Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Russia in Review: Russia Poised to Escalate Ukraine Campaign

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.

Special Topic Update: Russia Poised to Escalate Ukraine Campaign

Author: Catherine Harris, Mason Clark, and Nicole Geis with the ISW Research Team

Key Takeaway: Russia will likely escalate militarily against Ukraine imminently. Russia is setting military conditions to prepare its forces for open conflict with Ukraine. Russia is already creating the pretext to escalate by circulating the false narrative that Ukraine and the West are preparing imminent attacks, including a chemical weapons attack, in Eastern Ukraine. Russia may fabricate evidence of a chemical weapons attack – or may itself conduct a chemical weapons attack -- near Russia-backed areas of Ukraine to create chaos, justify the overt involvement of the Russian Armed Forces, and set conditions for future military operations. NATO’s inaction following Russia’s escalation in the Sea of Azov is likely emboldening Putin to continue challenging the West in Ukraine. NATO must reassess the threat that Russia poses to European security and the rules-based international order and respond decisively to deter an increasingly likely Russian military escalation in Ukraine itself.

Russia is taking overt steps towards open conflict with Ukraine. Russia has been waging a covert war against Ukraine using proxy separatist forces in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The Russian military is now preparing its forces for direct military involvement. The Kremlin is reinforcing ground, naval, and air elements in its Southern Military District - the command likely responsible for managing its ongoing war in Ukraine. Moscow may calculate that the international community will not meaningfully respond if the visibility of its role in the war now increases.

  • Ground: Russia reportedly transferred an additional mechanized regiment to the 150th Motor Rifle Division (MRD) on December 2.[1] The 150th MRD is a uniquely tank-heavy unit subordinate to the 8th Combined-Arms Army located 20-30 kilometers from the Russian-Ukrainian border. ISW previously assessed that the 150th MRD could support a ground advance by Russia along the northern coast of the Sea of Azov if the Kremlin launched a large-scale offensive against Ukraine. The Kremlin has also increased the number of armored vehicles along the Russian-Ukrainian border. Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander General Viktor Muzhenko has publicly warned of a significant buildup of Russian T-62M Main Battle Tanks along the Russian-Ukrainian border that had occurred by October 2018. ISW had previously warned about this mobilization in September 2018. 
  • Air: Russia is likely integrating additional airmobile units into existing units in the Southern Military District (SMD). SMD Commander Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov announced earlier this year that new airmobile units would begin training with naval infantry in the Black Sea Fleet and Caspian Flotilla beginning in December 2018.[2] It is not yet clear if these units have begun their training missions. 
  • Sea: Russia is also bolstering the capabilities of its Black Sea Fleet. Russia added a new corvette equipped with cruise missiles to the Black Sea Fleet on December 7.[3] Russia is expected to add four additional warships including patrol boats and minesweepers to the Black Sea Fleet by the start of 2019.[4] Russia also conducted naval and missile drills involving two submarines and Pantsir Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) in the Black Sea and Crimean Peninsula on December 5. 
Russia may also be preparing its Central Military District to support the Southern Military District in a conflict. Russia began snap preparations for its “Center-2019” military exercise on December 1.[5] These exercises will not take place until September 2019.[6] This early start to the exercises is atypical and may signal preparation for open conflict with Ukraine under the auspices of military exercises. Russia has previously used military exercises as cover to prepare for offensive operations. The initial phase of the Center-2019 exercise includes “moving from peace to wartime posture” and moving supplies and field hospitals to aid potential casualties in combat. Russian units conducted these exercises in the Volga region northeast of the Southern Military District.[7] Russia may intend to use resources in the Central Military District to support the Southern Military District in rear areas. Alternatively, Russia may be attempting to deter a Ukrainian military response to Russia’s escalation against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov on November 24-25. Russia may however calculate that conditions are set such that Russia should escalate now.

Russia may be preparing to fabricate or launch a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine in order to create a false pretext to escalate against Ukraine. Russia is currently flooding the information space with multiple narratives to alarm the local population in Ukraine and frame the West as the aggressor likely in order to set conditions for a future escalation by Russia. One Kremlin narrative claims that Western personnel are preparing to conduct a chemical weapons attack in territory currently controlled by Russia-backed separatists.[8] A spokesperson from the Russia-backed separatist region of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) claims that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will launch an assault on Mariupol on December 14. These false narratives may represent efforts by Russia to create a false justification for anticipated overt military involvement. This fabrication would be consistent with recent Russian provocations in Syria. Russia and the Syrian regime fabricated a chemical weapons attack in Syria on November 24. Russia responded to this fabricated chemical weapons attack with Russian airstrikes. The U.S. condemned Russia and the Assad regime for this fabrication but did not meaningfully respond. The Kremlin may therefore calculate that it can use the same play in Ukraine at this time.

Putin may seek to create a military distraction for Poroshenko’s government in order to disrupt an upcoming meeting that will formally announce the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Orthodox church on December 15 in Kyiv. Ukraine’s recent autocephaly represents a loss of social influence that Russia formerly held over Ukraine. Putin may be attempting to cause widespread hysteria before the meeting in order to menace Ukraine and undermine its efforts to distance Ukraine from Russia. Russia may also seek to circulate these narratives to frame Ukraine as the aggressor ahead of a vote at the UN General Assembly to formally condemn Russian militarization of Crimea, the Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea on December 17. Russia is nonetheless demonstrating that it is preparing to engage Ukraine in open conflict.

Russia likely perceives the lack of a unified NATO response to Moscow’s aggression in the Sea of Azov as an opportunity to escalate against Ukraine and elsewhere in the future. NATO failed to agree on a unified course of action in response to Russia’s escalation in the Kerch Strait during a foreign ministerial meeting on December 4-5. Moreover, NATO member-states are signaling different degrees of concern over overt Russian escalation. None of the responses are likely sufficient to deter Putin, whereas the disagreement itself will likely embolden him.
  • United States: The U.S. has demonstrated the strongest response to Russia’s aggression, though it is likely insufficient to deter further offensive action by Russia in Ukraine. U.S. Commander of EUCOM and Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Scaparrotti will meet with Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov in Azerbaijan on December 12.[9] The U.S. is attempting to constrain Russia and prevent it from making future illegal claims to other bodies of water. The U.S. is preparing the option of sending a warship, likely from the 6th Fleet, to the Black Sea in coordination with Turkey in a likely effort to deter Russia from expanding its aggression into the Black Sea. The United States also conducted a freedom of navigation exercise in the Sea of Japan near the Russia-claimed Kuril Islands on December 5 in a move that U.S. officials called a direct challenge to Russian naval activity in the Pacific theater. This U.S. maneuver follows Russia’s announcement that it will pass legislation requiring foreign ships to notify the Kremlin before traversing the Northern Sea Route in 2019.[10] The U.S. with allies also conducted a flight over Ukraine under the Open Skies Treaty to reaffirm support for Ukraine and European nations on December 6. 
  • European Union: The EU will likely fail to pass additional sanctions on Russia. The UK called for the EU to enact “appropriate sanctions” in response to Russian aggression, though this effort will be unsuccessful. France and Germany have signaled their unwillingness to impose further sanctions on Russia and their preference to pursue a diplomatic solution to the escalation. French officials are furthermore currently distracted by large-scale protests in France that may be partially fueled by Russian disinformation.[11]
  • Turkey: Ankara is attempting to demonstrate Turkish resolve in the Black Sea. Turkey is currently conducting live-fire exercises in the southeastern portion of the Black Sea from December 10-14 and recently announced recurring small-scale exercises in the Dardanelles Strait throughout December.[12]
Russia will continue to divert attention away from Russia’s escalating pattern to undermine a stronger NATO response. Putin will likely use a mixture of incentives and pressures on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to increase the likelihood that Erdogan will not meaningfully challenge a future escalation by Russia against Ukraine. Russia likely already initiated this effort in the Syrian theater. Russia conducted airstrikes within hundreds of meters of a Turkish military position in Western Aleppo Province, Syria under the false pretext of retaliating against anti-Assad forces for using chemical weapons on November 26. Russia may have intended to use this set of airstrikes to test international reactions to a fabricated chemical weapons attack; to compel Turkey to back down in the Black Sea; and to divert international attention away from its military escalation against Ukraine and toward an alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Kremlin will also likely use subversive methods to fuel protests in France and possibly other NATO member-states in order to create distractions and divert resources away from a future escalation by Russia.

The U.S. and NATO must be increasingly prepared for an emboldened Russia to escalate in multiple theaters. Russia has previously demonstrated its ability to simultaneously escalate its various malign campaigns against the West in multiple theaters. Russia likely feels more emboldened to do so at this time following NATO’s inaction. NATO must therefore be prepared for Russia to escalate in Ukraine but also in other theaters, such as Syria. ISW has repeatedly warned that Russia, Assad, and Iran are setting military conditions to ultimately expel the U.S.-led coalition from Eastern Syria. Russia may accelerate both of these efforts simultaneously in a most dangerous scenario. NATO must prioritize deterring an increasingly aggressive Russia in order to maintain the resolve of the NATO alliance and uphold the rules-based international order.

[1] Daria Mikhalina, [“A new regiment Formed As part of the 150th Motorized Rifle Division Near Rostov”,] TV Zvezda, December 2, 2018, https://tvzvezda(.)ru/news/forces/content/201812021804-73o7.htm
[2] [“Shoigu Stated Strategic Exercises “Tsentr-2019” Will Be Held in September”,] Rambler, December 4, 2018,
[3] “Russia deploys Latest Cruise Missile Corvette in Occupied Crimea – Media,” Unian, December 10, 2018,
[4] “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to Get Four New Warships,”TASS, December 3, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1033966
[5] Central MD Troops to Start Tarining for Tsentr 2018 CPX on December 1,” Russian MOD, November 30, 2018,
[6] [“Shoigu Announced Strategic Exercises “Center” in 2019”,] MKRU, December 4, 2018,
[7] [“The Second Army in the Volga Region Received a Rapid Deployment Hospital”,] RIA, July 6, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/20180706/1524084441.html
[8] “Kremlin’s Persistent Claim of “Expected Chemical Attack by Ukraine Armed Forces in Donbas” Worrying -MP,” Unian, December 10, 2018,
[9] “President Ilham Aliyev Received a Delegation Led by the Commander-in-Chief of the NATO Joint Armed Forces in Europe”, Azer Tas, November 12, 2018, https://azertag(.)az/ru/xeber/Prezident_Ilham_Aliev_prinyal_delegaciyu_vo_glave_s_glavnokomanduyushchim_Obedinennymi_vooruzhennymi_silami_NATO_v_Evrope-1223411
[10] “Russia Will Restrict Foreign Warships in Arctic Ocean, Defense Official Syas”, Moscow Times, November 30, 2018,
[11] “France Opens Probe Into Possible Russian Interference Behind “Yellow Vest” Protests – Media, Unian, December 9, 2018, https://www.unian(.)info/world/10369785-france-opens-probe-into-possible-russian-interference-behind-yellow-vest-protests-media.html
[12] “Gunnery Exercise, Between 10-12 DEC 18,” Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography,, “Firing Exercises, between 11-14 DEC 18” Turkish Naval Forces Office of Navigation, Hydrography and Oceanography,

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Syria Situation Report: November 8 - 29, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

These two graphics mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The maps depict significant developments in the war in Syria during the period November 8 - 29, 2018.

Map 1: November 8 - 19, 2018
Click image to enlarge.

Map 2: November 19 - 29, 2018
Click image to enlarge.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Russia in Review: Targeting Ukraine to Test the West

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.

Special Topic Update: The Kremlin Targets Ukraine to Test the West

Authors: Catherine Harris, Nicole Geis, and Mason Clark

Key Takeaway: Russia conducted a brazen act of war against Ukraine in the Sea of Azov on November 25. The Russian Coast Guard fired on Ukrainian naval vessels and detained their crews in violation of multiple international laws including the Geneva Convention. This escalation is part of a broader deliberate campaign by Russia to test the resolve of the U.S. and NATO, and identify the thresholds at which Russia can conduct aggressive actions against its neighbors without suffering consequences from the West. Russia is waging this campaign across multiple theaters and multiple domains, and its campaign is escalating. The lack of a meaningful response to this act of war by the U.S. and NATO will only encourage further escalation by Russia. The U.S. and NATO must respond decisively to send a strong message to our adversaries and uphold the modern rules-based international order which has prevented large-scale state warfare for decades.

The Kremlin learned that it can commit overt acts of war against its neighbors without a meaningful response from NATO. The Russian Security Services (FSB) Coast Guard rammed and opened fire on three vessels of the Ukrainian Navy attempting to transit from Odesa in Western Ukraine to Mariupol in Eastern Ukraine via the Sea of Azov on November 25. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) also claims that Russia fired on the vessels with attack helicopters and fighter aircraft, suggesting the involvement of the conventional Russian Armed Forces.[1] The FSB ultimately seized the vessels and seized their crews as de facto prisoners of war. This aggressive act marks the first publicly acknowledged exchange of fire between the uniformed military personnel of Russia and Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014. The Kremlin framed its attack as a response to a violation of its borders by Ukraine.[2] However, the Sea of Azov is not Russia’s sovereign territory under international law. Russia has in fact been setting conditions to open the Sea of Azov as a new front in its war against Ukraine since early 2018.

The West is currently understating the severity of this escalation by Russia. NATO officially condemned Russia for its “use of military force” and reiterated its support for the sovereignty of Ukraine but did not emphasize the blatant violation of international law by Russia. U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley among other officials also condemned Russia and alluded to the illegality of its actions but failed to clearly articulate the dangerous implications of this severe violation for the wider international order. Many commentators have raised the specific laws violated by Russia, particularly the 2003 Bilateral Agreement between Russia and Ukraine on the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait and the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).[3] Russia and Ukraine agreed in 2003 that both states can freely maneuver military vessels without advanced notice in the Kerch Strait and Sea of Azov.[4] Meanwhile, Article 38 and Article 44 of UNCLOS defend the free passage of vessels through straits between national borders - such as the Kerch Strait between Ukraine and Russia.[5] Russia’s justification for its escalation rests on the false claim that it is sovereign over the Kerch Strait, which in turn rests on its illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula. Any effort to accommodate Russia’s version of events thus de facto legitimizes its forceful annexation of Crimea.

The West has also writ large failed to hold Russia accountable for violations of the Geneva Convention in Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine have been in a state of war since 2014 despite the denials and obfuscation of Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s imposition of martial law after the recent incident in the Kerch Strait demonstrates the degree to which this fact is a truism in Ukraine. Russia thus activated the prisoner of war protections set in the Geneva Conventions with its detention of the crewmen from the Ukrainian Navy. Russia violated these legal rules on two accounts. First, Russia labeled the twenty-four detained crewmen as criminal trespassers rather than legal prisoners of war. Article IV of the Geneva Convention defines prisoners of war as captured “members of the armed forces of a party to the conflict” and this reality is not changed despite the lack of recognition offered by Russia. Second, Russia coerced the crewmen to read false confessions about the circumstances of their capture. Article 17 of the Geneva Convention forbids “any form of secure from [prisoners] information of any kind whatever” including public confessions.[6] The West’s failure to immediately name and shame these violations of the Geneva Convention supports efforts by the Kremlin to blur the formal definition of wartime and undermine the rules-based international order in favor of Russia.

This escalation is part of a broader campaign by the Kremlin to test the thresholds of tolerance to its aggression and identify vulnerabilities in the U.S. and NATO. The Kremlin has pursued an intensifying campaign to test the tolerance of the West starting with the Russo-Georgian War in 2008. This campaign has only accelerated since 2014. Its lines of effort span multiple domains including the offensive use of military force, assassinations, chemical weapons, cyberattacks, subversion of foreign governments, and violations of international agreements. This campaign spans multiple theaters including Ukraine, Europe, and Syria. The U.S. and NATO have consistently responded insufficiently - if at all - to these probes and have therefore failed to deter further escalation by Russia. ISW will release a forthcoming graphic depicting this campaign, the thresholds tested by Russia, and the insufficient responses by the West.

Russia will likely therefore interpret the lack of a meaningful response as a green light to escalate further in Ukraine and beyond. Russia will likely intensify its military operations to limit or block the access of Ukraine to the Sea of Azov. Ukrainian officials warned that Russia may attempt to seize the key port cities of Mariupol and Berdyansk in Eastern Ukraine. Russia could in a most dangerous scenario launch a ground offensive to seize the terrain between separatist-held Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. Russia would thereby secure a ground logistics route between Crimea and Russia as well as block all access by Ukraine to the Sea of Azov. This effort would likely by spearheaded by separatist forces commanded and supported by the Russian Armed Forces. Russia may simultaneously increase the currently low levels of violence in Eastern Ukraine in order to stretch the Ukrainian Armed Forces and distract from its main effort in the Sea of Azov. ISW assesses that Russia is currently postured to militarily escalate in Ukraine. ISW also warned that Russia was setting conditions to escalate in Eastern Ukraine in September 2018. Russia is already reinforcing its air defenses in Crimea through the installation of a new radar warning system and S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile System (SAMS) to defend against a potential response by NATO.

The West’s weak response to aggression by Russia emboldens malign actors and undermines the rules-based international order. China, Iran, and other adversaries will likely exploit reduced international resolve to confront aggressive powers in order to advance their own malign objectives and threaten the global strategic interests of the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. and NATO must respond decisively in support of Ukraine in order to deter and halt the deliberate pattern of escalation by Russia. They should also hold Russia to account for its multiple violations of international law in order to uphold the modern rules-based international order which has prevented large-scale state warfare for decades.

[1] [“SBU Received New Uncontested Evidence of an Aggressive Armed Attack on the Ship of the Naval Forces of Ukraine (Video),”] Ukrainian SBU, November 29, 2018,
[2] [“Putin Called the Incident in the Kerch Strait a Provocation on the Eve of Elections in Ukraine,”] TASS, November 28, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/politika/5845613.
[3] James Holmes, “Goodbye Grotius, Hello Putin,” Foreign Policy, November 29, 2018,; Editorial Board, “Russia Attacks Ukrainian Ships and International Law,” New York Times, November 26, 2018,; Alexander Vershbow, “Will Trump Let Russia Take the Azov Sea?,” Washington Post, November 28, 2018,
[4] “Agreement Between the Russian Federation and the Ukraine in Cooperation in the Use of the Sea of Azov and the Strait of Kerch,” Gateway to Environmental Law, December 24, 2003,
[5] “United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” United Nations Treaty Collection, November 30, 2018,
[6] “Geneva Conventions,” Legal Information Institute, June 2017,

Russia Expands Its Air Defense Network in Syria

By Matti Suomenaro and Jennifer Cafarella with the ISW Russia Team 

Key Takeaway: Russia has finished an advanced anti-access/area denial (A2AD) network in Syria that combines its own air defense and electronic warfare systems with modernized equipment formerly commanded by Syria. Russia can use these capabilities to mount a long-term strategic challenge to the U.S. and NATO in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea and the Middle East. Russia is currently positioned to disrupt the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition, constrain future military options for the U.S. in Syria, and increase the cost of deterring future malign action by Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Air Defense Systems

Russia has finished an advanced anti-access / area denial (A2AD) network that constrains U.S. freedom of maneuver in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. The zone integrates air defense and electronic warfare systems imported from Russia with modernized equipment formerly operated by Syria. Russia began building these capabilities immediately after its intervention in Syria in 2015. The Russian Armed Forces established a partial independent air defense network to protect its military assets at the Hmeimim Airbase and Tartus Naval Facility on the Mediterranean Coast.[1] Russia initially deployed a single battalion of S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (SAMS) to Hmeimim Airbase in November 2015.(Note a) It later deployed at least three additional air defense battalions - two S-400s and one S-300 - to create an overlapping network in Northern Syria by August 2017.[2] Russia integrated these platforms with radar systems of the Syrian Air Defense Forces in order to expand its ability to monitor airspace over Syria.[3]

Russia also operated limited command-and-control and targeting systems in Syria as of August 2017. The Russian Armed Forces likely deployed the Barnaul-T - a mobile command-and-control system for short-range air defense systems - to Syria in 2015. It also reportedly deployed at least one advanced 1L122-1E targeting radar to Syria according to unconfirmed images on social media.[4] Russian Airborne Forces began training with the 1L122-1E as a component of the Barnaul-T for the first time in February 2016 and later marketed it for export in July 2018 after field tests in Syria.[5] The 1L122-1E can provide targeting information to various short-range air defense systems including the Osa (SA-8), Strela-10 (SA-13), and Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS).(Note b) This air defense network nonetheless did not cover all of Syria or subordinate the Syrian Air Defense Forces to Russia as of August 2017. The Russian Ministry of Defense estimated that it would require two battalions of S-400s and three to four battalions of S-300s to completely control the airspace over Syria.[6]

Russia further expanded its deployment of air defense systems in Syria in 2018. Russia first expressed its intent to further expand its network after a reported chemical weapons attack prompted airstrikes against Syria by the U.S., France, and Britain on April 14. Russian Federation Council Defense and Security Committee Chair Viktor Bondarev stated that Russia could respond to the strikes by establishing a “multi-layered and highly-efficient air defense system” in Syria.[7] Russia accelerated this effort after the Syrian Air Defense Forces accidentally shot down a Russian IL-20 while responding to airstrikes by Israel on September 17.[8] The Russian Armed Forces deployed at least three additional battalions of S-300s to Syria by October 2.[9] These systems reportedly became combat operational as of November 7, although satellite images later showed at least one of the battalions still stationed at a storage site as of November 13.[10] ISW cannot independently verify the status of the other two battalions of S-300s.

These recent deployments significantly widen the geographic reach of Russia’s air defense network in Syria. Russia positioned the first new battalion of S-300s in the mountains of Tartus Province along the Syrian Coast. This battalion is located within two kilometers of pre-existing positions occupied by a Russian S-400 and Syrian S-200.[11] Russia reportedly positioned the second battalion at the T4 (Tiyas) Airbase northeast of Damascus.[12] The location of the third battalion is unclear although it may be deployed to the Deir ez-Zour Military Airbase in Eastern Syria.[13] This position - if confirmed - could significantly constrain air operations by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Eastern Syria. The graphic below depicts the assessed locations and maximum ranges of the air defense systems operated by Russia in Syria.

Russia simultaneously consolidated its command-and-control over the Syrian Air Defense Forces in 2018. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it would establish a single control system for air defense systems operated by both Russia and Syria by October 20.[14] This announcement followed more immediate steps to respond to the downing of the Russian IL-20 by Syria in September 2018. Russian Military Police arrested the Syrian Air Defense Forces responsible for downing the IL-20 on September 18.[15] Russia also demanded that Syria begin a thorough investigation into the chain-of-command of the Syrian Air Defense Forces on September 19.[16] The inquiry allegedly focused on air defense units that lacked direct command-and-control connections with Hmeimim Airbase.[17] Russia later allegedly established a new headquarters under its command to integrate all air defense systems operated by Syria.[18] The Russian Ministry of Defense reported on October 31 that it deployed the Polyana-D4 - a mobile command-and-control system for long-range air defense systems - to Syria. The Polyana-D4 is capable of simultaneously directing multiple air defense systems including the S-300, Pantsir-S1 (SA-22), Buk-M2 (SA-17), and Tor-M1 (SA-15).[19] It can exert more control over a wider area than the Barnaul-T. Russia also reportedly modified its S-300s in Syria to synchronize their encryption with radars owned by Syria.[20]

Russia now controls an integrated air defense network based in Syria but subordinate to the Russian Armed Forces. Russia has claimed to be training local units in order to ultimately cede control of the network to the Syrian Air Defense Forces. These claims are likely untrue. The Russian Ministry of Defense stated on October 31 that Russia is conducting a three-month training on the S-300 for Syria.[21] Syria had briefly received similar training until Russia aborted a deal to provide S-300s to Syria in June 2012.[22] This short training schedule is insufficient to enable independent operations by the Syrian Air Defense Forces. Russia is more likely training units in basic maintenance and integration of some radars and short-range air defense systems into the new command system led by Russia. Syria also faces systemic challenges to its air defense network due to obsolete equipment and the widespread attrition of the Syrian Air Defense Forces during the Syrian Civil War. Syria likely no longer possesses air defense capabilities independent of Russia.

Electronic Warfare

Russia is also testing new electronic warfare systems in Syria. Its involvement in the Syrian Civil War allows it to gain practical experience and validate its concept of electronic warfare operations in a contested environment. Russia has reportedly deployed at least four unique electronic warfare systems in Syria:
  • Krasukha-4: Russia deployed the Krasukha-4 to Hmeimim Airbase by October 2015.[23] The system is capable of suppressing satellite navigation, communication networks, airborne early-warning systems, and ground-based radars at ranges up to three hundred kilometers.[24] Russia reportedly deployed a second Krasukha-4 to Syria in September 2018.[25] This system is likely positioned at the T4 (Tiyas) Airbase in Central Syria alongside the new battalion of S-300s. 
  • Leer-3: Russia reportedly deployed the Leer-3 (RB-341V) to Syria prior to March 2016.[26] The Leer-3 uses unmanned aerial vehicles to jam mobile devices such as cell phones and computer tablets within a one hundred kilometer radius. [27] It can also provide firing coordinates for the location of these devices for artillery and airstrikes. Russia may have used this system to disrupt the operations of opposition groups ahead of pro-regime military operations.[28] Russia likely also used the system to identify and target opposition-linked facilities such as hospitals.[29]
  • Zoopark-1: Russia deployed the Zoopark-1 (1L219) to Palmyra in Central Syria in March 2016.[30] Zoopark-1 identifies the origin of enemy artillery strikes for counter-battery fire.[31] Russia likely used this system to support pro-regime operations to secure Palmyra as well as its surrounding oil and gas fields from ISIS in 2016.[32]
  • Moskva-1: Russia may have deployed the Moskva-1 (1L267) to Syria. Russia previously deployed this system to Ukraine in late 2015 according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.[33] Russia has tested other electronic warfare systems in both Ukraine and Syria including the Krasukha-4 and Leer-2.[34] The Moskva-1 provides targeting information to increase the effectiveness of electronic warfare systems against aircraft at a radius of up to four hundred kilometers.[35] Russia could have used the system to protect its facilities in response to intensified airstrikes by Israel in Syria in 2017. 

Russia is using its electronic warfare systems to monitor and disrupt operations by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. U.S. 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division Commander Col. Brian Sullivan stated that his unit faced a “congested…electronic warfare environment” during its deployment in Northern Syria between September 2017 and May 2018.[36] U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas also noted in April 2018 that the U.S. is “operating in the most aggressive [electronic warfare] environment on the planet” with “adversaries…testing us every day [by] knocking our communications down [and] disabling our EC-130s” in Syria.[37] These statements demonstrate the seriousness of the electronic warfare threat posed by Russia in Syria.

Russia is likely to continue if not escalate its use of electronic warfare against the U.S. in Syria. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu stated on September 24 that Russia would jam the satellite navigation, airborne radar, and communication systems of combat aircraft in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea in order to protect its facilities on the Syrian Coast.[38] Shoygu likely issued this threat in order to deter future strikes by the U.S. and Israel against Syria. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin later accused the U.S. of directing a drone attack against Hmeimim Airbase in October 2018.[39] The claim is a likely attempt to frame the U.S. for a series of drone swarm attacks against Hmeimim Airbase since late 2017, possibly in order to justify the use of electronic warfare against the U.S. in Syria.[40] Russia could use currently-deployed systems to disrupt the communications and reduce the targeting capabilities of aircraft operated by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Eastern Syria. The U.S. must be prepared to defend against a future escalation that combines electronic warfare with ground operations again its partner forces in Eastern Syria.[41]


Russia ultimately aims to use its technical capabilities as part of its wider campaign to force the withdrawal of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition from Syria. Russia can use these systems to decrease the overall freedom of maneuver - and increase the overall risk - faced by the U.S. in Syria. Russia’s combined air defense and electronic warfare networks will increase the cost of aerial and naval operations by the U.S. in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean. It raises the cost of future airstrikes to deter chemical weapons attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It also increases the cost of future strikes by Israel against Iran in Syria. The U.S. and Israel both must be prepared to suppress a larger number of air defense systems and use more expensive stealth aircraft such as the F-35 in Syria.[42] Russia stands to gain a long-term strategic advantage over NATO through its new capabilities in Syria. The U.S. and NATO must now account for the risk of a dangerous escalation in the Middle East amidst any confrontation with Russia in Eastern Europe.

APPENDIX: Russia’s Efforts to Modernize the Syrian Air Defense Forces, 2007 - 2017

Russia led a gradual modernization program of the Syrian Air Defense Forces prior to the start of the Syrian Civil War. Syria acquired its first short-range air defense systems as well as 11 S-200s from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.[43] These systems provided a basic air defense capability that could target most aircraft operating in the Middle East. Russia began a program to modernize these systems in 2007. Russia upgraded some Syrian S-125s (SA-3) to the more advanced S-125 Pechora 2M, increasing their effectiveness against modern aircraft. Russia also delivered 50 Pantsir-S1 and 160 Buk-M2s (SA-17) to Syria between 2007 and 2013.[44] The Pantsir-S1 and Buk-M2 provided the capability to target smaller systems including cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. They also provided a mobile capability to buttress the predominantly-static Soviet S-200s.[45] Syria also upgraded its radars and electronic warfare systems with the purchase of the Chinese JYL-1, JYL-27, and Type 120 in 2009 - 2010.[46] These systems can reduce the effectiveness of stealth aircraft, counter hostile jamming, and enable air defenses to engage multiple simultaneous targets.[47] Russia accepted but later cancelled a deal to provide the S-300s to Syria in 2010 - 2012. Syria primarily concentrated its existing air defense systems to protect its major urban centers in Western Syria. At the start of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the Syrian Air Defense Forces were capable but lacked new and advanced systems from Russia capable of competing with the West.[48]

Russia later intervened to help rebuild the capabilities of the Syrian Air Defense Forces in 2011 - 2016.(Note c) Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu claimed that Russia began to restore Syrian S-200s damaged during the Syrian Civil War in mid-2016.[49] Main Operational Directorate of the Russian General Staff Chief Gen. Sergey Rudskoy identified the need to train local units to operate and maintain modernized versions of the air defense systems already possessed by Syria in April 2018.[50] The overall progress of modernization remains unclear. Russian Ambassador to Syria Alexander Kinshchak stressed that “much is yet to be done” to “restore” systems operated by the Syrian Air Defense Forces as of September 2018.[51]

Israel has likely severely degraded the remaining capabilities of the Syrian Air Defense Forces despite the modernization efforts by Russia. Israel conducted airstrikes near Damascus in February 2018 that reportedly destroyed between one-third and one-half of the operational air defense systems of Syria, according to officials in the Israel Defense Forces.[52] Israel later destroyed a short-range Tor-M1 (SA-15) operated by Iran at the T4 (Tiyas) Airbase in central Syria on April 9, according to anonymous intelligence officials cited by the Wall Street Journal.[53] Israel also allegedly conducted a successful electronic warfare attack against the Syrian Air Defense Forces in Homs Province on April 16.[54] Russia reportedly investigated the conditions of the alleged attack.[55] Israel launched a second set of airstrikes in Damascus and Southern Syria that destroyed several air defense systems including Pantsir-S1s (SA-22), Buk-M2s (SA-17), and S-200s (SA-5) on May 9.[56] This attack likely destroyed the bulk of the remaining modernized air defense systems operated by the Syrian Air Defense Forces.

[Note a] All references to individual systems or batteries of S-400s and S-300s in this report refer to a battalion-sized element with at least four surface-to-air missile launchers. The number of targeting radars and fire-control vehicles deployed per battalion is unknown.

[Note b] Short-range air defense systems provide tactical defense against aircraft within visual range. Modernized medium-range air defense systems can target cruise missiles and low-flying aircraft at ranges below one hundred kilometers. Long-range air defense systems can target cruise missiles and aircraft beyond one hundred kilometers.

[Note c] Modernization in the context of this report refers to efforts to upgrade pre-existing air defense systems by making them compatible with new radars, improving their ability to target modern aircraft and missiles, improving their integration with newer air defense systems, increasing their range, improving their hardware, and enabling them to track additional targets.

[1] “Russia's First Reported Air Strikes in Syria Assist Regime with Targeting Broader Opposition,” Institute for the Study of War, September 30, 2015,; “Warning Update: Russia Expanding Facilities at Tartus Naval Base,” Institute for the Study of War, September 30, 2015,; “Russian Deployment to Syria: Putin's Middle East Game Changer,” Institute for the Study of War, September 17, 2015,
[2] “Military Movements After the April 2018 Chemical Weapons Attack,” Institute for the Study of War, April 12, 2018,
[3] “Russia and Syria Create Joint Air Defense System,” TASS, August 25, 2017, http://tass(.)com/defense/962057.
[4] [“New Russian Radar-Location System "Garmon" Spotted in Syria for the First Time,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta, March 06, 2018, https://rg(.)ru/2018/03/06/v-sirii-vpervye-zamechena-novejshaia-rossijskaia-rls-garmon.html; Wars Monitoring, Twitter, March 6, 2018,; Encyclopedia of the Syrian Military, Facebook, March 4, 2018,
[5] “Russian Airborne Troops Test New Air Defense Control System,” Sputnik, February 15, 2016, https://sputniknews(.)com/military/201602151034779039-ministry-barnaul-test-troops/; [“New Russian Radar-Location System "Garmon" Spotted in Syria for the First Time,”] Rossiskaya Gazeta, March 06, 2018, https://rg(.)ru/2018/03/06/v-sirii-vpervye-zamechena-novejshaia-rossijskaia-rls-garmon.html; Christopher Foss, “Russia Reveals Two New 1L122E-Series Air-Defence Radars,” Jane’s 360, July 3, 2018,; “Russian Airborne Troops Test New Air Defense System,” Sputnik, February 15, 2016, https://sputniknews(.)com/military/201602151034779039-ministry-barnaul-test-troops/.
[6] “[Erdogan Is Preparing an Invasion of Syria],” Nezavisimaya Gazeta, January 27, 2016,
[7] “Highly Efficient Air Defense Can Be Created with Russia’s Help - Senator,” TASS, April 18, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1000450.
[8] Barbara Starr, Ryan Browne, and Nathan Hodge, “Syria Accidentally Shot Down a Russian Military Plane,” CNN, September 18, 2018,
[9] “Three S-300PM Battalion Sets Delivered to Syria Free of Charge - Source,” TASS, October 8, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1025020.
[10] “Russian Specialists Reconfigure S-300 Systems in Syria,” TASS, November 7, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1029616; ImageSat International, Twitter, November 14, 2018,
[11] [“Russia Brings S-300 to Hmeimim, Deploys the System in Tartous,”] Zaman al-Wasl, October 7, 2018, https://www.zamanalwsl(.)net/news/article/94321/; “Syria Received Its First S-300 System from Russia and Deployed It 1.3 Kilometers North-West of the Russian S-400 Battery,” ImageSat International, October 24, 201,
[12] [“Source: Iran Gives “Tiyas” Airbase at Homs to Russia,”] Enab Baladi, October 2, 2018, https://www.enabbaladi(.)net/archives/255109.
[13] [“Russia Brings S-300 to Hmeimim, Deploys the System in Tartous,”] Zaman al-Wasl, October 7, 2018, https://www.zamanalwsl(.)net/news/article/94321/.
[14] “Russia Completes Deliveries of S-300 Air Defense Systems to Syria – Shoigu,” Sputnik, October 2, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/military/201810021068529167-russia-experts-s-300/.
[15] [“Anti-Aircraft Battalion in Syria That Shot Down the IL-20 Arrested,”] RUPosters, September 19, 2018, https://ruposters(.)ru/news/19-09-2018/sirii-batalon; Hammurabi News, Twitter, September 18, 2018,; Hasan al-Hamadah, Twitter, September 20, 2018,; Brigadier General Ahmed Rahal, Twitter, September 18, 2018,; [“Syrian Anti-Aircraft Gunners Who Shot Down Russian IL-20 Arrested,”] IN24, September 19, 2018, http://in24(.)org/world/33089?utm_source=warfiles(.)ru.
[16] [“Zaman al-Wasl Obtains the Names of the Members of the Commission Investigating the Fall of the IL-20,”] Zaman al-Wasl, September 26, 2018, https://www.zamanalwsl(.)net/news/article/93531/.
[17] Rasd al-Sham, Twitter, September 18, 2018,
[18] Brigadier General Ahmed Rahal, Facebook, September 25, 2018,
[19] “Syria S-300 Air Defense Brigade Receives Polyana-D4 Automatic Control System,” Army Recognition, November 6, 2018, https://www.armyrecognition(.)com/november_2018_global_defense_security_army_news_industry/syria_s-300_air_defense_brigade_receives_polyana-d4_automatic_control_system.html; Russian Ministry of Defense, “Russian Ministry of Defense Briefing on Syria,” YouTube, October 31, 2018,
[20] “Russian Specialists Reconfigure S-300 Systems in Syria,” TASS, November 7, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1029616; “Russian Specialists Re-Equipping S-300 Systems Delivered to Syria for Local Operation,” TASS, October 19, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1026862; “Three S-300PM Battalion Sets Delivered to Syria Free of Charge - Source,” TASS, October 8, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1025020.
[21] Russian Military in Syria, Facebook, October 2, 2018,
[22] [“Russia Brings S-300 to Hmeimim, Deploys the System in Tartous,”] Zaman al-Wasl, October 7, 2018, https://www.zamanalwsl(.)net/news/article/94321/.
[23] [“Syria Has Deployed New Krasukha-4 EW Systems,”] Defending Russia, October 15, 2015, https://defendingrussia(.)ru/a/v_sirii_razvernuty_novyje_kompleksy_radioborby_krasuha4-3987/; [“Myths of Military Equipment: How Media Saw the Russian "Krasukha-4" in Action in Syria,”] Riafan, May 30, 2017, https://riafan(.)ru/793901-mify-voennoi-tehniki-kak-smi-uvideli-v-sirii-rabotu-rossiiskoi-krasuhi-4.
[24] [“Russian EW Systems Have Proven Themselves in Syria,”] Novye Izvestia, August 20, 2018, https://newizv(.)ru/news/politics/20-08-2018/rossiyskie-kompleksy-reb-horosho-zarekomendovali-sebya-v-sirii.
[25] “Russia Says S-300 Missiles Have Already Been Delivered to Syria,” Haaretz, September 29, 2018,; Leith Aboufadel, “Leaked Photos Show Russia Likely Delivered S-300 to Syria Already,” Al-Masdar News, September 25, 2018, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/leaked-photos-show-russian-military-likely-delivered-s-300-to-syria-already/.
[26] [“Russian Mobile Communications Suppressing Complex "Leer-3" Discovered in Syria,”] Military Informant, March 14, 2016, http://military-informant(.)com/army/v-sirii-obnaruzhili-rossiyskie-kompleksyi-podavleniya-mobilnoy-svyazi-leer-3.html.
[27] “Russian Drones Can Jam Cellphones 60 Miles Away,” C4ISRNET, November 17, 2018, https://www.c4isrnet(.)com/newsletters/unmanned-systems/2018/11/16/russian-drones-can-jam-cell-phones-60-miles-away/.
[28] Sydney Freedberg Jr., “Russian Robots: Fear Jammers, Not Terminators,” Breaking Defense, October 5, 2017,; Maksymilian Dura, “Electronic Warfare: Russian Response to the NATO’s Advantage?,” Defense24, May 5, 2017, https://www.defence24(.)com/electronic-warfare-russian-response-to-the-natos-advantage-analysis.
[29] Kareem Shaheen, “MSF Stops Sharing Syria Hospital Locations After 'Deliberate' Attacks,” The Guardian, February 16, 2018,
[30] Joseph Eid, Getty Images, March 31, 2016,; U.S. Democracy, Twitter, April 4, 2016, https://twitter(.)com/US_Democracy/status/717040870277652482.
[“Russian Electronic Warfare Weapons in Syria: Zoopark-1,”] RT, October 17, 2018, https://arabic.rt(.)com/photolines/849796-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AD-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%83%D8%AA%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%86%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B3%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%83-1/.
[31] “All Hands On Deck: Russian Military Sets Up High-Tech Radar System in Syria.” Sputnik, March 4, 2016, https://sputniknews(.)com/military/201603041035790897-russia-syria-radar-complex/.
[32] “Syrian Forces Retake Historic City of Palmyra from Islamic State,” AP, March 27, 2016,
[33] [“Intelligence Directorate Displayed Russian Weapons Brought to Donbass,”] InfoResist, December 11, 2015, https://inforesist(.)org/razvedka-pokazala-oruzhie-kotoroe-zavezla-rossiya-na-donbass/.
[34] [“Intelligence Directorate Displayed Russian Weapons Brought to Donbass,”] InfoResist, December 11, 2015, https://inforesist(.)org/razvedka-pokazala-oruzhie-kotoroe-zavezla-rossiya-na-donbass/.
[35] Maksymilian Dura, “Electronic Warfare: Russian Response to the NATO’s Advantage?,” Defense24, May 5, 2017, https://www.defence24(.)com/electronic-warfare-russian-response-to-the-natos-advantage-analysis.
[36] Lara Seligman, “Russian Jamming Poses Threat to US Troops in Syria,” Foreign Policy, July 30, 2018,; “Krasukha-4,” Deagel, April 15, 2017,; Todd South, “Near-Peer Threats, Disparate Units, Changing Missions: This Army Brigade Did It All on Its Recent Deployment,” Army Times, July 26, 2018, https://www.armytimes(.)com/news/your-army/2018/07/26/near-peer-threats-disparate-units-changing-missions-this-army-brigade-did-it-all-on-its-recent-deployment/.
[37] Colin Clark, “Russia Widens EW War, ‘Disabling’ EC-130s or AC-130s in Syria,” Breaking Defense, April 24, 2018,
[38] Josie Ensor, “Russia to Jam Signals in Syria and Supply Regime with More Advanced Anti-Missile Technology After Plane Was Shot Down,” The Telegraph, September 24, 2018,
[39] “Drone Attack on Russia’s Syrian Airbase Was Elaborate Pentagon Operation, Says Expert,” TASS, October 25, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1027834.
[40] Dmitry Kozlov and Sergei Grits, “Russia Says Drone Attacks on its Syria Base Have Increased,” AP, August 16, 2018,
[41] “Update: Pro-Regime Forces Setting Conditions to Attack U.S. Forces in Eastern Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, August 31, 2018,
[42] Dan Williams, “Israel Can Beat Russian Supplied S-300 Air Shield in Syria: Minister,” Reuters, October 3, 2018,
[43] Sean O’Connor, “Access Denial – Syria’s Air Defense Network,” IHS Jane’s, April 7, 2014,; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database,
[44] Sean O’Connor, “Access Denial – Syria’s Air Defense Network,” IHS Jane’s, April 7, 2014,; Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database,
[45] Anthony Cordesman, “Israeli-Syrian Air and SAM Strength Analysis,” CSIS, November 10, 2008,
[46] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database,
[47] Sean O’Connor, “Access Denial – Syria’s Air Defense Network,” IHS Jane’s, April 7, 2014,
[48] Christopher Harmer, “U.S. Options for a Syrian No-Fly Zone,” Institute for the Study of War, November 4, 2015,
[49] “A Look at Syrian Air Defenses That Could Not Shoot Down US Tomahawks,” Sputnik, April 24, 2017, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201704231052904984-syria-air-defense-systems/; “Russian Naval Group in Syria Protected by S-300, Bastion, Pantsir Systems,” Sputnik, November 15, 2016, https://sputniknews(.)com/military/201611151047455462-s-300-syria-russia/; “Russian Carrier Takes Part in Massive Strikes on Terrorists in Syria’s Idlib & Homs,” RT, November 15, 2016, https://www.rt(.)com/news/366995-anti-terrorist-operation-carrier; “Civil War in Syria (8): The Fall of Military Bases,” Military in the Middle East, November 16, 2012, https://milinme.wordpress(.)com/2012/11/16/civil-war-in-syria-8-the-fall-of-military-bases/.
[50] “Highly Efficient Air Defenses Can Be Created in Syria with Russia’s Help - Senator,” TASS, April 18, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1000450.
[51] “Russia Helping Syria Modernize Its Air Defense System, Ambassador Says,” TASS, September 7, 2018, http://tass(.)com/defense/1020544.
[52] Judah Ari Gross, “In Addition to Iranian Targets, Israeli Airstrikes Pummel Syrian Air Defenses,” Times of Israel, May 10, 2018,
[53] Dion Nissenbaum and Rory Jones, “Israel Conferred with U.S. on Strike in Syria to Target Iranian War Gear,” Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2018,
[54] Oliver Holmes, “Syrian Claims of Missile Attack on Homs Airbase Were 'False Alarm',” The Guardian, April 17, 2018,
[55]“Syria Says False Alarm Set Off Its Air Defenses,” Reuters, April 17, 2018, https://www.reuters(.)com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-airbase/syria-says-false-alarm-set-off-its-air-defenses-idUSKBN1HO12N; Jack Khoury, “Syria Blames Missiles, False Alarm on 'Joint Electronic Attack' by Israel and U.S.,” Haaretz, April 17, 2018, https://www.haaretz(.)com/middle-east-news/syria/syrian-state-tv-says-missile-attack-on-air-base-thwarted-1.6009200; Damascus Now, Facebook, April 16, 2018, https://www.facebook(.)com/
[56] Syria Today, “Israel Destroyed a Freshly Delivered Russian Pantsir-S1 (SA-22) Greyhound System in Syria,” YouTube, May 10, 2018,; Sebastien Roblin, “Israeli’s Deadly Air Force Has Been Destroying Syria’s Russian-Built Air Defense Systems,” The National Interest, May 21, 2018,; Judah Ari Gross, “In Addition to Iranian Targets, Israeli Airstrikes Pummel Syrian Air Defenses,” Times of Israel, May 10, 2018,

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Turkey Brief: November 10 - 27, 2018

Turkey Brief is a biweekly 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 Turkish government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them.

Reporting Period: November 10 - 27, 2018

Authors: Elizabeth Teoman with John Dunford, Paul Becker, and Kieran Hatton

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is accelerating his efforts to consolidate power both in Turkey and Northern Syria. Erdogan is tightening security in response to escalating internal threats in areas of Northern Syria occupied by Turkey. He also advanced his domestic consolidation ahead of the March 2019 Turkish Local Elections by successfully pressuring his main nationalist ally into concessions that likely ensure victory for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Erdogan likely still intends to attack the Syrian Kurdish YPG in Eastern Syria. However, ISW has previously assessed that conditions are not yet set for such an operation and a decision by the U.S. to establish observation points along the Syrian-Turkish Border will likely further deter imminent action by Turkey.

Turkey took direct action to counteract deteriorating security in occupied Northern Syria. The Turkish Police Special Operations Department announced the deployment of a Syria Task Force to secure the Afrin Region of Northern Aleppo Province on November 15.[1] Turkey seized the majority-Kurdish Afrin Region in March 2018 as part of a cross-border intervention against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It has since struggled to control the region. The YPG is waging an escalating guerrilla campaign targeting security and governance infrastructure in Afrin. Meanwhile, infighting between opposition groups backed by Turkey in Northern Syria has also contributed to increased lawlessness in Afrin since June 2018. Opposition groups most recently engaged in heavy clashes on November 18, destabilizing large parts of Northern Syria. The Syria Task Force will attempt to address these issues by directly securing critical infrastructure and training a new opposition-led police force for the Afrin Region.

Turkey is also attempting to further consolidate control over its proxies in Northern Syria. Military Police units linked to the Syrian National Army - an opposition proxy of Turkey - implemented a curfew and launched a so-called ‘anti-corruption campaign’ in the border town of Jarabulus in Northern Aleppo Province on November 21. The curfew later expanded to include other key population centers in Northern Syria on November 23 including Azaz, Suran, Marea, and Akhtarin. The crackdown largely targeted opposition factions accused of lawlessness or otherwise refusing to consolidate under the command-and-control of the Syrian National Army and Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely using these operations to bolster his control over the proxy institutions built by his administration in occupied Northern Syria.

Erdogan acted decisively to bolster his political alliance with domestic nationalists in Turkey. Erdogan likely coerced the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to maintain an alliance with his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) ahead of the 2019 Turkish Local Elections. MHP Chairman Devlet Bahceli stated on November 24 that his party will not nominate candidates for open races in the key urban centers of Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.[2] This decision opens the door for gains in all three cities by Erdogan and the AKP. The MHP and its splinter Good (IYI) Party performed well in snap Turkish Parliamentary Elections in June 2018. Further gains in the major cities could have strengthened the MHP at the expense of the AKP and degraded Erdogan’s chances to win a future majority in the Turkish Parliament.

Erdogan has likely set conditions to win another electoral victory within the rigged political system of Turkey. Erdogan remains willing to apply state pressure against both opponents and allies in order to shape political outcomes in Ankara. Bahceli declared his intent to end his electoral alliance with Erdogan on October 23. The Turkish National Police later arrested two dozen individuals affiliated with Alaattin Cakici - an associate of Bahceli - in a nationwide operation on November 16. Cakici is a leader within the right-wing youth movement linked to the MHP and an outspoken critic of the ties between Erdogan and Bahceli. Erdogan and Bahceli met two days later and agreed to reaffirm the political partnership they formalized in February 2018. Erdogan likely directed the arrests as well as ongoing investigations of reported criminality within the MHP in order to force a reversal by Bahceli. This action along with ongoing purges of political opponents are likely sufficient conditions for Erdogan to win the 2019 Turkish Local Elections.

Erdogan’s current focus on foreign and domestic consolidation does not preclude a future cross-border military incursion into Syria. Erdogan likely intends to make good on his election promises to pursue interventionist policies against the YPG. This sustained threat has prompted a defensive reaction from the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated that the U.S. will establish several observation points along the Turkish-Syrian Border on November 21. Mattis claimed that these posts are meant to prevent incursions by the YPG. In reality, these posts aim to deter any new cross-border operation by Turkey in Syria. Erdogan nonetheless affirmed that Turkey will take “all necessary measures” to eliminate the YPG from Eastern Syria in a scheduled Turkish National Security Council Meeting on November 27.

[1] Cankut Tasdan, “Syria Task Force to Provide Security in Afrin,” Anadolu Agency, November 15, 2018, https://www(.)
[2] Ayşe Yıldız and Süleyman Elçin, [“MHP Head Bahceli: We Will Not Nominate in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir,”] Anadolu Agency, November 24, 2018, https://www(.)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Turkey's Near Abroad Expansion

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkey has effectively annexed large portions of Northern Syria. This land grab is similar to its occupation of Northern Cyprus and demonstrates that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is applying a strategy of expeditionary imperialism across the former Ottoman Empire. Erdogan’s adventurism - coupled with Turkey’s complicated instability - risks undermining U.S. and NATO interests. The U.S. must hold Turkey accountable for its disruptive actions and encourage it to engage productively in its near abroad in line with the shared strategic objectives held by the U.S. and NATO.

Turkey has effectively annexed large parts of Northern Syria since 2016. Turkey seized control of a wide swath of terrain along the Syrian-Turkish Border in two separate operations against ISIS and the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey has installed local proxies to manage the region - but these proxies remain subordinate to state institutions in Turkey. Gaziantep and Kilis Provincial governors in Southern Turkey exercise direct oversight of governance in Northern Syria. The Turkish Police Academy is training a force of Free Syrian Police while the Turkish Armed Forces is organizing opposition groups into a parallel Syrian National Army. These institutions could ultimately expand to other parts of Northern Syria including Idlib Province.

Turkey is enforcing economic integration upon its territories in Northern Syria. Turkey has funneled all economic activity in the area - including the payment of salaries and cross-border trade - through the Turkish Lira. It is investing in a new highway network to expedite trade between Southern Turkey and Northern Syria as well as a new industrial center in Al-Bab in Syria. Turkey is using these economic ties to bolster its own struggling economy and entrench the influence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For example, Erdogan authorized agricultural imports from Northern Syria to stabilize rising food prices ahead of the 2018 Turkish General Elections.

Turkey is also conducting a parallel campaign of cultural integration in Northern Syria. Turkey has institutionalized the use of Turkish as the formal language of governance in Northern Syria. It has rebuilt local infrastructure across the area based on its own models including hospitals, universities, post offices, and cell towers. Turkey is also engineering demographic shifts that favor its long-term agenda in Northern Syria. It is resettling internally displaced persons including former opposition fighters in areas under its control at the expense of local Syrian Kurds. It is also attempting to alleviate its own domestic burden by encouraging the return of refugees from Turkey to Northern Syria. These returns may not always be voluntary.

Turkey’s actions in Northern Syria reflect lessons from its occupation of Northern Cyprus. Turkey invaded Northern Cyprus in 1974 to block a perceived threat from nationalist Greeks and preserve its own strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. It quickly acted to implement a program of political, economic, and cultural integration with Turkey. Turkey built and provided military protection for the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It cultivated economic dependence through an entrenched network of telecommunications and postal services, investments in manufacturing centers, and exclusive export partnerships reliant upon the Turkish Lira. It also systematically relocated ethnic Turks to Northern Cyprus in order to dilute the influence of Greek Cypriots. Turkey is visibly pursuing the same lines of effort in Northern Syria.

Turkey likely plans to maintain a long-term strategic presence in Northern Syria. Turkey maintains its occupation of Northern Cyprus in order to exert influence across the Mediterranean Sea. Erdogan likely perceives similar geopolitical value in Northern Syria. Northern Syria provides a sustained source of leverage over Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Erdogan - a major backer of the armed opposition - is unwilling to permit the full recapture of Syria by Assad. He has repeatedly applied military and diplomatic pressure to block pro-regime offensives against opposition-held Idlib Province in Northern Syria. He has also linked any potential military withdrawal to the need for free and fair elections in Syria - a condition unlikely to be met given the intransigence of Assad. Northern Syria also provides a base for Turkey to challenge the YPG in Eastern Syria. Erdogan is attempting to exploit seams between local Arabs and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – the primary partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. His ongoing efforts to undermine these governance structures and stir ethnic tensions in the region is facilitated by access to opposition and tribal networks in Northern Syria

Erdogan will likely undertake similar interventions under his vision of Neo-Ottomanism. Erdogan views the former Ottoman Empire as a model for a more assertive and quasi-imperial Turkey that exerts military, economic, social, and cultural influence across the Middle East. He champions Turkey as the only legitimate defender of Sunni Muslims. He is expanding a regional military footprint with bases in Northern Cyprus, Syria, Iraq, Qatar, and Somalia. He has also expressed interest in gaining a naval port on the Red Sea. These efforts are likely to accelerate in the coming months. Erdogan stated that Turkey will increase the number of troops deployed to Northern Cyprus as recently as September 16. He could order a similar boost to counterinsurgency operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Northern Iraq. He may also intensify efforts to reestablish a socio-cultural foothold in the Balkans amidst rising interference by Russia.

Turkey may not be able to sustain its current level of regional involvement under Erdogan. Turkey is suffering from rising inflation that threatens to collapse its economy. This instability is already spreading to its de facto statelets in Northern Cyprus and Northern Syria. Locals in Northern Syria held protests and launched general strikes in October 2018 to condemn low wages and the economic hardship caused by the increasingly volatile Turkish Lira. Turkish Cypriots held similar protests expressing frustration towards their prolonged economic dependence on Turkey in September 2018. Erdogan is attempting - thus far unsuccessfully - to alleviate these concerns by securing reconstruction aid from Europe. Germany and France have thus far been reluctant to promise explicit economic packages in support of Turkey. Even if granted, international aid will likely remain insufficient to backstop the foreign interventions undertaken by Erdogan.

The U.S. must nonetheless adapt to a quasi-imperial Turkey. Erdogan continues to accelerate his interventionism in his near abroad. He is leveraging his expeditionary foreign policy in order to assert a role as a regional and international powerbroker. His adventurism - coupled with his own domestic instability - risks undermining regional security at the expense of the U.S. and NATO. At minimum, Erdogan’s inability to maintain security in Northern Syria presents an opportunity for renewed expansion by Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Turkey’s persistent interference with its neighbors also fosters instability that could be exploited by Iran and Russia. The U.S. must hold Turkey accountable for its disruptive actions and encourage it to engage productively in its near abroad in line with the shared strategic objectives held by the U.S. and NATO.