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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.

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[1] Elizabeth Antonovna, [“Questions for the referendum: what did the CEC allow to ask about the retirement age,”] RBC, August 8, 2018, https://www(.)rbc.ru/politics/08/08/2018/5b6aa7f99a794771fb41d854?from=newsfeed

[2] [“Pension Reform,”] Levada Center, May 7, 2018, https://www(.)levada.ru/2018/07/05/pensionnaya-reforma-3/

[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(.)themedialine.org/mideast-daily-news/russia-israel-agrees-to-removal-of-iranian-forces-85-kilometers-from-golan-heights-border/

[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(.)mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3314836

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.

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/