Thursday, August 16, 2018

Syria Situation Report: July 28 - August 5, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

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

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Russia in Review: August 7-13, 2018

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

Reporting Period: August 7-13, 2018

Authors: Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses

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

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

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

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

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

What to Watch

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

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

[1] Elizabeth Antonovna, [“Questions for the referendum: what did the CEC allow to ask about the retirement age,”] RBC, August 8, 2018, https://www(.)

[2] [“Pension Reform,”] Levada Center, May 7, 2018, https://www(.)

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

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

[5] Charles Bybelezer, “Russia: Israel Agrees To Removal Of Iranian Forces 85 Kilometers From Golan Heights Border,” The Media Line, August 2, 2018, http://www(.)

[6] “Press release on Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s meeting with a delegation from the International Federation of Kurdish Communities,” Russian MFA, August 6, 2018, http://www(.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Syria Situation Report: July 12 - July 27, 2018

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

This graphic mark the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period July 12 - July 27, 2018. The control of terrain represented on the map is accurate as of July 31, 2018. See the previous period's SITREP Map here.

Related Reading: ISW's Jennifer Cafarella lays out the next phase of the war in Syria in an essay for Foreign Affairs.

Afghan Government on Shaky Ground Ahead of Elections

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani is facing a powerful, cross-ethnic opposition bloc that could destabilize and ultimately collapse the Afghan government. The growing prospect of political instability ahead of key elections threatens U.S. objectives defined by President Donald Trump and his administration. These objectives include defeating Salafi-jihadists and facilitating a negotiated political settlement to the war in Afghanistan.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani faces an unprecedented cross-ethnic challenge threatening political stability in Afghanistan. The Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan (CSA) – a powerful opposition alliance – created the Grand National Coalition of Afghanistan on July 26. The CSA is led by key powerbrokers including recently returned First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, former Balkh Province Governor Mohammad Atta Noor, Deputy Chief Executive Officer Mohammad Mohaqiq, and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani. The Grand National Coalition brings together Afghanistan’s main ethnic minorities – Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara – with leaders from the ethnic majority Pashtun. The coalition’s alignment against Ghani could destabilize – if not topple – the current Afghan government and undermine U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.

The Grand National Coalition could conceivably defeat Ghani in the 2019 Afghan Presidential Election. The CSA had already united key political opponents of Ghani. The Grand National Coalition further expands its power. It incorporates most senior leaders from Atta’s Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society) – one of the most powerful but fractious political parties in Afghanistan. Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai also announced his support for the Grand National Coalition, which already included several of his political affiliates, on July 27. The combination of unified support from Jamiat-e Islami and the widespread patronage networks and influence that Karzai wields could prove decisive if organized behind a single opponent to Ghani in 2019.

The Grand National Coalition could alternatively resort to extra-constitutional measures to remove Ghani. Grand National Coalition leaders have repeatedly raised allegations of widespread election fraud. Several CSA leaders previously demanded the invalidation of voter registration records for the upcoming 2018 Afghan Parliamentary Elections. Atta warned that election fraud could prompt the installation of a Transitional Government. The Grand National Coalition may use these complaints as a pretext to call a traditional (and extralegal) Loya Jirga in an attempt to unseat Ghani. Ghani reportedly views this threat as legitimate and fears that Karzai could “manipulate the forum to undermine” the government. This maneuver would likely further destabilize politics in Kabul and paralyze the Afghan government.

The Grand National Coalition could destabilize the Afghan government and thereby threaten key U.S. interests, including the fight against Salafi-jihadist groups and efforts to end the broader war. The Grand National Coalition remains a divided alliance of historic rivals without a unified vision for Afghanistan’s future. It will likely devolve into disunity even if it successfully deposes Ghani. Afghanistan thus faces an unpredictable election season that could risk the return of civil war similar to the contested 2014 Afghan Presidential Elections. The Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) will exploit any political dysfunction to expand their territorial control. Continuing instability will increase the risk of Salafi-jihadist groups finding safe haven in Afghanistan. The Taliban are also unlikely to pursue any meaningful negotiations with a fragmented Afghan government. President Donald Trump’s Administration has committed the U.S. to facilitating a negotiated political settlement to the war in Afghanistan. An unstable government in Kabul will undermine the prospects for achieving that outcome.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Navigating the U.S.-Turkey Relationship Beyond the Quagmire

By Elizabeth Teoman

Key Takeaway: The U.S. needs Turkey as an active partner despite its slide into authoritarianism under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. should adopt an interest-based approach towards Turkey that shapes its behavior in line with shared strategic objectives such as reversing the gains of Iran and Russia in the Middle East.

The U.S. needs Turkey to contribute actively as an ally in NATO. The U.S. and NATO face an increasingly aggressive Russia in the Middle East and Europe. Turkey plays an integral role in countering this threat. It dominates the Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean. It provides a strategically-positioned platform on the southern flank of NATO from which to exert influence in the Middle East and Black Sea. It also maintains the second-largest available combat force in NATO. The U.S. and NATO already operate a number of critical military installations across Turkey including Incirlik Airbase.

Turkey is nonetheless the largest vulnerability to NATO’s cohesion. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan cemented his own authoritarian rule in the 2018 Turkish General Elections. His new regime is pursuing self-serving policies that undermine the U.S. and NATO. Erdogan is willing to align with Russia and Iran against the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. He has repeatedly fueled diplomatic rifts with the U.S. and EU. He has conducted military operations targeting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the principal ground partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. His interventions (and de facto territorial annexations) in Iraq and Syria undermine the ability of the U.S. and NATO to credibly condemn similar acts of aggression by Russia.

The U.S. should commit to a smarter interest-based approach that compels greater cooperation from Turkey.The U.S. and Turkey are mired in tactical negotiations that fail to address their wider strategic divergences or repair the damage from years of opposing policy choices in Iraq and Syria. The Trump Administration has engaged to resolve discrete challenges with Turkey such as the status of the contested town of Manbij in Northern Syria and the arbitrary detention of U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson. These talks are insufficient to mend the relationship absent a more fundamental realignment between the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S. must refocus on areas of shared interest with Turkey following the reelection of an emboldened Erdogan.
  • Counter-Terrorism: The U.S. and Turkey can find common ground against designated terrorist groups such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). All three groups threaten the long-term stability of Turkey. The U.S. could offer military and intelligence support against the PKK in Turkey and Iraq. The U.S. should also actively limit the influence of the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish YPG within the SDF. These reforms are independently valuable as a means to address grievances among local Sunni Arabs that could fuel a renewed insurgency against the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. Turkey must in turn cease its cooperation with al Qaeda in Syria and instead engage actively in counter-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadist Groups. Turkey must also halt cross-border operations against the SDF that disrupt the Anti-ISIS Campaign in Syria.
  • Regional StabilityThe U.S. and Turkey both aim to contain and ultimately resolve the crises in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. and Turkey could cooperate to build mutually-acceptable local governance and security structures in both countries that exclude Iran as well as Salafi-Jihadist Groups. The U.S. should revisit its regional strategy to incorporate Turkey as a productive contributor - rather than a reluctant late addition - to the U.S. Anti-ISIS Campaign. Turkey must in turn limit its unilateral interventions against the PKK in Iraq and Syria and curb its covert support for local actors linked to Salafi-Jihadist Groups.
  • IranThe U.S. and Turkey both agree on the need to curtail Iran’s influence in the Middle East. Both states desire to reverse Iran’s military and political gains in both Syria and Iraq. The U.S. and Turkey could cooperate to support the formation of a new Government of Iraq not beholden to Iran. Turkey should be encouraged to limit its cross-border trade with Iran as well as its diplomatic cooperation with Iran and Russia in the Astana Process on Syria. The U.S. can encourage this outcome through the threat of trade-related sanctions as well as support for alternative energy pathways such as the Southern Gas Corridor.
  • RussiaThe U.S. and Turkey share an interest in containing a revisionist Russia. Turkey particularly is threatened by the expansion of Russia into Syria and the Black Sea. The U.S. and NATO must reassure Turkey by increasing military deployments to deter aggression by Russia in the Black Sea and Middle East. Turkey must freeze its purchase of the Russian S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile System. The U.S. in turn should sustain its bilateral security partnership with Turkey including joint military exercises and the sale of key capabilities such as advanced air defense systems and the F-35. Turkey should also be encouraged to limit its diplomatic cooperation with Russia and Iran in the Astana Process on Syria.
  • Responsible Governance in TurkeyThe U.S. still holds a stake in the long-term economic and political durability of Turkey despite the reelection of Erdogan. The U.S. should promote reforms or trade agreements that create a positive investment market in Turkey without rewarding economic mismanagement under Erdogan. The U.S. also must not shy away from enforcing minimal standards of behavior on Turkey. Turkey must be pressed to halt its use of ‘hostage diplomacy’ and release detained political prisoners such as U.S. Pastor Andrew Brunson. The U.S. must continue to promote a return to rule of law in Turkey that includes an independent judiciary and other checks on the power of Erdogan.
The U.S. can manage its relationship with Turkey without capitulating to Erdogan. The U.S. and Turkey both need one another to confront their mutual adversaries in the Middle East and Europe. This fact remains true despite the unacceptable growth of authoritarianism under Erdogan. There is no quick policy fix to resolve the tensions between the U.S. and Turkey. The U.S. could nonetheless use an incremental and interest-based approach focused on clear areas of strategic convergence in order to protect its long-term alliance with a post-Erdogan Turkey.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

U.S. Risks Legitimizing Russian Subversion in Ukraine

By Jack Ulses

Key Takeaway: The Helsinki Summit likely emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to intensify his global subversive campaigns. Russia has already set conditions to consolidate its gains in Ukraine and may be preparing to annex portions of eastern Ukraine as it did separatist regions of Georgia. The U.S. and its allies must reaffirm their commitments to Ukraine's sovereignty to deter further Russian aggression.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely emerged emboldened from his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Trump did not press Putin on his destabilizing activities including the illegal annexation of Crimea and the interventions in eastern Ukraine and Syria. The Kremlin will likely interpret the lack of a firm response to its aggression as an implicit acceptance of its continued subversive campaigns in Ukraine.

Russia had already taken action prior to the summit to consolidate its gains in Ukraine. Russia took the first steps towards integrating separatist republics in eastern Ukraine into Russia. Russian Oryol Oblast Governor Andrey Klychkov signed a declaration to create a joint commission to strengthen trade and cultural ties with the separatist Donbas in eastern Ukraine on July 11. The decree mirrors the gradual model of integration Russia has used with the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia. The Russian Federal Security Service has also increased its intimidation and detention of Ukrainian ships in the contested Sea of Azov in recent weeks. Putin likely intends for these low-visibility measures to set conditions for the integration of eastern Ukraine into Russia.

The U.S. must reinforce its commitment to Ukraine. Putin will likely exploit the meeting and his consequent boost in global stature as an opportunity to intensify his subversion campaign in Ukraine. Putin largely kept his activity below the threshold of international condemnation ahead of his meeting with Trump. The U.S. and its allies must publicly condemn Russia's continued interference in Ukraine to raise the costs of further subversive activity by the Kremlin. The U.S. must also continue its support for the eventual accession of Ukraine to NATO to demonstrate its commitment to Ukrainian independence and prevent Russia from regaining control of the former Soviet Union.

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.