Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Turkey's Military Buildup in Syria's Idlib Province

By: Blane Wallace and the ISW Syria Team

Key Takeaway: The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployed roughly a division (over 20,000 soldiers) to Greater Idlib Province between February 1 and March 31, 2020. The deployments include experienced Turkish special forces, armored units, and light infantry (aka "commando") units that participated in prior Turkish operations in Afrin and northeast Syria, including the 5th Commando Brigade, which specializes in paramilitary operations and mountain warfare. These forces established a new front line against pro-Assad regime forces west of the M5 highway, changing the military balance in Idlib and thereby compelling Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to a new de-escalation deal on March 5. However, Russia and Turkey have already failed to implement key elements of the deal, including joint patrols along the M4 highway. Turkey continues to reinforce its positions in Idlib in preparation for possible resumption of hostilities. This map provides a partial assessment of which types of units Turkey deployed to each location based on publicly available information.

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: March 18 - 24, 2020

By: Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

ISW is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following SITREP map covers the period March 18 - 24, 2020. 

Key Takeaway: U.S. forces began one of three planned withdrawals from small bases in Iraq, two of which have been targets of frequent Iranian-proxy mortar attacks. The Pentagon described the withdrawal as a planned consolidation of forces. Iran’s proxies are framing the consolidation as the beginning of defeat for U.S. forces in Iraq. The political wings of Iran’s proxies are also organizing opposition to Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi, who received tacit U.S. approval and is attempting to form a government with support from Sunnis, Kurds, and minor Shi’a parties. Meanwhile, Iraq’s COVID-19 crisis is deepening. The caretaker Iraqi government failed to enforce curfews as Shi’a pilgrims convened in large crowds to observe the martyrdom of the seventh imam in Twelver Shi’ism from March 18-20.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Russia in Review: Putin Accelerates Ukraine Campaign Amid Converging Crises

By: Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, George Barros.

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

Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin is using multiple ongoing crises, including the COVID-19 outbreak, to advance his strategic objectives in Ukraine without drawing attention from the West. Ukrainian officials agreed on March 11 to the Kremlin’s demands to consider direct discussions with the Kremlin-controlled proxies in Donbas. This agreement for further talks could launch an irreversible process of internationally legitimizing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine – one of Putin’s core objectives. These negotiations would have major consequences for Ukraine’s sovereignty, U.S. national security, and the international order. However, the talks remain unsolidified and Ukraine and the West still have time to change course before conceding legitimacy to Kremlin proxies in Donbas.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Syria Situation Report: March 4 - 17, 2020

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

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Iraq Situation Report: March 11 - 17, 2020

By: Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

ISW is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following SITREP map covers the period March 11 - 17, 2020. 

Key Takeaway: The U.S. began a planned drawdown from three Iraqi bases after Iran’s proxy network in Iraq intensified its campaign of rocket attacks against U.S.-led Coalition forces. A new Shi’a militia group, likely spawned from the Iranian proxy network and calling itself Usbat al-Thairen, claimed the attacks. Iran’s proxies will likely frame the U.S. drawdown as a victory in their campaign to expel U.S. forces from Iraq and may seek to gain access to these bases. Meanwhile, Iraq’s president unilaterally designated a new prime minister, former Najaf Governor Adnan al-Zurfi, but may be unable to form a government due to open opposition from the Iranian proxy-led Conquest Alliance. Widening government shutdowns due to COVID-19 may further elongate the government formation process.

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US-Iran Escalation Timeline: March 2020 Update

By: Kyra Rauschenbach
Contributors: Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace
This analysis is co-published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.
[Notice: The Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project frequently cite sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]
Iranian proxies in Iraq have sustained attacks since the killing of Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani in an attempt to provoke a US response that will lead to the expulsion of American forces from the country. Iranian proxies began a campaign of rocket attacks on US positions in Iraq in October 2019. These attacks are intended to goad the US into responses that will bring political pressure on Iraqi leaders to expel American forces. Iraqi proxies have conducted at least 14 attacks since early January, indicating that Soleimani’s killing did not cause a de-escalation. An Iranian proxy instead escalated on March 11 with the largest rocket attack since Soleimani’s death, causing two US casualties. The scale of this attack—like the December 27th attack that caused the first US casualty—indicated heightened effort to cause American casualties. Its timing indicates an attempt to incite a US response that will make the US presence politically untenable for Iraqi politicians days before the deadline to elect a new prime minister in Iraq. The US response on March 12 accidentally killed non-proxy Iraqi citizens, prompting Iraqi leaders—including Iraqi President Barham Salih—to *accuse the US of violating Iraqi sovereignty. The Iranian regime may also welcome heightened tensions with the US as an enemy other than its own ineptitude amid its failure to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Turkey Commits to Idlib

 By: Jennifer Cafarella with John Dunford, Michael Land, and Blane Wallace
Key Takeaway: The U.S. has an opportunity in Idlib to exploit the largest rift between Turkey and Russia in Syria to date while addressing a grave and dangerous humanitarian crisis, which will worsen in coming months without a robust international response. Turkey’s intervention in Idlib Province changed the military balance in northwest Syria and created an opportunity for the U.S. and Europe to engage at relatively low cost. Turkey has compelled Russia to enter a new de-escalation agreement, but that agreement is unlikely to hold. Al Qaeda – affiliated groups began to spoil the implementation of joint Russo-Turkish patrols on March 15. The U.S. should step in and offer to support Turkey in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Idlib and deterring renewed pro-regime attacks in return for a realignment of Turkey with NATO.
Parts of this report are adapted from Jennifer Cafarella’s Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism for the hearing titled “The Crisis in Idlib” on March 11, 2020. Read her submitted testimony here and watch the full testimony here.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: March 4- 10, 2020

By: Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

ISW is assessing the ongoing unrest and its effects on political-security dynamics in Iraq. The Iraq Situation Report (SITREP) map series summarizes key events and likely developments to come. The following SITREP map covers the period March 4 - 10, 2020. 

Key Takeaway: Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (HHN), a U.S. Designated Terrorist Group and Iranian proxy, may have begun a round of escalations against U.S. personnel in Iraq. The group has escalated its rhetorical threats against U.S. persons since mid-February and may have graduated to rocket attacks directed at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. A March 5 rocket attack does not match the pattern of previous proxy attacks and signals that HHN may be acting on its threats. Meanwhile, the combination of rising COVID-19 cases and plummeting global oil prices threatens to exacerbate the instability of Iraq’s already fractious government, which relies on oil revenues for nearly 90 percent of its budget.

Click image below to enlarge. Download the PDF here. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Viral Disinformation: The Kremlin’s Coronavirus Disinformation Operation in Ukraine

By: George Barros

Key Takeaway: Likely Russian actors conducted a disinformation campaign against Ukraine exploiting COVID-19 fears related to the Ukrainian government’s evacuation of its citizens from Wuhan, China. The campaign’s tactics, timing, and nature all point toward Kremlin involvement. The campaign’s false information increased distrust of the Ukrainian government, caused protests in at least five different towns, and forced the resignation of a Ukrainian governor. The campaign is likely part of the Kremlin’s efforts to press Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for more concessions in the war in Donbas. This campaign may be part of a global Russian information operation on COVID-19.

Read the full analysis on ISW's website here.