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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Russia-Turkey Deal Fails to Compel YPG Withdrawal from Northern Syria: October 31, 2019 Map


Key Takeaway: Russia has failed to compel the withdrawal of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the areas subject to the 22 OCT Russo-Turkish agreement on Northeastern Syria. The 22 OCT agreement requires the YPG to withdraw 30 km from the Turkish border. YPG forces did withdraw from a few locations but even those withdrawals exploited a loophole: they left behind Kurdish internal security forces not technically subject to the agreement. Russia is now conducting joint patrols with those Kurdish forces west of Qamishli after falsely claiming the full YPG withdrawal from the zone per the agreement. Meanwhile, Turkish-backed forces have continued to push south and east against the YPG and regime forces that deployed to support the YPG. Finally, US forces conducted a separate joint patrol with Kurdish internal security forces east of Qamishli.


Click the image to view an enlarged version of the map.

Note: This map was updated on November 7, 2019 to reflect an adjustment to the assessed ISIS support zone leading towards Qamishli. Previous versions had the support zone connecting to Amude. 




Iraq Situation Report: October 25 - 28, 2019


Street protests rooted in popular discontent and a harsh government response have embroiled Iraq in a crisis since early October 2019. The protesters – largely though not exclusively from Iraq’s Shi’a communities in Baghdad and southern Iraq – are airing growing frustrations over the Iraqi government’s failure to enact reforms and deliver basic services, a lack of economic opportunities, and the Iranian regime’s deepening control over the Iraqi state.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. This SITREP update covers the period October 25 - 28, 2019. 


Key Takeaway: Mass protests resumed in Baghdad and southern Iraq on October 25 and continued to grow in scale despite government concessions. Nationalist Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr warned that a civil war may occur if Iraqi Prime Minster Adel Abdel Mehdi does not resign. Sadr’s political party then submitted a request to Iraqi President Barham Saleh to hold a vote of no-confidence in the Iraqi parliament to dismiss Mehdi.

Click on the image to enlarge the map.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Baghdadi Leaves Behind a Global ISIS Threat


By Jennifer Cafarella and Brandon Wallace with Caitlin Forrest

Key Takeaway: ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has left behind a capable global organization that continued to expand despite the group’s loss of its territorial caliphate in March 2019. ISIS added four new provinces to its self-declared caliphate between April-May 2019: Central Africa, Turkey, India, and Pakistan. ISIS’s global expansion was sufficiently entrenched at the time of Baghdadi’s death such that a successor will likely be able to sustain much of ISIS’s global operations. Dangerous possibilities include a new collaboration between ISIS and al Qaeda to launch attacks in the West.

A U.S. special operations raid killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi on October 26, 2019 in Northwest Syria.[1] Baghdadi’s death is a major symbolic blow to ISIS that could also disrupt its operations. ISIS’s global expansion was sufficiently entrenched at the time of Baghdadi’s death. A successor to Baghdadi will likely be able to sustain much of ISIS’s global operations, however. Dangerous possibilities include a new collaboration between ISIS and al Qaeda to launch attacks in the West.

Baghdadi made ISIS’s global expansion the focus of its 2019 campaign before his death. Baghdadi released his second and final video on April 29, 2019.[2] Baghdadi used the video to highlight ISIS’s expanding global campaign and dismiss its losses in Iraq and Syria. He presented himself as the field commander of a global jihad. He praised ISIS’s global expansion and its devastating attacks abroad, emphasizing the 2019 Sri Lanka Easter Day bombings.[3] The video sent a message to his followers that the creation and subsequent defense of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria enabled a global surge toward the Salafi-jihadist end state of a single, political-religious body ruling over all ‘Muslim lands.’


The ISIS global organization at the time of Baghdadi’s death includes 14 provinces, all of which publicly renewed their pledges of allegiance to him after his April 2019 video. ISIS had added four new provinces in 2019: Central Africa, India, Pakistan, and Turkey (a province which has likely existed in practice for years).[4] ISIS also simplified and reorganized many of its provinces as it recovered from its losses in Iraq and Syria. Some of ISIS’s provinces had gone dormant, indicating either (or both) the success of anti-ISIS operations or ISIS’s deprioritization of those provinces. The following graphic shows the active and dormant ISIS provinces at the time of Baghdadi’s death.


ISIS’s global presence provides footholds from which to further metastasize, launch attacks, and gain resources to fund its resurgence in Iraq and Syria. The UN counter-terrorism committee warned in late July 2019 that ISIS is working to “reinvest in the capacity to direct and facilitate complex international attacks.”[5] At least four of ISIS’s provinces abroad have already enabled ISIS attack plots in the West to date. ISIS used its province in Afghanistan to direct attack efforts in the U.S. as early as 2016 and its province in Libya to support attacks in Europe in 2017.[6] ISIS’s newer province in Somalia was linked to at least one attack plot in Italy in 2018.[7] ISIS’s province in the Philippines also attempted to direct an attack in the U.K. in 2018.[8] ISIS’s provinces abroad are also funneling resources into ISIS’s resurgent campaign in Iraq and Syria.[9] The retention of even some of these global provinces will make ISIS an enduring threat to the West.

Baghdadi’s death could be a turning point in the relationship between ISIS and al Qaeda. ISIS may now be vulnerable to a renewed push by al Qaeda to reclaim leadership of the global jihadist movement. Al Qaeda will likely attempt to siphon local support and recruits away from ISIS affiliates abroad. For example, al Qaeda affiliates in South Asia and Africa have competed fiercely with ISIS for local support and may experience new success.

A jihadist merger may yet occur, however. Baghdadi’s refusal to accept mediation of his quarrel with al Qaeda precluded greater cooperation between the groups after 2014. His successor may be more willing to consider a unification, even a limited and pragmatic one. Baghdadi’s location in Syria’s al Qaeda-dominated Idlib Province could indicate that even he had begun to reconsider a collaborative relationship with al Qaeda. Baghdadi’s death is certainly an important victory in the fight against jihadist terror, but that fight is far from over. 



Note on ISIS Sanctuary Map: This map was updated on November 7, 2019 to reflect an adjustment to the assessed ISIS support zone leading towards Qamishli. Previous versions had the support zone connecting to Amude. 


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[1] Maegan Vazquez, Zachary Cohen and Kevin Liptak, “President Trump: ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead,” CNN, October 27, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/27/politics/isis-abu-bakr-al-baghdadi-operation-donald-trump/index.html.
[2] Jennifer Cafarella with Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, July 23, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/isiss-second-comeback-assessing-next-isis-insurgency.
[3] Brandon Wallace with Jennifer Cafarella, “ISIS Reasserts Global Reach for Ramadan 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, May 1, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/05/isis-reasserts-global-reach-for-ramadan.html.
[4] Robert Postings, “ISIS announces new India and Pakistan provinces, casually breaking up Khorasan,” Defense Post, May 15, 2019, https://thedefensepost.com/2019/05/15/islamic-state-pakistan-province-al-hind/.
[5] Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate and the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,
“Ninth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” United Nations Security Council, July 31, 2019, https://undocs.org/S/2019/612.
[6] Jennifer Cafarella and Caitlin Forrest with Charles Aubin, “ISIS Plotting Attacks from Afghanistan,” Institute for the Study of War, November 17, 2017, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/isis-plotting-attacks-afghanistan; Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt, “Manchester Bomber Met With ISIS Unit in Libya, Officials Say,” New York Times, June 3, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/03/world/middleeast/manchester-bombing-salman-abedi-islamic-state-libya.html.
[7] [“Terrorism, the 20-year-old arrested in Bari planned an attack on St. Peter's for Christmas: "Let's put bombs in churches,"] la Repubblica, December 17, 2018, https://bari.repubblica.it/cronaca/2018/12/17/news/bari_convalidato_il_fermo_del_20enne_somalo_accusato_di_terrorismo-214449051/?refresh_ce.
[8] The attack plotter was arrested in April 2018. ISIS officially declared its province in the Philippines in July 2018. Daniel de Simone, “Lewis Ludlow: How the Oxford Street terror plotter was caught,” BBC, March 6, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-47458354.
[9] Jennifer Cafarella with Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, July 23, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/isiss-second-comeback-assessing-next-isis-insurgency.





Friday, October 25, 2019

Iraq's Shi'a Protests Resume: Interim Summary

By Samantha Leathley with Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: Mass protests resumed in Iraq on Friday, October 25 across Baghdad and multiple Shi’a-majority provinces. Protesters in multiple provincial capitals set fire to political party offices, demonstrating their frustration with the Iraqi government despite its attempts to dampen protests through concessions. Protesters also chanted anti-Iran slogans in multiple provinces and torched the local headquarters of Iranian proxy militias. At least one Iranian proxy, Asai’b Ahl Al Haq (AAH), opened fire on protesters in Maysan Province. Iraq’s highest religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, warned of the potential for foreign intervention in Iraq in his Friday sermon in an indirect reference to Iran. Sistani called for protesters and security forces to remain nonviolent.

Baghdad

Popular protests resumed in the late evening of October 24 in Tahrir Square and near Baghdad’s Green Zone, and spread on October 25. Protesters called for an overthrow of the Iraqi government, chanted anti-Iran slogans, and attempted to enter the Green Zone by removing barriers. Unspecified security forces including masked, black-clad forces repelled demonstrators from the Green Zone by firing tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets into the crowd, killing two and wounding over 60 people. Some reports claim that security forces fired live warning shots.

A contingent of populist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia, Saraya al-Salam, is participating in Baghdad demonstrations unarmed, wearing white clothing. Armed Saraya al-Salam forces also deployed to Tahrir Square and Sadr City before the protests began and may still be present. Sadr previously ordered his militia to defend protesters against violence by security forces.



Dhi Qar

Approximately 3,000 demonstrators in the Dhi Qar provincial capital of Nasiriyah broke into and set fire to the Dhi Qar provincial council building, the governor’s office, the department of political prisoners, and the local headquarters of Iranian proxy Katai’b Hezbollah. Demonstrators also chanted anti-Iran slogans. Unconfirmed reports indicate security forces killed at least five demonstrators. It is unclear whether they used live ammunition.

Maysan

“Thousands” of protesters in the Maysan provincial capital of Amara set fire to the local Dawa Party headquarters and attempted to do the same to the local headquarters of the Iranian proxy Asai’b Ahl Al Haq (AAH). Multiple reports indicate AAH opened fire on protesters in response.

Muthanna

Protesters in the Muthanna provincial capital of Samawah stormed the provincial council building and burned the local headquarters of the independent High Electoral Commission, Dawa Party, National Wisdom Trend, Iranian proxy Badr Organization, AAH, and others. The number of targets in Muthanna could indicate demonstrations in Muthanna are more organized than demonstrations in other provinces.

Wasit

Protesters in the Wasit provincial capital of Kut burned the local headquarters of the Dawa Party and the Iranian proxy militia Saraya al-Khorasani.

Basra

Protesters have burned unspecified buildings near the center of government in Basra City. Unknown militants reportedly conducted a grenade attack on the Basra Provincial Headquarters building. Unspecified security reinforcements have deployed to the Basra government headquarters.

Babil

Protesters burned the office of a parliament member, and the local headquarters of political parties to include the Reform Trend and State of Law coalition. Demonstrators reportedly ‘stormed’ the offices of the Basha’ir Movement and attacked the home of Raed al-Jubouri, the Babil provincial council chairman who recently resigned after evidence surfaced that he authorized use of force against protesters. Demonstrators also reportedly stormed the headquarters of AAH and the Virtue Party.

Other Provinces

Demonstrations have also resumed in Najaf, Qadisiyah, and Karbala provinces, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.

Grand Ayatollah Sistani issued new requirements for the Iraqi government to hold security forces responsible for violence against protesters accountable and called for non-violence amidst renewed protests. Sistani released a sermon via proxy on October 25. Sistani stated that the Iraqi government’s investigation into security forces’ violence against demonstrators was insufficient, and issued the Iraqi government a new requirement of forming an independent judicial committee and amending the election law to restore Iraqi citizens’ confidence in the Iraqi government. Sistani warned that violence and counter-violence could allow external actors to ‘settle scores’ in Iraq. Sistani claimed that ‘real reform’ can only be obtained peacefully. Sistani did not include a deadline for this requirement as he did in his prior October 11 sermon. Sistani may have tempered his new statement to avoid both inflaming protests and provoking a security force crackdown. Sistani’s call for non-violent protests is unlikely to dampen them. Unverified video footage of Najaf demonstrations show protesters chanting “listen to the voice of Najaf, forget the voice of Friday lectures,” a dismissal of Ayatollah al-Sistani.

U.S. Government organizations and American media outlets may request the sources for this assessment by e-mailing press@understandingwar.org.

Iraq Situation Report: October 22 - 24, 2019


Street protests rooted in popular discontent and a harsh government response have embroiled Iraq in a crisis since early October 2019. The protesters – largely though not exclusively from Iraq’s Shi’a communities in Baghdad and southern Iraq – are airing growing frustrations over the Iraqi government’s failure to enact reforms and deliver basic services, a lack of economic opportunities, and the Iranian regime’s deepening control over the Iraqi state.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. This SITREP update covers the period October 22 - 24, 2019. 



Turkey's Invasion Will Destabilize Northeast Syria


Key Takeaway: Turkey will not enhance its security through its invasion and occupation of Northeast Syria. The Turkish military lacks the operational reach and tolerance for military casualties required to fill the gap left by Syrian Kurdish-led forces. An assortment of militants will rush into the vacuum, posing both near- and long-term threats to the former protector of NATO’s southern flank. Turkey’s presence in Syria will not eliminate the threat of Kurdish-backed terrorism inside Turkey.

Turkey has limited the extent of its most recent invasion of Syrian territory to mitigate its lack of operational reach. The Russian-Turkish agreement achieved on October 22 calls for Syrian Kurdish fighters to move over 20 miles from the Turkish border.[1] However, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will only operate around six miles from the border.[2] Turkey accepted this deal with Russia precisely because Turkey does not have the operational reach to do it alone.

Neither Russia nor Turkey has pledged sufficient professional military forces to fill the security gap their agreement has created. Both states appear reluctant to deploy large military formations. Russia prioritizes safeguarding its military bases in Syria’s coastal provinces along the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey may have to secure its Kurdish-populated Southeastern provinces against local unrest.[3] Russia may have to deploy more military police to Syria or shift currently deployed forces away from the Syrian coast to execute this operation in the east.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is using unreliable proxy forces in Syria because his ambitions exceed his current capacity, especially regarding logistics. Erdogan relies on brutal Syrian Opposition forces with extremist ties to avoid Turkish military casualties, especially after Erdogan’s extensive military purges. [4] A key Turkish proxy, Ahrar al-Sharqiyah, filmed summary executions of bound Kurdish captives and assassinated female Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf on October 12.[5] Ahrar al-Sharqiyah began as part of the Salafi-jihadist group, Ahrar al-Sham, and has previously allied with al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay’at Tahrir al Sham).[6] Turkey’s reliance on extremist proxies for short-term convenience risks longer-term consequences, especially with proxies that routinely reflag and switch sides.

The casualties Erdogan seeks to avoid are inevitable. Kurdish fighters beyond the People’s Protection Units (YPG) will oppose Turkey’s most recent invasion, just as they are doing in Afrin.[7] Russian-Turkish joint patrols will become improvised explosive device (IED) magnets. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has pledged support to any group that joins the counter-occupation effort.[8] Turkey will have difficulty defending itself amidst complex battlefield dynamics. All sides will take casualties.

A multi-sided war will unfold in Eastern Syria. Kurdish forces will withdraw from Turkish range to survive and regroup. Turkish-backed proxies will pursue the fleeing Kurds. ISIS militants will return to lost territory.[9] Russian mercenaries and Iranian proxies may move to seize oil resources. Stability will not spontaneously emerge in this security vacuum. Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring” will make Northeast Syria anything but safe.

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[1] John Dunford, “Crisis Brief: Significance of the Turkey-Russia Meeting on Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, October 25, 2019, https://soundcloud.com/iswoverwatch/crisis-brief-significance-of.
[2] Carlotta Gal and Patrick Kingsley, “Turkey Halts Syrian Incursion, Hours After Deal with Russia,” The New York Times, October 23, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/23/world/middleeast/turkey-russia-syria.html.
[3] Umit Ozdal, “Turkey Ousts Three Kurdish Mayors for Suspected Militant Links, Launches Security Operation,” Reuters, August 19, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-kurds/turkey-ousts-three-kurdish-mayors-for-suspected-militant-links-launches-security-operation-idUSKCN1V90A8.
[4] Sarah el Deeb and Joseph Krauss, “Money, Hatred for the Kurds Drives Turkey’s Syrian fighters,” Associated Press, October 15, 2019, https://www.apnews.com/7386b1149d2642afb3258e3d07d167dc; Peter Muller and Maximilian Popp, “Purges Have Weakened the Once Mighty Turkish Military,”Spiegel Online, January 18, 2017, https://www.spiegel.de/international/world/purges-have-weakened-once-mighty-turkish-military-a-1130494.html.
[5] “Syria War: Executions Condemned As Violence Continues ‘On Both Sides’ of Border with Turkey, UN News, October 15, 2019, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/10/1049241.
[6] Enab Balai, “Ahrar al-Sharquiya Brigade”: The Potential Spearhead of East of Euphrates Battles, November 11, 2018, https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2018/11/ahrar-al-sharqiya-brigade-the-potential-spearhead-of-east-of-euphrates-battles; Jennifer Cafarella and Genevieve Casagrande, “Syrian Opposition Guide”, Institute for the Study of War, October 7, 2015, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/Syrian%20Opposition%20Guide_0.pdf.
[7] Amberin Zaman, Turkey faces growing Kurdish insurgency in Syria’s Afrin, March 4, 2019, Al Monitor, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/03/afrin-human-rights-turkey-fsa-war-crimes.html; Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella, “Turkey Escalates Against Pro-Assad Forces to Protect Afrin Operation,” Institute for the Study of War, January 30, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/turkey-escalates-against-pro-assad-forces-protect-afrin-operation.
[8] Tom O’Connor, Syria’s Assad Visits War Zone, Is ‘Ready to Support Any Troup That Resists’ Turkey, October 22, 2019, Newsweek, https://www.newsweek.com/syria-assad-war-zone-support-resists-1466980.
[9] Jennifer Cafarella, Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, July 23, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/report/isiss-second-comeback-assessing-next-isis-insurgency

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Iran Pushes Iraq to the Brink

By Samantha Leathley

Protests have restarted in Iraq as of late evening on October 24, 2019 and are likely to escalate violently. This renewed backlash against governance failures, Iran’s influence, and a heavy-handed Iraqi government response to discontent marks a new phase of the unrest that erupted in early October 2019.

Iran and its proxies are pursuing a military and informational campaign to establish mechanisms for long-term population control in Iraq. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) previously warned that Iran had likely intervened to help suppress popular protests in Iraq between October 1 - 8. A diplomatic source has since confirmed that Iran deployed Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) advisers to help suppress Iraq’s protests.[1] Iran broadened this effort to prepare for a prolonged repression of Iraq’s Shi’a southern region to prevent further Shi’a-majority mass protests.[2] Iran has amassed significant influence over Iraq’s civilian government and security institutions; it views a Shi’a popular revolt against Baghdad as an existential threat. Meanwhile, Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, issued a sermon on October 11 holding the Iraqi government responsible for the violence that security forces and ‘extralegal militias’ inflicted on protesters. Sistani issued the Iraqi government an October 25 deadline to identify, arrest, and punish the forces responsible for violence.[3] Sistani’s sermon challenged Iran’s intervention in Iraq by singling out ‘extralegal militias’ – an indirect reference to Iran’s proxies – and by calling for greater accountability within a weak Iraqi government that is amenable to Iran’s influence and which Iran seeks to protect. Sistani therefore introduced a second source of Shi’a opposition to Iran, heightening Iran’s perception that it may face an existential threat.

Military

Iran’s IRGC advised elements within the Iraqi government during its initial crackdown on protests. Iran is now likely advising Iraqi efforts to establish a new law enforcement force to suppress future protests. IRGC commanders traveled to Iraq shortly after the first wave of protests began in order to share intelligence with and advise unidentified elements within the Iraqi government.[4] Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi announced that the Iraqi government expedited the creation of a new Iraqi Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) on October 14 to replace Iraq’s riot police within the Ministry of Interior (MOI).[5] The MOI has not begun integrating the riot police into the LEA. Falih al-Fayyadh, the Iran-friendly National Security Advisor and Chairman of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Commission (PMC), reportedly spearheaded this initiative.[6] The MOI then announced the reactivation of personnel whose contracts were dissolved in 2008 for security reasons, when the MOI was purged of militia members.[7] The Badr Organization, a leading Iranian proxy in Iraq, has thoroughly penetrated the MOI.[8] Former MOI Operations Director Abdul Karim Khalaf may lead the LEA, according to an Iraqi parliament member.[9]

Iran may now be preparing to use its own Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) to advise and assist the new Iraqi unit. An Iranian LEF commander announced the deployment of 11,500 LEF forces to the Iraqi border to protect the Arba’een pilgrims on October 8.[10] Iran has also deployed additional IRGC Quds Force personnel to Iraq, according to an IRGC brigadier general’s October 10 statement.[11] Similarities between the Iranian LEF’s mandate and the LEA’s role suggest LEF elements may train and advise the new LEA, alongside the IRGC advisers already assisting the Iraqi government. The Iranian LEF was the first Iranian force deployed to Syria in 2011 to advise the Bashar al-Assad regime in its violent suppression of anti-regime protests.[12]

Sistani broke from his historical ‘quietist’ tradition in his October 11 sermon.[13] Sistani challenged Iran-backed militias and the weak Iraqi government. In response, the Iraqi government opened an investigation into security forces on October 11, but the committee’s final report fell short of Sistani’s demands.[14] The report fails to hold Iran’s known proxies or ‘extralegal militias’ responsible for killing protesters. It instead recommended the dismissal of a series of police and army commanders.[15] The Iraqi government’s failure to meet Sistani’s demands could prompt Sistani to redouble his pressure on the Iraqi government, further threatening Iran’s interests. Sistani, by intensifying his stance against Iran, could heighten Iran’s perception of his behavior as an existential threat, even if this is not Sistani’s intent.

Information Operations

Iran is using disinformation to avoid an intra-Shi’a civil war galvanizing the ‘Shi’a Street’ (demonstrators) and the Iraqi Shi’a religious establishment (Sistani). This disinformation campaign could allow Iran to legitimize LEA violence and population control against any future anti-government demonstrations and to retain Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) as a lethal tool to crush dissent.

Iran claims falsely the Shi’a-majority mass protests in Iraq are backed by foreign actors. In his first public comments on the Iraq protests, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated that the protests were meant to sow divisions between the Iranian and Iraqi people on October 6.[16] Other Iranian leaders and Iran’s proxy leaders in Iraq followed suit, characterizing the popular protests as “sedition.” IRGC Spokesman Brig. Gen. Ramezan Sharif stated on October 10 that the unrest in Iraq is a conspiracy to disrupt unity between Iranians and Iraqis, referring to Iraq’s demonstrations.[17] PMC Chairman Fayyadh later accused the U.S. and Israel of inciting Iraq’s protests to overthrow the Iraqi government on October 15.[18]

Iran’s proxies have claimed innocence regarding violence against protesters. Qais al-Khazali, commander of the Iranian proxy Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), stated on October 10 that “foreign security companies” were responsible for sniping Iraqi demonstrators.[19] Iranian proxies then sought to sidestep Sistani’s October 11 sermon with a rhetorical campaign redirecting blame for killing demonstrators away from Iranian proxies. Khazali took to Twitter on October 14 to urge the Iraqi government’s committee responsible for investigating lethal force against protesters to be “impartial.” In the same tweet, Khazali equated any interpretation of Sistani’s October 11 sermon that implicates the Iranian-influenced PMF in killing demonstrators with “sedition.”[20] Khazali’s use of the word ‘sedition’ to invalidate such interpretations mirrors Iranian officials’ earlier condemnation of the protests. Ali al-Yasiri, leader of an Iran-backed militia accused of violently suppressing demonstrations, adopted Khazali’s narrative on October 15.[21] Yasiri accused unspecified “enemies of Iraq” of sniping demonstrators.[22]

Iran Faces a Renewed Challenge

Iran is facing renewed backlash from the ‘Shi’a Street’ and the Shi’a religious establishment as the two appear poised to converge imminently. Multiple Iraqi newspapers report that political activists plan to resume protests across southern Iraq on Friday, October 25, when Sistani’s deadline expires. The Iraqi government’s failure to meet Sistani’s demands could confirm protesters’ fears about Iranian intervention in Iraq and inflame protests. Sistani is likely to issue a Friday sermon addressing the government’s performance, intensifying Sistani’s confrontation with Iran. Separately, a Facebook account affiliated with Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr released a statement supporting protesters planning to demonstrate on October 25, arguing that the Iraqi government is corrupt and beyond reform.[23] The same account called on Sadr’s political wing, Sadr’s militia, and Sadr’s popular base to “prepare” for October 25 and stated that Sadr’s militia will defend demonstrators on October 24.[24] Sadr likely did not organize or lead the first wave of October protests, and Sadr is unlikely to lead the upcoming protests. However, Sadr’s appeal to Shi’a-majority demonstrators and his preparations to mobilize on October 25 could magnify popular protests and increase the risk of intra-Shi’a conflict between the Iraqi government, Iran’s proxies, and the ‘Shia Street.’ Therefore, the Iraqi government – and Iran – may face a combined challenge from Sistani, Shi’a demonstrators, and Sadr on October 25. In the most dangerous scenario, these various escalations could trigger an intra-Shi’a war.

The author would like to thank the Iran Team at the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute for its analytical contributions to this publication. 

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[1] “Exclusive: Iran-backed militias deployed snipers in Iraq protests-sources”, Reuters, 17 October 2019, https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKBN1WW0BI
[2] “Crisis Brief: the Risk of an Iranian Military Response in Iraq”, Institute for the Study of War Overwatch, 9 October 2019, https://soundcloud.com/iswoverwatch/crisis-brief-the-risk-of-an
[3] “Friday Sermon (the second)”, Karbala Satellite Channel YouTube, 11 October 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DxdwcXIoSc
[4] “Exclusive: Iran-backed militias deployed snipers in Iraq protests-sources”, Reuters, 17 October 2019, https://af.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idAFKBN1WW0BI
[5] “The National Security Council holds an extraordinary session under the chairmanship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Adel Abdul Mahdi”, Iraqi Prime Minister Facebook Page, 14 October 2019, https://www.facebook.com/Adil.Abd.Al.Mahdi1/posts/2755430767854779?__tn__=-R
[6] “The National Security Council holds an extraordinary session under the chairmanship of the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Adel Abdul Mahdi”, Iraqi Prime Minister Facebook Page, 14 October 2019, https://www.facebook.com/Adil.Abd.Al.Mahdi1/posts/2755430767854779?__tn__=-R
[7] “Announcement from the Ministry of interior about those whose contracts were dissolved”, Iraqi Ministry of the Interior, 16 October 2019, https://moi.gov(.)iq/index.php?name=News&file=article&sid=9970
“ISW Webcast with Maj. Gen. Mike Jones”, Institute for the Study of War, 28 July 2008, http://www.understandingwar.org/press-media/webcast/isw-webcast-maj-gen-mike-jones
[8] “The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama”, Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, 2012.
[9] “Representative: Law enforcement personnel will be drawn from these military and security formations”, Iraq Akhbar, 15 October 2019, https://iraqakhbar(.)com/2041597
[10] “Deploying 6,000 Special Forces officers to restore order at the country’s borders”, Mehr News, 08 October 2019, https://www(.)mehrnews.com/news/4739834/%D8%A8%D9%87-%DA%A9%D8%A7%D8%B1%DA%AF%DB%8C%D8%B1%DB%8C-%DB%B1%DB%B0%D9%87%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%88%D8%B1-%DB%8C%DA%AF%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%88%DB%8C%DA%98%D9%87-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%82%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D9%86%D8%B8%D9%85-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%B2%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C
[11] “Quds Force, Hashd al-Shaabi to provide security of Arba’een pilgrims in Iraq”, Mehr News Agency, 10 October 2019, https://en.mehrnews(.)com/news/151058/Quds-Force-Hashd-Al-Shabi-to-provide-security-of-Arbaeen-pilgrims
[12] “Iranian strategy in Syria”, Institute for the Study of War, May 2013, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/IranianStrategyinSyria-1MAY.pdf
[13] “Quietist” Shi’a clerics believe perfect Islamic governance cannot be established until the return of the twelfth imam. “Quietist” clerics advise political leaders against laws or actions that violate Islamic law, but do not seek to establish Islamic government or govern directly. Sistani’s set of demands are a uniquely direct form of intervention in Iraqi governance in the context of Sistani’s historic quietism.
[14] “Yahya Rasool Tweet 11 October”, Yahya Rasool Twitter, 11 October 2019, https://twitter.com/IraqiSpoxMOD/status/1182771540456173568
[15] “Investigative report of Supreme Ministerial committee for investigative regarding the events…” Lawk Ghafuri Twitter, 22 October 2019, https://twitter.com/LawkGhafuri/status/1186614053420044288?s=20
[16] “Iran and Iraq are two nations whose hearts & souls are tied together through faith in God and love for ImamHussein…”, Khamenei Twitter, 6 October 2019, https://twitter.com/khamenei_ir/status/1180945275306889216
[17] “Quds Force, Hashd al-Shaabi to provide security of Arba’een pilgrims in Iraq”, Mehr News Agency, 10 October 2019, https://en.mehrnews(.)com/news/151058/Quds-Force-Hashd-Al-Shabi-to-provide-security-of-Arbaeen-pilgrims
[18] “Moqtada al-Sadr calls on Arba’een pilgrims to chant anti-Israel and anti-US slogans”, Fars News, 15 October 2019, https://www.farsnews(.)com/news/13980724000269/%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%AA%D8%AF%DB%8C-%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86-%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B9%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%86-%D8%B4%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%87%D8%A7%DB%8C-%D8%B6%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%A6%DB%8C%D9%84%DB%8C-%D9%88
[19] “Qais al-Khazali: foreign security companies including Blackwater are the snipers of the demonstrators!”, Haydar Malik YouTube Channel, 10 October 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FHChT5DEZEs
[20] “We emphasize the need for the commission of the investigation to accelerate its duty impartially…” Qais al-Khazali Twitter, 14 October 2019, https://twitter.com/Qais_alkhazali/status/1183770703977439234
[21] “Rasha Al Aqeedi Tweet 03 October”, Rasha al-Aqeedi Twitter, 03 October 2019, https://twitter.com/RashaAlAqeedi/status/1179962275823837184
[22] “Islamic Resistance Brigades al-Khorasani statement”, Ali al-Yasiri Twitter, 15 October 2019, https://twitter.com/AliAlyasiry_/status/1184083315466407937
[23] Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi post 19 October, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi Facebook, 19 October 2019, https://www.facebook.com/salihMAliraqii/posts/3321438044595626?__tn__=K-R
[24] Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi post 22 October”, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi Facebook, 22 October 2019, https://www.facebook.com/salihMAliraqii/photos/a.1087466901326096/3334767776595986/?type=3&theater
“Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi post 24 October”, Salih Muhammad al-Iraqi Facebook, 24 October 2019, https://www.facebook.com/salihMAliraqii/photos/a.1087466901326096/3343285149077582/?type=3&theater



Syria Situation Report: October 10 - 22, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period October 10 - 22, 2019. Key SITREP events include Turkish advances and subsequent negotiated agreements, new pro-Bashar al-Assad regime deployments in Northern Syria, and the escape of ISIS-linked individuals from a camp in Northern Syria.

Click the image to enlarge the map.


This map was updated on November 7, 2019 to reflect an adjustment to the assessed ISIS support zone leading towards Qamishli. Previous versions had the support zone connecting to Amude. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Russo-Turkish Agreement on Northeast Syria: October 22, 2019 Map


Catch up on the outlines of the Russia-Turkey deal in the Overwatch: Crisis Brief podcast series.

Click the image to view an enlarged version of the map.



This map was updated on November 7, 2019 to reflect an adjustment to the assessed ISIS support zone leading towards Qamishli. Previous versions had the support zone connecting to Amude. 

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Iraq Situation Report: October 17 - 21, 2019


Street protests rooted in popular discontent and a harsh government response have embroiled Iraq in a crisis since early October 2019. The protesters – largely though not exclusively from Iraq’s Shi’a communities in Baghdad and southern Iraq – are airing growing frustrations over the Iraqi government’s failure to enact reforms and deliver basic services, a lack of economic opportunities, and the Iranian regime’s deepening control over the Iraqi state.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. This SITREP update covers the period October 17 - 21, 2019. 


Key Takeaway: Iraqi Shi’a cleric Muqtada al Sadr called for renewed protests in a statement released on the Shi’a religious holiday of Arba’een on October 19. Sadr accused the government of being “incapable of reform.” The Iraqi government is meanwhile establishing a new Law Enforcement Force within the Ministry of Interior to suppress further protests.


Click on the image to enlarge the map.



Iraq's Sustained Protests and Political Crisis

By ISW's Iraq Team with Blane Wallace and Isabel Ivanescu

Key Takeaway: The Iraqi government is poised to face a new phase of unrest after its heavy-handed crackdown on popular demonstrations that erupted across Baghdad and Southern Iraq on October 1. Iran likely supported this crackdown through its proxies and could be preparing for an overt intervention into Southern Iraq. The crackdown temporarily stifled further protests but public anger remains high with protesters reportedly planning a new round of demonstrations for Friday, October 25. This instability opens new opportunities for ISIS to reestablish itself in Iraq. The instability also raises the risk of violent competition within Iraq’s Shi’a population that could result in direct intervention by Iran or the collapse of Iraq’s government.

This publication draws in part on a series of ISW Overwatch: Crisis Brief podcast episodes, which can be accessed here.

The Government of Iraq (GoI) temporarily quelled popular protests in early October 2019, but conditions remain primed for a further escalation of violence on Friday, October 25. Demonstrations against poor governance began in Baghdad on October 1 and spread to eleven provinces primarily located in Southern Iraq, including Dhi Qar, Babil, Najaf, and Basra Provinces. The GoI in response imposed a three-day curfew, intermittently cut internet service, and blocked access to social media.[1] The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) responded violently – using live ammunition to dispel protesters in some cases and systemically targeting activists and journalists for assault and arrest.[2] Unidentified snipers also reportedly targeted both demonstrators and security forces.[3] The violence killed more than 100 individuals and injured more than 6,000 others.[4] The crackdown temporarily stifled the protest movement, but demonstrators are reportedly planning a nationwide return to the street on Friday, October 25.[5]

The protest movement has criticized Iran’s influence in Iraq. The current crisis can be traced back in part to the contested May 2018 Iraqi Parliamentary Election. That election resulted in the installation of a compromise government – headed by Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi – acceptable to Iran but incapable of addressing the long-standing grievances of Iraqis.[6] Under Mehdi, Iran and its proxies in the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) have expanded their power despite resistance from powerful nationalist figures such as Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Many protesters thus blame Iran for the endemic corruption and insufficient social services in Iraq. Protesters chanted against Iran and tore down posters displaying an image of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Karbala in Southern Iraq on October 6.[7]

Iran likely intends to suppress any further protests in Southern Iraq.[8] Iran has a strategic interest in maintaining a stable yet subservient government in Iraq, formerly one of its main competitors for dominance in the Middle East. Iran also has a stake in preventing the spread of anti-government sentiment from Iraq into Iran. The outbreak of the protest movement coincided with the Shi’a Islamic holiday of Arba’een, during which tens of millions of Shi’a Muslims (including millions of Iranians) participate in a pilgrimage to Karbala.[9] Iran likely feared that these pilgrims could carry the protest movement into Iran. Iran reportedly enlisted the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and its proxies in the PMF in efforts to suppress the demonstrations in Iraq.[10] It also announced the mobilization of 10,000 Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) personnel to support security for Arba’een.[11] The LEF has previously played a notable role in the violent dispersal of protests in Iran and Syria.[12]

Iraq could witness a new wave of violence among Iraqi Shi’a that results in direct intervention by Iran or the collapse of the GoI. Iraq will likely experience further demonstrations now that Arba’een has passed. Iran has already waded into the crisis to bolster the current GoI. Yet it could decide to intervene even more directly to protect its position or force a political reshuffle that further expands the power wielded by its proxies in the PMF. Sadr and other nationalist political actors would likely resist any such intervention, prompting a violent competition among Iraqi Shi’a. Meanwhile, some protesters have responded to the repressive crackdown by demanding the fall of the entire GoI.[13] The regeneration of the protest movement and a return to violence in the coming days could ultimately force Prime Minister Mehdi to resign and usher in the GoI’s collapse at a critical juncture for the wider Middle East.

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[1] Hamdi Alkhshali, Mohammed Tawfeeq, and Tamara Qiblawi, “Death Toll Rises to 93 in Iraq Amid Ongoing Protests,” CNN, October 5, 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/03/middleeast/iraq-economic-protests-intl/index.html.
[2] Louisa Loveluck and Mustafa Salim, “Iraqi Military Admits to ‘Excessive Force’ in Crackdown Against Protesters,” Washington Post, October 7, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iraqi-military-admits-to-excessive-force-in-crackdown-against-protesters/2019/10/07/2fb11db6-e908-11e9-a329-7378fbfa1b63_story.html; “Unidentified Assailants Raid 4 Broadcasters in Baghdad, Assault Staffers,” Committee to Protect Journalists, October 7, 2019, https://cpj.org/2019/10/four-baghdad-broadcasters-raided-staffers-assaulte.php; Hiwa Osman, Twitter, October 8, 2019, https://twitter.com/Hiwaosman/status/1181503082091466756.
[3] BBC Arabic Alerts, Twitter, October 4, 2019, https://twitter.com/bbcarabicalerts/status/1180180201013223424; Simona Foltyn and Lucile Wassermann, “Snipers Blamed for Bloodshed as Iraq Death Toll Nears 100,” France24, October 6, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20191006-snipers-iraq-protests-poverty-unemployment-death-toll.
[4] Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Death toll in Iraq anti-government protests top 100,” PBS, October 7, 2019, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/death-toll-in-iraq-anti-government-protests-top-100.
[5] “Crisis Brief: A New Phase of Unrest in Iraq?” Overwatch, Institute for the Study of War, October 21, 2019, https://soundcloud.com/iswoverwatch/crisis-brief-a-new-phase-of.
[6] Mustafa Salim and Tamer El-Ghobashy, “After Months of Deadlock, Iraqis Name New President and Prime Minister,” Washington Post, October 2, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/veteran-kurdish-politician-wins-iraqi-presidency-as-traditional-alliances-falter/2018/10/02/dac9b788-c5b1-11e8-9c0f-2ffaf6d422aa_story.html.
[7] Steven Nabil, Twitter, October 6, 2019, https://twitter.com/thestevennabil/status/1180704219713568768; Bobby Allyn, “More Than 100 Killed and Thousands Injured in Anti-Government Protests in Iraq,” NPR, October 6, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/06/767711133/more-than-100-killed-and-thousands-injured-in-anti-government-protests-in-iraq.
[8] Hayder Hamzoz, Twitter, October 4, 2019, https://twitter.com/Hamzoz/status/1180268122361565184.
[9] Ahmed Rasheed and Ali Hafthi, “Death Toll Climbs, Unrest Spreads in Iraq in Days of Protests,” Reuters, October 3, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-protests/death-toll-climbs-unrest-spreads-in-iraq-in-days-of-protests-idUSKBN1WI0II.
[10] Michael Georgy, “Exclusive: Iran-Backed Militias Deployed Snipers in Iraq Protests - Sources,” Reuters, October 17, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-protests-iran-snipers-exclusive/exclusive-iran-backed-militias-deployed-snipers-in-iraq-protests-sources-idUSKBN1WW0B1.
[11] “Deployment of 10,000 Special Forces Officers to Restore Order at the Country’s Borders,” Mehr News, October 7, 2019, http://mehrnews(.)com/news/4739834/به-کارگیری-۱۰-هزار-مامور-یگان-ویژه-برای-خدمت-به-زائران-اربعین.
[12] Nicholas Carl and Kyra Rauschenbach, “Iran File: October 8 Iraq Crisis Update,” Critical Threats Project, https://www.criticalthreats.org/briefs/iran-file/iran-file-october-8-crisis-update.
[13] Qassim Abdul-Zahra, “Security Forces Kill More Than 80 in 5 Days of Iraq Protests,” ABC News, October 5, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/curfew-lifted-iraqs-capital-deadly-protests-66078490.




Al Qaeda Expands its Presence in Afghanistan

By Scott DesMarais and Emily Estelle

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


Key Takeaway: Al Qaeda has expanded its presence in Afghanistan since 2014 in collaboration with the Taliban. The Taliban and al Qaeda maintain, and will sustain, an enduring and intimate relationship that invalidates the premise of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. The Taliban-al Qaeda partnership will allow al Qaeda militants to exploit any potential U.S. military withdrawal to expand further their access to safe havens in Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper reaffirmed the Trump Administration’s intent to reach a political agreement and continue the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan during a visit to the country on October 21.[1] U.S. President Donald Trump halted negotiations with the Taliban in September in the wake of a bombing in the country’s capital that killed a U.S. soldier.[2] It is unclear whether the U.S. and the Taliban will resume talks in the near term. Meanwhile, al Qaeda continues to expand its presence in Afghanistan in a close relationship with the Taliban that undermines a central premise of talks: that the Taliban will break with al Qaeda as part of a peace deal. Al Qaeda has already exploited previous U.S. drawdowns and is prepared to surge in collaboration with the Taliban if the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan.

 

Al Qaeda has prioritized its re-entry into Afghanistan since 2014, when the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) drew down forces.[3] Al Qaeda Emir Ayman al Zawahiri announced the formation of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) in 2014, a move intended to counter the Islamic State’s declaration of a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria as well as exploit the ISAF drawdown.[4] Al Qaeda’s re-entry into Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan forced the U.S. to resume counter-terrorism operations there in 2015.

Senior AQIS leaders and Taliban commanders are co-located in Afghanistan today, signaling an enduring and high-level partnership. American and Afghan forces targeted a joint Taliban-al Qaeda compound in Musah Qal’ah District, a Taliban stronghold considered the group’s de facto capital, in Helmand Province on September 22.[5] Multiple Afghan security organizations reported that the operation killed senior AQIS leader Asim Umar and a courier who connected AQIS leaders to Zawahiri. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency and a U.S. official have since confirmed Umar’s death in the raid.[6] The operation also targeted several Taliban commanders from districts in Helmand Province.[7] It is a sign of the extent of al Qaeda’s return to the area.

The joint compound in Musah Qal’ah is only one example of the depth and breadth of the Taliban-al Qaeda relationship. Al Qaeda members are embedded with the Taliban at positions throughout Afghanistan. The U.S. military assessed in February 2019 that approximately 200 al Qaeda militants are active in Kabul, Badakhshan, Kunar, Paktia, Helmand, and Nimroz Provinces.[8] The UN Security Council (UNSC) assessed that al Qaeda “considers Afghanistan a continuing safe haven for its leadership” and that al Qaeda continues to rely “on its long-standing and strong relationship with the Taliban leadership” in July 2019.[9] The UNSC also assessed that al Qaeda is actively attempting to grow its presence in Shighnan District in Badakhshan Province and Bermal District in Paktika Province.[10] A senior Taliban official said in December 2018 that several thousand foreign fighters operate in Taliban territory.[11] Many of these fighters are likely affiliated with al Qaeda. Durable alliances between al Qaeda militants and Taliban members indicate an entrenched al Qaeda network embedded within the Taliban.[12] Al Qaeda members also provide military and religious instruction to the Taliban.[13]

The U.S. cannot expect the Taliban to fulfill its counter-terrorism requirements against al Qaeda. The Taliban has already demonstrated that it will not act to thwart al Qaeda. The Taliban neither severed ties with al Qaeda nor took action to prevent terrorists from operating in Afghanistan, as it promised in a now-defunct draft agreement with the U.S. in early September.[14] Al Qaeda will continue to exploit its relationship with the Taliban to expand its presence in Afghanistan and will accelerate this expansion if the U.S. withdraws.

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[1] Idrees Ali, “Pentagon chief in Afghanistan as U.S. looks to kickstart Taliban talks,” Reuters, October 20, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-pentagon/pentagon-chief-in-afghanistan-as-u-s-looks-to-kickstart-taliban-talks-idUSKBN1WZ0C4.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Anne Stenersen, “Al-Qa’ida’s Comeback in Afghanistan and its Implications,” CTC Sentinel 9, no. 9 (September 2016), https://ctc.usma.edu/al-qaidas-comeback-in-afghanistan-and-its-implications/.
[4] Anurag Chandran, “Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent: Almost Forgotten,” Critical Threats Projecta t the American Enterprise Institute, September 3, 2015, https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/al-qaeda-in-the-indian-subcontinent-almost-forgotten.
[5] Susannah George, “U.S., Afghan forces carry out deadly raid on al-Qaeda in southern Afghanistan,” Washington Post, September 23, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-official-acknowledges-possible-civilian-casualties-in-afghanistan-airstrike/2019/09/23/dd789cf2-de0a-11e9-b199-f638bf2c340f_story.html; and “Taliban territory: Life in Afghanistan under the militants,” https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-40171379.
[6] Ayesha Tanzeem, “Al-Qaida South Asia Chief Killed in Afghanistan Raid,” Voice of America, October 8, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/al-qaida-south-asia-chief-killed-afghanistan-raid.
[7] Afghanistan National Directorate of Security, Twitter, September 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/NDSAfghanistan/status/1176450110882009088; and Afghanistan National Security Council, Twitter, September 23, 2019, https://twitter.com/NSCAfghan/status/1176212078069276677?s=20.
[8] Glenn A. Fine, “Operation Freedom’s Sentinel: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress,” March 1, 2019, https://media.defense.gov/2019/Mar/01/2002094845/-1/-1/1/FY2019_LIG_OCO_REPORT.PDF.
[9] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council,” July 15, 2019, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/3813209/files/S_2019_570-EN.pdf.
[10] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council.”
[11] F. Brinley Bruton and Mushtaq Yusufzai, “9/11 hangs over Taliban talks and assurances militant group has changed,” NBC News, December 17, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/9-11-hangs-over-taliban-talks-assurances-militant-group-has-n946011.
[12] Phil Stewart, “At Afghan base, al Qaeda memories fresh 18 years after September 11 attacks,” Reuters, September 11, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-sept11-afghanistan/at-afghan-base-al-qaeda-memories-fresh-18-years-after-september-11-attacks-idUSKCN1VW24D; Council on Foreign Relations, “The al-Qaeda-Taliban Nexus,” November 24, 2009, https://www.cfr.org/expert-roundup/al-qaeda-taliban-nexus; Robert Windrem and William M. Arkin, “Why Hasn’t the U.S. Killed Bin Laden’s Wingman Ayman al-Zawahiri,” NBC News, May 17, 2016, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/why-hasn-t-u-s-kill-bin-laden-s-wingman-n574986; and Jonathan Landay and Steve Holland, “In Trump’s team, misgivings emerge over any deal with Taliban in Afghanistan: U.S. officials,” Reuters, August 30, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-afghanistan-concerns/in-trumps-team-misgivings-emerge-over-any-deal-with-taliban-in-afghanistan-u-s-officials-idUSKCN1VK2NW.
[13] UN Security Council, “Letter dated 15 July 2019 from the Chair of the Security Council Committee pursuant to resolutions 1267 (1999), 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) concerning Islamic State and Iraq and the Levant (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals, groups, undertakings and entities addressed to the President of the Security Council.”
[14] Siobhan O’Grady and Sharif Hassan, “Bombing rocks Kabul as U.S. envoy announces draft troop pullout deal with Taliban,” Washington Post, September 2, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/us-envoy-to-taliban-talks-us-would-pull-out-troops-135-days-after-peace-deal-is-signed/2019/09/02/bc8f2b10-cd74-11e9-87fa-8501a456c003_story.html.



Friday, October 18, 2019

Russia in Review: The Kremlin's Outreach to Singapore

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

Authors: George Barros and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is intensifying its outreach to Singapore, a U.S. partner. The Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union signed a free trade agreement with Singapore on October 1. The Kremlin is also pushing for cybersecurity cooperation with Singapore. Russian President Vladimir Putin intends to leverage Singapore as an important nexus point as he expands Russia’s influence and networks in Asia. The Kremlin might also seek to create additional avenues to evade sanctions through trade diversification and money laundering for Russia, Putin’s associates, and Russia’s partners, such as Iran.

The Kremlin-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) signed a free trade agreement (FTA) with Singapore on October 1.[1] The EEU and Singapore completed an FTA calling for mutual tariff reduction following two years of negotiations. Singaporean officials described the pace of negotiations as proceeding at “breakneck speed.”[2] Singapore is a major trading and financial hub in Asia. Most of Asia’s metals and metallurgical products transit through Singapore, and many hedge and private equity funds station their Asian headquarters in Singapore.[3] The Kremlin seeks to mitigate the effects of Western sanctions through trade diversification.

The Kremlin may also seek additional opportunities to launder money. Executives from Russian state-owned technology and defense giant Rostec, led by Putin’s close ally Sergey Chemezov, called for increased economic ties between Russia, Singapore and Cyprus on October 11, shortly after the FTA was signed.[4] The Kremlin has leveraged Cyprus for money laundering for years. The effects of Western sanctions and stricter anti-laundering regulations have reduced the utility of this relationship, however.[5] Russia thus might seek to create Russia-controlled linkages between two major financial hubs, Cyprus and Singapore. The Kremlin is engaged in a broader global campaign to establish additional revenue sources and ways to evade sanctions through money laundering, including in Africa.[6]

Russia may attempt to use the EEU to help its partner Iran mitigate the consequences of Western trade restrictions in the long term.[7] The EEU and Iran will launch an interim FTA on October 27.[8] The Kremlin might leverage FTAs with both Iran and Singapore to route Iranian goods and services that fall under Western sanctions. Iranian goods could potentially be exported to any of the five EEU member states (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia), which might then rebrand and export them to global markets. Iran has also recently called for greater cooperation with Singapore.[9] Iran established a joint commerce committee with Singapore in February 2019.[10]

The Kremlin is engaging Singapore as part of a global effort to expand its network of alliances and to boost the EEU’s credibility.[11] Russia likely sees Singapore as a potential conduit to increase cooperation between the EEU and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Russia has intensified its efforts to engage ASEAN in recent years as Putin desires access to Asia’s stronger economies.[12]

The Kremlin is also employing FTAs to build the EEU’s credibility. Putin initially envisioned the EEU as a customs union integrating the economies of its member states. The EEU failed to provide significant economic value to its members.[13] Putin adapted by expanding the EEU’s reach through FTAs. The EEU signed its first FTA with Vietnam in 2015. Russia’s recent agreement with Singapore marks the EEU’s second successful FTA. Russia will likely sign an FTA with Serbia on October 25. The EEU also announced plans to create an Industrial Zone in Egypt on October 10 – in addition to the Russian Industrial Zone the Kremlin is already constructing in eastern Egypt at Port Said.[14] The Kremlin seeks to boost its industrial zone in Egypt through the capabilities of the EEU member states – another example of the Kremlin interlinking its networks and gains.

The Kremlin is developing connections with Singapore across multiple sectors. Singapore and Russia signed six agreements, including urban transport management, technology transfers, international investment, and technical education, on September 6 at the 10th Session of the Russia-Singapore Inter-Governmental Commission.[15] Putin’s visit to Singapore in November 2018 to meet President Halimah Yacob likely began Russia’s renewed push for cooperation. The presidents laid the cornerstone of Singapore’s first Russian cultural center affiliated with the Russkiy Mir Foundation. The Russian cultural center will also house a Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).[16] The Kremlin uses the Russkiy Mir Foundation and ROC as foreign policy and diplomatic tools.[17]

The Kremlin is expanding security and cybersecurity cooperation with Singapore. Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Security Cooperation with Singapore on August 30. Patrushev highlighted the Kremlin’s intent to cooperate on countering terrorism, drug trafficking, and “transnational crime.”[18] Patrushev discussed cooperation on countering cybercrime with Singapore’s Cyber Security Agency.[19] Patrushev also visited Interpol’s Innovation Center in Singapore during his trip.[20] Russian Group IB opened its new global headquarters to Singapore earlier in 2019.[21] Group IB is a Russian cybersecurity company with a global client base. Group IB markets itself as a “clean” alternative to its competitor, Kaspersky Lab, a Kremlin-affiliated cybersecurity company.[22] Group IB chose Singapore as the location of its new global headquarters due to its proximity to Interpol’s cyber-crime headquarters, among other factors.[23] The Kremlin might attempt to leverage Russia’s business presence in Singapore to advance its push for cybersecurity cooperation.

The Kremlin’s cybersecurity outreach to Singapore is a part of Russia’s broader efforts to cast itself a cybersecurity partner. Russia is marketing itself as a cybersecurity partner despite being a malign actor in cyberspace.[24] The U.N. adopted two Russia-sponsored international information security resolutions in December 2018.[25] Russia co-sponsored a cybersecurity center at the World Economic Forum.[26] Russia and Spain agreed to establish a joint cybersecurity group in 2018 to investigate and prevent disinformation campaigns.[27] Spain welcomed Russian cybersecurity cooperation despite reports that Russian ‘bots’ drove a cyber disinformation campaign surrounding a referendum on Catalan separatism in 2017.[28] Russia also has initiated similar cybersecurity cooperation with India.[29] The Kremlin unsuccessfully pushed for a cybersecurity deal with the U.S. in 2018.[30] The Kremlin likely intends to sign numerous cybersecurity and information security cooperation agreements in order to both expand Russia’s global influence and set up conditions to provide Russia long-term access to information networks.

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[1] Adrian Lim, “Free trade deal with Eurasian Economic Union will cut tariffs, boost trade and investment links,” The Straits Times, October 2, 2019, https://www.straitstimes(.)com/politics/free-trade-deal-with-eurasian-economic-union-will-cut-tariffs-boost-trade-and-investment; Adrian Lim, “Pacts will cut tariffs, boost trade and investment links,” The Straits Times, October 2, 2019, https://www.straitstimes(.)com/politics/pacts-will-cut-tariffs-boost-trade-and-investment-links; Jeremy Koh, “Eurasian Economic Union-Singapore FTA shows resolve to resist tide of protectionism: PM Lee,” Channel News Asia, October 1, 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia(.)com/news/business/singapore-eurasian-economic-union-free-trade-agreement-11960654; “Free Trade Agreement Between the Eurasian Economic Union and its Member States, of the One Part, and The Republic of Singapore, of the Other Part,” Eurasian Economic Union, October 1, 2019, https://docs.eaeunion(.)org/docs/en-us/01423247/iatc_04102019; Goods that will benefit from the tariff reduction include mineral fuels, oils and their distillates, prepared foodstuffs, machinery, chemical and pharmaceutical products, and precision instruments.
[2] Adrian Lim, “Pacts will cut tariffs, boost trade and investment links,” The Straits Times, October 2, 2019, https://www.straitstimes(.)com/politics/pacts-will-cut-tariffs-boost-trade-and-investment-links; Jeremy Koh, “Eurasian Economic Union-Singapore FTA shows resolve to resist tide of protectionism: PM Lee,” Channel News Asia, October 1, 2019, https://www.channelnewsasia(.)com/news/business/singapore-eurasian-economic-union-free-trade-agreement-11960654.
[3] Anshuman Daga, “Singapore steps up scrutiny of shell firms to combat money laundering,” Reuters, August 12, 2019, https://www.reuters(.)com/article/us-singapore-cenbank/singapore-steps-up-scrutiny-of-shell-firms-to-combat-money-laundering-idUSKCN1V2231.
[4] [“Cyprus-Russia-Singapore: One More Step in Development of Eurasian Union Integration”], Vestnik Kipera, October 11, 2019, https://vkcyprus(.)com/articles/9788-kipr-rossiya-singapur-eshchjo-odin-shag-k-razvitiyu-evrazijskoj-integratsii; “Cyprus – Russia – Singapore: one more step towards the Eurasian integration development,” Russia-Singapore Business Council, October 11, http://www.rsbctrade(.)com/cyprus-russia-singapore-one-more-step-towards-the-eurasian-integration-development.
[5] Nektaria Stamouli and Drew Hinshaw, “U.S. Takes on Russia’s Favorite Money Haven: Cyprus,” The Wall Street Journal, September 30, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-takes-on-russias-favorite-money-haven-cyprus-1538316001; Paul Tugwell and Georgios Georgiou, “Cyprus No Longer Mediterranean Haven for Russian Businesses,” Bloomberg, January 9, 2019, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-10/cyprus-loses-luster-as-mediterranean-haven-for-russian-business.
[6] Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio, “The Kremlin’s Campaign in Africa: Assessment Update,” Institute for the Study of War, August, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20-%20The%20Kremlin%20Campaign%20in%20Africa%20-%20August%202019.pdf.
[7] Nicholas Trickett, “Russia and the Rest: Putin’s East Asia Summit Visit,” The Diplomat, November 22, 2018, https://thediplomat(.)com/2018/11/russia-and-the-rest-putins-east-asia-summit-visit/.
[8] “EAEU, Iran to launch interim free trade zone,” Kazinform, October 11, 2019, https://www.inform(.)kz/en/eaeu-iran-to-launch-interim-free-trade-zone_a3574159; [“EAEU sets Deadline for Creating Free Trade Zones with Singapore and Egypt,”] RBC, September 30, 2019 https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/30/09/2019/5d891b059a79470807abedb7; “Iran to start economic interaction with Eurasian bloc from October 27,” Tehran Times, October 6, 2019, http://www.tehrantimes(.)com/news/440868/Iran-to-start-economic-interaction-with-Eurasian-bloc-from-October; “Iran, EEU to Engage in All-Embracing Free Trade by Early 2022,” Financial Tribune, August 28,2018, https://financialtribune(.)com/articles/economy-domestic-economy/92586/iran-eeu-to-engage-in-all-embracing-free-trade-by-early-2022.
[9] “Iran-Singapore Ties,” The Iran Project, accessed October 18, 2019, https://theiranproject(.)com/blog/tag/iran-singapore-ties/.
[10] “Iran-Singapore joint commerce committee holds 1st official meeting,” Tehran Times, February 6, 2019, http://www.tehrantimes(.)com/news/432780/Iran-Singapore-joint-commerce-committee-holds-1st-official-meeting.
[11] Frederick Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20CTP%20Report%20-%20Confronting%20the%20Russian%20Challenge%20-%20June%202019.pdf.
[12] “Overview ASEAN-Russia Dialogue Relations,” ASEAN, August 2016, https://asean(.)org/storage/2012/05/Overview-ASEAN-Russia-August-2016-r4cl.pdf.
[13] Golam Mostafa and Monowar Mahmood, “Eurasian Economic Union: Evolution, challenges and possible future directions,” Sage Journal of Eurasian Studies, July 1, 2018, https://journals.sagepub(.)com/doi/full/10.1016/j.euras.2018.05.001; Rilka Dragneva and Kataryna Wolczuk, “The Eurasian Economic Union: Deals, Rules and the Exercise of Power,” Chatham House, May 2017, https://www.chathamhouse(.)org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2017-05-02-eurasian-economic-union-dragneva-wolczuk.pdf.
[14] “Egypt and Russia sign 50-year industrial zone agreement,” Reuters, May 23, 2018, https://www.reuters(.)com/article/egypt-russia-industry/egypt-and-russia-sign-50-year-industrial-zone-agreement-idUSL5N1SU5SI.
[15] “The 10th Session of the High-Level Russia-Singapore Intergovernmental Commission, 6 September 2019,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, September 6, 2019, https://www.mfa(.)gov.sg/Newsroom/Press-Statements-Transcripts-and-Photos/2019/09/06092019-10th-IGC.
[16] “Putin begins meeting with Singapore’s president,” TASS, November 13, 2018, https://tass(.)com/world/1030583; “Vladimir Putin Launches Russian Cultural Center Construction in Singapore,” Russkiy Mir Foundation, November 13, 2018, https://russkiymir(.)ru/en/news/248724/.
[17] Orysia Lutsevych, “Agesnts of the Russian World: Proxy Groups in the Contested Neighborhood,” Chatham House, April 2016, https://www.chathamhouse(.)org/sites/default/files/publications/research/2016-04-14-agents-russian-world-lutsevych.pdf;, Andis Kudors and Robert Orttung, “Russian Public Relations Activities and Soft Power,” Russian Analytical Digest, June 16, 2010, https://www.research-collection(.)ethz.ch/handle/20.500.11850/26212; Alexis Mrachek, “How Putin Uses Russian Orthodoxy to Grow His Empire,” Heritage Foundation, February 22, 2019, https://www.heritage.org/europe/commentary/how-putin-uses-russian-orthodoxy-grow-his-empire.
[18] “Meeting between Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean and Secretary of the National Security Council of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev, 30 August 2019,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, August 30, 2019, https://www.mfa(.)gov.sg/Newsroom/Press-Statements-Transcripts-and-Photos/2019/08/300819_SM-Teo-meeting.
[19] “Russian security chief discusses cooperation within Interpol, cybersecurity in Singapore,” TASS, August 23, 2019, https://tass(.)com/society/1075608.
[20] “Russian security chief discusses cooperation within Interpol, cybersecurity in Singapore,” TASS, August 23, 2019, https://tass(.)com/society/1075608.
[21] Claudia Chong, “Cybersecurity firm Group-IB opens global HQ in Singapore,” The Business Times, June 10, 2019, https://www.businesstimes(.)com.sg/technology/cybersecurity-firm-group-ib-opens-global-hq-in-singapore.
[22] Maria Kolomychenko and Katya Golubkova, “Russian cybersecurity firm Group IB to open global HQ in Singapore: CEO,” Reuters, November 12, 2018, https://www.reuters(.)com/article/us-russia-cyber-group-ib/russian-cybersecurity-firm-group-ib-to-open-global-hq-in-singapore-ceo-idUSKCN1NH0IT.
[23] Maria Kolomychenko and Katya Golubkova, “Russian cybersecurity firm Group IB to open global HQ in Singapore: CEO,” Reuters, November 12, 2018, https://www.reuters(.)com/article/us-russia-cyber-group-ib/russian-cybersecurity-firm-group-ib-to-open-global-hq-in-singapore-ceo-idUSKCN1NH0IT.
[24] “Significant Cyber Incidents Since 2006,” CSIS, September 2019, https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/190904_Significant_Cyber_Events_List.pdf.
[25] Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, “United Nations adopts two Russia sponsored resolutions backed by India on International Information Security,” The Economic Times, December 29, 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes(.)com/news/politics-and-nation/united-nations-adopts-two-russia-sponsored-resolutions-backed-by-india-on-international-information-security/articleshow/67298500.cms./
[26] “World Economic Forum Centre for Cybersecurity,” World Economic Forum, accessed October 18, 2019, https://www.weforum(.)org/centre-for-cybersecurity/partner-with-us.
[27] “Russia and Spain Agree to Cooperate on Cyber Security, Fight Fake News,” The Moscow Times, November 7, 2018, https://www.themoscowtimes(.)com/2018/11/07/russia-and-spain-agree-to-cooperate-on-cyber-security-fight-fake-news-a63417; “Spain and Russia agree to set up joint cybersecurity group,” Associated Press, November 6, 2018, https://www.businessinsider(.)com/ap-spain-and-russia-agree-to-set-up-joint-cybersecurity-group-2018-11.
[28] Vasco Cotovio and Emanuella Grinberg, “Spain: 'Misinformation' on Catalonia referendum came from Russia,” CNN, November 13, 2017, https://www.cnn.com/2017/11/13/europe/catalonia-russia-connection-referendum/index.html.
[29] “Russia, India Agree to Boost Information Security Cooperation,” BRICS Information Portal, March 12, 2019, http://infobrics(.)org/post/28263/.
[30] “Russia Wants a Deal with the United States on Cyber Issues. Why Does Washington Keep Saying No?,” Council on Foreign Relations, August 27, 2018, https://www.cfr(.)org/blog/russia-wants-deal-united-states-cyber-issues-why-does-washington-keep-saying-no.