Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Russia’s Unprecedentedly Expansive Military Exercises in Fall 2020 Seek to Recreate Soviet-Style Multinational Army Without Alerting NATO

 October 20, 2020

By Mason Clark and George Barros

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin has conducted military exercises in fall 2020 on an unprecedented scale, much deeper than usual integration of Russian and foreign military units, and a pattern of modifying pre-announced activities significantly but presenting them as normal and unchanged. These exercises mark significant developments in the Kremlin’s campaigns to integrate the security forces of Former Soviet Union (FSU) states into Russian-dominated structures. Russian forces conducted simultaneous exercises on a scale nearly equivalent to that of two normal annual capstone exercises, suggesting that Russian forces may be able to mobilize and control more combat units and at higher echelons than had previously been assessed. The Kremlin covered new deployments to Belarus by branding them as “preplanned exercises” to create a false sense of normality. The Kremlin will likely exploit this kind of rebranding as an instrument of its hybrid warfare toolkit to cover actual combat deployments abroad. Moscow also announced that it would intensify efforts to gain United Nations recognition of the revivified multinational military it is trying to create in the FSU as a legitimate peacekeeping force. There are several concrete steps the United States and NATO should take to mitigate these new threats.

The Kremlin conducted military exercises in Fall 2020 on an unprecedented scale to advance efforts to recreate a multinational armed forces of the former Soviet states for which it seeks UN approval as a legitimate peacekeeping force. It concealed the significance of these exercises by casting them as pre-announced and pre-planned despite making major changes immediately before their execution.  

Russian forces in the Western and Southern Military Districts conducted unprecedented simultaneous exercises near the scale of two normal annual capstone readiness exercises in September. Russian Western Military District (WMD) forces exercised in both Belarus and the WMD on September 15-28 on a larger scale than they did during the last annual capstone exercise in the WMD in 2017.[1] Kavkaz-2020, this year’s iteration of Russia’s annual capstone military readiness exercises in the Southern Military District on September 21-26, should have precipitated a decrease in WMD activity but did not.[2]

These unprecedented exercises seek to subordinate FSU militaries to the Kremlin to recreate a multinational army in the former Soviet space. The Kremlin created a combined Russian-Belarusian combat battalion for the first time during the Slavic Brotherhood exercises from September 14-25.[3] The Kremlin has previously used joint exercises with Belarus—most notably Union Shield 2019—to integrate Belarusian forces into Kremlin-run structures, but has not created joint combat units dynamically during an exercise prior to September 2020.[4] A successful Kremlin effort to institutionalize joint units in Belarus or elsewhere would magnify the Kremlin’s power projection capabilities and enable the Kremlin to exert direct control over elements of FSU militaries in the event of Russian deployments. Success in this effort might give Moscow the ability to subvert parts of the units of those militaries even against the orders of their governments, although it is impossible to assess that risk with any confidence. The Kremlin used Kavkaz-2020 to increase interoperability between Russian, Belarusian, Armenian, Kremlin proxy republic, Chinese, Iranian, Pakistani, and Myanma units.[5] The Kremlin deployed personnel from both the CSTO’s secretariat and joint staff for the first time during Unbreakable Brotherhood 2020, and prioritized increasing interoperability between CSTO commanders, planning staffs, and combat subunits.[6] One of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s core grand strategic objectives is to regain dominant influence over FSU states by controlling FSU security structures through joint exercises, security cooperation agreements, and Russian basing rights.[7]

The Kremlin will attempt to legitimize its multinational armed forces in the CSTO as a United Nations (UN)-approved peacekeeping force. After Unbreakable Brotherhood’s completion, the CSTO stated it plans to conduct negotiations with the UN in 2021 to hold CSTO peacekeeping operations under the auspices of the UN, in line with the Kremlin’s campaign to leverage the UN to justify its own international military deployments.[8] The Kremlin will leverage the veneer of international coalitions to legitimize its hybrid operations.[9]

The Kremlin concealed the nature and implications of these exercises by branding them as “preplanned exercises” to create a false sense of normality—an important hybrid war capability. Russian information operations downplayed the significance of the fact that Russian forces effectively conducted exercises approximating two annual capstone exercises simultaneously by refraining from establishing any overarching rubric for the collective activities in the WMD. The Kremlin misrepresented its adaptations to Slavic Brotherhood and Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises to avoid alarming NATO by claiming the exercises as a whole were pre-planned without acknowledging the significant changes made to the composition and activities of both exercises shortly before they began.[10] Russian information operations further emphasized Russian de-escalation in Belarus by staging an ostentatious but mostly symbolic withdrawal of a Russian law enforcement reserve force from the Russian-Belarusian border a day after Slavic Brotherhood began.[11]

The Kremlin will likely exploit Western inattention to further alter preannounced military exercises on short notice. The Kremlin could use this approach to cover actual combat deployments abroad if the West is unable to properly account for changes. The Kremlin’s increasing prioritization of simultaneous multinational exercises poses an additional threat of enabling Russian troops to establish an increased force presence throughout the FSU through near-continuous deployments for exercises. It may be difficult to distinguish between these frequent exercise deployments and the permanent stationing of Russian troops in new bases in former Soviet states.

Russian forces may be able to mobilize faster and in greater numbers than has been previously assessed. The Kremlin demonstrated remarkable flexibility to adapt pre-announced military exercises to meet evolving situations with its exercises in September and October. The Kremlin had announced and partially planned Slavic Brotherhood, Kavkaz-2020, and Unbreakable Brotherhood prior to September 2020. The Kremlin adapted the exercises on short notice both to react to factors outside its control—such as Azerbaijan’s and Kyrgyzstan’s withdrawal from the exercises due to crises—and to exploit the Kremlin’s increasing presence in Belarus during ongoing protests. Putin adapted to Serbia’s withdrawal from Slavic Brotherhood and the justification for increased Russian military deployments to Belarus provided by ongoing to protests to increase Slavic Brotherhood’s length and likely scope on short notice.[12] The Kremlin leveraged Kavkaz-2020 to practice joint combat operations between elements of Russia’s WMD and Belarusian units, possibly to prepare WMD units to deploy to Belarus.[13] The Kremlin likely adapted to Armenian, Kyrgyz, and Kazakh withdrawals from Unbreakable Brotherhood exercises by modifying the exercises’ format and increasing their planned size.[14]

The Kremlin demonstrated improved hybrid war capabilities in these exercises by increasing its ability to obfuscate its deployments and leverage partner militaries. The Kremlin is using military exercises to leverage other states’ resources to achieve Russian objectives. Putin included CSTO participants and International Committee of the Red Cross observers in Unbreakable Brotherhood to frame Russian deployments to Belarus as legitimate and internationally accepted, despite Russia’s intensified efforts to undermine Belarus’s sovereignty.[15] The Kremlin is exploiting innovations in information operations and exercises to gain a continuous or near-continuous Russian force deployment to Belarus under the rubric of recurring monthly exercises.[16] Russia’s push to mask deployments to Belarus as international joint efforts is consistent with the way Russian military thinkers conceive of informational cover for hybrid war.[17] These exercises greatly advance the Kremlin’s campaign in the former Soviet Union and demonstrate the Russian armed forces possess greater operational flexibility than previously assessed.

The United States and NATO should take several steps to mitigate these threats. The West should closely monitor Russian military exercises and challenge Russian assertions that its exercises are “business as usual” when they, in fact, are extraordinary. The West should call out Russian efforts to undermine FSU states’ sovereignty by subordinating FSU militaries to Russian-dominated structures. The United States should increase outreach to NATO Partnership for Peace program members and communicate the unacceptability of their participation in Russian hybrid operations that Moscow bills as multilateral peacekeeping exercises, sometimes with explicitly anti-NATO objectives. The West should also call out Russian efforts to manipulate the information space by characterizing its hybrid operations as multilateral exercises. It should pressure the UN not to recognize the CSTO as a legitimate peacekeeping force.


[2]; dot by/ru/news/106283/;




[6] https://www.interfax dot ru/world/731647; https://odkb-csto dot org/news/news_odkb/komandno-shtabnoe-uchenie-s-mirotvorcheskimi-silami-odkb-nerushimoe-bratstvo-2020-proydet-v-respubli/;;


[8] https://sputnik dot by/defense_safety/20201016/1045917923/ODKB-provedet-peregovory-s-OON-ob-uchastii-v-mirotvorcheskikh-operatsiyakh.html;


[10];; https://russian.rt dot com/ussr/news/793008-odkb-nerushimoe-bratstvo; https://iz dot ru/1074144/2020-10-15/gensek-odkb-obiasnil-smysl-provedeniia-uchenii-nerushimoe-bratstvo-2020; https://www.interfax dot ru/world/731647




[14] The number of personnel participating in Unbreakable Brotherhood increased by approximately 30 percent from the initially declared figure despite the pullout of half of the exercises’ participants.; dot ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12319434@egNews






Monday, October 19, 2020

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Attempts to De-escalate Protests Ahead of October 25 Opposition Ultimatum

 October 19, 2020, 7:00 pm EDT

By George Barros

Self-declared Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko is intensifying efforts to de-escalate protests and degrade protester will in the runup to October 25. Lukashenko set October 25 as the deadline for submissions “from the people” of Belarusian constitutional amendments on October 3. He likely seeks to use this amendment process to broker a pretend compromise with protesters to end the crisis without actually ceding power.[1] 

Lithuania-based Belarusian opposition leader Svitlana Tikhanouskaya likely saw the danger that this ploy would succeed and countered by demanding on October 13 that Lukashenko resign by October 25. Tikahnouskaya is thus setting the stage for large-scale anti-Lukashenko protests to upstage his announcement of the next phase of his efforts to create an off-ramp from the protest movement.

Lukashenko is relaxing his protester suppression and detention campaigns after having increased their brutality last weekend, likely to set more positive conditions for whatever announcement he plans to make on October 25. Belarusian security forces’ response to weekend protests were not as intense as those that occurred the week of October 11.[2] Belarusian authorities detained 215 protesters on October 18—half as many detentions as on October 11.[3]  

Lukashenko is also intensifying efforts to conduct pro-regime rallies rather than focusing only on suppressing anti-regime rallies as he has largely done for the past several weeks. Lukashenko reportedly planned multiple unspecified pro-government rallies in Minsk for the week of October 18-25.[4] These rallies are likely meant to offset the negativity of the anti-government protests and create the basis for a narrative of popular support for whatever changes he offers.

Lukashenko freed seven jailed opposition leaders after meeting with some of them on October 10.[5] Lukashenko freed seven Belarusian opposition leaders, including Maria Kolesnikova’s lawyer and Coordination Council member Lilia Vlasova, between October 14-16.[6] News of the releases did not surface until October 19. Lukashenko continues to hold prisoner senior opposition leaders Viktar Babariko, Maria Kolesnikova, and Sergei Tikhanousky –Tikhanouskaya’s husband – as leverage as of this writing. Lukashenko likely released the seven opposition leaders to appear willing to engage in dialogue and concede to limited protester demands. Lukashenko will likely leverage his current detainees as hostages to deter protest escalation.

Lukashenko continues to successfully reduce the size of the weekend protests. Saturday protests in Minsk continued to be small with only 100 women and 150 students participating in protests on October 17.[7] Approximately 50,000 protesters—which was the smallest size of Sunday protests since protests began in August—participated in the October 18 march.[8] Saturday protests have steadily declined in size since early September. ISW previously forecasted that weekend protests would decline in size – and may increasingly only occur on Sundays—due to successful pressure by Lukashenko, a lack of emerging local leadership in Belarus, and worsening weather.[9] Belarusian authorities’ October 12 threat to use lethal force to suppress protests “if necessary” likely also deterred some Belarusians from protesting on October 17-18.

Weekday protests are growing, but Lukashenko met them with pro-government protests rather than violence this week. Approximately 5,000 pensioners—significantly larger numbers than in this protest’s past two iterations—marched in Minsk on October 19.[10] Belarusian authorities cracked down harshly on pensioners on October 12.[11] Security forces did not crack down on the pensioners’ march on October 19 despite significant growth in this protest over one week.[12] Approximately 2,000 pro-Lukashenko counterdemonstrators protested the pensioners’ march without violence.[13]

Protests may escalate on Sunday, October 25, despite Lukashenko’s preparations. Lukashenko is unlikely to resign. Weekday protests are growing. Belarusian authorities’ avoidance of the use of lethal force to suppress protests on October 17-18 may embolden protesters to turn out in greater numbers on October 25. Belarusian protesters may have used October 18 as a rest and preparation day for large October 25 protests.

ISW will continue monitoring the situation and providing updates.




[3] http://belros dot tv/news/obschestvo/mvd-belarusi-v-protestakh-v-minske-prinyali-uchastie-do-7-tys-chelovek/;

[4] https://t dot me/tutby_official/17539


[6] https://news.tut dot by/economics/704541.html; https://www.dw dot com/ru/lilija-vlasova-osvobozhdena-iz-sizo-kgb/a-55324066; https://www.belrynok dot by/2020/10/19/polittehnolog-shklyarov-osvobozhden-iz-sizo/; https://www.newsru dot com/world/19oct2020/shklyarov_free.html

[7] https://www.bfm dot ru/news/455828; https://ria dot ru/20201017/minsk-1580278324.html

[8]; https://www.themoscowtimes dot com/2020/10/18/tens-of-thousands-march-in-belarus-despite-police-threat-to-open-fire-a71785


[10] https://belaruspartisan dot by/politic/515559/;



[13] https://naviny dot media/new/20201019/1603112579-storonniki-lukashenko-poshli-vsled-za-uchastnikami-marsha-mudrosti; https://news.tut dot by/society/704615.html; https://charter97 dot org/ru/news/2020/10/19/397581/; https://www.rosbalt dor ru/world/2020/10/19/1868770.html; https://reform dot by/172676-tysjachi-pensionerov-vyshli-na-marsh-mudrosti-v-minske


Saturday, October 17, 2020

Russia May Deploy Conventional Forces to Syria

By Isabel Ivanescu

October 17, 2020

Key Takeaway: Russia may deploy conventional ground forces to Syria to gain leverage in negotiations with Turkey and possibly participate in a pro-Assad regime offensive. Russia and Turkey are pressing one another for concessions in negotiations concerning opposition-held Idlib Province. A Russian conventional military deployment remains unlikely, but various indicators have tripped in the past few weeks suggesting that Moscow could be preparing for one. Such a deployment would mark an inflection in Russia’s participation in Syria and an escalation in the conflict between Russia and Turkey.

Turkey and Russia are seeking leverage to set favorable conditions for a new round of negotiations about the fate of Idlib Province, as stalemate there persists. Russia-Turkey negotiations on Idlib on September 16, 2020, did not result in a settlement.[1] Turkey has subsequently reinforced its military positions in the province as Russia and the Assad regime have escalated airstrikes, shelling, and infiltration attempts.[2] Russia likely seeks a Turkish withdrawal from parts of southern Idlib to enable a pro-Assad regime offensive against Salafi-jihadist opposition forces without Turkish intervention. Turkey likely seeks concessions in other theaters of Russia-Turkey competition such as northeastern Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus. [3]

Turkey’s significant military advantage in Idlib gives it the upper hand in negotiations with Russia. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have a division-sized contingent (over 20,000 troops) in Idlib.[4] Turkey also maintains large proxy forces in Idlib, and Salafi-jihadist groups in Idlib would independently resist a regime advance. TSK forces are substantially more capable than their Russian-backed regime opponents; Turkish drone capabilities, for example, have decimated regime forces in limited prior engagements.[5] Turkey also has a military advantage relative to Russia by virtue of being on the defensive in Idlib, having interior lines in the area, and bordering Syria.

Neither Russia nor Turkey likely desires major military confrontation in Idlib. Russia fears losses to regime units in which it has invested heavily, such as the 25th Special Tasks Division (aka. Tiger Forces) and the 5th Corps. Turkish and Turkish-backed forces would also suffer losses, even if at a lower rate, given pro-regime artillery and air capabilities. Turkey would additionally risk losing ground in Idlib and, perhaps more importantly, losing access to Russian concessions it hopes to achieve in negotiations. A deployed Russian conventional unit would thus most likely be intended to compel Turkish concessions in negotiations rather than to participate in combat, although it would be prepared to do so if necessary.

Limited and inconclusive but still noteworthy indicators that Russia is preparing for a conventional forces deployment to Syria have been tripped. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated on September 21, 2020, “there is no need for the Syrian army and its allies to launch any attack on Idlib. It is only necessary to target terrorist sites and eliminate their only remaining outpost on Syrian territory.”[6] The apparent dismissal of an offensive operation in the first sentence is offset by the coded language of the second. Lavrov emphasized that Turkey is primarily responsible for the counter-terrorism mission in Idlib and has previously accused Turkey of failing to fulfill its counter-terrorism responsibilities.[7] Moscow has justified prior pro-regime offensives in Idlib as counter-terrorism operations. “[Practicing] joint operations to localize and resolve armed conflicts related to countering terrorism…in [the] southwest strategic direction” was among the principal stated goals of Russia’s Kavkaz-2020 military exercises, which ran September 21-26.[8]

Russian deployments thus far have been limited to headquarters elements, air units, and small numbers of Russian special forces, military police, and Russian private military contractors apart from one exception: the 810th Naval Infantry Brigade deployed to establish and defend Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in 2015 and participate in limited offensive operations on nearby front lines.  Russia discontinued this effort in 2017 after failing to make gains.[9]

Russian information operations in Syria and ostentatious exercises preparing to operate in a chemical warfare environment are another ambiguous sign of possible plans for a Russian conventional force deployment. ISW has observed a recurring indicator that the Syrian regime intends to conduct a chemical attack in Idlib Province with Russian approval. The Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria baselessly claimed on September 11, September 20, September 28, and October 13 that the al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) is planning a false flag chemical attack in greater Idlib and subsequently disseminated the claim through Russian and Syrian state media sources.[10] Such claims often precede new pro-regime offensives and have sometimes preceded regime chemical attacks, likely to muddy attribution.[11]

The Assad regime has used chemical attacks to degrade opposition factions and instill fear in civilians upwards of 300 times since the start of the Syrian civil war, but it lacks the capability to move ground forces in before chemical agents have dispersed.[12] Russian doctrine concerning chemical weapons use specifically calls for coordinating ground operations with chemical attacks to immediately capitalize on battlefield effects.[13] Many Russian units involved in the Kavkaz-2020 exercises as well as in contemporaneous snap exercises in Russia’s Western Military District trained in employing unknown CRBN (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear) defense capabilities.[14] A Russian mechanized infantry battalion practiced operating in anti-chemical weapon isolation gear including gas masks on September 19.[15] Another Russian battalion-sized element practiced degassing and decontamination of terrain, equipment, and weapons on October 16 in an unrelated snap exercise.[16] Russian forces routinely exercise CRBN defense capabilities, but the scale and nature of these exercises is noteworthy, particularly when coupled with the ongoing information operation in Syria.

Recent Russian and Assad regime kinetic activity could indicate pro-regime forces are preparing for an assault on Jisr al-Shughour, an area important for the defense of Russia’s coastal base. Russian airstrikes on September 20, 2020, targeted a command center and several warehouses belonging to hardline al Qaeda-affiliate Hurras al-Din; Hurras al-Din fighters are primarily concentrated around Jisr al-Shughour.[17] The Assad regime shelled a Turkish observation post near Jisr al-Shughour on September 20. [18]  Russia also conducted airstrikes on Salafi-jihadist opposition forces near Jisr al-Shughour on October 14.[19] Jisr al-Shughour is a fortified jihadist-held urban center that threatens the security of Russia’s Hmeimim airbase and the Assad regime’s Alawite support base in Latakia Province. Russia considers Hmeimim one of its three permanent bases in Syria and is currently expanding its facilities.[20]

Russia has backed multiple regime attempts to capture Jisr al-Shughour since 2015 through the mountainous terrain to the city’s southwest, but regime forces failed at significant human and reputational cost.[21] More-capable Russian conventional forces may be able to succeed where Assad’s forces could not. Gains by pro-regime forces in southern Idlib from late 2019 to March 2020 have also set conditions for an attack on Jisr al-Shughour from the flatter terrain east of the city, wherein pro-regime forces would seize the Sahl al-Ghab Plain and cross the Orontes River to reach the city. ISW previously assessed—based on pro-regime force posture—that opposition-held areas south of the M4 highway, including the Sahl al-Ghab Plain, are the likeliest target of a forthcoming pro-regime offensive.[22] The map below shows this possible avenue of advance.

Deployment of a Russian conventional unit to Idlib could dramatically change the military balance in Idlib and likely incline Turkey to accept a less-lucrative negotiated settlement. A Russian deployment could also allow pro-regime forces to pursue more-ambitious objectives and adopt a new modus operandi in an imminent Idlib offensive if Russia permits its forces to participate in combat as well as posturing.

The deployment of Russian conventional units to Syria for participation in offensive operations remains unlikely but would mark a major inflection. A deployment of conventional Russian forces would solidify Russia’s position in Syria and give Russia an opportunity to test evolving doctrinal concepts and combat capabilities. However, it would require Russian willingness to resource Syria as a priority effort and tolerate increased risk to force.


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Friday, October 16, 2020

SDF Begins Mass Release of ISIS Members and Sympathizers in Syria

By Jason Zhou and Eva Kahan

October 16, 2020

Key Takeaway: The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has begun large-scale releases of ISIS detainees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), including ISIS sympathizers and the families of ISIS members. The SDF declared a general amnesty for detained criminals and ISIS fighters on October 15 and ISIS sympathizers in the al Hawl IDP camp on October 14. The SDF clarified that the amnesty does not apply to ISIS members found guilty of killing Syrians, an effort to mitigate public backlash. However, the SDF cannot consistently apply that standard,  as it does not have the ability to investigate and prosecute all of its detainees or IDPs. The SDF does not have a process to deradicalize or reintegrate released ISIS sympathizers. The SDF released 631 detainees from Alaya Prison near Qamishli on October 15 and 289 IDPs from al Hawl on October 13. More releases will likely follow in coming days. ISIS will benefit from the injection of new fighters into its insurgency and will likely intimidate and recruit vulnerable civilian returnees.

Click the image below to enlarge.

Syria Situation Report: September 30 - October 13, 2020

By Andrew Greco and Will Christou (Syria Direct)

Key Takeaway: Increasing attacks by Salafi-jihadist groups threaten to destabilize greater Idlib Province and could be exploited by pro-regime actors to conduct a ground offensive. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian National Army (SNA) will likely face increased attacks from Salafi-jihadist groups in greater Idlib Province. HTS and the SNA have seemingly sought to solidify their control of the Syrian opposition by conducting various operations against HaD and ISIS from September 30 to October 10. Successive attacks in Aleppo Province and the assassination of two HTS fighters in Idlib Province likely indicate increasing fractures between anti-regime groups.

Click the image below to enlarge. Click here to download the PDF.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

ISIS Poised to Exploit Mass Releases of Displaced Persons from Syrian Camp

 By Eva Kahan

October 15, 2020

Key Takeaway: The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US partner force in Syria, plans to release up to 25,000 Syrian women and children from the al Hawl internally displaced persons camp. The al Hawl camp absorbed an overwhelming wave of internally displaced persons and combatants after the SDF seized the last ISIS physical stronghold in Baghuz in March 2019.[1] The camp’s horrendous conditions presented a humanitarian and security challenge for the SDF, the United States, and the international community. The mass release of these displaced persons risks providing new opportunities to ISIS by dispersing a vulnerable population into areas where ISIS is active. ISIS will capitalize on the mass release of Syrians to increase recruitment efforts and intimidation campaigns against these returnees, who may also face retributive violence within their own communities. The SDF is not adequately resourced to monitor or protect returnees unless the United States and the international community increase their support. 


The Syrian Democratic Forces’ political wing announced its intent to “release all Syrians” from the al Hawl camp at a symposium for the northeast Syrian governance entity in Raqqa City on October 4.[2] The new announcement could lead to the release of up to 25,000 Syrians.[3] The political wing’s co-chair, Ilham Ahmed, later clarified the policy via Twitter, stating that “Syrians who have serious accusations will remain in the camp,” but she did not define “serious accusations.”[4] The timeline and process for returns remain unclear.[5] The SDF remains committed to returning the remaining 30,000 Iraqi residents of the camp to Iraq.[6] Iraqi officials continue to stall efforts to negotiate a plan with the SDF to return residents safely, as local communities have rejected them as possible ISIS supporters.[7] The SDF continues to encourage non-Iraqi foreign governments to repatriate their citizens held in al-Hawl’s foreign annex, to little avail.


Poor security and humanitarian conditions in al Hawl have deteriorated since the establishment of the camp, and some of its thousands of women and children residents still adhere to ISIS’s ideology.[8] As of September 2019, al Hawl housed roughly 28,000 Syrians and 31,000 Iraqis as well as 10,000 foreigners housed in a separate annex in order to prevent their radicalization of other residents.[9] The total population was more than twice what the camp was built to sustain.[10] The AANES struggles to provide these residents basic services, including health and education. Deradicalization programs for former ISIS supporters are similarly sparse. Although the SDF has repeatedly requested additional aid to address the challenges of administering al Hawl, the international community has failed to sufficiently mitigate the camp’s humanitarian and security crises.

The SDF began limited releases of Syrians under local agreements with Arab tribes, primarily in Deir ez Zour and Raqqa, in June 2019.[11] The tribes assumed responsibility for reintegrating these returnees and preventing their return to ISIS, with unclear results. Arab tribes upon whose support the SDF depends have become increasingly vocal in demanding the release of Syrians at al Hawl, where the SDF’s inability to provide security has worsened perceptions of its legitimacy as a security guarantor. Turkey and pro-Assad actors, including Russia, have used al Hawl as a wedge issue to undermine the SDF by amplifying stories alleging that the SDF abuses al Hawl residents, particularly women.[12]

US policy has called for the return of foreign al Hawl residents to their homes, although many countries have resisted.[13] The SDF started moving hundreds of foreign al Hawl residents to the better secured and less crowded al Roj camp nearby in August 2020.[14]  At least 17,000 ISIS combatants, 100 of whom are foreign, remain detained in northeast Syria’s makeshift detention facilities.[15]

ISIS and al Qaeda alike have used the plight of residents of al Hawl as a rallying cry and fundraising pitch.[16] The late ISIS caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, urged ISIS members to free women in displacement camps in his last public speech in September 2019.[17] ISIS social media accounts echo this demand, claiming that all Muslims are obliged to release their “sisters” in displacement camps. The extent of ISIS’s penetration into the camp is unclear, but demonstrations of loyalty from numerous women and expressions of solidarity from children indicate that ISIS may have infiltrated the camp.[18] ISIS fundraising efforts have used video reports showing women and children at al Hawl calling for the return of the caliphate.[19] Women in the camp’s foreign annex have actively attempted to enforce ISIS’s extreme religious laws on other residents within the annex, sometimes through violence.[20] Women may pragmatically perform or fake pro-ISIS activity to solicit donations for their living expenses or to get smuggled out.[21] Some examples of violent activity with unclear motives have occurred in the main section housing Syrians and Iraqis. For example, an unknown resident killed an Iraqi refugee on October 3 and several residents burned the tents of other residents in May 2020.[22] ISIS operatives and smugglers have also enabled a low-level but steady stream of escapes.[23]  


Message about al Hawl posted in an ISIS channel, Telegram, October 5, 2020.


Photo of a woman in al Hawl posted on an ISIS Telegram channel on June 22, 2020.



Fractured Arab tribes have agreed upon and long demanded the release of the women and children in al Hawl. The SDF has likely made the decision to release prisoners from the al Hawl camp now in order to dampen the growing risk that some Arab tribes will reject the SDF outright. This threat spiked in August 2020 as overlapping insurgent attacks from ISIS and pro-Assad groups provoked tribal backlash against the SDF.[24]

The maintenance of al Hawl is expensive, manpower intensive, and growing in difficulty as COVID-19 precludes even the poor medical care that international organizations previously provided.[25]  The SDF may aim to exert pressure on the international community by threatening to release potential ISIS affiliates en masse, particularly targeting the US-led coalition whose campaign initially displaced al Hawl’s residents. However, a rushed release is unlikely to inspire international support and could instead endanger returnees.


The mass release of Syrian residents of al Hawl will alleviate the SDF’s near term strain but at the expense of long-term stabilization. There is little indication that tribal leaders, even those who lobbied for such releases, are prepared to quickly absorb such a large population, especially in the absence of new financial support. Tribal leaders gave the SDF’s release announcement a muted response, possibly indicating such concerns.[26] Tribes may struggle to provide housing, employment, or social support, all of which are essential to reintegration and deradicalization.[27] Returnees will likely require food aid and other basic support and will turn to SDF-sponsored local councils to fill these needs if tribal leadership fails to satisfy them. An influx of returnees may also overwhelm the SDF’s already stretched water and energy infrastructure, provoking competition and resentment between local communities and returnees.[28] The SDF will likely be held accountable for failures in the reintegration process.

Expectations that the SDF can prevent the release of all ISIS-linked individuals are unrealistic. Many of the residents of al Hawl are not ISIS members, but some ISIS penetration of this population likely remains. The SDF lacks the resources to vet every member of the al Hawl camp; it cannot even catalog the identities of all camp residents.[29] The SDF will not be able to track returnees and will rely on informal tribal social networks to monitor and protect them from ISIS recruitment and exploitation—a challenging task.  


ISIS will exploit this opportunity to target the newly returned population. ISIS’s insurgency in eastern Syria is already outmatching the US-led coalition, which has not resourced a counterinsurgency campaign in Syria and is instead limited to targeted raids in partnership with the SDF.[30] ISIS will likely attempt to intimidate returnees into supporting the group and could make public and gruesome examples of those who do not comply. Children are the most at risk, particularly those who suffered indoctrination and trauma during ISIS’s rule and the counter-ISIS campaign. ISIS may attempt to smuggle “rescued” returnees to ISIS strongholds in the Central Syrian Desert or in Idlib Province.[31] In the most dangerous scenario, ISIS attacks and high-publicized recruitment of al Hawl returnees could incite retributive violence from local communities, driving even more returnees toward ISIS for protection.

Returnees may be particularly vulnerable in SDF-held areas where ISIS and pro-Assad insurgents have exploited tribal complaints to erode the SDF’s governing capacity. These areas include the stretch between Busayrah, at the confluence of the Euphrates and Khabur Rivers, and Dhiban, across the Euphrates River from Mayadin. ISIS militants chanted ISIS slogans and attempted to enforce Islamic law in Busayrah on September 9 and October 4.[32] Dhiban and nearby Hawayij were centers of anti-SDF protests in early August and have witnessed several assassinations and IED attacks claimed by ISIS or pro-regime elements.[33] A recent spike in anti-SDF activity has also occurred in Baghouz, the final ISIS holdout in 2019, which could also be a flashpoint for violence towards or by returnees. Pro-Assad insurgents may also surge attacks to feign a more severe ISIS resurgence and drive a wedge between tribes and the SDF.

An overhaul of coalition support to strengthen SDF governance capacity and improve the SDF-tribal partnership is necessary to ensure adequate returnee reintegration and deny ISIS and pro-regime forces this opportunity. It is in the US interest to protect, deradicalize, and reintegrate returnees in order to preserve US-led gains against ISIS and prevent ISIS’s reconstitution. Priorities should include developing information management capabilities, providing basic services, and strengthening rural infrastructure to prepare for a surge in residents.[34]  


Indicators of inadequate integration will include the growth of tent cities; overcrowded, informal apartment buildings; and new resource shortages and disputes. A new wave of anti-SDF protests could also signal governance failures resulting from the burdens of accommodating this new population. Increased ISIS attacks could indicate successful recruitment from returnees, although such reports should be carefully examined due to the risk of false flag attacks by pro-Assad forces. In the most dangerous scenario, a vicious cycle of anti-SDF protests and retributive violence could force the SDF to abandon villages around Busayrah, weakening the SDF’s ability to govern the lower Middle Euphrates River Valley.

The level of tribal collaboration in the SDF’s release and reintegration plan will likely signal its viability. Tribal offers to sponsor and reintegrate returnees are positive indicators for reintegration. Alternatively, tribes may descend into familial and tribal disputes over reintegration, indicating their inability or unwillingness to facilitate sponsored returns. The SDF’s proposed timeline for release will likely indicate whether they intend to work closely with tribes or to rush a mass release.

[1] “[A group of refugees from Baghouz arrives at al Hawl camp, Hasakah,]” Qasiyoun News, February 26, 2020, https://www dot qasioun-anews dot com//ar/news/show/175755/دفعة_جديدة_من_نازحي_الباغوز_تصل_إلى_مخيم_الهول_في_الحسكة

[2] SDC Press, Twitter, October 4, 2020,;

“[The Autonomous Administration Intends to Empty the Syrians from al Hawl Camp,]” Syria TV, October 5, 2020, http://syria dot tv/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B0%D8%A7%D8%AA%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D9%86%D9%88%D9%8A-%D8%A5%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%BA-%D9%85%D8%AE%D9%8A%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%87%D9%88%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%8A%D9%86

[3] RojavaIC, Twitter, October 5, 2020,

[4] ElhamAhmedSDC, Twitter, October 5, 2020,

[5] “Self Administration Vows to Close al Hawl Camp,” COAR, October 12, 2020,

[6] “Kurds to allow IS-linked Syria families to quit Al-Hol camp,” France24, October 5, 2020,

Saman Dawod, “Amid public pressure, Iraq suspends transfer of IS families to Zummar camp,” Al Monitor, March 1, 2020,

https://www dot al-monitor dot com/pulse/originals/2020/02/iraq-minorities-ninevah-islamic-state-zummar-camp-1.html

[7] “Kurds to allow IS-linked Syria families to quit Al-Hol camp,” France24, October 5, 2020,

Saman Dawod, “Amid public pressure, Iraq suspends transfer of IS families to Zummar camp,” Al Monitor, March 1, 2020,

https://www dot al-monitor dot com/pulse/originals/2020/02/iraq-minorities-ninevah-islamic-state-zummar-camp-1.html

[8] John Dunford and Jennifer Cafarella, “ISIS's Opportunity in Northern Syria's Detention Facilities and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, May 13, 2019,

[9] Syria Study Group, Syria Study Group Final Report, US Institute for Peace, September 24, 2019,

[10] Syria Study Group, Syria Study Group Final Report, US Institute for Peace, September 24, 2019,

[11] The largest of these returns was of 800 IDPs to al Tabqa and ar-Raqqa regions on June 3, 2019. Since that release, which was the first recorded by ISW, all releases have been under 500 IDPs, most to ar-Raqqa Province or eastern Deir ez-Zour. Estimates of total releases to date range from 2,000 to 4,000 returnees.

“Deir ez-Zour refugees after [release of] Raqqa and Tabqa refugees,” Hawar News, June 5, 2019, https://www dot hawarnews dot com/ar/haber/d986d8a7d8b2d8add988-d8afd98ad8b1-d8a7d984d8b2d988d8b1-d8a8d8b9d8af-d8afd981d8b9d8a9-d986d8a7d8b2d8add98a-d8a7d984d8b1d982d8a9-d988d8a7d984d8b7d8a8d982d8a9-h19490.html

“[Dozens of families allowed to leave al Hawl camp in Deir ez-Zour,]” Zaman al Wasl, August 10, 2019, https://www dot zamanalwsl dot net/news/article/110228/

“1[1 hours ago: Most of them women and children… Dozens of detainees in Deir ez-Zour leave al Hawl camp,]” Baladi News, December 12, 2019,  https://www dot baladi-news dot com/ar/news/details/54777/%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%B8%D9%85%D9%87%D9%85_%D9%86%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%A1_%D9%88%D8%A3%D8%B7%D9%81%D8%A7%D9%84_%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AC_%D8%B9%D8%B4%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%AA%D8%AC%D8%B2%D9%8A%D9%86_%D9%85%D9%86_%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1_%D9%81%D9%8A_%D9%85%D8%AE%D9%8A%D9%85_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%87%D9%88%D9%84

“[A new cohort of residents of the Deir ez-Zour countryside leave al Hawl camp in rural Hasakah,]” Syria TV, July 20, 2020, http://syria dot tv/%D8%AF%D9%81%D8%B9%D8%A9-%D8%AC%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%AF%D8%A9-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A3%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A-%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%81-%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D8%AA%D8%BA%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%AE%D9%8A%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%87%D9%88%D9%84-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%B3%D9%83%D8%A9

“Prisoners Release: Brokered by tribal dignitaris, SDF releases some 350 prisoners detained in al Hawl camp,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, September 3, 2020,  https://www dot syriahr dot com/en/182551/

“[The return of about 50 families of the al Hawl refugees to their regions,]” Enab Baladi, October 1, 2020



[12] “[Two boys beat an SDF leader in Deir ez-Zour… over a woman!,”] SY 24, October 2, 2020, https://www dot sy-24 dot com/news/%D8%B4%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%86-%D9%8A%D8%B6%D8%B1%D8%A8%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%82%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%82%D8%B3%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1-%D9%88/

“[Moscow warns that US convoys going to Syria may bring COVID-19 to al Hawl,]” Russia Today, June 4, 2020, https://arabic dot rt dot com/middle_east/1121092-%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%88%D9%81%D8%A7-%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B4%D9%86%D8%B7%D9%86-%D8%AA%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B5%D9%84-%D9%86%D9%82%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B6%D8%A7%D8%A6%D8%B9-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D8%A8%D8%B4%D9%83%D9%84-%D8%BA%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B9/

“[Fadhl Abd al Ghani participates in conversation on human rights abuses in al Hawl camp in rural Hasakah,” Ninar Press, September 17, 2020,

[13] Jeff Seldin, “Last Known American IS Supporters Repatriated From Syria,” Voice of America, October 1, 2020,

“Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS,“ International Crisis Group, 18 November 2019,

[14] “[The ‘Self-Administration’ moves least dangerous ISIS families from al Hawl camp to another camp,]” Shaam, September 9, 2020,


[16] John Dunford and Brandon Wallace, “ISIS Prepares for Breakout in Prisons and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, September 23, 2019,


[18] John Dunford and Jennifer Cafarella, “ISIS's Opportunity in Northern Syria's Detention Facilities and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, May 13, 2019,

[19] John Dunford and Jennifer Cafarella, “ISIS's Opportunity in Northern Syria's Detention Facilities and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, May 13, 2019,

[20] Erin Cunningham, “True ISIS believers regroup inside refugee camp, terrorize the ‘impious’,” Washington Post, April 19, 2019,

[21] Vera Miranova, “Life inside Syria’s al-Hol camp,” Middle East Institute, July 9, 2020

[22]  “ISIS women attempt to kill Iraqi refugee in al-Hol camp,” Hawar News Agency, October 5, 2020, https://www dot hawarnews dotcom/en/haber/isis-women-attempt-to-kill-iraqi-refugee-in-al-hol-camp-h19725.html

“[The mini-state of al Hawl witnesses a new murder which killed an Iraqi refugee,]” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, May 23, 2020, https://www dot syriahr dot com/%d8%af%d9%88%d9%8a%d9%84%d8%a9-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%87%d9%88%d9%84-%d8%aa%d8%b4%d9%87%d8%af-%d8%ac%d8%b1%d9%8a%d9%85%d8%a9-%d9%82%d8%aa%d9%84-%d8%ac%d8%af%d9%8a%d8%af%d8%a9-%d8%b1%d8%a7%d8%ad-%d8%b6/

“[Security Forces in al Hawl camp foil escape attempt and catch four Turkish women from ISIS families,]” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,  May 13, 2020, https://www dot syriahr dot com/%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%82%d9%88%d9%89-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%a3%d9%85%d9%86%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d9%81%d9%8a-%d9%85%d8%ae%d9%8a%d9%85-%d8%a7%d9%84%d9%87%d9%88%d9%84-%d8%aa%d8%ad%d8%a8%d8%b7-%d8%b9%d9%85%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%a9/

[23] Vera Miranova, “Life inside Syria’s al-Hol camp,” Middle East Institute, July 9, 2020

[24] Eva Kahan, “Anti-ISIS Coalition Begins Losing Tribal Support in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, August 20, 2020,

[25] “In Hindsight: Six Days, Five Resolutions, One Border Crossing,” Security Council Report, July 31, 2020,

“In Al-Hol camp, almost no healthcare is available and the consequences are devastating” Medicins Sans Frontiers, August 27, 2020,

[26] Rena Netjes, Twitter, October 5, 2020,

[27] Lawrence Kuznar, Ali Jafri, Eric Kuznar, “Dealing with Radicalization in IDP Camps,” NSI Team, February 2020,

[28] “No Water Supply In Syria’s Al Hasakah Since A Week, Turkish Forces Responsible,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, August 29, 2020, https://www dot syriahr dot com/en/181768/

“[Explosion targets gas line in rural Hasakah,” Baladi News, October 1, 2020,

“[As the security situation in SDF-held areas deteriorates in rural Hasakah.. IED explosion targets “gas line” near Shaddadi,]” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,  October 1, 2020, https://www dot syriahr dot com/%D9%85%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%81%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%85%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%82-%D9%82%D8%B3-9/401278/

[29] The SDC has started the process of collecting personal information twice, once registering only IDPs from Raqqa and al Tabqa (not Deir ez-Zour) who wanted to return home on May 30, 2019 and once registering only foreign migrants on July 10, 2020.

“[With the exception of Deir ez-Zour, SDF begins to register the names of those who wish to leave al Hawl camp,]” Baladi News, May 30, 2019, https://www dot baladi-news dot com/ar/news/details/46037/%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%AB%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%A1_%D8%AF%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%B1_%D9%82%D8%B3%D8%AF_%D8%AA%D8%A8%D8%AF%D8%A3_%D8%A8%D8%AA%D8%B3%D8%AC%D9%8A%D9%84_%D8%A3%D8%B3%D9%85%D8%A7%D8%A1_%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%BA%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86_%D8%A8%D9%85%D8%BA%D8%A7%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%A9_%D9%85%D8%AE%D9%8A%D9%85_%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%87%D9%88%D9%84

SMENSyria, Facebook, June 10, 2020,

[30] Several reports cited in the Department of Defense Inspector General Report affirm this assessment, August 4, 2020: Operation Inherent Resolve, Report to the United States Congress, DoD Inspector General, August 4, 2020,,%202020%20-%20JUNE%2030,%202020.PDF

[31] Vera Miranova, “Life inside Syria’s al-Hol camp,” Middle East Institute, July 9, 2020

[32]  “ISIS members chant slogans while roaming streets of al-Busayrah city, east of Deir ez-Zor,” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, September 1, 2020,  https://www dot syriahr dot com/en/182335/

“Two members roam Al-Busayrah streets in eastern Deir ez-Zor, urging women to dress according to sharia” Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, October 6, 2020, https://www dot syriahr dot com/en/187211/

[33] Eva Kahan, “Anti-ISIS Coalition Begins Losing Tribal Support in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, August 20, 2020,

[34] Lawrence Kuznar, Ali Jafri, Eric Kuznar, “Dealing with Radicalization in IDP Camps,” NSI Team, February 2020,