Friday, September 14, 2018

Russia in Review: August 28 - September 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Watch

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

Syria Situation Report: August 28 - September 12, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

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

Friday, September 7, 2018

Syria Situation Report: August 6 - 28, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This set of graphics 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 two maps depict significant developments in the war in Syria during the periods August 6-16 and August 16-28, 2018.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Intra Shi'a Civil War Begins in Iraq

By Jennifer Cafarella and Kimberly Kagan with Aaron Hesse, Samantha Leathley, and Jason Zhou

An intra-Shi’a civil war is beginning in Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Iranian proxy leader Hadi al Ameri are locked in a power struggle to dominate the formation of the next Iraqi government. The U.S. is backing Abadi and temporarily disrupted Iran’s play in late August. ISW warned on August 28th that Iran could escalate militarily in response. Abadi and Ameri separately declared coalitions of Council of Representatives (CoR) members sufficient to gain the status of the “largest bloc” on September 2nd. The largest CoR block has the constitutional right to choose the next Iraqi Prime Minister.  The resulting stalemate has protracted government formation negotiations past legal deadlines. Each side is escalating with force in order to break this political stalemate.


Iran’s proxies conducted a warning shot against the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in an attempt to compel Abadi to back down. Abadi visited the headquarters of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) on September 3rd and declared his authority over all of Iraq’s armed forces. [1] His goal was likely to disrupt Ameri’s ability to use Iranian proxies within the PMF as coercive leverage against either Abadi or members of Abadi’s coalition. In response, ten Iranian proxy militias within the PMF declared they will respond to Abadi’s “irresponsible takeover” of Iraqi institutions and called on the Dawa party to limit Abadi’s behavior on September 4th. [2] The groups stated they will use “all possible means” to force coalition troops out of Iraq. Multiple mortars landed near the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad at night on September 6th. ISW assesses that an Iranian proxy, likely Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq (AAH), conducted the attack.

Shi’a actors aligned with Abadi and with Ameri are also escalating within a pre-existing protest movement in Basra. Abadi has lost control in Basra, where Shi’a protesters have defied a curfew and unidentified Iraqi Security Force (ISF) units have used live fire ammunition against protesters on multiple occasions since August 31st. An appeal by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani on September 4th did not prevent future use of live ammunition. Attacks in Basra targeted multiple government buildings in addition to Iranian proxy militia headquarters and the headquarters of militias and political parties aligned with Abadi on September 6th. It is possible but unlikely that protesters alone conducted these attacks. Militias aligned with nationalist Shi’a Cleric Muqtada al Sadr, a member of Abadi’s coalition, were likely involved in the attacks against Iranian proxy militia headquarters. Iranian proxies were likely similarly responsible for attacks against the Dawa party and possibly government buildings.  At minimum, the deteriorating conditions in Basra raise the likelihood of intra-Shi’a violence at a time when Shi’a powerbrokers have resorted to armed action to affect a protracted government formation struggle in Baghdad.

Mutual kinetic escalation between actors aligned with Abadi and those with Ameri will escalate into a full-blown civil war unless one side capitulates. ISW is monitoring the situation closely and will provide updates as appropriate.

[1] "Abadi leads the Popular Crowd," All Iraq News. September 3, 2018. Available: http://www.alliraqnews(.)com/modules/news/article.php?storyid=77269
[2] "10 Iran-backed Shia militia groups threaten Abadi, Foreign troops in Iraq," September 5, 2018. Available: http://www.kurdistan24(.)net/en/news/382a3b08-dc0c-4b3a-8703-90d9f37b8b26

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Campaign in the Balkans

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.

Special Topic Update: The Balkans

Authors: Catherine Harris, Jack Ulses, and Chase Johnson

Key Takeaway: Russia is waging a campaign to increase its influence and limit the growth of NATO and the EU in the Balkans. The Kremlin is establishing proxies and training local separatist forces from the Balkans in Russia. Russia is also actively attempting to sow internal discord within the Balkans in an effort to stall or block further expansion by NATO and the EU. Russia intends to use the Balkan Peninsula as a critical geographic foothold in Europe from which it can launch subversive operations meant to fracture the long-term unity of the West. Its activities could encourage a renewal of the ethnic violence of the 1990s and create fertile conditions for the expansion of Salafi-Jihadism among Muslims in the Balkans.

Russia is supporting irregular forces in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina that it could use to destabilize the Balkans. The Kremlin is providing diplomatic and military support to the autonomous region of Republika Srpska as it seeks to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Russian Security Services are training and developing local “special police” units in both Russia and the Republika Srpska. Russia also allegedly trains military personnel from Serbia who later return to develop and lead paramilitary groups in the Republika Srpska. These separatist groups reportedly train in “cultural centers” run by Russia in Serbia and recruit members from criminal networks in Serbia as well as populations that support Pan-Slavism. The Kremlin - in coordination with nationalists in Serbia - likely intends to leverage these forces to support hardline Bosnian Serbs (such as the current President of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik) in their efforts to acquire independence from Bosnia-Herzegovina. This action would undo the agreements that ended the massive ethnic cleansing of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. The Kremlin could also leverage a position in the Republika Srpska as a base for destabilization operations targeting regional member-states of the EU and NATO as part of its long-term effort to undermine institutions in the West. This instability could also provide an opportunity for Salafi-Jihadist groups to expand in the Balkans and Europe.

Russia is attempting to spoil ongoing negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo to block further expansion by NATO and the EU. Russia has used diplomatic pressure and cultural outreach to spoil normalization talks between Serbia and Kosovo that could position both states to join the EU. Serbia and Kosovo are holding formal negotiations to redraw their disputed border. Russia has responded by increasing its engagement with Serbia and will likely seek to pressure Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić to forsake normalization initiatives led by the West. The Kremlin has long opposed the independence of Kosovo as an illegal unilateral action imposed by NATO on Serbia. It also likely fears that recognition for Kosovo would embolden autonomous regions in the Caucuses to declare their own independence from Russia. Russia may nonetheless cite the ongoing border discussions as a legal precedent to legitimize its own support for separatist movements in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Donbas on the grounds that these breakaway regions hold the same legal authority to declare autonomy as Kosovo. The Kremlin has previously used operations by NATO in the Balkans as justification for its own aggression in the Caucasus.

Russia is also supporting nationalist groups to block the accession of Macedonia to NATO. Greece and Macedonia reached an agreement to settle their long-running dispute over Macedonia’s name in June 2018. The deal lifts the last obstacle blocking the accession of Macedonia to NATO. Greece later expelled several Russian diplomats attempting to bribe officials to block the deal and charged a Russian national with financing several nationalist groups to incite protests against the name change. Russia will likely continue such low-cost subversive activity - such as biker-gang tours, cultural outreach, and applied economic pressure - to raise tensions ahead of the scheduled referendum on the deal on September 30.

The Kremlin is increasing energy investment in key regional states to increase its leverage in the Balkans. The Kremlin will seek to secure its energy dominance on the Balkan Peninsula through a combination of maneuvers aimed at blocking investment in diversification measures from the West. The Balkans still rely heavily on energy imports from Russia. Russia has proposed to build power plants and gas pipelines in Croatia. It has also revamped negotiations to construct a nuclear power plant in Bulgaria despite the previous cancellation of the project due to financial sustainability concerns. Bulgaria reversed the decision and subsequently sought renewed investment from Russia following a series of high-level negotiations with counterparts in Moscow. Bulgaria has also expanded a regional gas pipeline to Turkey in a bid to convey natural gas from the Russia-Turkish TurkStream Pipeline into Europe.

Russia will likely escalate its subversive activities as the Balkans move closer to the West. Russia regularly intervenes to disrupt all stages of the accession of aspirant states into NATO and the EU, and it has a history of previous escalation in this regard in the Balkans. Russia will continue to stoke ethnic and nationalist tensions from the 1990s in order to fracture its opponents and build space for networks of deniable proxies that it can activate as needed. Russia - if left unimpeded - will successfully position itself to use diplomatic and military subversion to further challenge the southern flank of NATO. This instability could also provide an opening for the expansion of Salafi-Jihadist groups in the Balkans and Europe.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Update: Pro-Regime Forces Setting Conditions to Attack U.S. Forces in Eastern Syria

By Catherine Harris with Jennifer Cafarella and the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are continuing to set conditions to attack the U.S. and its primary ground partner - the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - in Eastern Syria while international attention is focused on a possible pro-regime offensive in Idlib Province. Pro-regime forces are amassing in Deir ez-Zour Province and consolidating control over infrastructure that could enable future attacks across the Euphrates River. The Russo-Iranian Coalition likely intends to extract concessions from the SDF and U.S. by threatening kinetic escalation in Eastern Syria. They nonetheless remain prepared to use force if negotiations fail.

Russia and Iran have taken additional steps to set conditions for a potential offensive against the U.S. and its partners in Eastern Syria. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) previously warned in June 2018 that the Russo-Iranian Coalition is preparing to attack the U.S. and its partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Pro-regime forces have taken a number of steps since June that will shorten or eliminate the operational pause required to pivot from operations in Western Syria to a main effort in Eastern Syria.
  • Russia may be preparing for cross-river operations in Deir ez-Zour Province. Russian Military Police reportedly assumed control over all frontline checkpoints and river crossings (primarily informal ferry crossings) along the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zour Province in mid-August 2018.[1] Russia is ostensibly asserting order after increasingly violent disputes between pro-regime forces over revenue from cross-front trade with SDF-held areas. This consolidation also positions Russian Military Police for future operations against U.S. and SDF. Russia can construct temporary bridges at these river crossings to enable military movements across the Euphrates River. It has previously deployed combat engineers with bridging equipment to Deir ez-Zour Province.[2] Russia also claims that personnel from the Russian Ministry of Emergency Situations are currently rebuilding infrastructure in Deir ez-Zour Province.[3] It is possible these personnel could also be used for infrastructure projects to support military operations in Eastern Syria. 
  • Russia and Iran are consolidating command-and-control structures in Eastern Syria. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) reportedly arrested the local commander of the regime’s National Defense Forces (NDF) in Deir ez-Zour Province on August 18 after Russian Military Police detained him for several days.[4] The arrests followed several days of violent clashes between militias backed by Iran and the NDF in Deir ez-Zour Province. Russia and Iran are likely reorganizing existing local command structures to exert more effective control over pro-regime forces in Eastern Syria. Russia’s assertion of control over the river crossing likely supports this effort. This consolidation is a necessary step ahead of any upcoming combat operation against the U.S. and SDF in Eastern Syria. 
  • The Russo-Iranian Coalition also continued efforts to destabilize areas held by the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. Pro-regime agents reportedly distributed leaflets calling on civilians to fight U.S. and SDF personnel in Raqqa City on August 23.[5] ISW previously warned that pro-regime forces began infiltrating terrain held by the SDF as early as February 2018. Pro-regime forces are building on tribal networks to disrupt and threaten the U.S. and the SDF. 
Russia, Iran, and Assad likely still hope to compel the SDF to cut a deal and break from the U.S.
  • Assad still seeks a deal that reintegrates the SDF into the Syrian state. Negotiations between the SDF and Damascus are ongoing. Assad has previously emphasized that the regime would not hesitate to use force if these talks fail.[6] He has thus far refused to meet the terms proposed by the SDF and instead opted to escalate politically in Northern Syria. He is pressing forward with plans to extend nationwide local elections scheduled for September 16 to areas held by the SDF. The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) - the political wing of the SDF - has rejected the vote and detained multiple candidates for office across Northern Syria.[7] Assad’s political escalation has caused a stalemate in the negotiations with the SDF. The SDF and Assad also remain deadlocked over the control of key infrastructure including utilities, dams, and oil fields in Eastern Syria.[8] The SDF has asserted that it will continue to manage oil and natural gas fields in Deir ez-Zour Province until it reaches a full political settlement with Assad.[9] Assad may apply military pressure to coerce greater concessions from the SDF. 
Russia and Iran will likely prioritize their current main effort to reconquer parts of opposition-held Idlib Province in Northern Syria and later pivot to Eastern Syria. They could attempt to exploit international focus on Idlib Province to conduct deniable operations against the U.S. in Eastern Syria, however.

The U.S. has begun to block pro-regime tribal outreach but must still prepare for possible military escalation in Eastern Syria. The U.S. sent a senior delegation to meet with local tribes across SDF-held areas of Eastern Syria in late August. The delegation communicated a renewed U.S. commitment to countering both ISIS and Iran in Syria. The visit is an inflection in the level of local engagement and could indicate the U.S. has decided to retain forces in Syria. The framing of U.S. policy in Eastern Syria as anti-Iran is also an inflection and likely reflects a U.S. effort to start blocking the entrenchment of Iran in Deir ez-Zour Province.[10] This outreach is a positive first step toward consolidating gains against ISIS and blocking the ability of Iran, Russia, and Assad to coopt the SDF. The U.S. must be prepared to defend against a military escalation as well. Renewed U.S. engagement in Eastern Syria could prompt pro-regime forces to abandon their diplomatic effort and escalate militarily instead.

Looking Ahead

Pro-regime forces have reshuffled their force disposition on the western bank of the Euphrates River in Deir ez-Zour Province in areas adjacent to ongoing clearing operations by the SDF against ISIS in the area of Hajin.[11] The full scope of these deployments is unclear at the time of this writing. Further deployments of pro-regime forces along the Euphrates River Valley or Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) along the Syrian-Iraqi Border could be an indicator of an imminent attack against U.S. forces or the SDF. Multiple reported attacks against SDF-held oil infrastructure in Eastern Syria in late August could reflect probing attempts by the Russo-Iranian Coalition. The attacks may alternately be conducted by ISIS. ISW will release a refined assessment of the pro-regime force posture in the coming days.

[1] [“Russia receives river crossings in Deir al-Zour,”] Smart News-Agency, August 17, 2018, Available: https://smartnews-agency(.)com/ar/wires/317899/%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D8%AA%D8%AA%D8%B3%D9%84%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D9%87%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1 ; [“An agreement between the regime and SDF to open the crossing Salehia Deir al-Zour,”] Smart News-Agency, August 27. 2018, Available: https://smartnews-agency(.)com/ar/wires/319773/%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%82-%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B8%D8%A7%D9%85-%D9%88-%D9%82%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%AD-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A8%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1.
[2] “Russia Ships More Military Equipment To Syria,” South Front, April 13, 2018, Available: https://southfront(.)org/russia-ships-more-military-equipment-to-syria-photos/
[3] “Bulletin of the Centre for the Reception, Allocation and Accommodation of Refugees (August 21, 2018),” Russian Ministry of Defense, August 21, 2018, Available: http://eng(.)
[4] [“Mounting differences between Iranian militias and regime in Deir ez Zour, and al-Iraqiya held in Sayeda Zeinab prison,”] SNN, August 18, 2018, Available: www.shaam(.)org/news/syria-news/تصاعد-الخلافات-بين-ميليشيات-إيران-والنظام-في-دير-الزور-و-العراقية-يزج-في-سجن-السيدة-زينب.html ; “Russian police slapped an ‘Assad militia’ in Deir al-Zour,” El Dorar, August 13, 2018, Available: https://eldorar(.)com/node/124858
[5] Sound and Pic. August 23, 2018 Available: https://twitter(.)com/soundandpic/status/1032719606430019584
[6] “‘We were close to direct conflict between Russia & US inside Syria’ – Bashar Assad” Russia Today, May 31, 2018, Available: https://www.rt(.)com/news/428299-assad-syria-russia-interview/
[7] [“Riad Derar denies the formation of any joint committees with the Syrian regime”] PYD Rojava, August 12, 2018, Available: https://pydrojava(.)net/arabic/archives/38483; [“Al-Hasakah .. Arrest of candidates and the closure of private schools renew the dispute between the regime and the Democratic Union”] Zaman al Wasl, August 21, 2018. Available: https://www(.)
[8] “Kurdish Delegation Met Syrian Gov't Officials to Discuss Political Settlement,” Sputnik News, Available: July 27, 2018, Available: https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201807271066741101-kurdish-damascus-political-settlement/
[9] [“President of the SDC...Yes, I met Assad in Damascus, and the fate of the oil fields was not on the table”] Zaman al Wasl, August 19, 2018, Available: https://www(.); [“Ilham Ahmed: Yes, I met Assad in Damascus and we may be part of the regime’s army if the agreement is reached”] SNN, August 19, 2018, Available: www.shaam(.)org/news/syria-news/إلهام-أحمد-التقيت-الأسد-في-دمشق-وقد-نكون-جزءاً-من-جيش-النظام-حال-الاتفاق.html; [““Within restrictions” with the President of the Executive Board of the Syrian Democratic Council, Ilham Ahmed”] BBC Arabic, August 17, 2018, Available:
[10] “US Troops Poised to 'Stay' in Syria as DoS Official Visits Kurdish-Held Areas,” Sputnik, August 26, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201808261067485266-syria-us-forces-daesh-fight/;
[11] [“Russia controls crossings in Deir ez Zour and Hama after expulsion of regime forces,”] Halab Today, August 17, 2018, Available: https://halabtodaytv(.)net/news/26527 ; [“Deir ez Zour Province is witnessing tripartite movements of ISIS, the Syrian regime, and the SDF on both sides of the Euphrates and the latter seek to defeat ISIS"] SOHR, August 21, 2018, Available: http://www.syriahr(.)com/2018/08/21/محافظة-دير-الزور-تشهد-تحركات-ثلاثية-من/

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Iraq Warning Update: Major Protests Likely in Iraq This Weekend

By Aaron Hesse with Samantha Leathley

KT: Rival Iraqi Shi’a powerbrokers are calling for competing protests on Friday, August 31, 2018. Iranian-backed proxy forces, nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr, and former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki all intend to use street demonstrations to gain leverage in negotiations over the next Government of Iraq ahead of a key constitutional deadline on September 3. These dueling protests in majority-Shi’a Southern Iraq could turn violent. ISW is tracking the situation closely and will continue to provide updates.

Iran and its proxies are likely fueling new protests against the U.S. that erupted in Baghdad on August 29. Protesters near the Green Zone held banners depicting U.S. Special Envoy to the Anti-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk and warning that “anyone who negotiates with [McGurk] is a traitor to Iraqi martyrs.” Iranian-backed proxy forces have openly threatened to attack U.S. forces as recently as July 2018. ISW warned on August 28 that Iran could retaliate after the temporary disruption of its attempts to select the next Prime Minister of Iraq by renewed engagement of the U.S. on behalf of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. Iran likely intends to use the protests in Baghdad to discredit and outmaneuver Abadi in the still-ongoing negotiations for the next Government of Iraq. In a most dangerous scenario, Iran may use the protests to set conditions for a kinetic escalation against Abadi, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), or the U.S. in Iraq or Syria. 

Rival Iraqi Shi’a powerbrokers have also called for protests this weekend, raising the risk of violent street confrontations. Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr called for a “million-man” protest in Najaf on August 31. Sadr is politically aligned with Abadi and likely seeks to demonstrate his continued clout amidst government formation negotiations. Sadr’s call may fuel ongoing protests over poor government service provision in Southern Iraq. The failure of water-treatment facilities has spread waterborne diseases that hospitalized as many as 18,000 in Basra in August 2018. Iraqi Vice President Nouri al Maliki is also attempting to coopt these demonstrations for political gain. Maliki publicly condemned the “lack of services in Basra and other governorates” of Iraq on Twitter on August 30. Maliki is politically aligned with Badr Organization Chairman Hadi al Ameri - a senior proxy of Iran - and may seek to offset Sadr’s influence in Basra. Violence could thus erupt between competing protests in majority-Shi’a Southern Iraq. Iranian-backed proxy militias could also clash with units of the ISF deployed in Southern Iraq or U.S. forces in Eastern Syria.


Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Russia in Review: August 21 - 28, 2018

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

Reporting Period: August 21 - 28, 2018 (The previous period's INTSUM is available here.)

Authors: Jack Ulses and Catherine Harris

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin continues to pursue aggressive foreign policy objectives that undermine the global influence of the U.S. despite domestic economic setbacks that stem in part from new U.S. sanctions. The Kremlin will likely increase its efforts to posture as a security guarantor in Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to supplant U.S. regional influence in South Asia. Russia may also seek to cultivate new sources of support among international actors in order to mitigate future economic damage from sanctions. The Kremlin nonetheless is being forced to take action to respond to domestic discontent and may readjust its approach towards long-term economic problems in order to ensure continued strong support for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Kremlin is courting Pakistan to undermine U.S. regional influence in South Asia. Russia is vying with several regional actors to court support from Pakistan. Russia and Pakistan held the inaugural Russia-Pakistan Joint Military Consultative Committee (JMCC) in Rawalpindi on August 6 - 7 where they signed an agreement allowing Pakistani servicemen to study at military institutions in Russia. The deal followed a U.S. decision to halt similar training programs for Pakistan. The Kremlin is capitalizing on Pakistan’s desire to replace U.S. support in the long term.[1] Russia is likely also leveraging increased cooperation with Pakistan to shape tentative peace talks with the Afghan Taliban in Moscow that will undermine U.S efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. Russia may also increase its security operations near Afghanistan to posture as a security guarantor in Central Asia. The Kremlin will nonetheless continue to balance its growing relations with Pakistan against its objective to maintain a strategic partnership with India.

U.S. sanctions have not deterred Russia from pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. U.S. sanctions are negatively impacting the domestic economy of Russia. The Russian ruble dropped to its lowest level since 2016. The Kremlin is also attempting to hide financial assets from future sanctions. The Kremlin has nonetheless not been deterred from its aggressive foreign policy agenda. Russia may be setting conditions to support an offensive by Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retake Idlib Province in Northern Syria. The Kremlin also continues to support proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine in a likely effort to destabilize the country ahead of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Russia at this time will not likely acquiesce to U.S. demands to get sanctions lifted but rather continue its attempts to counter U.S. financial pressure. Russia may seek to frame additional sanctions as a net negative for Europe in an effort to dissuade additional sanctions by the EU. The Kremlin may also seek to galvanize support for an anti-Western economic bloc that it can use to prop up its domestic economy.[2]

The Kremlin is reacting to domestic discontent that threatens long-term support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin is responding to domestic discontent over a controversial pension reform bill that raises the retirement age close to life expectancy in Russia. Putin announced a proposal to water down the pension reform bill during a televised speech on August 29.[3] The Kremlin previously sought to distance Putin from the controversial bill by directing public backlash for the initial proposal towards Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.[4] The Kremlin likely assesses that Putin’s reversal will boost his approval ratings and help candidates from his political party win upcoming local elections in key industrial cities where voters rely heavily on pensions.[5] Russia will still need to acquire new sources of revenue to pay for pensions. The Kremlin may attempt to acquire loans from international organizations such as the BRICS New Development Bank. The Kremlin may similarly respond to domestic pressure against subsequent economic reforms that severely impact quality of life for Russian citizens.

What to Watch

Russia and China may increase bilateral cooperation to reduce U.S. influence in the Middle East and Asian-Pacific Theater. Russian media reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 3. Chinese troops will also participate in the Russian “Vostok 2018” military exercises held in Russia’s Eastern Military District in early September.[6] Russia has taken steps to transfer LNG supplies to China in an effort to cut transportation costs and promote energy cooperation with China. Russia and China may agree to further boost their energy ties at the Eastern Economic Forum in order to strengthen their relationship amidst U.S. sanctions on Russia and trade tensions between the U.S. and China. 

[1] “Russian envoy meets Imran Khan at Bani Gala”, The Express Tribune, August 9, 2018, https://tribune(.)
[2] Dr. Theodore Karasik, “Russia and China leading eastern economies away from troubled West,” Arab News, August 28, 2018, http://www.arabnews(.)com/node/1363156
[3] [“Full text of the address of Vladimir Putin over pension changes,”] TASS, August 29, 2018, http://tass(.)ru/politika/5500968
[4] “Officials vow to raise the retirement age, the Kremlin fears protests, and labor unions are fuming. This is Russia’s pension reform.,” Meduza, June 18, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/en/feature/2018/06/18/officials-vow-to-raise-the-retirement-age-the-kremlin-fears-protests-and-labor-unions-are-fuming-this-is-russia-s-pension-reform
[5] [“"United Russia" party declared himself president in crisis regions,”] Svoboda, August 22, 2018, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/29447068.html
[6] “China’s elite troops head to Russia for massive Vostok 2018 war games,” South China Morning Post, August 23, 2018, https://www.scmp(.)com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2161068/chinas-elite-troops-head-russia-massive-vostok-2018-war