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Sunday, July 15, 2018

Syria Situation Report: June 29 - July 12, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period June 29 - July 12, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the map is accurate as of July 13, 2018. See the previous period's SITREP Map here.

Read ISW's assessment of the threat that Russia and Iran pose to American forces in Eastern Syria.



Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Hungary Risks NATO Unity on Ukraine

By Catherine Harris and Nataliya Bugayova with Molly Adler

Key Takeaway: Hungary is acting in support of Russia’s longstanding objective to distance Ukraine from NATO. Hungary attempted to block Ukraine from participating in the annual NATO Summit in Brussels on July 11 - 12. Russia will continue to exploit rising tensions between Ukraine and Hungary in order to isolate Ukraine from the West and fracture NATO. The U.S. and its allies should pressure Hungary to support Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO.

Hungary’s efforts to block Ukraine from the NATO Summit play into the hands of Russia. Hungary stated that it will block the NATO-Ukraine Commission from meeting at the upcoming NATO Summit on July 11 - 12 due to Hungary’s opposition to a recent language bill that Hungary asserts infringes on the rights of Hungarians in Ukraine. The Kremlin is pursuing a comprehensive campaign to target Ukraine via Hungary as outlined by the Institute for the Study of War in 2017. The Kremlin has attempted to influence a wide range of decision-makers in Hungary and fostered separatist narratives among Hungarians in Western Ukraine in order to destabilize Ukraine and distance it from the EU. The Kremlin is actively pursuing a broader region campaign aimed at driving a wedge between Ukraine and its neighbors such as Poland.

The U.S. and NATO allies should pressure Hungary to support the membership of Ukraine in NATO. Russia will continue to seize similar instances of bilateral friction as opportunities to distance Ukraine from NATO and erode the overall cohesion of NATO. The U.S. and NATO should use the upcoming summit to pressure Hungary to find an alternative venue to resolve its disputes and support Ukraine as a strong signal of united resolve towards Russia.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Putin Poised for Easy Victory Ahead of Summit with President Trump

By Nataliya Bugayova and Catherine Harris with Jack Ulses

Key Takeaway: U.S. President Donald Trump will likely make concessions but receive nothing meaningful in return during his first bilateral summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16. The summit itself will boost Putin’s legitimacy at the expense of the West. Any resultant agreement will simply mark an additional victory for Putin. The belief that the U.S. could benefit from a deal with Russia on Syria rests on inaccurate assumptions about Russia’s objectives and capabilities, particularly with regard to Iran in the Middle East. The meeting will likely exacerbate tensions between the U.S. and Europe, and embolden the Kremlin to continue its global campaigns to undermine U.S. interests and influence. Putin is continuing to use the doctrine of “reflexive control” - causing an adversary to choose from options advantageous to his own objectives - to shape the outcome of the summit in advance as analyzed by ISW in 2015.

It would be premature to make concessions now to Putin. A summit is not inherently counterproductive but current conditions will grant a disproportionate benefit to Russia.
  • The summit itself represents a significant concession by the U.S. considering the full suite of international sanctions on Russia. The summit boosts Putin’s domestic and international legitimacy at a time when his approval ratings at home are plummeting due to unpopular pension reform. Putin will exploit this short-term gain of credibility through his state-controlled propaganda machine. Putin uses such periodic endorsements of Russia’s global leadership and legitimacy as a great power to feed his disinformation campaigns at home and abroad, including narratives aimed at undermining the West.  
  • Recent Russian behavior does not warrant such a concession. The Kremlin has increasingly undermined U.S. interests and violated international law over the past four years, starting with its illegal occupation of the Crimean Peninsula in Ukraine. Limited U.S. and European sanctions may have slowed its ability to pursue these disruptive campaigns. Russia nonetheless continues these activities largely unabated and has not conceded any ground in prominent conflicts such as Ukraine or Syria.  
  • Russia should be paying for an opportunity to participate in a summit. The U.S. should have insisted that Russia meet a number of preconditions in exchange for the opportunity to reopen formal dialogue between Trump and Putin. The Kremlin - despite its posturing - would have likely conceded on some points given the importance of the meeting and its fundamentally weak negotiating position with few key leverage points. Putin will likely offer concessions that amount to resolving problems originally created by Russia. This kind of negotiation exemplifies typical reflexive control. 
The U.S. stands to gain little at the summit. The U.S. will likely cede both its leverage and its national security interests to the Kremlin. 
  • Trump might attempt to strike a deal with Putin that includes a withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria. The reported concept would formally cede control of the de-escalation zone in Southern Syria to Russia, guarantee the safe withdrawal of the U.S. from Eastern Syria, and require Russia to contain the influence of Iran in Southern Syria.  
  • The U.S. cannot protect its national security interests in Syria by outsourcing the problem to Russia. These interests include preventing the resurgence of ISIS and defeating al Qaeda, the latter of which ISW assesses is strengthening inside of Syria. Russia, Iran, and Assad likely do not possess sufficient capability to neutralize the threat posed by Salafi-Jihadism in Syria. ISIS therefore stands to resurge and reverse its losses after a withdrawal of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition from Syria. Trump’s reported plan to use Russia to curb Iran in Syria also rests on the flawed assumption that Russia is both willing and able to contain Iran. ISW has assessed that the Russo-Iranian Coalition is not an alliance of convenience but rather a strategic partnership based on shared long-term interests beyond Syria. Putin is highly unlikely to deliver on his promises to contain Iran.
  • Russia is still intensifying its campaign to expel the U.S. from Syria. Russia seeks to expel the U.S. from Syria in order to reassert the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and thereby guarantee long-term basing for Russia in Syria. Putin may seek to capitalize on Trump’s stated preference for an “imminent” withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria. The Russo-Iranian Coalition is building a network of deniable proxy forces to attack the U.S. and its local partner - the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - in Eastern Syria. Russia intends to use this threat to coopt the SDF and delegitimize the presence of the U.S. in Syria. Putin simultaneously circulated false narratives regarding the withdrawal of Russia from Syria in order to shape perceptions ahead of the summit. Putin has previously claimed similar troop withdrawals when his forces conducted regular rotations of military assets. The Kremlin has set conditions to offer control over the de-escalation zone in Southern Syria and restraints on Assad in Eastern Syria as false concessions to the U.S. These terms would support the strategic objectives of the Russo-Iranian Coalition at the expense of the U.S. in Syria. The Kremlin might also attempt to guide the U.S. toward a future counterterrorism partnership that masks its true aim to exclude the U.S. from Syria. 
Putin will likely attempt to extract critical concessions from the U.S. over time. 
  • Putin’s key wish-list for the summit includes removing sanctions, compelling the U.S. to abandon Ukraine and Syria, and curbing NATO’s military buildup in Europe. These potential demands are listed in the chart below. Putin will likely prioritize action on sanctions due to their impact on his ability to wage subversive campaigns abroad and maintain internal stability at home. The U.S. is currently pressuring its allies in Europe to abandon the controversial Nord Stream 2 Pipeline from Russia to Germany. The Trump Administration passed conditional sanctions on Russian aluminum producer Rusal that will have acute economic effects when they take effect around August 2018. The EU also recently agreed to renew sanctions on Russia linked to Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Putin will seek to compel the U.S. to cease its lobbying against Nord Stream 2 in Europe and halt the imposition of new sanctions against Russia. He may offer the promise of a fictional counterterrorism partnership in Syria as an incentive to Trump.
  • Putin will nonetheless likely forgo these broader demands at the Helsinki Summit in order to avoid resistance from the wider U.S. national security establishment. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton notably did not discuss sanctions on Russia during his official visit to Moscow on June 27. Putin instead will use the summit to boost his legitimacy, set conditions for follow-on discussions, and exploit opportunities to drive friction between the U.S. and Europe. Putin will exploit the existing friction between the U.S. and EU over Nord Stream 2 and other sanctions on Russia as well as the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran.
The summit will likely further embolden Russia even as it erodes the unity of the West. 
  • Several EU countries are actively resetting relations with Russia. Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz hosted Putin in order to strengthen bilateral relations in June 2018. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is also prioritizing stronger ties with the Kremlin, including a review of EU sanctions on Russia. Putin has sensed this opportunity and met with numerous world leaders in May and June 2018 in a likely effort to court the EU and drive a wedge between the U.S. and Europe.[1] The EU will draw a powerful signal from the summit regardless of its outcome. Russia stands to attract a small but growing number of EU member-states into its orbit, intensifying friction within the EU. 
  • NATO may similarly suffer negative consequences from the summit. Trump continued to voice his dissatisfaction with the spending contributions of allied states in NATO ahead of a scheduled July 11-12 NATO Summit. Trump has also criticized the structure of the alliance, prompting the resignation of the U.S. Ambassador to Estonia.  
The Kremlin still considers its top global adversary to be the U.S. and NATO. Putin’s objectives remain focused on preserving his regime, limiting U.S. global hegemony, and expanding the sphere of influence of Russia. His supporting objectives include increasing friction between the U.S. and EU, fracturing NATO, regaining full political control over Ukraine, and expanding Russia’s footprint in the Middle East. The Helsinki Summit - on its current trajectory - will only help to advance these goals for the Kremlin.

The chart below shows the set of long-term demands that the Kremlin may seek to ultimately negotiate with U.S. President Donald Trump. Putin is unlikely to focus on these demands during the summit but rather set conditions for follow-on engagements.           



[1] “Events.” President of Russia. Available: http://en(.)kremlin.ru/events/president/news?utm_source
=The+Bell&utm_campaign=1bbdd43b59EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2018_06_22_05_57&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_bf115e1d8f-1bbdd43b59-73265785

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Russia Abandons Southwest Syria Deal in Support of Assad & Iran

By Matti Suomenaro and Kellen Comer

Russia is directly supporting an offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in violation of the de-escalation zone in Southern Syria. Pro-Assad regime forces backed by Russia and Iran launched a major offensive against opposition-held terrain in Southern Syria on June 19. The offensive involves elite pro-regime units such as the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) Fourth Armored Division, Republican Guard, and Tiger Forces[1] as well as alleged participation by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)[2] and Iraqi Shia militias. Pro-regime forces seized - or forced the surrender of - most of opposition-held Eastern Dera’a Province by July 2. Russia supported these advances with a campaign of intense airstrikes targeting both military and civilian infrastructure across Eastern Dera’a Province starting on June 24. The Russian Foreign Ministry nonetheless claimed that Russia remains committed to the de-escalation zone in Southern Syria brokered by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan in July 2017. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova stressed that the pro-regime offensive aims to fulfill the alleged obligation of the deal to “eradicate terrorists”[3] in Southern Syria. Zakharova noted that the Russian Armed Forces are present on the ground to facilitate negotiations between the regime and armed opposition groups in Southern Syria.



Russia is facilitating a humanitarian catastrophe in order to force the surrender of opposition-held towns and villages in Southern Syria. Russia’s air campaign has reportedly destroyed at least seven hospitals and displaced more than two hundred thousand civilians in Eastern Dera’a Province since June 24. Russia has also advised the UN to halt cross-border deliveries of humanitarian aid from Jordan into Southern Syria. Russia is purposefully creating a wave of displacement and violence in order to coerce armed opposition groups and civilians into accepting localized reconciliation deals across Southern Syria. Russian Military Police have successfully brokered the reconciliation of more than eight towns and villages in Eastern Dera’a Province since June 29. The terms for these reconciliations often amount to unconditional submission, including the surrender of all heavy and medium weapons as well as the return of regime security and intelligence services. Russia used similar military and political pressure to coerce the surrender of opposition-held communities during the pro-regime offensive against the Eastern Ghouta Suburbs of Damascus in February 2018. Russia has demonstrated a consistent willingness to disregard international law and its own diplomatic commitments in order to facilitate the full reconquest of opposition-held Syria by Assad.



[1]“Tiger Forces Commander Enters Deraa with Russian ground, Air Escort.” Al Masdar, June 19, 20108. Available: https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/tiger-forces-commander-enters-daraa-with-russian-ground-air-escort/
[2] [Liwa Imam al Baqir] Facebook, June 21, 2018. Available: https://www.facebook(.)com/hendawi.98/posts/1009482709201809
[3] “Briefing by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Maria Zakharova, Moscow, June 28, 2018.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, June 28, 2018. Available: http://www.mid(.)ru/en/press_service/spokesman/briefings/-/asset_publisher/D2wHaWMCU6Od/content/id/3280395#3

Friday, June 29, 2018

Syria Situation Report: June 12 - 28, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period June 12-28, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the map is accurate as of June 28, 2018.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Russia and Iran Prepare Offensive Targeting U.S. and Partner Forces in Eastern Syria

By Jennifer Cafarella and Matti Suomenaro with Catherine Harris

Key Takeaway: Iran and Russia are preparing to attack the U.S. and its primary ground partner - the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - in Eastern Syria. These threats may coerce the SDF to abandon its relationship with the U.S. and instead cut a deal with Assad. Iran and Russia will attempt to compel the withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria by inflicting deniable costs and stoking guerilla conflicts through their proxies in Northern and Eastern Syria. The U.S. must commit to defending its partners and presence in Eastern Syria in order to prevent the resurgence of ISIS and deny key resources to Iran, Russia, and Assad.

Iran, Russia, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are preparing to attack the U.S. and its primary ground partner - the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - in Eastern Syria. Iran, Russia, and Assad seek to compel a withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria by imposing costs (including casualties) on the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Assad reiterated his intent to recapture terrain held by the SDF in Northern Syria in separate interviews with Kremlin-controlled media on May 31 and June 24. Assad stressed that the regime will not hesitate to use force if negotiations fail with the SDF.

Iran and Russia are consolidating their existing proxies with newly-recruited pro-regime tribal fighters in order to generate deniable combat power in Eastern Syria. The forces they can leverage include:
  • Liwa al-Baqir – a Syrian Arab tribal militia backed by Iran and Russia. Liwa al-Baqir - a tribal militia trained by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) - published a statement calling for jihad against the U.S. in Syria on April 6. Iran and Russia are likely helping to build the capabilities of Liwa al-Baqir in Eastern Syria. Iran coopted a prominent sheikh of the Baggara Tribe to recruit pro-regime tribal forces from Lebanon and Syria in 2017.[1] The Baggara Tribal Confederation operates primarily in SDF-held areas in Deir ez-Zour Province. These new recruits are likely joining Liwa al-Baqir, which consolidated military positions near SDF-held oil and gas fields near Deir ez Zour City from March to April 2018.[2] Russia also provides military and logistical support to up to 8,000 pro-regime tribal fighters, likely augmenting Liwa al-Baqir.[3]
  • Iran and its proxies in Eastern Syria. The IRGC and Iranian-backed proxies including Lebanese Hezbollah and elements of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) are present in regime-held areas of Deir ez-Zour Province. An alleged airstrike by Israel targeted a buildup of PMF and Hezbollah in Eastern Syria on June 18. The airstrike also likely killed an IRGC Brigadier General, whom Iran confirmed died near Abu Kamal in Southern Deir ez-Zour Province. Iran is disguising some of its forces and proxies as regime units in order to obfuscate the extent of its military presence in Eastern Syria. “Cross-border militias” - likely a reference to Iranian proxies - are reportedly wearing the uniforms of the Syrian Arab Army in Deir ez-Zour Province. Iran leverages this technique elsewhere in the region, including Iraq and the Golan Heights
  • Pro-regime tribal forces backed by Iran. Assad and Liwa al-Baqir convened a major meeting of tribal notables from across Syria on June 2 in order to build support for operations against the U.S. in Eastern Syria. Syrian state media claimed the meeting included representatives from seventy clans from Aleppo, Ar-Raqqa, Hasakah, Deraa, and Deir ez-Zour Provinces. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the SDF arrested dozens of additional tribal representatives travelling to the meeting from SDF-held Hasaka Province in Northern Syria. Tribal representatives at the meeting denounced the presence of the U.S., France, and Turkey in Syria and called for tribal mobilization to fight them on behalf of Assad. Multiple new pro-regime militia units of unclear size and capability reportedly formed subsequent to the meeting. These units may have joined Liwa al-Baqir with support from Russia and Iran. 
  • Russian combat engineers and private military contractors. Russian combat engineers deployed to Syria in April 2018. Kremlin-controlled private military contractors (PMC) are similarly deployed in Eastern Syria and will likely participate in future attacks against the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.[4] The Kremlin used a PMC-led force to attack the SDF and U.S. near Deir ez-Zour City in February 2018. Russia may use these assets to directly support an attack against the SDF or indirectly enable such an attack by helping secure rear areas for Assad. Russia may have prepositioned additional assets in Eastern Syria under the guise of operations against ISIS. 
  • Other pro-regime militias backed by Russia. Russia supports other Syrian tribal militias that operate in Eastern Syria, including a group called the Forces of the Fighters of the Tribes.[5] Russia also trains the Syrian ISIS Hunters militia which often fights alongside Russian PMCs. The ISIS Hunters – despite their name - have attacked both opposition groups and the U.S. in Syria.[6] The ISIS Hunters deployed additional forces to Southern Deir ez-Zour Province from Damascus in early June 2018, ostensibly to intensify operations against ISIS.[7] Russia could use these forces and deployments to attack the SDF and U.S. in Eastern Syria. 
Russia and Iran have increased their propaganda efforts against the U.S. in Syria, highlighting their resolve to escalate against the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Kremlin-backed Sputnik News quoted a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader stating that terrain held by the SDF in Syria will become “another Vietnam for the U.S.” on June 22.[8] The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on June 10 that U.S.-backed opposition groups were preparing a chemical weapons attack against pro-regime units stationed in oil fields southeast of Deir ez-Zour City.[9] Russia also repeatedly claimed that U.S.-backed forces have both directly attacked the regime and supported attacks against pro-regime forces by ISIS in Central and Eastern Syria from June 11 - 18. Two Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias announced their intent to retaliate against the U.S. for the airstrike against their forces in Eastern Syria on June 18.[10] Russia and Iran are framing the U.S. and its partners as aggressors in order to justify and legitimize future attacks against the U.S. in Eastern Syria. The rising volume of this rhetoric may indicate that Iran and Russia intend to escalate in the near-term rather than wait for the conclusion of operations against ISIS.

Russia, Iran, and Assad have not been deterred from further escalation by the overwhelming defeat of a large-scale attack by their proxies against the U.S. and SDF in February 2018. Iran and Russia have instead enabled Assad to conduct additional probing attacks to demonstrate resolve and test the capabilities of their new forces against the SDF. Russian military engineers erected one or more bridges to enable a cross-river attack against the SDF along the Euphrates River on April 29, 2018.[11] The attack involved Liwa al- Baqir, Syrian National Defense Forces (NDF), and unidentified reinforcements from Deir ez-Zour City. These reinforcements may have included Russian PMCs. The SDF later recaptured the villages after air support from the U.S. reportedly destroyed at least one of the bridges erected by Russia. The SDF continues to exchange artillery and small-arms fire with pro-regime forces in the region.

Iran, Russia, and Assad could conduct a guerilla campaign to destabilize SDF-held areas and target the U.S. in Syria. Russia, Iran, and Assad can use their small presence in Northern Syria near reported bases used by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition to disrupt and threaten the U.S. and SDF. Russia and Iran could also leverage their tribal proxy networks in order to support an increased campaign of guerilla attacks against the U.S. in Northern Syria. Pro-regime forces began infiltrating regions held by the SDF as early as February 2018 when a new pro-regime group called the Popular Resistance in the Eastern Region formed and announced its support for the jihad against the U.S. in Syria. The group carries out subversive activities to spread anti-American sentiment within Ar-Raqqa City and also claimed attacks against positions held by the U.S. and France in Northern Syria on April 12. Pro-regime elements likely also placed two IEDs that targeted a U.S.-French joint military base north of Ar-Raqqa City on June 4 and an SDF patrol inside Ar-Raqqa City on June 17.[12] Another new pro-regime group called the Popular Resistance in Manbij also declared an uprising against the U.S. and SDF in the contested town of Manbij in Northern Aleppo Province on June 25.[13] The new group suggests growing momentum behind recruitment efforts led by Liwa al-Baqir in Aleppo Province. Pro-regime elements may have placed an IED that killed two coalition service-members from the U.S. and near Manbij on March 29, 2018.

Russia, Iran, and Assad intend to compel the SDF to abandon its partnership with the U.S. The relationship between the U.S. and SDF is increasingly fragile following due to Turkey’s invasion of majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton in Northern Syria in January 2018. The relationship has also been strained by new cooperation between the U.S. and Turkey over the contested SDF-held town of Manbij in Northern Aleppo Province. The SDF agreed to unconditional negotiations with Assad on June 10, signaling an increased willingness to grant concessions in return for future protection against Turkey. The military pressure generated by Russia, Iran, and Assad in Eastern Syria may further accelerate a deal between Assad and the SDF that could force a withdrawal of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition from Syria.

Russia and Iran may seize the initiative in Eastern Syria while the U.S. attention is focused on Turkey and Southern Syria. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition remains focused on the implementation of the new framework agreement with Turkey in Manbij as well as continued counter-ISIS operations near the Syrian-Iraqi Border in Eastern Syria. The U.S. is also focused on Southern Syria, where Russia and Iran are supporting a regime offensive against opposition-held areas that violates a de-escalation zone brokered by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan in 2017. Russia, Iran, and Assad may exploit this divided attention to seize the initiative in Eastern Syria.

The U.S. must commit to retaining its partnerships and presence in Eastern Syria. The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition’s gains in Syria will unravel if the U.S. fails to deter or block the continued subversion campaign by Russia, Iran, and Assad. The recent breakthroughs with Turkey over Manbij is an important step but could backfire if it leads to a wider fracture between the U.S. and SDF. The U.S. must not allow the SDF to cut a deal with Assad. Instead, the U.S. should commit to providing enduring military support to the SDF in order to deny access to critical terrain and natural resources to Russia, Iran, and Assad.



[1] “[Baqir Militia Declares War Against the U.S. in Jazeera.]” Zaman al Wasl. April 7, 2018. Available: https://www.zamanalwsl(.)net/news/article/86180/
[2] “[Liwa al Baqir Commander Dies in Deir ez Zour.] Enab Baladi. March 25, 2018. Available: ”https://www.enabbaladi(.)net/archives/216005
[3] “[Regime Intelligence tasked Nawaf al Bashir with forming tribal resistance units]” Syrian Mirror. May 25, 2017. Available: https://syrian-mirror(.)net/ar/الحشد-العشائري-الشيخ-نواف-البشير/
[4] Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation Facebook. June 11, 2018. Available: https://www.facebook(.)com/mod.mil.rus/photos/a.1492313031011448.1073741828.1492252324350852/2113456445563767/?type=3&theater
[5] ”[Ukayrishah Agreement: The SDF surrenders the southern Raqqa country side to the regime.]”al Modon. July 7, 2018. Available: https://www.almodon(.)com/arabworld/2017/7/22/اتفاق-العكيرشي-قسد-تسلم-ريف-الرقة-الجنوبي-للنظام. “[Thousands of fighters on the desert front: Tribes in the battles for the East.]” al Akhbar. July 29, 2017. https://www.almodon(.)com/arabworld/2017/7/22/اتفاق-العكيرشي-قسد-تسلم-ريف-الرقة-الجنوبي-للنظام
[6] ISIS Hunters. March 7, 2018. Available: https://twitter.com/ISIS_Hunters/status/971396016963571712, ISIS Hunters. February 11, 2018. Available: https://twitter.com/ISIS_Hunters/status/962691164120985600
[7] “[Military Operations Report for the Middle East and Syria 4-5 June 2018.]” FrontInfo. June 5, 2018. Available: http://frontinfo(.)media/voennaja-operativnaja-svodka-po-blizhnemu-vostoku-i-sirii-4-5-ijunja-2018/
[8] “Iranian Leader's Aide Promises US 'Second Vietnam' in Syria.” Sputnik. June 22, 2018. Available: https://sputniknews(.)com/middleeast/201806221065667835-iran-us-promise-vietnam/
[9]  Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation Facebook. June 11, 2018. Available: https://www.facebook(.)com/mod.mil.rus/photos/a.1492313031011448.1073741828.1492252324350852/2104152823160796/?type=3&theater
[10] “[Hezbollah Brigades: The crime of bombing will reopen confrontations with the Zionist entity and the US and we will not hesitate to confront them.]” Kata’ib Hezbollah. June 19, 2018. Available: http://kataibhizbollah(.)com/news/2913, “[We condemn the targeting of resistance factions on the Iraqi-Syrian border.]” Ahlul Haq. June 19, 2018. Available:http://ahlualhaq(.)com/index.php/permalink/6704.html
[11] “[Renewed clashes between the SDF and the Regime in Western Deir ez Zour]” Syria TV. May 1, 2018. Available: https://www.syria(.)tv/content/تجدد-الاشتباكات-بين-قسد-وقوات-النظام-بريف-دير-الزور-الغربي, “[Regime advances into areas controlled by America’s allies in Deir ez Zour]” Zaman al Wasl, April 29, 2018. Available:  https://www.zamanalwsl(.)net/news/article/86759/
[12] “[Three fighters dead and one wounded after another explosion in Raqqa City]” ANHA. June 17, 2018. Available: http://www.hawarnews(.)com/ar/haber/d8a7d8b3d8aad8b4d987d8a7d8af-3-d985d982d8a7d8aad984d98ad986-d988d8acd8b1d8ad-d8a2d8aed8b1-d981d98a-d8a7d986d981d8acd8a7d8b1-d8a7d984d8b1d982d8a9-h3908.html
[13] “Popular Resistance against Turkish and American occupation begins in Manbij” Al Masdar. June 25, 2018. Available: https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/انطلاق-المقاومة-الشعبية-ضد-الاحتلال-ا/

The Collapse of Turkey’s Democracy

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emerged from snap elections poised to dominate the next decade of politics in Turkey. Erdogan is empowered to further consolidate his domestic power and degrade the rule of law at the expense of his political opponents. The U.S. will face a more nationalistic – and more intransigent - Turkey that is more willing to buck its alliance with NATO and expand military operations against Kurdish militants in Syria and Iraq.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan achieved his longstanding goal to consolidate his political dominance over Turkey’s failing democracy. Erdogan secured the presidency and a majority parliamentary coalition following snap elections held in Turkey on June 24. Erdogan will preside over an executive presidency with new wide-ranging powers codified after he won a referendum to amend the Turkish Constitution in April 2017. He can now issue presidential decrees with the force of law – a power previously available only during a state of emergency. Erdogan will use his new mandate to erode the few remaining independent arms of the Government of Turkey, starting with the Turkish Central Bank.

Allegations of electoral fraud and manipulations abound. The opposition has nevertheless conceded the elections. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) stated that authorities restricted “fundamental freedoms” and held an “undue advantage” in the election. The Turkish Supreme Elections Committee will announce the finalized results on July 5.


See the note below regarding the validity of the figures in this infographic.

Erdogan is now more dependent on his alliance with the main right-wing party and will likely confront Kurdish militants more forcefully. Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its majority in the Turkish Parliament.[1] He nonetheless retained a parliamentary majority through his alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Erdogan must remain responsive to the MHP even though the new executive presidency sharply curbs the power of the legislature. The MHP takes an uncompromising stance in favor of a militarized approach to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its affiliate in Syria. Erdogan will likely satisfy this domestic audience by making good on his promises of expanded operations against the PKK in Iraq and Syria. Erdogan’s campaign against PKK-affiliates partnered with the U.S. in Syria will serve to deepen the rift in the U.S.-Turkish alliance.

Infographic Note: This graphic presents interim election results sourced from Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency endorsed by the Supreme Electoral Council of Turkey. These results reflect a Turkish election that was neither fair nor free with electoral fraud likely.   



[1] “Cumhurbaşkanı ve 27. Dönem Milletvekili Genel Seçimleri,” Anadolu Ajansi. June 25, 2018.  https://secim(.)aa.com.tr/tr

Friday, June 22, 2018

A "Remarkable" Afghan Ceasefire

By Scott DesMarais


Key Takeaway: The U.S. and Afghanistan have an opportunity to advance their strategic goal of negotiating an acceptable settlement with the Taliban, but not all Taliban members are reconcilable. The Taliban faces a potential rift between its leadership and rank-and-file militants in Afghanistan that threatens the Taliban’s cohesion. Large numbers of rank-and-file militants expressed their support for peace during unprecedented joint celebrations alongside Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) during a nationwide ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr on June 15 - 17. The ceasefire’s events exposed rifts amongst Taliban leadership concerning reconciliation. The U.S. and the Government of Afghanistan could exploit these apparent rifts in order to advance their strategic goal of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. The new momentum towards peace could nonetheless generate additional pressure for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan amidst the scheduled 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections. ISIS - Wilayat Khorasan could also exploit these rifts in to bolster its recruitment of hardline Taliban militants and expand its operations in Afghanistan.

What Happened 

The Taliban and Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) engaged in “remarkable scenes” of joint celebration during a three-day ceasefire observed by both the Taliban and the ANSF. The Government of Afghanistan estimated that up to 30,000 Taliban militants entered government-held cities across the country during the three-day truce in honor of the end of Ramadan.[1] The gatherings reportedly occurred in several regions that have seen intense fighting during the Taliban’s 2018 Al-Khandaq Offensive including Faryab, Farah, Ghazni, and Kunduz Provinces as well as traditional Taliban strongholds such as Helmand and Kandahar Provinces. Even “senior” leaders reportedly met with government officials in Zabul and Logar Provinces. Taliban fighters interviewed by the media repeatedly expressed their fatigue with continued violence and their growing desire for peace.

The ceasefire could validate President Ghani’s strategy to achieve a negotiated settlement. Ghani offered the Taliban full political reconciliation in exchange for a ceasefire and the resumption of peace negotiations on February 28. The Taliban refused to acknowledge the offer officially, although multiple U.S. officials have claimed that elements of the Taliban including “senior-level leaders” are “clearly interested” in talks with the Government of Afghanistan since Ghani’s peace offer. Ghani later unilaterally announced the ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr on June 7 despite ongoing operations by the Taliban that threatened at least seven provincial capitals around Afghanistan. The Taliban bowed to public pressure and announced their own nominally-unrelated ceasefire on June 9. Ghani has attempted to leverage the apparent success of the truce to spur further political progress. Ghani announced a unilateral ten-day extension of the ceasefire - until June 30 – on June 17. He also stressed that his government is open to negotiations with the Taliban on “issues of mutual concern” including the “presence of foreign forces” in Afghanistan.

The Taliban leadership has thus far rejected further extension of a ceasefire and has resumed its attacks in some remote locations. The Taliban spokesperson stated that the group has “no intention to extend the ceasefire" on June 17 and resumed offensive operations throughout Afghanistan including on June 18. Taliban militants conducted significant attacks in Faryab, Badghis, and Farah Provinces since their ceasefire’s expiration. The Taliban may intend to exploit the government’s extended ceasefire to amass fighters and launch a coordinated operation against vulnerable provincial capitals in Faryab or Farah Provinces. The Taliban also executed smaller attacks in many provinces where joint celebrations occurred such as Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, and Helmand.

Implications 

The Taliban faces a potential rift between its leadership and rank-and-file militants in Afghanistan that threatens the Taliban’s cohesiveness. Taliban militants repeatedly violated a formal directive from their leadership to avoid government-controlled areas on June 16. Taliban fighters also demanded an extension to the ceasefire in parts of Paktika Province controlled by the hardline Haqqani Network. The Taliban released an official post-ceasefire statement stressing the organizational cohesion and control demonstrated by the “successful implementation” of the truce despite the clear violations of leadership orders.[2] The Taliban leadership also allegedly considered a ten-day ceasefire for late 2018 due to growing pressure for a negotiated settlement within the Taliban. The Government of Afghanistan and the U.S. could attempt to exploit the apparent divisions within the Taliban to split rank-and-file fighters from their leadership if the Taliban refuses to engage with Kabul.

The Taliban also faces a power struggle within its ruling Quetta Shura. The ceasefire could exacerbate a rift between Taliban leaders who are open to reconciliation and hardliners unwilling to negotiate a settlement. The joint celebrations reportedly surprised and angered some Taliban leaders including Taliban Second Deputy Leader Mullah Yaqoob.[3] Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada – a reported moderate - may use widespread support for peace amongst the rank-and-file to consolidate his control within the Quetta Shura vis-à-vis hardliners such as Mullah Yaqoob and First Deputy Leader Siraj Haqqani. This power struggle predates the ceasefire. Akhundzada reportedly reshuffled multiple shadow governors and senior leaders to increase his control over the movement in February 2018. Rumors of additional post-ceasefire leadership changes may further demonstrate shifting dynamics in favor of Akhundzada. The weakening of hardliners like Haqqani - who maintains close ties to al Qaeda and Pakistan - in favor of Akhundzada could open space for peace-inclined factions of the Taliban to pursue a negotiated settlement. Hardline elements are likely to continue the fight against Kabul.

The U.S. could exploit these apparent rifts in order to advance its strategic objectives in Afghanistan. The U.S. intends to use military and diplomatic means to pressure the Taliban to negotiate a peace settlement with the Government of Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. is “prepared to support, facilitate, and participate” in peace negotiations that would include “a discussion of the role of international actors and forces” in Afghanistan on June 16. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells reaffirmed the willingness to participate in negotiations but reiterated the established U.S. position that the Taliban must negotiate directly with the Government of Afghanistan on June 20. Incoming U.S. Forces – Afghanistan Commander Lt. Gen. Scott Miller has also testified that a political settlement must end the War in Afghanistan.

The U.S. nonetheless must remain cautious that the peace process does not jeopardize its access to Afghanistan. Members of the both houses of the Afghan Parliament have criticized the U.S. role in Afghanistan since May 2018. Some members of the upper house have called for the review or cancellation of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between the U.S. and Afghanistan.[4] Meanwhile, peace protesters marching from Helmand Province to Kabul to encourage reconciliation with the Taliban have also demanded a specific timeline for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan. Taliban sources have also claimed that a clearly-defined timeline for withdrawal could have persuaded Taliban leadership to accept a ceasefire extension after Eid al-Fitr. These converging demands for the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan could begin to spiral into a widespread populist movement ahead of the scheduled 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections and 2019 Afghan Presidential Elections. The U.S. must not depart abruptly or under a fixed timeline but rather through a gradual drawdown after setting and testing the conditions for sustained peace in Afghanistan.

ISIS could also exploit the ceasefire and possibility of a negotiated settlement to expand its operations in Afghanistan. ISIS’s Afghanistan branch, ISIS Wilayat Khorasan, claimed two separate attacks that targeted joint celebrations between the Taliban and ANSF in Nangarhar Province during Eid al-Fitr. The statements noted that the attacks targeted gatherings of both the ANSF and “the apostate Taliban Movement.” The Taliban later released a post-ceasefire statement arguing that the Taliban is the only movement leading “jihad across the country,” and adding that “multiple parties [are] not participating in this jihad.”[5] The statement - while directed against the U.S. assessment of a fractured jihadist movement in Afghanistan - may also highlight the Taliban leadership’s concern that the ceasefire will harm their credentials as the leaders of the jihad in Afghanistan. ISIS could position itself to recruit dissatisfied hardline members of the Taliban if Taliban leadership begin openly pursuing a peaceful settlement with the Government of Afghanistan.



[1] The Government of Afghanistan initially announced a unilateral eight-day ceasefire from June 12 - 20 before extending it to June 30. The Taliban’s “unrelated” ceasefire only lasted from June 15 - 17.
[2] “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding end of three day Eid ceasefire,” Voice of Jihad. June 17, 2018. https://alemarah-english(.)com/?p=30455%5C
[3] Mullah Yaqoob is the son of the Taliban’s founder – Mullah Omar.
[4] Including Mohammad Alam Ezedyar – the First Deputy Speaker of the Afghan Parliament and a “leading” member of Jamiat-e Islami
[5] “Statement of Islamic Emirate regarding end of three day Eid ceasefire,” Voice of Jihad. June 17, 2018. https://alemarah-english(.)com/?p=30455%5C