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Friday, February 21, 2020

Syria Situation Report: February 5 - 18, 2020

By Michael Land (ISW Syria Team) and Nada Atieh (Syria Direct)

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period February 5 - 18, 2020.

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




Iraq Situation Report: Februay 7 - 12, 2020

By: Brandon Wallace

ISW is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following SITREP map covers the period February 7 - 12, 2020.

Key Takeaway: Confrontation between protesters and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) flared in Nasiriyah, Dhi Qar, after protesters there demanded the government hold a referendum on newly designated Prime Minister (PM) Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi. Protesters likely felt emboldened to demand new change when the PM-designate met with popular, former CTS commander Lieutenant General Abdul-Wahab al-Saadi, whose firing was a major spark for the start of mass protests in October. Three days after the demand for a referendum, unidentified ISF used live ammunition to disperse protesters blocking access to al-Ain University buildings in Nasiriyah.


Friday, February 14, 2020

Iraq Situation Reports: January 23 - February 6, 2020

By: Brandon Wallace

ISW is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following set of SITREP maps covers the period January 23 - February 6, 2020.

Iraq Situation Report: January 23 - 27, 2020

Key Takeaway: Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr caused a new fracture in his movement by withdrawing support for popular protests, leading some Sadrists to participate in a new violent crackdown against protesters. Others defied Sadr’s guidance and continued to participate in demonstrations. Sadr’s reversal is a major boon for the effort by Iran’s proxies to crush the protest movement violently but may have the unintended effect of further inflaming protests by alienating Sadrists who perceive his action as a betrayal.


Iraq Situation Report: January 28 - 30, 2020

Key Takeaway: President Barham Salih channeled public pressure to set a three-day ultimatum for the Iraqi Parliament to agree to a new prime minister (PM). According to some reports, former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki vetoed a decision by Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Iranian proxy leader Hadi al-Ameri to support former communications minister Muhammad Taqfiq Allawi. President Salih’s deadline expires on February 1.


Iraq Situation Report: January 31 - February 3, 2020

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s major political parties agreed on a new prime minister. President Barham Salih has officially asked former communications minister Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi to form a government, which requires Allawi to submit a new Council of Ministers for an absolute majority vote in the Iraqi Parliament.  Some protesters in Baghdad demonstrated against Allawi. In response, nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr turned on the protest movement again calling for his supporters to assist security forces and punish demonstrators, despite having used its pressure to help reach a PM designation. This time, Sadr ordered his supporters to participate in forcibly suppressing protests against the new PM.


Iraq Situation Report: February 4 - 6, 2020

Key Takeaway: Nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr is in a violent escalation cycle with Iraq’s popular protest movement. Protesters have begun to fight back in response to renewed efforts by Sadr’s supporters, upon his instruction, to crush the protest movement. The conflict increasingly pits Sadr’s traditional support base against the younger demonstrators who make up the bulk of the demonstration movement. Further mobilization could create the conditions for large scale violence.


Friday, February 7, 2020

Russia Enables New Syrian Regime Offensive in Idlib

By: Michael Land

Key Takeaway: 
The pro-regime coalition is poised to make further gains in Greater Idlib province, adding on to already substantial territorial advances. Russia will govern the speed at which these advances happen based on its political calculus, both in Syria and elsewhere. The conflict has the potential to escalate dramatically, posing a risk to the U.S. and its allies.





The situation in Syria’s northwest is dynamic and has the potential to escalate dramatically. This escalation threatens the interests of the U.S. and its allies as Russia and Turkey face off in a region dominated by al Qaeda-affiliated groups.[1] A Russian-backed military campaign that began as a limited seizure of terrain for the Assad regime has since evolved into a major undertaking within the Syrian conflict. Russia has set the conditions for the retaking a large swath of terrain along a key highway running through the area, and will likely continue the ground offensive until it achieves that objective. Turkey is moving reinforcements into Idlib in reaction to Russia’s push.[2] Russia may decide to support the pro-regime seizure of significantly more territory in the coming months. Russia will determine the pace of the advance, independent of Assad, based on the balance it has established between its potential diplomatic benefits with its potential military risks.[3]

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has long engaged in a series of parallel strategic endeavors aimed at expanding its presence in and projecting its power into the Middle East and surrounding regions.[4] Russia launched its intervention in Syria in 2015 to preserve a Russian-amenable regime that allows Russia to use Syria for military basing that supports these goals.[5] Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime have undertaken a series of operations to seize terrain and rebuild the Syrian state under Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Russia has launched a complementary diplomatic campaign to solidify its political legitimacy in Syria among Syrians, Russians, and the international community, strengthen the Assad regime at home and abroad, and set favorable conditions for a long-term Russian presence in Syria’s political and information spheres. [6] A key component of this diplomatic campaign is the Astana Process, a series of meetings organized by Russia, Iran, and Turkey to discuss the Syrian conflict that operates independently of the UN peace process.[7] The Astana Process allows Russia to portray itself as a global power with the ability to negotiate settlements to local conflicts while marginalizing Western powers.[8]

Idlib Province, a rebel-held area of northwest Syria, represents the largest remaining obstacle in the pro-Assad coalition’s campaign to restore the Assad regime’s territorial control of Syria. Russia, Assad, and their allies are now in the tenth month of a grueling ground offensive to retake this terrain from a variety of anti-Assad forces.[9] Russia has used the phases of this military operation to strengthen its diplomatic position, particularly with regard to Turkey. Russia has alternated between military and diplomatic phases in the campaign, slowing its progress, but facilitating Russian and pro-regime gains both territorially and diplomatically. The changes between these phases often coincide with major Astana meetings. The offensive has accelerated significantly since mid-December as Russia stepped up its support for the operation in the form of fighters, equipment, and air support.[10] Independent of Assad, Russia has decided the pace of the pro-regime offensive to suit its political and diplomatic goals.

The anti-Assad forces that control much of Idlib Province and portions of neighboring Latakia and Aleppo provinces (a.k.a. “Greater Idlib”) constitute the last remaining area of Syria outside the control of the Assad regime, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), or Turkish occupation. The rebel forces in Greater Idlib threaten the security of Russia’s main base in Syria with weaponized drones and indirect fire.[11] These forces also control a stretch of the key M5 Highway, which connects Syria’s two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Al Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) dominates control over much of Greater Idlib, although the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) and an array of smaller factions retain a presence in much of the region.[12] Pro-regime forces began their offensive in May 2019 and have since seized several key cities, including Khan Sheikhoun on August 21, Ma’arat al Nu’man on January 28, and Saraqib on February 7.[13]

Russia and Assad have undertaken a massive campaign to displace the local population and worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in the region.[14] This campaign not only puts pressure on local factions who must divert resources to maintain security, but also Turkey, which has closed its border to additional refugees from Syria.[15] Greater Idlib is home to approximately 3-4 million civilians and internally displaced persons (IDPs).[16] The latest phase of the pro-Assad offensive has displaced approximately 700,000 people since November.[17] Both Syrian and Russian forces regularly strike civilian infrastructure, including urban centers and hospitals.[18]

ISW assesses that Russia and the regime’s displacement of civilians toward the Turkey-Syria border is a component of a larger Russian campaign to contain Turkish actions in Syria. Despite an often-pragmatic relationship between Russia and Turkey in Syria, the two countries ultimately have extremely different desired end states and priorities in the country.[19] Russia views Turkey primarily as a NATO actor in Syria, along with the United States. Russia is taking a two-pronged approach to undermine the possibility of a synchronized U.S.-Turkey zone that could stretch from Deir ez Zour province in the east to Latakia in the west.[20] One prong of this effort is to constrain Turkey’s actions in Idlib, while the other prong involves Russia working with Turkey to counter U.S. actions in eastern Syria.[21] Russia has been frustrated by Turkey’s inability or unwillingness to control rebel factions in Greater Idlib per its agreements with Russia.[22] Russia and Assad’s efforts to exacerbate the humanitarian and displacement situation on Turkey’s border is a means of warning Turkey of the consequences of their inaction without needing to strike Turkish forces directly.

Conclusion and Forecast

Russia has set conditions for a full retaking of the M5 Highway in the coming weeks. Russia may attempt to gain significantly more terrain in Greater Idlib, including Idlib City, once the highway is secure. However, the terrain of Greater Idlib beyond the M5 is tactically advantageous for the defending anti-Assad forces. These groups have prepared extensive fortifications and defenses, including tunnels, in several regions of Greater Idlib, especially in the western mountainous regions.[23] As a result, even after the capture of the M5, Russia may revert to a diplomatic phase of the fight. If the Russian-led campaign gains sufficient initiative to move beyond the M5, the ensuing battle will likely require forces to engage in urban warfare in Idlib City, where the local powerbroker, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, has likely prepared for a siege. Russia would have to undertake a campaign to depopulate the city through airstrikes and artillery, risking an increased response from Turkey and the international community including the United States. Russia will likely be able to achieve certain objectives beyond the M5 Highway, but the progress will be slow and driven by Russia’s diplomatic concerns as well as its military might. The Syrian Civil War remains far from over.



[1] Jennifer Cafarella and Emily Estelle, “Al Qaeda Attempts to Unify Forces in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, September 5, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/al-qaeda-attempts-unify-forces-syria; Louisa Loveluck, “Syrian Offensive against Rebel Enclave More Likely after al-Qaeda-Linked Fighters Take Control,” Washington Post, January 19, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian-offensive-against-enclave-more-likely-after-al-qaeda-linked-fighters-take-control/2019/01/19/0ced22f0-142b-11e9-ab79-30cd4f7926f2_story.html.
[2] Orhan Coskun, “Turkey Ready to Act after Reinforcing Syria’s Idlib: Official,” Reuters, February 9, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-turkey/turkey-ready-to-act-after-reinforcing-syrias-idlib-official-idUSKBN2030F2; Sarah El Deeb and Suzan Fraser, “Syrian Advance Sends Hundreds of Thousands Fleeing in Idlib,” AP News, February 7, 2020; https://apnews.com/89a39cb12ebce65cb440b1b68cebee3a; “Turkish reinforcements head to Syria,” BBC News, February 3, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-middle-east-51359622/turkish-reinforcements-head-to-syria-s-idlib.
[3] Mason Clark, “Russia in Review: The Kremlin Controls the Pace of Operations in Syria's Idlib,” Institute for the Study of War, September 20, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/09/russia-in-review-kremlin-controls-pace.html.
[4] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.” Institute for the Study of War / Critical Threats Project, June 19, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20CTP%20Report%20-%20Confronting%20the%20Russian%20Challenge%20-%20June%202019.pdf; Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here with Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War / Critical Threats Project, March 13, 2019, https://www.criticalthreats.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/The-Kremlin%E2%80%99s-Foreign-Policy-Worldview_v5-1.pdf. 
[5] “Russian Deployment in Syria: Putin’s Middle East Game Changer,” Institute for the Study of War, September 17, 2015, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-deployment-syria-putin%E2%80%99s-middle-east-game-changer; Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.” Institute for the Study of War / Critical Threats Project, June 19, 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20CTP%20Report%20-%20Confronting%20the%20Russian%20Challenge%20-%20June%202019.pdf; Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here with Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War / Critical Threats Project, March 13, 2019, https://www.criticalthreats.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/The-Kremlin%E2%80%99s-Foreign-Policy-Worldview_v5-1.pdf. 
[6] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf.
[7] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf.
[8] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf.
[9] Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman, “Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province,” Institute for the Study of War, June 28, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/06/pro-assad-regime-forces-locked-in.html; Vivian Yee and Hwaida Saad, “Syrian Government Starts Campaign to Retake Last Opposition Stronghold of Idlib,” New York Times, May 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/20/world/middleeast/syria-retaking-idlib.html; Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Assad Hits a Wall in Syrian War as Front Lines Harden,” Reuters, July 10, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-northwest-analysis/assad-hits-a-wall-in-syrian-war-as-front-lines-harden-idUSKCN1U51TC.
[10] Anna News, YouTube, December 27, 2019, https://www.youtube(.)com/watch?v=Ng_Eqyiqz-M; [“Regime Forces Take Control of al Ghadfa Village, Southeast of Idlib,”] SMART News Agency, January 26, 2020, https://smartnews-agency.com/ar/wires/419997/قوات-النظام-تسيطر-على-قرية-الغدفة-جنوب-شرق-إدلب; Charles Lister, Twitter, December 20, 2019, https://twitter.com/i/web/status/1208064430610821120; [“Local Sources: The Regime Mobilizes Its Militia near Sinjar in the Eastern Idlib Countryside,”] Qasioun News, December 16, 2019, https://www.qasioun-news(.)com/ar/news/show/206849/مصادر_محلية_النظام_يحشد_ميليشياته_قرب_سنجار_في_ريف_إدلب_الشرقي; [“12 Civilians Were Killed in the Bombing of Idlib.. the Displacement Movement is Escalating,” Enab Baladi, December 17, 2019, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/349767; [“After the Regime Mobilized its Militias, the Hmeimim Center Called on the People of Sinjar to Vacate the Town,”] Qasioun News, December 17, 2019, https://www.qasioun-news(.)com/ar/news/show/206945/بعد_حشد_النظام_لميليشياته_مركز_حميميم_يطالب_أهالي_سنجار_بإخلاء_البلدة; [“Two Thousand Families Fled Idlib and Its Countryside within One Day,”] Enab Baladi, December 17, 2019, https://www.enabbaladi.net/archives/349877; [“Collected Bulletin on Monday for All Field and Military Events in Syria 16-12-2019,”] Shaam News Network, December 17, 2019, www.shaam.org/news/bulletins/نشرة-حصاد-يوم-الإثنين-لجميع-الأحداث-الميدانية-والعسكرية-في-سوريا-16-12-2019.html; [“Midday Bulletin on Monday for All Field and Military Events in Syria 17-12-2019,”] Shaam News Network, December 17, 2019, www.shaam.org/news/bulletins/نشرة-منتصف-اليوم-لجميع-الأحداث-الميدانية-في-سوريا-17-12-2019.html; [“The Regime Commits Three Massacres in Idlib and Musters Its Forces in Its Vicinity,”] SMART News Agency, December 17, 2019, https://smartnews-agency.com/ar/reports/414278/النظام-يرتكب-ثلاث-مجازر-في-إدلب-ويحشد-قواته-في-محيطها; [“Military Reinforcements Arrive to the Regime Forces in Idlib Governorate,”] SMART News Agency, December 17, 2019, https://smartnews-agency.com/ar/wires/414187/وصول-تعزيزات-عسكرية-لقوات-النظام-في-محافظة-إدلب; [“Civilian Casualties by Russian Shelling of Idlib, and the Regime Raining ‘Kabana’ with Barrels,”] Baladi News, December 16, 2019, https://www.baladi-news.com/ar/articles/54493/ضحايا-مدنيون-بقصف-روسي-على-إدلب-والنظام-يمطر-كبينة-بالبراميل; Caleb Weiss, “Russian Special Forces Train Palestinian Militia in Syria,” FDD’s Long War Journal, March 6, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2019/03/russian-special-forces-train-palestinian-militia-in-syria.php; Joseph Daher, “Three Years Later: The Evolution of Russia’ Military Intervention in Syria,” Atlantic Council, September 27, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/three-years-later-the-evolution-of-russia-s-military-intervention-in-syria/.
[11] “Two Drones Downed near Syria’s Hmeimim Air Base: State TV,” Reuters, February 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-drone/two-drones-downed-near-syrias-hmeimim-air-base-state-tv-idUSKBN1ZX2A2; “Russia Says It Has Downed Almost 60 Drones in Syria This Year,” AFP, September 28, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190928-russia-says-it-has-downed-almost-60-drones-in-syria-this-year.
[12] “Syria: Who’s in Control of Idlib?” BBC News, June 22, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-45401474; Philip James Walker, Esq. “Consequences of the HTS Take-Over in Northwest Syria,” Atlantic Council, January 30, 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/consequences-of-the-hts-take-over-in-northwestern/.
[13] “Explainer: Why the War in Syria’s Idlib Escalated Again,” Reuters, May 9, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-northwest-explainer/explainer-why-the-war-in-syrias-idlib-escalated-again-idUSKCN1SF0P7; “Khan Sheikhoun: Syria Rebels Pull Out of Key Town after Five Years,” BBC News, August 20, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49404741; Liz Sly, “Syrian Military Recaptures Strategic Town Held by Rebels as Civilians Flee,” Washington Post, August 22, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/syrian-military-recaptures-strategic-town-held-by-rebels-as-civilians-flee/2019/08/22/7c0cd614-c4e1-11e9-8bf7-cde2d9e09055_story.html; Bethan McKernan, “Assad Regime Captures Town in Syria’s Last Rebel-Held Territory,” Guardian, January 28, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/28/syrian-regime-captures-maarat-al-numan-in-idlib; Sarah Dadouch and Asser Khattab, “Syrian Army Takes Key Town in Last Major Rebel Bastion of Idlib, “Syrian Army Takes Key Town in Last Major Rebel Bastion of Idlib,” Washington Post, January 29, 2020; https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/syrian-army-takes-key-town-in-last-major-rebel-bastion-of-idlib/2020/01/29/dcb58438-41ec-11ea-99c7-1dfd4241a2fe_story.html; “Factions Withdraw from Saraqib Town Not to Be Besieged and the Regime Forces Break into the City Sweeping Its Neighborhoods,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, February 5, 2020, http://www.syriahr.com/en/?p=154502; “Saraqib falls out of opposition control… What will happen to Turkey’s military observation post?” Enab Baladi, February 7, 2020, https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2020/02/saraqib-falls-out-of-opposition-control-what-will-happen-to-turkeys-military-observation-post/.
[14] Deborah Amos, “Millions of Civilians Affected as Syrian Military Advances on Idlib Province,” NPR, January 28, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/01/28/800559423/millions-of-civilians-affected-as-syrian-military-advances-on-idlib-province; Amid Humanitarian Crisis, Syrian Regime Intensifies Idlib Offensive,” United States Institute of Peace, February 4, 2020, https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/02/amid-humanitarian-crisis-syrian-regime-intensifies-idlib-offensive.
[15] Pavel Felgenhauer, “Russia and Turkey Reach Shaky Agreement on Syrian Idlib Province,” Jamestown Foundation, September 5, 2019, https://jamestown.org/program/russia-and-turkey-reach-shaky-agreement-on-syrian-idlib-province/; “Turkey/Syria: Border Guards Shoot, Block Fleeing Syrians,” Human Rights Watch, February 3, 2018, https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/02/03/turkey/syria-border-guards-shoot-block-fleeing-syrians#; “Turkey: Syrians Pushed Back at the Border,” Human Rights Watch, November 23, 2015, https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/11/23/turkey-syrians-pushed-back-border; Ceylan Yeginsu and Karam Shoumali “Turkey Moves to Close All Gates at Border with Syria,” New York Times, March 30, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/30/world/europe/turkey-moves-to-close-all-gates-at-border-with-syria.html.
[16] Bethan McKernan, Sahar Atrache, “500,000 flee Syrian Regime’s Deadly Offensive in Idlib,” Guardian, February 5, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/04/syria-half-a-million-displaced-in-idlib-says-un-body; “3 Million Civilians Are Under Threat in Idlib. Here’s What They’re Telling Us.” Refugees International, Devember 27, 2019, https://www.refugeesinternational.org/reports/2019/12/27/3-million-civilians-are-under-threat-in-idlib-heres-what-theyre-telling-us.
[17] “International Crisis Looms as 700,000 Flee Syria’s Idlib: U.S. Envoy,” Reuters, January 30, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-us/us-envoy-700000-displaced-in-northwest-syria-idUSKBN1ZT1SU.
[18] Evan Hill, Christiaan Triebert, Malachy Browne, Dmitriy Khavin, Drew Jordan, and Whitney Hurst, “Russia Bombed Four Syrian Hospitals. We Have Proof.” New York Times, October 13, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000005697485/russia-bombed-syrian-hospitals.html; Christiaan Triebert, Evan Hill, Malachy Browne, Dmitriy Khavin, and Aaron Byrd, “We Proved Russian Pilots Bombed a Hospital. Then They Did It Again.” New York Times, November 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000006815692/syria-hospitals-russia.html; “Russian Air Strikes on Syria Market Kill 23: Monitor,” AFP, July 22, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190722-russian-air-strikes-syria-market-kill-23-monitor.
[19] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf; Elizabeth Teoman, “Navigating the U.S.-Turkey Relationship Beyond the Quagmire,” Institute for the Study of War, July 25, 2018, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2018/07/navigating-us-turkey-relationship.html; Jennifer Cafarella and Elizabeth Teoman with Matti Suomenaro, “Turkey Attempts to Block Russian-Led Push in Western Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, January 11, 2018, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/turkey-attempts-block-russian-led-push-western-syria.
[20] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf; Elizabeth Teoman with the ISW Syria Team, “Turkey and Russia Prepared to Launch Joint Military Patrols in Syria’s Idlib,” Institute for the Study of War, March 9, 2019, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/03/turkey-and-russia-prepared-to-launch.html; “Lavrov Slams Intitiative to Set up NATO-Controlled Safe Zone in Syria,” TASS, October 25, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1085353.  
[21] Elizabeth Teoman and Jennifer Cafarella with Bradley Hanlon, “Turkey’s Erdogan Pivots to Target U.S.-Backed Force in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, January 16, 2018, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2018/01/turkeys-erdogan-pivots-to-target-us.html; Jessica Donati, “U.S. Troops in Standoffs with Russian Military Contractors in Syria,” Wall Street Journal, February 5, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-troops-in-standoffs-with-russian-military-contractors-in-syria-11580947976; “Turkey Says Talking with Russia over Kurdish YPG in Northeast Syria,” Reuters, November 21, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-turkey-russia/turkey-says-talking-with-russia-over-kurdish-ypg-in-northeast-syria-idUSKBN1XV0WL; Suzan Fraser and Vladimir Isachenkov, “Russia, Turkey Seal Power in Northeast Syria with New Accord,” AP News, October 22, 2019, https://apnews.com/185d5d93b4d747dfbd63e60f296d4b1e; “Lavrov Slams Intitiative to Set up NATO-Controlled Safe Zone in Syria,” TASS, October 25, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1085353.
[22] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf; “Moscow Encourages Ankara to Fulfill Memorandum on Idlib – Lavrov,” TASS, March 3, 2019, https://tass(.)com/politics/1047227; Gleb Stolyarov, “Russia, Turkey Agree Steps to Tackle Militants in Syria’s Idlib: Putin,” Reuters, August 27, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-russia-turkey/russia-turkey-agree-steps-to-tackle-militants-in-syrias-idlib-putin-idUSKCN1VH0M8; Zeynep Bilginsoy, “Turkey, Russia Face Conflicts over Syria’s push into Idlib,” AP News, June 1, 2019, https://apnews.com/f5a871d375d54996ad454c6b60844171.
[23] Mariya Petkova and Farah Najjar, “Everything You Need to Know about the Looming Battle for Idlib,” Al Jazeera, September 8, 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/looming-battle-idlib-180908142026400.html; OGN, YouTube, January 28, 2020, https://www.youtube(.)com/watch?v=50dfYMB9PQ4; “Syrian Air Force Attempts to Destroy Jihadist Tunnel Network in Latakia,” Al Masdar, October 9, 2019, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/syrian-air-force-attempts-to-destroy-jihadist-tunnel-network-in-latakia/; “Syrian Army Uncovers Massive Network of Jihadist Tunnels in Idlib: Video” Al Masdar, January 2, 2020, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/syrian-army-uncovers-massive-network-of-jihadist-tunnels-in-idlib-video/. 

Syria Situation Report: January 21 - February 4, 2020

By Michael Land (ISW Syria Team) and Nada Atieh (Syria Direct)


The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period January 21-February 4, 2020.


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








Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Russia in Review: Belarus Update: Lukashenko Uses Oil Tariffs to Delay Integration with Russia


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.

Key Takeaway: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is using energy policy in his latest efforts to resist growing Russian pressure to integrate into Russia-dominated structures. Lukashenko’s efforts to diversify Belarusian oil imports will likely provide him with sufficient leverage to secure higher payments from Russia on Russian oil transiting Belarus. However, Lukashenko lacks leverage on the issue of Russian gas subsidies to Belarus. Lukashenko will not, in the long run, be able to prevent further integration with Russia. However, through selective resistance with Western support, Lukashenko may be able to shape the nature of the Union State relationship to limit Russian President Vladimir Putin’s growing control over Belarus.

The Kremlin’s campaign achieve greater control over Belarus slowed in 2019 but has not stopped. In 1999, Belarus and Russia formed the Union State – a supranational agreement with the stated goal of the federal integration of the two states under a joint structure. The Kremlin intensified its political and economic pressure campaign to integrate Belarus through the Union State structure throughout 2019. [1] Lukashenko stepped up his balancing act in response – resisting Russian pressure while maintaining a strategic relationship with the Kremlin. Lukashenko successfully slowed the Russian campaign by the end of 2019. Putin left December 7 negotiations with Lukashenko without a joint press conference and without a Union State roadmap – a key Kremlin objective for 2019. [2] The Kremlin still intends to integrate Belarus.

Lukashenko’s leverage is limited, but he is attempting to use energy policy to counter the Kremlin’s pressure for greater integration. Lukashenko stated that unequal energy relations are his main problem with Russian demands prior to the December 7 meeting.[3] Lukashenko is currently countering Russia’s pressure on two major energy issues – Russian oil transit and Russian gas supply to Belarus. Lukashenko is likely using his limited advantage in the oil trade to resist Russian pressure on gas. Belarus derives income from tariffs on Russian crude oil transit through two Belarusian oil refineries, purchasing crude oil from Russia before selling the refined product to European consumers. Lukashenko holds slight leverage in oil politics through the threat of increasing tariffs and pursuing alternative suppliers of oil. In contrast to oil, which is a source of income for Belarus, Belarus is reliant on cheap Russian gas for its domestic use. Lukashenko has little leverage in his ongoing effort to retain low prices for Russian gas.

Lukashenko is attempting to make Russia pay a higher tariff rate on oil transit but is weakened by a reliance on Russian shipments. In 2019, Belarus demanded Russia pay a tariff increase of 16.6 percent starting in 2020.[4] Belarus argued even such increase would be a concession, as a 21-percent increase would be necessary to cover damage to Belarusian oil refineries caused by contaminated oil Russia shipped to Belarus earlier in 2019.[5] Russian state-owned oil company Transneft refused the increased tariff on December 17.[6] Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service stated Russia only forecasted a 3-6.8-percent increase in Belarusian tariffs for 2020. Negotiations stalled, and Russia halted all oil supplies to Belarus on January 1.[7] Belarus agreed January 4 to a reduced amount of Russian oil imports – 133,000 tons, roughly 9 percent of the average monthly shipment in 2019 – at current tariff rates for the month of January while negotiations continue.[8]

Lukashenko is using alternative oil sources to resist the Kremlin’s pressure. Lukashenko quickly adapted to the Russian shutoff by pursuing diversified oil imports. Belarusian state oil company Belneftkim reportedly began holding near-daily talks with potential oil suppliers, including Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States, Kazakhstan, and Azerbaijan, on January 14.[9] Lukashenko said January 24 that Belarus will attempt to import American, Saudi, and Emirati oil to keep its refineries running.[10] Belneftkim stated Belarusian refineries have run on minimum loads in 2020 due to Russian cutoffs and required substitutions to remain functional. 

Belarus purchased 80,000 tons of crude oil – roughly equivalent to 6 percent of the pre-2020 monthly shipments to Belarus from Russia – from Norway on January 21. Norway will deliver the oil over two weeks beginning January 26.[11] Belarus also agreed to purchase an additional shipment from Kazakhstan, which Russia blocked on January 21. [12] Lukashenko denounced Russia for blocking oil deliveries between two of its own allies in response. Lukashenko continues to take escalating actions aimed at squeezing concessions from Russia. Lukashenko raised tariffs to 6 percent on February 1 to “adjust for inflation” despite ongoing negotiations with Russia and the apparent stability of the Belarusian ruble.[13]

Lukashenko is trying to resist the Kremlin’s efforts to use gas prices as a tool to pressure Belarus into integration with Russia. Belarus is fully dependent on Russia for gas. Lukashenko is trying to keep prices at their 2019 levels, which Russia frames as a subsidized price but Belarus frames as a fair market price. Russia openly uses gas prices as leverage to influence Belarus. The Kremlin links continuing gas subsidies to Belarusian concessions on integration, claiming it would be a “mistake” to retain low gas prices to Belarus for 2020 prior to a concrete Union State roadmap.[14] Lukashenko and Putin negotiated the prices of Russian gas subsidies to Belarus throughout December 2019. Belarus and Russia reached a last-minute deal on December 31 to freeze gas prices at 2019 levels for January and February 2020 pending further negotiations.[15] Lukashenko took an opposing stance on January 9, accusing Russia of price gouging and stating Belarus will not sign a deal to purchase gas without continued lower pricing.[16] Belarusian officials stated on January 16 that Belarus and Russia would resume talks on gas pricing by the end of January; it is unclear if these talks have occurred.[17]

Despite the conflict over energy, Lukashenko continues cooperate with Russian integration in other sectors and prioritize friendly ties with Russia. Lukashenko explicitly expressed his dissatisfaction with Russian policies on oil and gas on January 9 but emphasized that he seeks fair energy relations, not ending ties.[18] Lukashenko continued to describe Russia as “brotherly Russia” in January 2020 despite his strong criticism of Russian energy pressure. Lukashenko has focused his resistance on the energy sector while assenting to other Russian integration demands.[19] It is unclear if Lukashenko intends to broaden his resistance to Russian integration efforts to include other sectors.

The Kremlin will likely successfully pressure Belarus into accepting increased gas prices or further Union State integration in ongoing negotiations, but Lukashenko might be able to slow and shape the process. Lukashenko has conducted a delicate balancing act between Russia and the West for decades. His ability to resist Russian pressure will rely on his ability to bundle various issues to dilute Russia’s leverage, keep Putin on the defensive in the information space, and get Western support on key issues, such as diversifying Belarus’s oil supplies. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Lukashenko on February 1 and stated that American energy producers are ready to sell oil to Belarus. Pompeo also dispelled rumors that Belarus might be added to the administration’s travel ban. This meeting, and Pompeo’s statements, will likely empower Lukashenko to resist Russian pressure.[20] Belarus will be unable to fully replace Russian supplies, but will likely be able to replace the minimum requirements to keep Belarusian refineries open during continued negotiations with Russia, allowing for leverage in tariff negotiations. Greater American and European supplies to Belarus during the negotiation process will strengthen his hand against Putin. However, Lukashenko has little leverage on gas subsidies, particularly following Russian successes in opening new avenues of gas transit in Ukraine and the ongoing NordStream and TurkStream projects in the Baltic and Turkey, respectively.[21]

Lukashenko likely understands he cannot wholly resist Russian integration, and will attempt to use sectors in which he has leverage, such as oil, to shape the Union State roadmap by stalling negotiations to attain limited Russian concessions. A Kremlin victory by increasing control over the Belarusian economy would further empower Putin, freeing up economic resources currently going to Belarus for other malign actions, and further the Kremlin’s goal of dominating the post-Soviet space. The West should support Lukashenko diplomatically and by providing oil import substitutions to protect Belarusian sovereignty and reduce the likelihood of an empowered Kremlin dominating Belarus.



[1] Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock, “Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy,” Institute for the Study of War, August 6, 2019, https://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2019/08/russia-in-review-domestic-dissent-and.html.
[2] “Lukashenko Calls on Putin to Resolve All Disputes Before December 8,” TASS, July 18, 2019, https://tass((.))com/world/1069256; [“Everything Secret Becomes Equal,”] Kommersant, December 9, 2019, https://www.kommersant((.))ru/doc/4187269; [“Putin and Lukashenko Talked for Five and a Half Hour. How did the Negotiations End?”] BBC Russia, December 8, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-50695675; [“Negotiations between Putin and Lukashenko Lasted more than Five Hours,”] Vedemosti, December 7, 2019, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/news/2019/12/07/818129-peregovori.
[3] “Lukashenko Calls on Putin to Resolve All Disputes Before December 8,” TASS, July 18, 2019, https://tass((.))com/world/1069256; [“Everything Secret Becomes Equal,”] Kommersant, December 9, 2019, https://www.kommersant((.))ru/doc/4187269; [“Putin and Lukashenko Talked for Five and a Half Hour. How did the Negotiations End?”] BBC Russia, December 8, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/russian/news-50695675; [“Negotiations between Putin and Lukashenko Lasted more than Five Hours,”] Vedemosti, December 7, 2019, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/news/2019/12/07/818129-peregovori.
[4] [“Belarus Wants in 2020 to Increase the Tariff for Oil Transit from Russia by 16.6%,”] Kommersant, December 17, 2019, https://www.kommersant((.))ru/doc/4197537.
[5] Ariel Cohen, “Russia Loses Billions in Druzhba Oil Pipeline Contamination Crisis,” Forbes, May 10, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/arielcohen/2019/05/10/russia-loses-billions-in-druzhba-oil-pipeline-contamination-crisis/#654d5d797795.
[6] [“Belarus Wants in 2020 to Increase the Tariff for Oil Transit from Russia by 16.6%,”] Kommersant, December 17, 2019, https://www.kommersant((.))ru/doc/4197537.
[7] “Russia Halts Oil Supply to Belarus Amid New Contract Dispute,” RFERL, January 3, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-halts-oil-supply-to-belarus-amid-new-contract-dispute/30358774.html.
[8] Belarus received an average of 1.5 million tons a month in 2019. Olga Yagova, Andrei Makhovsky, Gleb Gorodyankin, “Lukashenko Asks to Meet Putin with Russian Oil Supplies to Belarus Set to Dry Up,” Reuters, Jnauary 24, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-oil-russia/safmar-seen-as-sole-supplier-of-russian-oil-to-belarus-in-february-idUSKBN1ZN1H0; “Russia Resumes Limited Oil Supplies to Belarus Amid Talks,” Associated Press, January 4, 2020, https://apnews.com/1bfde0f0a13627c17c1d6ec834b7f919; “Belarus, Russia Officials Reach Deal to Reopen Oil Deliveries,” RFERL, January 4, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-russia-officials-reach-deal-to-reopen-oil-deliveries/30360183.html.
[9] “Belarus Scrambles for Oil amid Supply Standoff with Russia,” RFERL, January 14, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/belarus-scrambles-for-oil-amid-supply-standoff-with-russia/30376740.html.
[10] “Lukashenka Accuses Moscow of Pressuring Belarus into Russian Merger,” RFERL, January 25, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/lukashenka-belarus-accuses-russia-pressuring-merger/30396235.html.
[11] Yuras Karamanau, “Belarus Imports Oil from Norway after Russia Halts Supplies,” Associated Press, January 21, 2020, https://apnews.com/d9da311459fa561e4db06e9c4b0c8e85; “First Batch of Norwegian Oil Reaches Belarus,” Belsat, January 27, 2020, https://belsat.eu/en/news/first-batch-of-norwegian-oil-reaches-belarus/.
[12] “Lukashenka Says Russia Blocking Kazakhstan from Delivering Oil to Belarus,” RFERL, January 21, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/lukashenka-says-russia-blocking-kazakhstan-from-delivering-oil-to-belarus/30389521.html.
[13] “Tariff on Russian Oil Transit via Belarus to Rise by Over 6% as from 1 February,” Belarussian Telegraph Agency, January 30, 2020, https://eng.belta((.))by/economics/view/tariff-on-russian-oil-transit-via-belarus-to-rise-by-over-6-as-from-1-february-127711-2020/.
[14] “Russia Agrees to Short-Term Gas Deal with Belarus amid Union Push,” RFERL, December 31, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-agrees-to-short-term-gas-deal-with-belarus-amid-union-push/30354289.html.
[15] “Russia Agrees to Short-Term Gas Deal with Belarus amid Union Push,” RFERL, December 31, 2019, https://www.rferl.org/a/russia-agrees-to-short-term-gas-deal-with-belarus-amid-union-push/30354289.html.
[16] [“’Where is this Seen?’ – Lukashenko Spoke about Russia’s Desire to Sell Oil to Belarus above World Prices,”] Belarus Telegraph Agency, January 9, 2020, https://www.belta((.))by/president/view/gde-eto-vidano-lukashenko-rasskazal-o-zhelanii-rossii-prodavat-belarusi-neft-vyshe-mirovyh-tsen-375416-2020/.
[17] “Belarus to Resume Gas Talks with Russia in January,” Belarus Telegraph Agency, January 16, 2020, https://eng.belta((.))by/economics/view/belarus-to-resume-gas-talks-with-russia-in-january-127311-2020/.
[18] [“’Where is this Seen?’ – Lukashenko Spoke about Russia’s Desire to Sell Oil to Belarus above World Prices,”] Belarus Telegraph Agency, January 9, 2020, https://www.belta((.))by/president/view/gde-eto-vidano-lukashenko-rasskazal-o-zhelanii-rossii-prodavat-belarusi-neft-vyshe-mirovyh-tsen-375416-2020/.
[19] “Lukashenka Accuses Moscow of Pressuring Belarus into Russian Merger,” RFERL, January 25, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/lukashenka-belarus-accuses-russia-pressuring-merger/30396235.html.
[20] “Pompeo: Belarus Doesn’t Need to Pick Between U.S. and Russia,” RFERL, February 1, 2020, https://www.rferl.org/a/pompeo-belarus-relations-normalize-counter-russian-aggresion/30411255.html; “Secretary Pompeo’s Meeting with Belarusian President Lukashenka,” US Department of State, February 1, 2020, https://www.state.gov/secretary-pompeos-meeting-with-belarusian-president-lukashenka/; [“Meeting with US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo,”] President of Belarus, February 1, 2020, http://president.gov((.))by/ru/news_ru/view/vstrecha-s-gosudarstvennym-sekretarem-ssha-majklom-pompeo-22969/.
[21] George Barros and Nataliya Bugayova, “Europe Cedes Opportunity in Russia-Ukraine Energy Deal,” Institute for the Study of War, January 30, 2020, http://iswresearch.blogspot.com/2020/01/europe-cedes-opportunity-in-russia.html.