudi Arabia since July 2018, when three militants attacked a checkpoint in Buraidah in Northern Saudi Arabia. ISIS released a posthumous video of the four attackers pledging allegiance to Baghdadi and asserting their intent to “avenge our brethren … in Iraq and Syria and everywhere.” The scale of the attack and the release of an official video both mark an inflection for ISIS in Saudi Arabia. 

ISIS views Saudi Arabia as a key challenger to the religious legitimacy of its Caliphate and seeks to coordinate and inspire attacks against the kingdom to punish it for its support to counter-terrorism operations in Iraq and Syria. The attackers in their video accused Saudi Arabia of “[enabling] the enemies of Allah, from the Jews and the Christians and the [Shi’a] and the pagans, and [making] them the masters and the pioneers in the country of the two sacred mosques” and vowed to “avenge our religion and … return the slap.” The video did not reference any of ISIS’s three formal provinces in Saudi Arabia: Wilayat Najd, Wilayat Hejaz, and Wilayat Bahrain. ISIS may have deprioritized these affiliates to focus on generating attack cells on the Arabian Peninsula. 

Bangladesh. ISIS also resumed its attacks in Bangladesh. ISIS claimed responsibility for the detonation of an IED targeting police officers in Dhaka on April 29.[2] ISIS had not conducted an attack in the country since March 2017, when militants detonated two IEDs during a raid on safe house in Northern Bangladesh. ISIS’s first major operation in Bangladesh was a deadly attack on cafes frequented by Westerners in Dhaka during Ramadan 2016. 

ISIS could declare a formal province in Bangladesh during Ramadan. Bangladeshi militants first pledged allegiance to ISIS in August 2014 but ISIS never established a wilayat in Bangladesh. ISW previously forecast that ISIS could act on this pledge during Ramadan 2016. It may now choose to take this step during Ramadan 2019 in order to offset its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria despite the smaller footprint and decreased capabilities of its cell in Bangladesh. ISIS has suffered from numerous raids against its cells in Bangladesh since its attack in Dhaka in 2016. ISIS could alternatively create a wider province that incorporates India or the Indian Subcontinent. 

Baghdadi Video Release. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a rare video statement on April 29, marking his first public appearance since declaring of the Caliphate at Al-Nuri Mosque in Mosul in June 2014. Baghdadi used his statement to highlight ISIS’s expanding global campaign and dismiss its losses in Iraq and Syria. He asserted that ISIS is fighting a “war of attrition” that its opponents will inevitably lose and spent most of the video praising actions by affiliates of ISIS outside of Iraq and Syria. He accepted pledges of allegiance from militants in Burkina Faso and Mali, indicating a strategic priority to expand further into Africa. He praised the recent attacks (detailed above) in Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia. He also received a number of physical reports referencing a previously unannounced wilayat in Turkey. ISIS likely released the video to preview upcoming operations and inspire new attacks by its supporters during Ramadan. 

ISIS’s latest global campaign is still unfolding and could continue until the end of Ramadan on June 4. ISW will continue to monitor this campaign and publish updates as needed.

The authors thank James Barnett of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for his valuable contribution to this analysis.


[1] [“FSB of Russia Together with the Police Detained Members of Banned in the Russian Federation MTO "Islamic State", Had Planned to Commit an Act of Terrorism,”] Russian Federal Security Service, April 26, 2019, http://www.fsb(.)ru/fsb/press/message/single.htm!id=10438366@fsbMessage.html; [“Counterterrorism Operation Began in Tyumen,”] Interfax, April 12, 2019, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/658081.
[2] “Crude Bomb Hurled at Police in Dhaka,” Dhaka Tribune, April 30, 2019, https://www.dhakatribune(.)com/bangladesh/dhaka/2019/04/30/crude-bomb-hurled-at-police-in-dhaka.