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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.

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[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(.)mil.ru/en/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12191859@egNews
[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(.)zamanalwsl.net/news/article/91163/
[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(.)zamanalwsl.net/news/article/91075/; [“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: http://www.bbc(.)com/arabic/45228102
[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.

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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. 

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[1] “Russian envoy meets Imran Khan at Bani Gala”, The Express Tribune, August 9, 2018, https://tribune(.)com.pk/story/1777055/1-russian-envoy-meets-imran-khan-bani-gala/
[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

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Warning Update: Iraqi Government Formation Showdown Could Turn Violent

By Aaron Hesse with Samantha Leathley and Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: The U.S. has temporarily disrupted Iran’s play to form a new Government of Iraq hostile to the U.S. Renewed U.S. diplomatic engagement in Iraq and the re-imposition of sanctions on Iran have strengthened Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi’s leverage ahead of a deadline for the first phase of government formation on September 3. Abadi blocked a bid by Iran to use the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) to grant concessions to Iraqi Sunnis in return for their support for a proxy-led governing coalition. The U.S. is now helping Abadi broker a deal with Iraqi Sunnis and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that would exclude Iran’s proxies. Iran has a range of response options in Iraq and could choose to escalate militarily against Abadi, Iraqi Security Forces, or the U.S. in Iraq. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is tracking the situation closely and will continue to provide updates.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi is attempting to reassert command-and-control over Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). Iraqi Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC) Deputy Chairman Abu Mehdi al Muhandis is a designated terrorist and a senior proxy of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - Quds Force. Muhandis issued two sets of orders in early August 2018 directing units of the PMF to withdraw or redeploy from parts of majority-Sunni Ninewa and Anbar Provinces without approval from Abadi. Abadi reversed the directives and asserted his sole authority to relocate military forces in a meeting with defense officials on August 24. He also directed PMC Chairman Fallah al Fayyadh to assume the duties of Muhandis, who did not attend the meeting.

Abadi is targeting Iran’s proxies in the PMF in order to shape government formation negotiations ahead of a key deadline on September 3. Badr Organization Chairman Hadi al Ameri - another senior proxy of Iran - won the second-most seats in the May 2018 Iraqi Parliamentary Elections. Ameri and Abadi are locked in a tight competition to assemble a political coalition capable of dominating government formation and choosing the next Prime Minister of Iraq. Each seeks to acquire the support of Sunni and Kurdish blocs in order to complete a coalition and form the next Government of Iraq.

Abadi has temporarily disrupted Iran’s government formation strategy in Iraq. Muhandis’ order for the PMF to withdraw from Ninewa and Anbar Provinces was a concession intended to secure support from Sunnis for Ameri. Abadi may also have disrupted efforts to force defections from his own coalition. Fayyadh ran in the elections with Abadi’s Victory Coalition but withdrew his support for Abadi on August 20, potentially swinging a large block of seats to Ameri. His attendance at the meeting on August 24 could indicate his return to Abadi, possibly in return for a position on the Iraqi Council of Ministers or even the office of Prime Minister.

Renewed U.S. support for Abadi may enable him to outcompete Iran and its proxies for the backing of Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds. The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran has likely strengthened Abadi’s leverage in government formation negotiations. The U.S. may have threatened to remove Iraq’s exemptions from secondary sanctions if Iranian proxy leaders are given senior positions in the next Government of Iraq. These sanctions would economically cripple Iraq. Abadi reportedly sent a delegation from the Iraqi Central Bank to ask for trade waivers from the U.S. Treasury on August 28. The U.S. could grant these waivers with conditions meant to exclude senior proxies from the Government of Iraq. The U.S. may also have threatened to designate specific proxy leaders that could enter the new government including Ameri and Asa’ib Ahl al Haq Secretary-General Qais al Khazali.

Continued U.S. engagement is essential. The U.S. also increased its diplomatic support to broker a deal between Abadi and Iraqi Sunni and Kurdish blocs in July 2018. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Abadi at a NATO Summit in Brussels on July 12 and later spoke with him via telephone on August 14, stressing the “importance of forming a moderate new” Government of Iraq. U.S. Special Envoy to the Global Anti-ISIS Coalition Brett McGurk also met with Abadi on July 25 in Baghdad ahead of meetings with former Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani on August 1 and Iraqi Sunni Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi on August 16. Pompeo also allegedly may have intervened to block efforts by Qatar to support outreach to Iraqi Sunnis by Iran.

Iran must now recalibrate in Iraq and could choose military escalation. Iran has a range of options to respond in Iraq. IRGC-Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani is reportedly holding meetings with key political power-brokers in Baghdad alongside Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Iraj Masjedi. Soleimani and Masjedi may request meetings with Abadi in coming days in order to coerce him to reconsider his intervention in the PMF. Soleimani still retains control over Iran’s proxy units within the PMF despite the nominal constitutional authority held by Abadi. Abadi has not yet ordered the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to confront the PMF and it is unclear whether he is willing to use force if his orders are not obeyed. Soleimani could ultimately decide to order kinetic action against the ISF, Abadi, or (in a most dangerous scenario) the U.S. in Iraq. Asa’ib Ahl al Haq - another not-yet-sanctioned proxy - sent representatives to Iran on August 25, potentially to discuss kinetic options.

U.S. support is essential because it helped to halt the imminent formation of a new Government of Iraq by Iran’s proxies in Baghdad. This engagement may dampen or accelerate further escalation by Iran. In the most likely scenario, Iran will be deterred from kinetic escalation by the ability and willingness of the U.S. to impose direct and secondary sanctions on Iran in Iraq. In a most dangerous scenario, however, a mutual escalation in Iraq could expand into an intra-Shi’a civil war that draws in other regional actors including Saudi Arabia and Turkey. U.S. military forces and diplomats could be caught in the crossfire. ISW is tracking the situation closely and will continue to provide updates.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Russia in Review: August 14 - 20, 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 14 - 20, 2018 (The previous period's INSTUM is available here.)

Authors: Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses 

Contributors: Molly Adler, Mason Clark, Nicole Geis, Chase Johnson, Maxim Yulis 


Key Takeaway: The Kremlin experienced renewed friction with Turkey over Syria that may force Russia to reconsider its long-term strategic approach towards Turkey. Russia and Turkey’s interests will likely continue to diverge on the battlefield in Syria. The Kremlin will therefore likely offer high-level diplomatic and economic incentives to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to advance its ultimate strategic objective to weaken and fracture NATO. Meanwhile, Iran conceded to Russia’s longstanding demand to reach a legal status on the Caspian Sea, signifying the stronger position held by Russia in the deepening Russo-Iranian Coalition. The Kremlin also took steps to retain political control over Belarus and sustain its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union amidst signs of a leadership reshuffle in Minsk.

The Kremlin is likely reaching an inflection point in its efforts to balance disagreements with Turkey over Syria against its strategic objective to coopt Turkey from NATO. The Kremlin has thus far failed to secure a favorable compromise from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over opposition-held areas protected by Turkey in Northern Syria. Russia likely intends to use the looming threat of a military offensive as well as the existing de-escalation zone brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey at the Astana Talks to force territorial concessions from Erdogan. Turkey nonetheless reinforced its military positions in Idlib Province in Northern Syria on August 13, signaling its refusal to capitulate to Russia and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.[1] Russia may also have suffered a setback in its efforts to garner international reconstruction funds for Syria. The Kremlin stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely not attend a planned quadrilateral summit on refugee resettlement in Syria with Turkey, France, and Germany.[2] German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron likely pressured Erdogan to postpone the summit in recent days.[3] Russian media nonetheless messaged that Erdogan and Putin could hold a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of a trilateral summit between Russia, Iran, and Turkey during the first week of September.[4] Putin likely prioritizes mediation between Erdogan and Assad over a pro-regime offensive against Turkey in Idlib Province. The Kremlin may nonetheless be forced to lessen its coordination with Turkey in the face of continued calls for military action by Assad. The Kremlin retains its strategic objective to leverage defense, diplomatic, and economic ties with Turkey - including recent sanctions by the U.S. on Turkey - as a wedge to ultimately weaken and fracture NATO.

Russia exerted its growing influence within the Russo-Iranian Coalition to extract concessions from Iran in the Caspian Sea. Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan signed a Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea on August 12. The Convention formally defines the region as a “sea” under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea - terms that Iran had previously rejected as limiting its offshore energy exploration rights. Iran may have conceded to a reduced share of these reserves in exchange for economic incentives from Russia. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated that Iran received unspecified “special privileges” for signing the convention amidst criticism from hardline rivals.[5] These privileges likely included investment opportunities in key river port cities in Russia leading to the Caspian Sea.[6] Russia and Iran have already been engaged on a regional transport and logistics strategy for the Caspian Sea since 2017.[7] The concessions nonetheless grant Russia greater leverage over Iran in the Russo-Iranian Coalition

The Kremlin set conditions to protect its long-term control over Belarus. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko may be preparing for a near-term departure from power, creating uncertain political dynamics that could threaten the traditional influence of Russia in Belarus. Lukashenko reshuffled top government officials on August 18 amidst signs that he is considering wider changes to the ruling power structure including alterations to the Belarusian Constitution.[8] The Kremlin may threaten to withhold economic support to Belarus in order to ensure that any political reforms protect the privileged position of Russia in Belarus. The Kremlin is considering a freeze on future tranches of a $2 billion aid package to Belarus as well as a halt to negotiations over a new $1 billion intergovernmental loan. Russia will also reportedly limit exports of refined oil products to Belarus starting on September 1. Belarus has substantially increased its own resale of refined products from Russia to the EU (including Poland and Germany) since 2017. The Kremlin previously signaled its growing concern over Belarus with the appointment of Mikhail Babich - a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin - as the new Russian Ambassador to Belarus on July 20. The Kremlin identifies Belarus as an integral component of its sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union. Russia will likely take more aggressive measures including military posturing and covert operations if it perceives any increased cooperation between Belarus and the West. 

What to Watch

The Kremlin may soften a controversial pension reform bill to quell domestic discontent. The bill - which would raise the formal retirement age close to average life expectancy - has driven widespread protests across Russia. Russian officials are reportedly considering an amendment that would allow pensioners to receive tax exemptions and subsidies at the current pension age despite the higher retirement age.[9] The Kremlin may be floating this proposed amendment to deter citizens from signing petitions that could force a public and potentially embarrassing referendum on the bill. 

The U.S. intends to reaffirm its support for Ukraine ahead of a high-level meeting between the U.S. and Russia in Geneva. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton will travel to Ukraine for Ukrainian Independence Day on August 24 before a meeting with Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev in late August 2018. A White House official confirmed that the high-level talks are a follow-up to the July 16 Helsinki Summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The discussion will reportedly focus on arms control as well as Iran in Syria, according to the White House. It may also set conditions for a potential second summit between Trump and Putin in early 2019. 



[1] “No ground attack by the Syrian regime and observation posts will never withdraw, Turkish military base for dignitaries of Idlib & Hama,” Syria Call, August 15, 2018, http://nedaa-sy(.)com/en/news/7886 ; Leith Aboufadel, “Syrian military sends more reinforcements to northern Hama for upcoming offensive,” Al-Masdar, August 13, 2018, https://mobile(.)almasdarnews.com/article/syrian-military-sends-more-reinforcements-to-northern-hama-for-upcoming-offensive/

[2] “Putin, Erdogan May Hold Bilateral Meeting in Tehran – Reports,” Sputnik, August 17, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201808171067257313-putin-erdogan-bilateral-meeting-tehran/

[3] [“No: 213, 10 August 2018, Press release regarding the visit of Foreign Minıster of Russian Federation H. E. Mr. Sergei Lavrov to Turkey,”] Turkish Foreign Ministry, August 10, 2018, http://www.mfa(.)gov.tr/no_-213_-rf-disisleri-bakani-nin-buyukelciler-konferansi-kapsaminda-ziyareti.tr.mfa ; “Turkish, French presidents discuss economic ties,” AA, August 16, 2018, https://www.aa(.)com.tr/en/todays-headlines/turkish-french-presidents-discuss-economic-ties/1233259

[4] “Putin, Erdogan May Hold Bilateral Meeting in Tehran – Reports,” Sputnik, August 17, 2018, https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201808171067257313-putin-erdogan-bilateral-meeting-tehran/

[5] “Iran received special privileges in Caspian Sea Convention: Pres. Rouhani,” Mehr News, August 15, 2018, https://en(.)mehrnews.com/news/136792/Iran-received-special-privileges-in-Caspian-Sea-Convention-Pres ; [“Caspian, Iran share and historical right: all percentages,”] Shafaqna, https://fa.shafaqna.com/news/613257/

[6] “Russia’s lower house to develop business ties with Iran through parliamentary dimension,” TASS, April 9, 2018, http://tass(.)com/politics/998469

[7] “Russia-Iran Business Council Welcome to Engage in Caspian Hub Project – Official,” Sputnik, January 19, 2017, https://sputniknews(.)com/business/201701191049748013-russia-iran-caspian-hub-project/

[8] “Belarus president wants proposals on replacing central government officials,” Belarus News, August 14, 2018, http://eng.belta(.)by/president/view/belarus-president-wants-proposals-on-replacing-central-government-officials-113991-2018/

[9] “Russian officials reportedly explore possibility of preserving some retirement benefits, as pension age is set to rise,” Meduza, August 15, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/en/news/2018/08/15/russian-officials-reportedly-explore-possibility-of-preserving-some-retirement-benefits-as-pension-age-is-set-to-rise

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Syria Situation Report: July 28 - August 5, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period July 28 - August 5, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the map is accurate as of August 5, 2018. See the previous period's SITREP Map here.



Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Russia in Review: August 7-13, 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

Reporting Period: August 7-13, 2018

Authors: Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses

Contributors: Molly Adler, Mason Clark, Nicole Geis, Chase Johnson, Maxim Yulis

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is maneuvering from a position of internal weakness as it seeks to compromise U.S. interests and strengthen Russia as a leading global power. A proposed pension reform bill has fueled large-scale protests across Russia, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to backpedal and creating tension within the Kremlin. The protest movement will not likely affect Putin’s grip on power but will require his attention. Meanwhile Israel and the UN de facto advanced Russia’s objective to supplant the U.S. and UN as the principal peace brokers in conflicts in which it is an active belligerent. Russia also persuaded several European states to support its reconstruction efforts in Syria - part of its wider campaign to access international funds and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies in the EU and NATO.

The Kremlin failed to anticipate the scale of public backlash against a controversial pension reform bill and is adjusting its approach to quell discontent. Protests against the bill began earlier this summer but expanded to their largest scale thus far on July 28, prompting a legislative recalibration by the Kremlin. The proposed bill would save the Kremlin around $27.3 billion per year by raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and 55 to 63 for women. These ages are very close to average life expectancy in Russia, which is 67 for men and 77 for women. Life expectancy is even lower for Russians in most regions outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The new law means that more men will die before they are eligible to collect their pensions. Russia’s Central Electoral Commission approved opposition-led efforts to attempt to hold a referendum on the bill.[1] The Kremlin may be using the promise of an upcoming vote to disincentivize future protests. Opposition parties must nonetheless meet strict requirements to advance the referendum. The Kremlin likely will not rig the results as public polling shows that the current bill is opposed by 89% of Russians.[2] The Kremlin may alternatively be able to delay or amend the legislation because the current and forecasted price of oil is higher than expected in its federal budget. The budget assumes $44 barrel per day (bpd) and breaks even at $60 bpd. Oil prices are currently holding near $72 bpd and not expected to significantly fluctuate in the near-term. The Kremlin may still hold the referendum and subsequently water-down or cancel the bill in order to reinforce the perception that it engages in democratic processes and remains responsive to ordinary Russians.

Russia has acquired support for its reconstruction initiatives in Syria from some member-states of the EU and NATO despite opposition from the U.S. Russia launched a large-scale diplomatic campaign to generate support for its reconstruction efforts in Syria. The Kremlin has attempted to link reconstruction to refugee resettlement - a key concern of the EU. France and Russia conducted joint humanitarian aid deliveries outside Damascus on July 21. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov met German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss humanitarian efforts in Syria on July 24. Russian officials claimed that Japan expressed interest in supporting reconstruction efforts in Damascus and Homs City on August 3.[3] Russian media also claimed that Belgium may coordinate air support for refugee resettlement to Syria on August 7.[4] The Kremlin may seek to either draw the U.S. into this initiative or leverage its lack of participation to drive a wedge between the U.S. and EU over Syria. Turkey also announced a summit on Syria with Russia, Germany, and France on September 7. Turkey is likely attempting to redirect financial aid from the EU totaling three billion euros towards its own efforts to resettle Syrians in enclaves held by Turkey in Northern Syria. Russia may be attempting to gain access to a portion of these funds through its reconstruction initiative in Syria.

Israel and the UN tacitly endorsed peacekeeping operations by Russia in Syria, setting a dangerous precedent for similar engagement by Russia in Ukraine. Russian Military Police began joint patrols with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights Border on August 2.[5] Russia will reportedly occupy eight temporary observation posts along the Golan Heights ahead of their eventual transfer to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia does not intend to perform a true peacekeeping function but rather intends to posture as a peacekeeper in order to garner international legitimacy and shape post-conflict negotiations over Syria. The Kremlin likely used this influence to convince Israel to quietly acquiesce to a tactical deal that relies upon Russia to enforce an eighty-five kilometer exclusion zone for Iran along the Golan Heights, though Israel continues to publicly reaffirm its strong stance against any military presence for Iran in Syria. Iran and its proxies likely will nonetheless accompany the return of regime security forces to the Golan Heights, escalating tensions between Israel and Iran. Joint peacekeeping operations between Russia and the UN along the Golan Heights may strengthen the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to subordinate the UN-led Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War to the rival Astana Talks led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The Kremlin could execute a similar diplomatic maneuver in Ukraine. Russia is actively attempting to coopt a possible peacekeeping mission by the UN in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. Russia is a belligerent actor in both conflicts but simultaneously aims to lead peacebuilding efforts that will ultimately advance its strategic objectives.

What to Watch

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is tightening his control over the media in Belarus. Belarusian authorities in recent weeks intensified a campaign of fines and arrests targeting independent journalists critical of Lukashenko. Belarus amended its media laws - citing the alleged need to block fake news - in June 2018. The amendments provide the government wide latitude to prosecute individuals it deems are spreading false information. Lukashenko may be implementing tighter control over the media at this time to strengthen his monopoly over the information space ahead of possible discussions to alter the Belarusian Constitution.

The Kremlin created a new organization intended to increase its influence over Kurds in the Middle East. Russia established the International Federation of Kurdish Communities in Moscow on August 4. Russian Envoy to the Middle East and North Africa Mikhail Bogdanov later met a delegation from the group on August 6 to discuss key issues in the Middle East with a focus on Iraq and Syria.[6] The Kremlin may intend to leverage this group to posture as a regional ally of the Kurds and create a diplomatic avenue through which to increase its long-term influence in the Middle East.

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[1] Elizabeth Antonovna, [“Questions for the referendum: what did the CEC allow to ask about the retirement age,”] RBC, August 8, 2018, https://www(.)rbc.ru/politics/08/08/2018/5b6aa7f99a794771fb41d854?from=newsfeed

[2] [“Pension Reform,”] Levada Center, May 7, 2018, https://www(.)levada.ru/2018/07/05/pensionnaya-reforma-3/

[3] “Japan ready to build schools and hospitals in Syria — Russian Defense Ministry,” TASS, August 3, 2018, https://tass(.)com/defense/1015969

[4] “Belgium may organize air service for returning Syrian refugees,” TASS, August 7, 2018, https://tass(.)com/world/1016329

[5] Charles Bybelezer, “Russia: Israel Agrees To Removal Of Iranian Forces 85 Kilometers From Golan Heights Border,” The Media Line, August 2, 2018, http://www(.)themedialine.org/mideast-daily-news/russia-israel-agrees-to-removal-of-iranian-forces-85-kilometers-from-golan-heights-border/

[6] “Press release on Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s meeting with a delegation from the International Federation of Kurdish Communities,” Russian MFA, August 6, 2018, http://www(.)mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3314836