Friday, September 13, 2019

Syria Situation Report: August 21 - September 10, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Maps summarize significant developments in the war in Syria during the periods August 21 - 31 and September 1-10, 2019. Key SITREP events include a reported deployment of Russian private military contractors in Idlib Province, Iranian attempts to entrench its proxy networks further in Eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, ISIS-linked attacks in Southern Syria, and U.S. strikes against al Qaeda targets involved in external terror plots.

Map 1: September 1-10, 2019 (click image to enlarge)

Map 2: August 21-31, 2019 (click image to enlarge)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Balancing Challenge for Ukraine

By Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaways: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s emerging policies have the potential to spur economic development but pose risks for Ukraine’s democracy and sovereignty. Zelensky has a uniquely strong public mandate and a capable and eager new team that can advance reforms. He is simultaneously consolidating power and taking steps that could endanger freedoms of speech and information. Zelensky promises to achieve peace in Eastern Ukraine within six months. He has yet to present a plan to do so without making major concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin, however. An upcoming prisoner exchange and the concessions that the Kremlin has likely secured are indicators of the strength of Putin’s pressure. Putin is posturing for peace while he continues to consolidate control over his proxies in Eastern Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin might be setting conditions for multiple scenarios. Putin’s campaign to gain international acceptance of Russia’s illegal behavior is continuing to advance. The West should help Ukraine balance its effort to achieve peace and preserve sovereignty, and seek to prevent the normalization of Russia’s aggression outside its borders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has appointed several reform-oriented professionals to key government positions and announced ambitious reform plans. The Ukrainian Parliament, in which Zelensky’s Servant of the People party (SP) holds the majority, voted for a new Cabinet of Ministers on August 29. The cabinet includes many motivated, reform-oriented ministers.[1] Zelensky pledged to make critical economic reforms, such as lifting the moratorium on the sale of Ukraine’s agricultural land, privatizing Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, and implementing additional anti-corruption measures.[2] The Ukrainian Parliament passed a landmark reform bill on September 3 stripping lawmakers of immunity from prosecution, which corrupt parliamentarians have previously abused.[3] Zelensky’s swift action on reforms while he maintains his unprecedented mandate is a positive step for Ukraine.

Zelensky also took steps to deepen Ukraine’s partnership with the West. He met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on September 1 and August 31, respectively. Zelensky took a joint stance with Poland, stating that the European Union’s sanctions on Russia must remain in force until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.[4] The U.S., Ukraine, and Poland also signed a memorandum to diversify gas supplies for Poland and Ukraine through the purchase of liquefied gas from the U.S.[5] Ukraine continues to look for ways to enhance its energy security amid growing energy pressure from Russia.[6]

Photo: U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class T. Logan Keown

Zelenksy and his allies are consolidating power. Zelensky’s political mandate provides a unique chance to implement reforms, but his efforts to consolidate power create risks for Ukraine’s democracy. Backsliding would align with Putin’s long-term goal to ensure that Ukraine does not becomes a democracy that Russian citizens might see as a model. Ukraine and the West should pay close attention to the emergence of signs of authoritarian behavior. Zelensky’s SP party chose not to form a coalition with another political party, framing this decision as a desire to own full responsibility for the outcome of the government’s policies.[7] Zelensky chose Oleksiy Honcharuk as his prime minister. Honcharuk is a reform-oriented professional but also likely a Zelensky loyalist. Zelensky thus has strong influence over the Cabinet of Ministers. SP chairs most of the committees in the parliament. European Solidarity, the party of former president Petro Poroshenko, accused SP of violating the proportionality norm and allocating fewer chairmanships than European Solidarity’s 8% vote share warranted. [8] Ukrainian lawmakers might also be more vulnerable to pressure through politically motivated criminal charges in the short term, having lost their immunity, as Ukraine does not yet have a system of independent courts.

Zelensky retained Arseniy Avakov as Ukraine’s Interior Minister, ignoring allegations of Avakov’s involvement in several corruption cases.[9] Zelensky might believe that Avakov will be a loyal ally, as his position would at least partially depend on Zelensky’s support. Zelensky intends to subordinate Ukraine’s National Guard – a part of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry – directly to his office, as Putin did in Russia.[10] Zelensky might be attempting to limit Avakov’s de facto authority, but this change to the command structure would further consolidate Zelensky’s power.

Zelensky and his team are cracking down on select Ukrainian powerbrokers. The new cabinet voted to limit the powers of Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitchko at Zelensky’s request.[11] Zelenksy’s team may seek to remove another Poroshenko-era official and gain control over Kyiv, Ukraine’s largest city and capital. Zelensky continues to focus on associates of Poroshenko. He ordered an audit of Porosehenko ally Yury Kosiuk’s business activities.[12] There are ongoing investigations into Valeria Gontareva, the former National Bank Governor during Poroshenko’s presidency, and into Poroshenko himself.[13] Zelensky might be preparing to take actions against some of Ukraine’s oligarchs. Zelensky stated that he has questions about the source of funding supporting Russia-linked oligarch Victor Medvedchuk on September 1, accusing him of being financed by foreign powers.[14] There are also unconfirmed reports of Zelensky targeting Ukraine’s largest oligarch, Rinat Akmetov.[15]

Some of these probes may be warranted, but they could also serve to selectively eliminate Zelensky’s rivals. Zelensky does not seem to target his supporter and Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy or Yulia Tymoshenko, Zelensky’s former opponent in the presidential race and the leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” political party. Zelensky also seems to tolerate Kremlin-linked powerbrokers displaced by the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution – allies of the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych – reentering Ukrainian politics.[16] The most recent figures in this camp include Renat Kuzmin, a fugitive Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine under Yanukovych. Kuzmin became a member of the Ukrainian Parliament. [17] Yanukovych’s notorious Health Minister Raisa Bogatyryova also returned to Ukraine in August. Ukrainian authorities arrested her upon arrival only to release her on bail paid by Russia-linked Ukrainian lawmaker Vadym Novinskyi.[18]

Zelensky’s actions raise concerns about whether freedoms of speech and information will be protected in Ukraine. Ukraine’s new cabinet stopped live broadcasting of its sessions and no longer allows journalists to attend them.[19] Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan stated that Zelensky’s team does not require intermediaries, such as journalists, to communicate with the Ukrainian people.[20] Another SP deputy verbally attacked a journalist from Novoye Vremya, one of Ukraine’s leading publications.[21]

SP gave the chairmanship of the Parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech to Nestor Shufrych, who is overtly sympathetic to Russia. Shufrych was a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, before joining the even more heavily Russia-linked Opposition Platform.[22] He voted for the notorious “dictatorship laws” of January 16, 2014, which intended to increase censorship and caused a major escalation in the 2014 Euromaidan revolution.[23] He said that “no one should be limited in what information they receive and what information they provide,” when asked how he would protect Ukraine against Russian disinformation, thus likely implying that Russian media should not be restricted in Ukraine.[24] Shufrych often gives interviews to Russian media and calls Russia’s war against Ukraine an internal Ukrainian conflict, echoing the Kremlin’s false narrative.[25] SP justified the decision to give Shufrych the position to fulfill the requirement to provide some chair positions to other parties in the parliament.[26]

SP registered a draft bill on “Electronic Communications,” which has the potential to limit civil liberties.[27] SP is framing the law as a step toward digitizing government processes in Ukraine. One of Zelensky’s stated priorities is to create a “state in a smartphone.”[28] The law, however, would obligate Ukrainians to provide passport information when buying a mobile phone SIM card. SP recalled the draft for “additional review” after Ukrainian civil society representatives criticized it.[29] The Kremlin has gradually increased identification control related to purchases of communication devices in Russia.[30]

Zelensky’s haste to establish peace in Eastern Ukraine create opportunities for the Kremlin to exploit. Zelensky has doubled down on his core election promise to restore peace promptly in Eastern Ukraine and to bring Ukrainian prisoners home – a promise he can deliver on only if Putin allows him to. Ukraine’s new Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko stated that the government is planning to solve the crisis in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine in six months.[31] Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov called Prystaiko’s plan “ambitious, but doubtful” and recommended that Ukraine first “stop shooting and withdraw its forces.”[32]

Zelensky has yet to share his plan for achieving peace in this short timeframe without making major concessions to Putin. ISW has repeatedly warned that Putin likely seeks a political settlement legitimizing his proxies in Donbas within Ukraine’s official state structures and reintegrating a pro-Russia bloc of voters into Ukrainian politics as a permanent lever of influence.[33] Prystaiko expressed willingness to consider elections in the occupied territories, ending Ukraine’s economic blockade against these territories, and introducing an international peacekeeping force. These measures would all provide ample opportunities for the Kremlin to exploit.[34] SP also merged the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights with the Committee on Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories. [35] Zelensky or Russia-linked actors might exploit the framing of reintegration as a human rights issue to secure amnesty for Russian proxies. Russia-linked Ukrainian lawmaker Vadym Novinskyi registered a draft bill on August 29 on amnesty for all “participants of events” in Luhank and Donetsk that would include Russian-controlled proxies.[36]

The Kremlin has likely already manipulated Zelensky’s promise to secure the return of Ukrainian prisoners. Putin stated on September 5 that a large prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine will be finalized shortly.[37] The statement came after Ukraine released Volodymyr Tsemakh, a potential suspect and key witness in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russia-controlled forces in 2014, despite numerous European requests not to extradite Tsemakh to Russia.[38] This concession might be a result of the Kremlin’s manipulative actions last week. Multiple sources, including some officials from Zelensky’s team, stated on August 30 that Russian-held Ukrainian prisoners were on their way to Ukraine, though Zelensky’s administration later criticized these statements as premature.[39] Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Oleksandr Danilyuk and relatives of the prisoners spent hours at the airport in anticipation of their arrival.[40] The exchange did not take place, however. A number of unconfirmed reports suggested that Putin demanded inclusion of Tsemakh as an additional concession. It remains difficult to assess the real dynamics behind the prisoner exchange from open source information. Putin might have led Zelensky to believe that Zelensky was close to achieving the swap last week to extort additional concessions, such as Tsemakh, and gain additional leverage in advance of potential negotiations with Ukraine. Putin might have also been testing Zelensky and ways to undermine his political standing.

The Ukrainian and international narrative on Russia continues to drift in the Kremlin’s favor. French President Emmanuel Macron said on August 27 that “pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error,” and that Europe “will never be stable or secure, if we don't clarify our relations with Russia.”[41] Macron also expressed willingness to consider Russia’s return to the G7 (organization of advanced industrial economies), though the G7 has not reached consensus on the issue.[42] Ukrainian oligarch and Zelensky supporter Ihor Kolomoyskiy suggested on August 28 that Ukraine should offer to lift part of the sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Donbas in order to help Ukraine negotiate an end to the war. [43] Zelensky’s speech on Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24 focused on achieving peace and unity and did not explicitly mention Russia as an aggressor.[44]

Such rhetoric helps Putin’s multi-year effort to normalize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its illegal behavior globally. Normalization will have significant consequences for Ukraine and the West.[45] Putin and the Kremlin’s top officials also met with the leaders of several European countries, including France, Germany, and Finland, in August in a likely attempt to rally support for the Kremlin’s version of a peace deal in Ukraine that could help lift sanctions against Russia.[46]

Russia is posturing for peace, but its proxies are not – a potential indicator that the Kremlin is setting conditions for multiple scenarios. Putin continues to express “cautious optimism” about Zelensky.[47] Putin will likely conduct the prisoner swap with Ukraine despite the initial false start. The Kremlin is also taking preparatory steps to engage in a likely Normandy Four meeting in September along with Ukraine, France, and Germany.[48]

The rhetoric of the leaders of the Russian-controlled, self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)” and “Luhansk People's Republics (LNR)” does not demonstrate a desire to reconcile with Ukraine, however. LNR officials stated that the LNR’s only path forward is together with the Russian Federation, while DNR officials dismissed Kyiv’s rhetoric about reconciliation as “just talk.”[49] The DNR and LNR held major celebrations in honor of Russia’s Flag Day on August 22 and installed Russian flags on their administrative buildings – a change from their usual display of DNR and LNR flags.[50] Zelensky might face more friction than he expects with the DNR and the LNR in his reconciliation efforts. The Kremlin can choose to tame its proxies. The Kremlin, however, can also choose to seize on the inevitable tensions to push its narrative about an internal conflict in Ukraine – a narrative that Putin uses to posture as a peacemaker and to undermine the sanctions regime.

The Kremlin continues to consolidate control over its proxies. The DNR and LNR united their railway systems in a joint venture on July 25.[51] Vasily Nazaryan, reportedly a Russian citizen and former employee of Russian Railways, will lead the new venture.[52] The Federation of Russian Trade Unions and the LNR signed a cooperation agreement on August 22.[53] Andrey Kozenko, the head of the Russian parliamentary committee on Russia-Donbas integration, visited the DNR and LNR in August.[54] Russia may be building a stronger bond with its proxies in anticipation of a deal to ensure it has long-term control. The Kremlin might also be setting conditions for alternative scenarios if a deal’s terms are not amenable to Putin.

The West should help Ukraine balance its effort to achieve peace and preserve sovereignty, and prevent normalization of the Kremlin’s behavior. Putin’s pressure on Ukraine and his efforts to court the international community will likely mount amid growing domestic pressure. The West should reject the inevitability that Putin will gain international acceptance of Russia’s illegal behavior and that peace in Ukraine will come at the expense of Ukraine’s freedom. The West should also closely monitor the trajectory of Zelensky’s efforts to consolidate power and maintain a commitment to assisting Ukraine preserve its emerging democracy.

[1]“Here’s Every Member of Ukraine’s New Cabinet of Ministers,” Kyiv Post, August 29, 2019, https((:))//; Toma Istomina, “Honcharuk Unveils Plans in Interview with Ukrainian Press,” Kyiv Post, August 31, 2019,
[2][“Reforms from Zelensky,”] Korrespondent, September 2, 2019, https((:))//; Oleksiy Sorokin, Anna Myroniuk, “Zelensky to Cabinet: Adopt Budget, Lift Land Moratorium, Legalize Casinos — Fast!” Kyiv Post, September 2, 2019, https((:))//; Ilya Timtchenko, “Ukraine Still Stuck with Land-Sales Moratorium,” Kyiv Post, November 16, 2018,; “Remarks by Vice President Pence and President Duda of Poland in Joint Press Conference,” The White House, September 2, 2019,; “Zelensky Says 74 Anti-Corruption Bills Already Submitted to Parliament,” Unian, September 2, 2019,
[3] Natalia Zinets, Matthias Williams, “Quick Win for Zelenskiy as Ukrainian Parliament Strips Lawmakers` Immunity,” Reuters, September 3, 2019,; Oleksiy Sorokin, “Parliament Lifts Lawmakers’ Immunity from Prosecution, Amends Constitution,” September 3, 2019, https((:))//
[4]Oleksiy Sorokin, Anna Myroniuk, “Zelensky Revives Dialogue with Poland, Aims to Buy More US, Polish Energy Supplies,” Kyiv Post, September 2, 2019, https://www((.)); Fakty ICTV [“Zelensky in Poland: What has the President Agreed to with Andrzej Duda?”] Youtube, August 31, 2019,
[5]“Ukraine, Poland and US Sign LNG deal,” Energy Reporters, September 3, 2019,; “U.S. to Help Poland, Ukraine Disconnect from Russian Gas,” Reuters, August 31, 2019,
[6] Steven Pifer, “Heading for (another) Ukraine-Russia Fight?” Brookings Institution, August 30, 2019,
[7][“There will be No Coalition, the Servant of the People Party will Create a Mono-majority,”] Fakty, August 29, 2019, https((:))//
[8] [“About the Deputy Groups (Factions) in Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine,”] The Ukrainian Parliament, July 27, 1994, https://zakon((.))
[9] Oleg Sukhov, “Corruption Accusations Dog Avakov, Ukraine’s Top Cop,” Kyiv Post, March 30, 2018, https://www((.)); Oleg Sukhov, “Zelensky, Parliament Keep Avakov as Interior Minister, Ignore Civil Society,” Kyiv Post, August 29, 2019,
[10] [“Zelensky is Asking Parliament to Give Him the National Guard,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, August 30, 2019,
https((:))//; [“The Draft Law on the Introduction of Amendments to the Law on the National Guard of Ukraine,”] The Ukrainian Parliament, August 29, 2019,
[11] [“How Klitchko Lost the Battle for the Capital,”] Novoye Vremya, September 4, 2019, https((:))//; Oleksiy Sorokin, “Cabinet Approves Firing of Klitschko as Head of Kyiv Administration,” Kyiv Post, September 4, 2019, https((:))//
[12] [“Zelensky Ordered to Audit Subsidies of "Agrobarons,”], September 2, 2019, https((:))//
[13] [“State Investigation Bureau Launched an Investigation due to Poroshenko’s Vacation on Maldives,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, August 6, 2019,; [“Pechersky District Court Allowed the State Investigation Bureau toBring in Gontareva for Questioning by Force,”] Novoye Vremya, September 4, 2019,
[14] Tatyana Ivzhenko, [“Zelensky Accuses Medvedchuk of Receiving Funds from Abroad,”] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 1, 2019,
[15] Volodymyr Verbyany, Alexander Sazonov, “Ukraine’s Ex-Comedian President Is Taking on Its Richest Man,” Bloomberg, August 23, 2019,
[16] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[17] Oleg Sukhov, “Yanukovych’s Old Guard is Staging a Comeback,” Kyiv Post, August 30, 2019,
[18] ibid.
[19] Bermet Talant, “Government Meetings Closed, Ending Presence of Journalists and Live Broadcasts,” Kyiv Post, September 2, 2019, https://www((.))
[20] [“Bogdan: We Do Not Need Journalists to Communicate with Society,”], August 3, 2019, https((:))//
[21] Max Buzhanskiy, Telegram, August 18, 2019,; [“Member of Parliament from Servants of the People Party Insulted the Journalist from the Novoye Vremya Publication,”] Gordon, August 19, 2019,
[22] Oleksiy Sorokin, “Zelensky’s Party to Chair Most Parliament Committees, pro-Russian Party Gets Freedom of Speech Committee,” Kyiv Post, August 28, 2019, https((:)//
[23] Wikipedia, “Anti-Protest Laws in Ukraine,” Accessed September 5, 2019,
[24] Kristina Berdynskykh, Facebook, August 29, 2019,
[25] Russia-24, [“Nestor Shufrych: Zelensky Should Have Guaranteed the Safety of NewsOne Journalists,”] Youtube,
[26] [“He is not Such a Bad Person. Member of Servant of the People Party Spoke about Shufrych,”] Novoye Vremya, August 29, 2019, https((:))// 

[27] [“Parliament Want to Oblige Ukrainians to Buy SIM-cards Using a Passport,”] Segodnya, September 3, 2019,
[28] [“How Does the “State in a Smartphone” Work,”], July 19, 2019,
[29] [“A Bill that Would Have Obliged Ukrainians to Buy SIM-cards with Using a Passport was Recalled from the Parliament,”], September 3, 2019,
[30] [“Russia Tightened the Rules for the Sale and Use of SIM-cards,”], June 1, 2018, https(:)//
[31] [“The Foreign Ministry has Six Months to Advance the Peace Process in Donbas,”] Ukrainian National News Agency, August 29, 2019,
[32] Alexey Pushkov, Twitter, August 20, 2019,
[33] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine's New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Recasting the War in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, August 13, 2019,
[34] [“Pristayko Said Amnesty and Lifting of the Blockade is Under Consideration,”’] RBC, August 28, 2019, https://www.rbc((.))ua/rus/news/pristayko-dopustil-amnistiyu-snyatie-blokady-1567097692.html.
[35]“Preparatory Group Approves Personal Composition of Leadership of Rada Committees,” Kyiv Post, August 28, 2019,
[36] Dmytro Barkar, [“Novinsky Wants to Pass an Amnesty Law,”] RFERL, September 30, 2019,; [“The Draft Law on the Prohibition of Criminal Prosecution of the Participants of the Events in Donetsk and Lugansk Regions,”] Ukrainian Parliament, August 29, 2019, http((:))//
[37] “Ukraine prisoner swap 'nearly complete': Putin,” Reuters, September 5, 2019,
[38] “Dutch MH17 Prosecutors Want To Question Ukrainian Prisoner Who Fought In Donbas,” RFERL, September 4, 2019,; “MH17 Case: 40 MEPs Appeals to Zelenskyi not to Extradite Tsemakh to Russia,”, September 5, 2019, https://censor((.))
[39] Will Englund, “Ukrainians and Russians Working on a Major Prisoner Exchange,” Washington Post, August 30, 2019,
[40] [“Danilyuk at the Kyiv Airport Commented on the Possibility of Prisoner Exchange,” TSN Channel, August 30, 2019,; [“Journalists and Relatives of Ukrainians Held in Russia Gathered at Kyiv Airport,” August 30, 2019, TASS,
[41]“Keeping Russia out of Western fold a ‘Strategic Error’,” France 24, August 27, 2019,
[42] “No Consensus on Inviting Russia to G7 Next Year: Macron,” Reuters, August 26, 2019,
[43]Yuri Butusov, [“Igor Kolomoisky: "Zelensky is a Sailor Zheleznyak. If the 'Servants of the People' Will Blow, They Will Be Dismissed in a Year,"], August 27, 2019,
[44] 112 Ukraine, [“Zelensky’s Speech on Independence Day, 08.24.19,”] YouTube, August 24, 2019,
[45] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine’s New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,
[46] “German Foreign Minister Urges Russia, Ukraine to Revive Peace Talks,” Deutsche Welle, August 21, 2019,; Sylvie Corbet, “Putin, Macron Hold French-Russian Talks Before G-7,” AP, August 19, 2019,; “Joint News Conference with President of Finland Sauli Niinisto,” Kremlin, August 21, 2019, http://en.kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/61349.
[47] “Putin: Conversations with Zelensky Inspire Cautious Optimism,” Unian, August 19, 2019,
[48] [“Advisers to the Heads of State of the ‘Normandy Format’ Will Discuss on September 2 the Agenda and preparations for a Future Meeting of Leaders – Zelensky’s Assistant,”] Interfax, September 2, 2019,
[49] [“The Head of the LNR Met in Luhansk with the State Duma Delegation,”] Ria, August 22, 2019, https://ria((.))ru/20190822/1557790248.html; [“The President Appreciated the Statements of the Kyiv Authorities to Dialogue with the DNR,”] Ria, August 21, 2019, https://ria((.))ru/20190821/1557743982.html.
[50] [Leonid Pasechnik,] Twitter, August 22, 2019,
[51] [“The DNR and LNR Have Created the Concern Railway of Donbas,”] DNR Live, August 8, 2019, http://dnr-live((.))ru/dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-kontsern-zheleznyie-dorogi-donbassa/.
[52] [“Fighters from 'DNR' and 'LNR' Created a New Cross Border Concern,”] Lenta, August 8, 2019, https://lenta((.))ua/boeviki-iz-dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-novyy-transgranichnyy-kontsern-20873/; [“”’DNR’ and ‘LNR’ Combined the Railways in the Concern ‘Railways of Donbass,’”] Antikor, August 19, 2019,
[53][“ The leaders of the Federation of Trade Unions of Russia and the LNR Signed a Cooperation Agreement,” Federal News Agency, August 22, 2019, https((:))//
[54][“Pushilin Met the Deputies of the State Duma, Who Arrived in the DNR to Celebrate Miner's Day,”] Donetsk News Info, August 21, 2019, https://dan-news((.))info/politics/pushilin-vstretil-deputatov-gosudarstvennoj-dumy-pribyvshix-v-dnr-na-prazdnovanie-dnya-shaxtera.html.

Al Qaeda Pushes Unity Among Aligned Groups in Syria

This analysis is copublished by the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership reinvigorated its effort to unite anti-Assad groups into a single military force in northwest Syria after Russia enabled the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to break a months-long stalemate in northwest Syria in August 2019. Greater cooperation between two separate al Qaeda–linked operations rooms in Idlib may indicate these forces will attempt to implement this directive despite a long history of failed attempts to unify.

Russian special forces and pro-Assad militias seized Khan Sheikhoun, an urban center on the M5 highway connecting Damascus to Aleppo, on August 22. The advance is a major win for Assad, Russia, and Iran after a months-long, grueling stalemate had imposed heavy casualties on the pro-Assad forces. Further regime gains threaten to constrict al Qaeda’s governing project in Idlib to a smaller corner of northwest Syria, west of the M5 highway. It is thus a major threat to al Qaeda’s project, but it is also an opportunity for al Qaeda to reinvigorate and possibly unify the Salafi-jihadi movement in Syria. The renewed military pressure has stimulated al Qaeda’s global recruitment and fundraising for operations in Syria. It has also enabled senior al Qaeda leaders to try unifying anti-Assad forces again after years of infighting.

Al Qaeda’s General Command issued a call for mobilization in Syria on August 15 to halt the regime’s advance into Idlib province. It directed fighters to return to the model of Jaysh al Fatah, the joint operations room that seized Idlib city in March 2015 and threatened the regime’s control in Hama province, farther south, and in the Syrian coast in Latakia province. Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 sought to halt and reverse this serious threat to Assad’s survival. Senior al Qaeda commanders in Syria led Jaysh al Fatah, which included participation from U.S.-backed groups and was the high-water mark to date for unified military effort in northwest Syria. By referencing Jaysh al Fatah, al Qaeda’s General Command is harkening back to that period of victory in Syria to stimulate a new period of cooperation.

Al Qaeda has always supported multiple Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria to generate a diverse Salafi-jihadi movement that it can lead and that it calculates can replace the pro-democracy rebellion over time. Intense infighting and disagreements have emerged in Syria between these groups, occasionally disrupting their cooperation. Much of this infighting relates to the question of what concessions are permissible to grant to Syrian opposition groups and external actors, such as Turkey, to leverage their help. The statement from al Qaeda’s General Command is an instruction to the Salafi-jihadi forces in Syria that it supports setting aside these arguments in favor of marshaling a more coherent military response to the pro-Assad advance. It also gives permission and enticement to al Qaeda leaders in Syria, such as Abu Mohammed al Joulani, who have sought to mask the extent of their role in al Qaeda to openly collaborate with more overtly globalist Salafi-jihadis.

A new Jaysh al Fatah would require greater cooperation between groups currently spread across two separate operations rooms: Incite the Believers, which includes the al Qaeda–linked Hurras al Din, and Fatah al Mubin, which includes the al Qaeda–linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and Turkish-backed opposition forces. Hurras al Din’s leaders include senior al Qaeda figures who have resisted cooperation with Fatah al Mubin due to disputes over leadership and Turkish support. These two operations rooms (Incite the Believers and Fatah al Mubin) both announced the start of a counterattack against pro-Assad forces on August 27, their first publicized coordination in northwest Syria since each was formed. It may indicate expanded coordination will follow. However, Russia announced a cease-fire in Idlib on August 30. It does not apply to al Qaeda–linked groups but indicates Russia will now attempt to renegotiate with Turkey and possibly Europe for a new deal in Idlib before resuming military operations.

Veteran al Qaeda figures both inside and outside of Syria continue to invest in shaping the actions of al Qaeda–linked groups in Idlib. Al Qaeda General Command eulogized Sari Shihab (aka Abu Khaled al Muhandis), a Jordanian Hurras al Din leader and senior al Qaeda militant who was assassinated in Idlib city on August 22. Shihab was an associate of al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al Zarqawi and was related by marriage to senior al Qaeda official Saif al Adel. Shihab and Adel were two of five senior al Qaeda members released from Iran in 2015 after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Yemen to facilitate the hostage exchange. A statement attributed to Adel on August 14 warned that Turkey seeks to compromise al Qaeda’s effort in Syria. The statement is an example of the ongoing argument at senior leadership levels over how to proceed in Idlib.

American strikes on al Qaeda operatives planning external attacks from Idlib may disrupt greater cooperation between groups in northwest Syria. Concern over drawing U.S. strikes has encouraged Syrian opposition groups to resist greater unification with al Qaeda–linked groups in the past. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) conducted a strike targeting al Qaeda leadership planning an attack “threatening U.S. citizens and partners” north of Idlib on August 31. The strike targeted members of the al Qaeda–linked Ansar al Tawhid and possibly Hurras al Din. CENTCOM previously struck an al Qaeda cell planning an external attack at a facility near Aleppo in northwestern Syria on June 30.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Russia in Review: Military Exercises as Geopolitical Tools

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: Nataliya Bugayova and Mason Clark

Key Takeaways: The Kremlin is attempting to expand Russia’s security orbit. Russia will conduct two major military exercises in September — the Union Shield 2019 exercise with Belarus and the Center 2019 exercise with China, India, Pakistan and the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia will use these exercises to demonstrate its ability to operate militarily on multiple borders and deepen ties with key states in South and East Asia. Russia will also incorporate its lessons learned from its military intervention in Syria into the exercises. These types of exercises support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal to establish suzerainty over the now independent states of the former Soviet Union – an effort that is advancing in Belarus and Moldova. Union Shield 2019 explicitly aims to practice defending the Union State, a planned but not yet implemented federation-type entity that would ensure the allegiance of Belarus to Russia. Moldova is considering Russia’s offer of a three-year military cooperation agreement – an indicator that Russia’s plan to expand its influence is succeeding. The Kremlin is also attempting to grow security ties with other neighbors, including Mongolia.

Russia likely intends to signal and test its military capabilities to operate on multiple fronts, specifically in its Western, Southern and Northern regions. The two exercises differ in scope but they both focus on countering non-conventional military threats to Russia and the former Soviet Union. Russia hosted another set of exercises in the Southern Military District in July 2019 focused on demonstrating operational capabilities in the Russian Caucasus.[1]

Russia is engaged in a campaign of military learning and seeks to practice specific skills during these exercises.
  • Russian military exercises increasingly emphasize the inclusion of partner forces to practice coalition operations and coordination with foreign militaries, as Russia implements lessons learned operating alongside Iran, the Bashar al-Assad regime and other actors in Syria.[2] The Union Shield 2019 and Center 2019 exercises intend to demonstrate Russia’s efforts to build interoperability with the former Soviet states and to engage major Asian players including India, Pakistan, and China.[3]
  • Russia is focusing on developing initiative and creativity in junior officers, emphasizing the need to make unconventional decisions in combat.[4] Russian officers with theater command experience in Syria have stressed the need to increase decision-making flexibility.[5] The Union Shield exercise emphasizes non-standard approaches in combatting insurgencies.[6]
  • Russia is emphasizing the ability to conduct rapid redeployments over long distances. A stated goal of Belarusian participation in the Union Shield exercise is to give Belarusian forces experience conducting long distance redeployments.[7] Russia is working to increase the maneuverability of its own and partner forces.
  • Both exercises will practice defending against non-conventional threats. Center 2019 will practice counter-terrorism operations in Central Asia. Union Shield 2019 will practice defending against illegal armed formations that aim to destabilize the Union State. Belarusian Chief of the General Staff Oleh Belokonev stated that “conflicts usually start with actions of terrorists, separatists, and illegal armed formations with support of outside forces.”[8] Russian military officials also stated that Union Shield 2019 will use the Syrian experience of “clearing inhabited locations without using force.”[9] Union Shield 2019 takes place away from the Russian border, which Russia framed as an effort to reduce regional tensions and avoid antagonizing NATO.[10] Russia might have chosen this location to potentially also practice offensive hybrid scenarios.
Russia seeks to increase its military flexibility in Central Asia and the Arctic region. Russian officials have emphasized the need to increase their security focus on Central Asia, citing concerns about the “spread of militants from Afghanistan into the former Soviet countries in Central Asia.”[11] Russia has legitimate concerns, particularly as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) expands its global presence.[12] The Kremlin, however, also likely seeks to balance American and Chinese influence in Central Asia, especially as Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan undergo leadership changes.[13] Russia might also seek to expand its military footprint in Central Asia and pull Central Asian militaries closer into its security orbit. Russia is also increasingly prioritizing the Arctic. ISW has assessed that the Kremlin intends to expand its military presence and operational flexibility in the Arctic to support a long-term bid to secure resources and gain a strategic advantage over the U.S. and China.[14] Center 2019 will include two motorized rifle brigades testing new Arctic-optimized vehicles and focusing on developing logistical and technical support for Arctic operations, in addition to airborne and Special Forces training in the Arctic along the Northern Sea Route.[15]

The exercises are part of the Kremlin’s broader campaign to establish Russian suzerainty over the former Soviet Union.[16]
  • Russia likely intends to exploit the Union Shield exercise to expand the Russian military’s control over Belarussian forces. The Union Shield 2019 exercise explicitly intends to practice defense of the Union State of Russia and Belarus, a planned but not yet implemented federation-type state that would ensure Belarus’ long-term allegiance to Russia.[17] The exercises are the final stage of a two-year cycle of joint combat training between the Russian and Belarusian militaries – another potential indicator of the Kremlin’s efforts to expand control over Belarusian Armed Forces.[18] The Kremlin initiated the process of updating the Union State military doctrine in late 2018.[19] ISW forecasted that Russia would expand its influence in Belarus and its armed forces through the Union State mechanism.[20] Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continues to attempt to resist Russian pressure, calling for a reset of ties with the U.S. during U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s trip to Belarus on August 29.[21] Lukashenko is also reportedly seeking to purchase oil from American suppliers to diversify energy supplies away from Russia.[22]
  • Russia is also successfully regaining influence in Moldova, where it seeks a military cooperation deal. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu suggested a three-year military cooperation plan during his unofficial visit to Moldova on August 24, the first time a Russian senior military official visited Moldova in several years.[23] Moldovan President Igor Dodon stated that he will likely invite Shoigu to Moldova for an official visit to discuss a cooperation plan in detail. A military deal between Russia and Moldova would mark progress in the Kremlin’s campaign to expand its influence in Moldova after it suffered setbacks in recent years.[24] ISW forecasted that the Kremlin would exploit Russia’s nominal alignment with the West on Moldova’s formation of a coalition government in June 2019. Russia facilitated that formation process to strengthen Russia-friendly actors inside of Moldova and expand its influence.[25] Dodon also stated on August 26 that Moldova is unlikely to join the EU.[26] Dodon reiterated that Moldova will not choose one side over the other, but military cooperation with Russia would change that status quo.
The Kremlin is attempting to deepen military cooperation with other neighboring and nearby states, such as Armenia and Mongolia. Russia solicited additional support from Armenia on August 13 for its operations in Syria. Russia has facilitated deployments of Armenian engineering troops and humanitarian workers to Syria since February 2019.[27] Russia is deepening military cooperation with Mongolia.[28] Russia and Mongolia signed a treaty on a comprehensive strategic partnership on September 3 following a visit by Putin to Mongolia.[29] Both Shoigu and Russia’s Chief of the General Staff Gerasimov emphasized Russia’s intent to expand military ties with Mongolia over the past year.[30] Russia and Mongolia held the Selenga 2019 joint drills from August 15-24 that reportedly engaged 1,000 troops from Russia’s Eastern Military District and about the same number of personnel from Mongolia.[31]

The Kremlin intends to demonstrate its ability to engage major players in Asia beyond the post-Soviet space.[32] In contrast, Kazakhstan was the only international participant in Center 2015.[33] Russia recently hosted the 2019 International Army Games with a similar set of countries.[34] Russia will likely leverage its ability to include both India and Pakistan – whose relations have deteriorated further over the issue of Kashmir – in the Center 2019 exercise to frame the Kremlin as a peacemaker and mediator.[35] Russia is building out its military relationship with China while pursuing a parallel goal of counterbalancing China. Russia likely aims to signal to the U.S. and its allies, including Japan, that it has the ability to wield strengthened Russian-Chinese military cooperation to its advantage. Russia is also building connections between its partners. Russia held the Defenders of Friendship 2019 Airborne Forces exercise with Egypt (a historical U.S. partner) from August 19-28, engaging Belarus in the exercises for the first time.[36]

Russia seeks to boost its arms exports through the exercises. The Russian Defense Ministry emphasized that Russia’s most modern equipment would be used in both drills.[37] Russia is finalizing several deals to sell aircraft to the Indian Air Force, following the establishment of a joint factory in India to produce Kalashnikov rifles in March 2019.[38] Russia is in the process of marketing its advanced Su-57 fighter jets to China, South Korea, Vietnam, India, and Brazil.[39] The Kremlin commonly utilizes internationally observed drills and arms expos to market equipment to foreign buyers.[40] Turkish President Erdogan expressed his interest in purchasing the Su-57 during Russia’s MAKS-2019 air show on August 27.[41]

The Kremlin will attempt to expand and link its security partnerships in a broader effort to create a constellation of alliances that gravitate toward Russia. The Kremlin is working to expand and potentially link its military influence in its closest orbit – within and among Belarus, Moldova, and the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization.[42] The Kremlin is simultaneously attempting to expand its security orbit further through engaging major actors in East and South Asia. Russia might use a variety of its unifying tools – including military doctrine, joint exercises and games, the export of weapon systems and of Russian military education, and a call for fighting terrorist threats multilaterally – to cohere these informal networks as both a counterbalance to the U.S (and, increasingly, China) and a tool of Russia’s global legitimacy.

Table - Russia’s Overview of its 2019 Union Shield[43] and Center[44] military exercises:

[1] “Two Russian Armies Kickoff Military Exercises Ahead of NATO Drills in Georgia,” Al-Masdar News, July 24, 2019, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/two-russian-armies-kickoff-military-exercises-ahead-of-nato-drills-in-georgia/.
[2] Natalia Balkanska, [“The Defense Ministry Revealed the Timing and Scope of Strategic Exercises ‘Center-2019,’”] TV Zvezda, August 20, 2019, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/20198192231-FKhPU.html; Catherine Harris and Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Russia’s Lessons Learned in Syria,” The Institute for the Study of War, November 9, 2018,
[3] Natalia Balkanska, [“The Defense Ministry Revealed the Timing and Scope of Strategic Exercises ‘Center-2019,’”] TV Zvezda, August 20, 2019, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/20198192231-FKhPU.html.
[4] [“More Than 10 Exercises Involving More Than 5,000 Troops will be Held Simultaneously in the South of Russia,”] TASS, August 27, 2019, https://tass((.))ru/armiya-i-opk/6802592.
[5] Alexander Dvornikov, [“Staffs for New Wars,”] VPK, July 23, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/43971; Alexander Lapin, [“Syrian Academy,”] VPK, April 24, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/42359; Alexander Zhruavlev, [“The Upcoming Summer Period of Training Will Be Used to the Maximum in the Preparation of Troops,”] Red Star, May 27, 2019, http://redstar((.))ru/s-uchyotom-sirijskogo-opyta-2/?attempt=1#content.
[6] “Over 4,000 Belarusian Military to Participate in Union Shield 2019 Exercise,” BelTA, August 24, 2019, https://eng.belta(.)by/society/view/over-4000-belarusian-military-to-participate-in-union-shield-2019-exercise-123339-2019/.
[7] “Over 4,000 Belarusian Military to Participate in Union Shield 2019 Exercise,” BelTA, August 24, 2019, https://eng.belta(.)by/society/view/over-4000-belarusian-military-to-participate-in-union-shield-2019-exercise-123339-2019/.
[8] [“Exercise ‘Union Shield-2019’ Will Be Held From 13 to 19 September,”] Sputnik Belarus, August 14, 2019, https://sputnik(.)by/defense_safety/20190814/1042399263/Uchenie-Schit-Soyuza-2019-proydet-s-13-po-19-sentyabrya.html; Natalia Balkanska, [“The Defense Ministry Revealed the Timing and Scope of Strategic Exercises ‘Center-2019,’”] TV Zvezda, August 20, 2019, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/20198192231-FKhPU.html.
[9] [“The West of the Country Under Reliable Protection,”] Red Star, August 21, 2019, http://redstar(.)ru/zapad-strany-pod-nadyozhnoj-zashhitoj/.
[10] [“12,000 Servicemen Will Take Part in the Exercise ‘Union Shield-2019,’”] Russian Gazette, August 14, 2019, https://rg(.)ru/2019/08/14/v-uchenii-shchit-soiuza-2019-primut-uchastie-12-tysiach-voennosluzhashchih-soiuznogo-gosudarstva.html; Sputnik Belarus, Telegram, August 24, 2019, https://t(.)me/sputnikby/965; Georgi Okoshko, [“’Union Shield-2019’ Will Complete the Cycle of Joint Training of Servicemen of the Russian Federation and Belarus,”] RITM Eurasia, August 17, 2019, https://www.ritmeurasia(.)org/news--2019-08-17--schit-sojuza-2019-zavershit-cikl-sovmestnoj-podgotovki-voennosluzhaschih-rf-i-rb-44373.
[11] “Russia Starts Army Drills to Respond to Central Asia Threats,” Federal News Network, June 24, 2019,
[12] Brandon Wallace with Jennifer Cafarella, “ISIS Reasserts Global Reach for Ramadan 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, May 1, 2019,
[13] Craig Nelson and Thomas Grove, “Russia, China Vie for Influence in Central Asia as U.S. Plans Afghan Exit,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2019,; Hiroyuki Akita, “Russia and China Romance Runs into Friction in Central Asia,” Nikkei Asian Review, July 29, 2019,; Andrew Higgins, “Kazakhstan Gets New Leader, but Old System’s Grip on Power Remains,” New York Times, June 10, 2019,
[14] Nataliya Bugayova, Alexander Begej, and Darina Regio, “Russia in Review: March 15 – 26, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, March 26, 2019,
[15] Atle Staalesen, “A Large-Scale Russian Military Exercise is Coming to the Arctic,” Barents Observer, December 20, 2018,; [“Russia to Hold Strategic Exercises in the Arctic,”] Izvestia, December 18, 2018, https://iz(.)ru/824776/2018-12-18/rossiia-provedet-strategicheskie-ucheniia-v-arktike.
[16] Suzerainty is “a dominant state controlling the foreign relations of a vassal state but allowing it sovereign authority in its internal affairs.”
[17] [“12,000 Servicemen Will Take Part in the Russian-Belarusian Exercise ‘Union Shield-2019,’”] Russian Ministry of Defense, July 24, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock, “Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy,” Institute for the Study of War, August 6, 2019,
[18] [“12,000 Servicemen Will Take Part in the Exercise ‘Union Shield-2019,’”] Russian Gazette, August 14, 2019, https://rg(.)ru/2019/08/14/v-uchenii-shchit-soiuza-2019-primut-uchastie-12-tysiach-voennosluzhashchih-soiuznogo-gosudarstva.html.
[19] [“The Draft Military Doctrine of the Union State is Planned to be Approved by the End of the Year,”] Union State, October 26, 2018, http://www.soyuz(.)by/news/joint-programs/41997.html.
[20] Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: May 9 - 13, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, May 14, 2019,
[21] “Belarus Leader Tells Trump Adviser He Wants to Reset Ties with the U.S.,” Reuters, August 29, 2019,
[22] Exclusive: Belarus’s Luashenka, Weary of Russian Union, Seeks to Buy U.S. Crude,” RFERL, August 22, 2019,; “Belarus Leader Tells Trump Adviser He Wants to Reset Ties with the U.S.,” Reuters, August 29, 2019,
[23] [“Dodon Talked About Possible Official Shoigu Visit to Moldova,” Sputnik Moldova, August 27, 2019, https://ru.sputnik(.)md/society/20190827/27378388/dodon-rasskazal-o-vozmozhnom-ofitsialnom-vizite-shoygu-moldova.html.
[24] Darina Regio and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Opportunity in Moldova,” Institute for the Study of War, June 24, 2019,
[25] Ibid.
[26] [“The President of Moldova Doubts the European Future of the Country,”] Strategic Culture Foundation, August 27, 2019, https://www.fondsk(.)ru/news/2019/08/27/prezident-moldovy-somnevaetsja-v-evropejskom-buduschem-strany-48880.html; Vadim Ghirda, “AP Interview: Moldova President Says Country Needs Russia,” Associated Press, February 21, 2019,
[27] “Armenia Sends Deminers to Syria as Part of Russia-Backed Mission,” RFERL, February 10, 2019,; “Armenia, Russia Send Aid to Syria,” Armenian Mirror-Spectator, August 14, 2019,
[28] ‘Russia, Mongolia Kick off Selenga-2019 Joint Military Drills,” TASS, August 16, 2019, https://tass(.)com/defense/1073757.
[29] “Putin Praises Milestone Permanent Treaty with Mongolia,” TASS, September 3, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1076151.
[30] Yuri Gavrilov, [“Shoigu’s Five-Year Plan,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta, October 18, 2018, https://rg(.)ru/2018/10/18/rossiia-i-mongoliia-rasshiriat-voennoe-sotrudnichestvo.html; Alexander Boyko, [“Defense Ministry: Ulaanbaatar and Moscow Strengthen Military Cooperation,”] Komsomolskaya Pravda, August 16, 2019,
[31] “Russian, Mongolian Troops Employ New Tactic in Selenga-2019 Joint Drills,” TASS, August 22, 2019, https://tass(.)com/defense/1074574; “Russia, Mongolia Kick off Selenga-2019 Joint Military Drills,” TASS, August 16, 2019, https://tass(.)com/defense/1073757; [“Russia and Mongolia Sign Military Cooperation Program,”] Regnum, October 18, 2018, https://regnum(.)ru/news/2502956.html; “Selenga 2019 Joint Russian-Mongolian Exercise Planning Finishes in Mongolia,” Russian Defense Ministry, February 7, 2019, 

[32] [“The Ministry of Defense Revealed the Timing and Scope of the Strategic Exercises Center-2019,”] TV Channel ‘Zvezda’, August 20, 2019, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/20198192231-FKhPU.html.
[33] “Russian Military Held Center-2015 Exercise to Practice Struggle against IS,” TASS, October 6, 2015, http://tass(.)ru/en/defense/826605.
[34] Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Global Military Ties,” Institute for the Study of War, August 13, 2019,
[35] Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “How Will Recent Tensions Impact India’s Tsentr 2019 Participation?” The Diplomat, August 27, 2019,
[36] [“Belarusian Military Arrived in Ryazan for Exercises with Russia and Egypt,”] RIA, August 19, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190819/1557639817.html?in=t. “Russia, Egypt, Belarus Hold Joint Military Drill In Russia's Ryazan Region,” UrduPoint, August 22, 2019, https://www.urdupoint(.)com/en/world/russia-egypt-belarus-hold-joint-military-dr-694936.html; Russian Ministry of Defense, Facebook, August 29, 2019,
[37] “Over 4,000 Belarusian Military to Participate in Union Shield 2019 Exercise,” BelTA, August 14, 2019, https((:))//; [“The Ministry of Defense Revealed the Timing and Scope of the Strategic Exercises Center-2019,”] TV Channel ‘Zvezda’, August 20, 2019,
[38] Vladimir Karzonov, “India Expected To Sign for More MiG-29s and Su-30MKIs in October,” Aviation International News, August 3, 2019,; Manu Pubby, “Joint Venture for AK 203 Rifles Factory at Amethi was the `Fastest Ever’ Created with Russia,” The Economic Times, July 9, 2019,
[39] “Russia to Pitch Su-57 Fighter Jets to China,” Asia Times, April 2, 2019, https://www((.));
[40] Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: Global Military Ties,” Institute for the Study of War, August 13, 2019,
[41][“Erdogan Did Not Rule Out the Possibility of Buying Su-35 and Su-57 instead of F-35,”] TASS, August 28, 2019, https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/6810477; [“Turkey May Purchase New Weapon Systems from Russia,”] TV Channel ‘Big Asia’, August 28, 2019, http((:))//
[42] The Collective Security Treaty Organization includes Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. See: [“Collective Security Treaty Organization,”] Collective Security Treaty Organization, accessed September 4, 2019,
[43] “Over 4,000 Belarusian Military to Participate in Union Shield 2019 Exercise,” BelTA, August 14, 2019, https://eng.belta(.)by/society/view/over-4000-belarusian-military-to-participate-in-union-shield-2019-exercise-123339-2019/; Alexander Alesin, [“Union Shield-2019: Who Minsk and Moscow Mean by the Third Force,”] Naviny, August 20, 2019, https://naviny(.)by/article/20190820/1566280237-shchit-soyuza-2019-kogo-minsk-i-moskva-podrazumevayut-pod-tretey-siloy; [“Up to 950 Units of Military Equipment will be Involved in the Russian-Belarusian Exercise ‘Union Shield-2019,’”] Russian Ministry of Defense, July 24, 2019,; [“Belarusian Military Arrives at the Polygon Mulino to Participate in the Exercise ‘Union Shield-2019,’”] BelTeleRadio Company, August 28, 2019, https://www.tvr(.)by/news/obshchestvo/belorusskie_voennye_pribyvayut_na_poligon_mulino_dlya_uchastiya_v_ucheniyakh_shchit_soyuza_2019/; [“The ‘Union Shield’ Begins: Maneuvers on the Eve of the Exercise of Belarusian and Russian Military Engineers Were Held in Russia at the Combat Training Center of the Western Military District,”] Nationwide Television Belarus, August 30, 2019, https://ont(.)by/news/nachinaetsya-shit-soyuza-manyovry-v-preddverii-ucheniya-belorusskih-i-rossijskih-voennyh-inzhenerov-proshli-v-rossii-na-baze-centra-boevoj-podgotovki-zapadnogo-voennogo-okruga; [“The West of the Country Under Reliable Protection,”] Red Star, August 21, 2019, http://redstar(.)ru/zapad-strany-pod-nadyozhnoj-zashhitoj/.
[44] Natalia Balkanska, [“The Defense Ministry Revealed the Timing and Scope of Strategic Exercises ‘Center-2019,’”] TV Zvezda, August 20, 2019, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/20198192231-FKhPU.html; [“Strategic Command and Staff Exercise ‘Center-2019’ will be Held for the First Time on the Grounds of the CSTO Member States,”] Russian Ministry of Defense, May 16, 2019,; [“Exercise ‘Center-2019’: Russian Special Forces Landing in the Arctic,”] Regnum, August 8, 2019, https://regnum(.)ru/news/polit/2684713.html; [“Russia to Hold Strategic Exercises in the Arctic,”] Izvestia, December 18, 2018, https://iz(.)ru/824776/2018-12-18/rossiia-provedet-strategicheskie-ucheniia-v-arktike; Atle Staalesen, “A Large-Scale Russian Military Exercise is Coming to the Arctic,” Barents Observer, December 20, 2018,; Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan, “How Will Recent Tensions Impact India’s Tsentr 2019 Participation?” The Diplomat, August 27, 2019,; Alexander Stepanov, [“Central Outpost,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta,l June 19, 2019, https://rg(.)ru/2019/06/19/aleksandr-lapin-afganistan-stanovitsia-novym-pribezhishchem-dlia-terroristov.html; [“China Will Send Military and Equipment to Russia for Exercises ‘Center-2019,’”] RIA, August 29, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190829/1558025375.html; http(:)//; “China to Send 1,600 Troops, About 30 Aircraft to Russia’s Strategic Military Drills,” Tasnim News Agency, August 29, 2019, https://www.tasnimnews(.)com/en/news/2019/08/29/2086022/china-to-send-1-600-troops-about-30-aircraft-to-russia-s-strategic-military-drills.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Syria Situation Report: August 7 - 21, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period August 7 - 21, 2019. Key SITREP events include a pro-Bashar al Assad regime advance in Khan Sheikhoun, where the Assad regime conducted a chemical weapons attack in 2017; a deployment of Turkish-backed forces in Idlib Province; an ISIS campaign supporting the group's followers in an IDP camp; and joint Turkish-Russian military patrols north of Aleppo City.

Click image to enlarge.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Afghanistan's Warlords Prepare for Civil War

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: Key Afghan warlords have begun preparing for a potential civil war as the U.S. nears an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has observed indicators that Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders are taking steps to mobilize their ethnic communities in preparation for a looming power struggle as the U.S. and NATO leave Afghanistan. Afghan Pashtuns will also soon likely mobilize, if they have not already begun.

The U.S. is about to finalize a bilateral agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan.[1] The Taliban in return is reportedly promising to prevent transnational jihadists (including Al Qaeda and ISIS) from conducting global attacks from Afghanistan. It has also ostensibly committed to subsequent negotiations with other Afghan political leaders over the future of Afghanistan. The exact terms of these negotiations remain unclear, but the U.S. has declined to explicitly support a leadership role in the talks for the current Afghan Government – implying that talks would focus on establishing a new Government of Afghanistan.[2] The apparent decision to sideline the current Afghan Government is a major concession by the U.S. and NATO. The existence and terms of this bilateral agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, when finalized, will sideline and severely weaken the Afghan Government. It will remove the government’s core source of leverage over the Taliban – namely, the military forces and international aid money brought by the U.S. and NATO to Afghanistan.

Photo: U.S. Air Force/TSgt. Stephen Hudson

Afghan powerbrokers are already taking precautions against the likely collapse or cancellation of the promised future talks with the Taliban. They are preparing to defend their communities against the Taliban and to compete with their current and historical rivals in the ensuing power vacuum. Multiple Afghan warlords already retain independent military forces or have coopted government forces to serve their own ends. Others have begun to mobilize new militias from their historical support bases. These preparations in and of themselves raise the likelihood of a new civil war by increasing the strength of power centers outside the Government of Afghanistan and setting conditions for a rapid dissolution of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).


Afghan Tajik powerbrokers are the most prepared for a power struggle. Key powerbrokers either already control or are remobilizing militias affiliated with the Tajik Jamiat-e Islami Party. Jamiat historically formed the core of the Northern Alliance, which partnered with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. Two Tajik warlords are actively mobilizing forces as of August 13, 2019: Atta Mohammad Noor and Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.
  • Atta Mohammad Noor: Atta is the former governor of Balkh Province and Chief Executive of Jamiat. He is likely the most powerful current member of Jamiat. He already controls a network of private militias within the Afghan Local Police and Afghan National Police in Balkh Province.[3] This network receives patronage from him and responds to his orders despite formally serving under the chain of command of the Afghan Government. Atta demonstrated his control over these forces when members of the Afghan National Police loyal to him opened fire on Afghan Special Police Forces attempting to install a new police chief in Balkh Province on March 14, 2019.[4] Atta controls a lucrative border crossing with Uzbekistan, which could become a critical source of military, political, and economic power during a new Afghan Civil War.[5] ISW has not observed new indicators of mobilization by Atta since March 2019, but he likely does not require new mobilizations given his existing control of Balkh Province.[6]
  • Bismullah Khan Mohammadi: Bismullah Khan is the former Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army. He is working to re-mobilize a network of militias in Panjshir Province, historically the base of military power for Jamiat. Credible local reports stated on August 2 that local militias of former Tajik Mujahedeen began re-mobilizing and operating alongside the ANDSF in response to a growing threat from the Taliban in Panjshir Province, which has been relatively secure since 2001.[7] Mohammadi visited security posts in Panjshir on August 7.[8] He is likely leading this new mobilization effort, although it remains unclear if he is simply mobilizing the local wing of Jamiat or if he is engaged in an intra-party power play to consolidate control over Panjshir Province. A persistent threat from the Taliban in Panjshir Province will drive further mobilization by Jamiat.
The Tajik mobilization risks stimulating a breakdown of the ANDSF. Jamiat–linked Tajik commanders have historically dominated the ANDSF and hold substantial influence within its ranks.[9] Jamiat’s powerbrokers are likely in positon to absorb defectors from the ANDSF should it collapse and could even encourage elements to defect to Jamiat.


Afghan Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum is also mobilizing his forces. Dostum’s Uzbeks formed the second major pillar of the Northern Alliance and a rival to Atta Mohammad Noor’s Tajiks. His recent activity indicates that he is retaking control over his network of militias within local security forces in Northwest Afghanistan, which fragmented during his exile in Turkey from May 2017 to July 2018.[10] Dostum made multiple visits in July 2019 to meet local commanders at outposts in Jowzjan and Sar-e Pul Provinces, both of which are contested between the Afghan Government and the Taliban.[11] Dostum allegedly took direct command of operations in these areas, which would imply that he took command of local ANDSF ostensibly under the control of the Afghan Government.[12] Dostum also held three large meetings with local commanders from the ANDSF in Jowzjan Province on July 21, August 3, and August 5.[13] His control of local militias could reignite the historical conflict between Dostum and Atta in Northern Afghanistan.


Multiple Afghan Shi’a Hazara warlords also maintain independent militias in the Hazarajat – a mountainous region spanning multiple provinces in Central Afghanistan. Urban Hazara communities also exist in Kabul. The Taliban has historically targeted the Hazara, most recently during an offensive in Ghazni and Uruzgan Provinces in November 2018.[14] ISIS Wilayat Khorasan also regularly attacks the Hazara in Kabul.[15] The Hazara have thus maintained militias to defend their communities.[16] Hazara leaders warn that continued violence against their population and continued government inaction could lead to increased mobilization among Hazara.[17] This mobilization will likely accelerate after any announced withdrawal by the U.S. and NATO.

Hazara warlord Abdul Ghani Alipur leads a militia active in the Hazarajat.[18] The Afghan Government attempted to arrest him twice in October-November 2018 but released him following large protests by urban Hazara in Kabul.[19] Senior Hazara powerbroker and former Afghan Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq also criticized the arrest attempts in October 2018. Alipur can likely conduct further mobilization among ethnic Hazara.[20]

Iran may also become more active in mobilizing Hazara in Afghanistan. Iran returned thousands of fighters from Liwa Fatamiyoun – a proxy force drawn from ethnic Hazara – from Syria to Afghanistan by April 2019.[21] Iran’s continued relationship to these fighters is unclear from publicly available information. Alipur has reportedly recruited former Fatamiyoun into his militia and an anonymous security official accused him of supporting an effort by Iran to establish structures for a future rapid mobilization of Fatamiyoun in April 2019.[22] Multiple Hazara clerics and politicians also warned in early 2019 that there is a significant risk of remobilization among the Fatamiyoun if the Taliban and ISIS continue to threaten the Hazara.[23]

Further Mobilization and Maneuvers

The Taliban’s threat led the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders to unite their militias and form the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. A similar unification could occur again. Several Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders – including Dostum – already support Jamiat member and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in the September 2019 Afghan Presidential Election.[24] There is also an ongoing effort to persuade Atta and other influential members of Jamiat to support Abdullah.[25] The elections are unlikely to occur amidst a withdrawal by the U.S. and NATO, but this tentative political alliance indicates that the historically fractious Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara powerbrokers could be in a position to cooperate politically and militarily against the Taliban. However, historic divisions between these powerbrokers could still preclude them from reconstituting the Northern Alliance.[26]

Afghan Pashtuns are likely to mobilize soon, if they have not yet already. Former Pashtun Mujahedeen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, could mobilize forces affiliated with his Hezb-e Islami Party. Hekmatyar agreed to demobilize his militias in a reconciliation deal with the Afghan Government in 2016.[27] However, he can still call upon supporters within the existing network of militias linked to Hezb-e Islami that never integrated – as called for in the deal – with the ANDSF.[28] Any mobilization by Hezb-e Islami would likely to reignite a historic rivalry with Jamiat.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear who currently leads the Durrani Pashtuns after the assassination of Kandahar Provincial Police Chief General Abdul Raziq by the Taliban in October 2018.[29] Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, and other influential tribal leaders are likely already preparing to activate their own support networks among the Durranis ahead of an anticipated power struggle with the Taliban. Kandahar is bitterly contested due to its strategic and cultural significance to both the Durranis and the Taliban. This struggle will only further accelerate after the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan.[30]

Afghanistan’s current political environment is highly unstable, as demonstrated by the remobilization of ethnic militias along historical divides. The Taliban and the Afghan political elite are setting conditions to secure their communities and their power through force rather than negotiation. The U.S. bears direct responsibility for this outcome given its successive drawdowns and policy recalibrations in Afghanistan, which led all parties to take up arms to protect themselves at the expense of the Afghan Government. Afghanistan is dangerously poised for a new Afghan Civil War reminiscent of the instability that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

[1] Kimberly Dozier, “The U.S. Is Close to a Peace Deal with the Taliban, Officials Say,” Time, August 8, 2019,
[2] U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, Twitter, July 27, 2019,
[3] “Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity,” Human Rights Watch, March 3, 2015,
[4] “Rival Police Clash in North Afghan City in Spat Between President, Ex-Governor,” Gandhara, March 14, 2019,
[5] “Afghanistan’s Fragile Government Picks a Dangerous Fight,” Economist, March 1, 2018,
[6] Sharif Hassan, “Ousted But Not Out: Afghan Strongman Still Calls the Shots, Residents Say,” Washington Post, May 13, 2018,
[7] Massoud Ansar, “Local Forces Mobilize to Purge Taliban Threats in Panjshir,” Tolo News, August 2, 2019,
[8] Besmillah Mohammadi, Facebook, August 7, 2019,
[9] Mara Tchalakov, “Afghanistan Report 10: The Northern Alliance Prepares for Afghan Elections in 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, August 2013,; Deedee Derksen, “Hezb-e Islami, Peace, and Integration into the Afghan Security Forces,” U.S. Institute of Peace, July 2018,
[10] Deedee Derksen, “In Afghanistan, Today’s Pro-Government Militias Could Be Tomorrow’s Insurgents,” War on the Rocks, December 11, 2017,; Rod Nordland, “Accused of Rape and Torture, Exiled Afghan Vice President Returns,” New York Times, July 22, 2018,
[11] Gulabuddin Ghubar, “Taliban Uses Their Full Strength But Will Not Win: Dostum,” Tolo News, July 12, 2019,
[12] Babur, Twitter, July 11, 2019,; Mujib Mashal, Twitter, August 3, 2019,
[13] FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, July 21, 2019,; FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, August 3, 2019,; FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, August 5, 2019,
[14] Ali Yawar Adili and Martine van Bijlert, “Taleban Attacks on Khas Uruzgan, Jaghori and Malestan (II): A New and Violent Push into Hazara Areas,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 29, 2018,
[15] Abdul Qadir Sediqi, “Attack on Shi'ite Muslim Gathering in Afghan Capital Kills Three,” Reuters, March 7, 2019,
[16] Martine van Bijlert, “Security at the Fringes: The Case of Shujai in Khas Uruzgan,” Afghan Analyst Network, April 6, 2013,
[17] Mustafa Sarwar, “Amid IS Attacks, Hazaras Fear Dangerous Sectarian Divide in Afghanistan,” Gandhara, September 13, 2018,
[18] Hamid Shalizi, “Rebel Afghan Militia Leader Defies Government as Arrest Bid Fails,” Reuters, October 11, 2018,
[19] Ibid.; Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan, “Afghan Authorities Free Hazara Fighter Whose Arrest Ignited Street Clashes,” Washington Post, November 26, 2018,
[20] Hamid Shalizi, “Rebel Afghan Militia Leader Defies Government as Arrest Bid Fails,” Reuters, October 11, 2018,
[21] The U.S. Institute of Peace warned in March 2019 that “thousands” of Fatamiyoun were returning to Afghanistan. An anonymous Afghan security official claimed that 10,000 Fatamiyoun fighters had returned by April 2019, although this number is likely an overestimate. See: Ahmad Shuja Jamal, “The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 19, 2019,; Kathy Gannon, “Afghans Recruited to Fight in Syrian War Struggle Back Home,” AP, March 31, 2019,; Mohsen Hamidi, “The Two Faces of the Fatemiyun (I): Revisiting the Male Fighters,” Afghan Analysts Network, July 8, 2019,
[22] Dr. Antonio Giustozzi & Shoib Najafizada, “Assad’s Afghan Shi’a Volunteers,” Center for Research and Policy Analysis, November 13, 2018,; Kathy Gannon, “Afghans Recruited to Fight in Syrian War Struggle Back Home,” AP, March 31, 2019,
[23] Ahmad Shuja Jamal, “The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 19, 2019,
[24] Frud Bezhan, “Who's Who Among the Afghan Presidential Candidates,” Gandhara, August 10, 2019,
[25] Massoud Ansar, “Atmar’s Team Members Begin Talks with Abdullah’s Campaign,” Tolo News, August 10, 2019,
[26] Mara Tchalakov, “Afghanistan Report 10: The Northern Alliance Prepares for Afghan Elections in 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, August 2013,
[27] “Afghanistan Signs Draft Deal with Militant Hekmatyar,” BBC, May 18, 2016,
[28] Deedee Derksen, “Hezb-e Islami, Peace, and Integration into the Afghan Security Forces,” U.S. Institute of Peace, July 2018,

[29] Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal, “An Afghan Police Chief Took On the Taliban and Won. Then His Luck Ran Out,” New York Times, October 18, 2018,
[30] Carl Forsberg, “Afghanistan Report 5: Politics and Power in Kandahar,” Institute for the Study of War, April 2010,; Thomas Ruttig, “Kandahar from Razeq to Tadin (2): The Collapse Foretold That Did Not Happen,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, August 14, 2019,