Friday, September 14, 2018

Russia in Review: August 28 - September 13, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

What to Watch

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

Syria Situation Report: August 28 - September 12, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

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

Friday, September 7, 2018

Syria Situation Report: August 6 - 28, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This set of graphics marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The two maps depict significant developments in the war in Syria during the periods August 6-16 and August 16-28, 2018.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Intra Shi'a Civil War Begins in Iraq

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

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


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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

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

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

Special Topic Update: The Balkans

Authors: Catherine Harris, Jack Ulses, and Chase Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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