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Friday, April 3, 2020

Russia in Review: Kremlin Attempts to Exploit COVID-19 Crisis to Remove Sanctions on Russia and its Partners


By: Mason Clark with Aleksei Zimnitca and Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is exploiting calls by the United Nations for limited sanctions waivers to combat COVID-19, to advance the Kremlin’s longstanding objective of removing international sanctions on Russia and its partners. The Kremlin has launched an information campaign on this issue and is leveraging its sanctioned allies around the world, alongside networks of Russia-amenable actors in Europe, to amplify the Kremlin’s message. The Kremlin is trying to position itself for a win-win scenario – either advancing its goal of sanctions relief or framing the US as inhumane for maintaining sanctions during a global pandemic.

The Kremlin began calling for sanctions relief over COVID-19 in mid-March. Prominent Russian Member of Parliament Sergei Kosachev called on March 18 for the total removal of all economic sanctions on Russia, except sanctions imposed by the United Nations (UN) Security Council.[1] The UN Security Council has not imposed any sanctions on Russia, meaning the Kremlin is essentially arguing for the lifting of all sanctions. The Kremlin is unlikely to attempt to limit the authority of the UN Security Council due to Russia’s status as a permanent member with veto powers. Other Russian MPs called for sanctions removal in the following days, claiming sanctions violate international law and are inhumane in the context of a global pandemic.[2]

The Kremlin has also called for sanctions relief for its allies. The Russian Foreign Ministry called on the United States to lift all sanctions on Iran on March 24.[3] Russian MPs voiced their support on March 19 for Syrian calls to remove all Western sanctions.[4] The Kremlin is likely leveraging other partners to reinforce its calls for sanctions relief. The Chinese Foreign Ministry called for the removal of all sanctions on Iran on March 16.[5]  Russia and China increased diplomatic engagement throughout March in response to the COVID-19 crisis.[6]

The Kremlin exploited calls for limited sanctions relief by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. Guterres sent a letter to G20 leaders on March 24 calling on countries to temporarily waive sanctions on specific industries during the COVID-19 crisis.[7] UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet also called for authorization of humanitarian exemptions to sanctions on essential medical equipment and supplies on March 24.[8] 

The Kremlin used these proposals as an opportunity to call for the lifting of all sanctions on Russia and its partners. Putin called on the G20 to lift – not waive – sanctions against unspecified countries on “essential goods” and financial transactions to purchase these essential goods during a remote G20 meeting on March 26.[9] Russia and six of its allies – Iran, China, Cuba, Syria, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and North Korea – additionally issued a letter on March 26 urging Guterres to request “the complete and immediate lifting of such illegal, coercive and arbitrary measures of economic pressure.”[10] Guterres has not publicly responded to the letter. The Kremlin and its allies are attempting to exploit Guterres’s legitimate call for temporary sanctions waivers to obtain the removal of all sanctions on malign actors without addressing the actions that led to the imposition of sanctions. The Kremlin argues that, due to COVID-19, all sanctions, no matter the reason for their imposition or target, are illegitimate.

The Kremlin is leveraging its network of Kremlin-amenable European public figures to amplify Russia’s calls to lift sanctions. The Kremlin likely assesses its calls to lift sanctions will be more successful if they are supported by European states, not only Russia and other sanctioned regimes. Additionally, the EU accounts for most of the sanctions on Russia and is a key player in sanctions against Iran and Syria. The Kremlin media attempted in late March to portray Germany and Italy as supportive of lifting sanctions on Russia.[11] Only three German MPs from the Kremlin-amenable Alternative for Germany (AFD) called for sanctions removal.[12] One of the MPs, Waldemar Herdt, previously traveled to Russian-occupied Crimea for an economic forum. Another AFD MP, Ulrich Oehme, may have facilitated Russian humanitarian aid to Northern Italy.[13] Similarly, in Italy, only an association of international criminal lawyers, not the government, called to lift sanctions on Russia.[14] ISW has extensively published on the Kremlin’s efforts to leverage Kremlin-amenable politicians to advance its campaigns in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere.[15]

The Kremlin will likely attempt to provide limited aid to individual European states to convince them to unilaterally weaken sanctions on Russia and its partners. German MP (from Angela Merkel’s CDU party) Michael Gahler suggested on March 23 that the Kremlin sent military specialists and humanitarian aid to Italy on March 21 to support COVID-19 containment in the hope that Italy will veto sanctions on Russia next time they are voted on by the EU.[16] Such deliveries are also likely intended to boost Russia’s image in Europe. However, these efforts will likely achieve minimal results due to Russia’s limited investment in them; Italian officials said that 80 percent of the Russian supplies were “useless.”[17] Nonetheless, Russia’s aid campaign demonstrates the Kremlin’s ability to leverage human networks and political partners from various theaters to support a specific information campaign.

The Kremlin’s push to lift sanctions demonstrates the Kremlin’s narrative about the irrelevance or ineffectiveness of Western sanctions is false. Vladimir Putin’s position is that sanctions only make Russia stronger through import substitution and economic independence.[18] The Kremlin’s deliberate effort to use every opportunity, including COVID-19, to weaken the sanctions regime suggests the opposite: that sanctions are a constraint that Putin would like removed. Putin additionally needs to restore the resources he needs to provide financial support to Russia’s key partner in the Middle East, Iran, and Russia’s client regime in Syria to support Russia’s objectives in the Middle East.[19]  

The US is unlikely to agree to lift sanctions on Russia and other malign actors. US President Donald Trump said he expected Putin to ask for sanctions to be lifted but would not commit to a response prior to a March 30 call.[20] No concrete agreement on sanctions emerged from the call. Sanctions on Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela are cornerstones of US policy against those actors. Several US congressional representatives called on US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to grant clearly outlined sanctions waivers for Iran, Venezuela, and other countries badly hit by the pandemic on March 27, similar to the proposals made by the UN.[21] The State Department has not yet responded to calls for temporary sanctions relief.

The Kremlin may successfully leverage international support to put the US in a lose-lose situation in the information space. Russia failed to pass a UN General Assembly (UNGA) Declaration calling for solidarity against COVID-19, including rejecting all unilateral sanctions, on April 2.[22] The UNGA instead passed a rival declaration that does not address sanctions.[23] Russia’s delegation to the UN issued a statement calling on “the apologists of sanctions policy” to explain their votes and pledged to continue coordination with “like-minded states.”[24] The Kremlin will likely continue to use the UNGA as a platform to attempt to shape the global COVID-19 response to its own ends and attempt to portray the West, and specifically the US, as inhumane. The US retains the ability to veto any Russian or Chinese attempt to lift sanctions through the UN Security Council. However, the Kremlin may attempt to create a situation where the U.S. is forced to veto a resolution calling for sanctions removal. The Kremlin has already claimed that sanctions are inhumane, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova going as far as to say that sanctions against Venezuela during the COVID-19 outbreak “are turning almost into a tool of genocide.”[25] The Kremlin and its allies are additionally ignoring US efforts to open avenues for sanctions mitigation to combat COVID-19. The US and Switzerland launched a humanitarian trade channel for Iran on February 27.[26] American sanctions on Russia only target the Kremlin’s financial, energy, and defense sectors, not health or basic goods.[27] The Kremlin has the opportunity to either achieve reduced sanctions or score a victory in the information space.

The West must not fall for the Kremlin’s false equivalency on sanctions relief. The Kremlin is exploiting Guterres’s reasonable proposal of temporarily waiving sanctions on select industries to push for the removal of all sanctions on Russia and its allies without reversing their original malign behavior. The Kremlin chose not to engage with the UN’s proposal for COVID-19 sanctions relief. The Kremlin is instead attempting to exploit a global crisis to advance its own narratives on sanctions writ large. The Kremlin and other actors are additionally exacerbating the crises through misinformation campaigns that impede efforts to combat the virus.[28] The West should strive to ensure a successful global response to COVID-19, but must not fall for efforts by malign actors like the Kremlin to exploit the crisis to lift sanctions applied for previous malign behavior.




[1] [“Kosachev Believes that Amid Coronavirus and Currency Fluctuations, Sanctions should be Lifted,”] TASS, March 18, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/ekonomika/8012561; [“Kosachev Urged to Lift All Sanctions in the World Because of COVID-19,”] Gazeta, March 18, 2020, https://www.gazeta((.))ru/politics/news/2020/03/18/n_14174197.shtml.
[2] [“Slutsky Called the Position of Ukraine on Anti-Russian Sanctions Selfish,”] Ria News, March 19, 2020, https://ria((.))ru/20200319/1568844960.html; https://ria((.))ru/20200324/1569081128.html.
[3] [“About the Telephone Conversation of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergei Lavrov with the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran M.D. Zarif,”] Russian MFA, March 24, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/maps/ir/-/asset_publisher/HUPBmpXjn4Ob/content/id/4092057.
[4] [“The State Duma Called for Lifting Sanctions Against Syria Because of the Coronavirus,”] Ria Novosti, March 19, 2020, https://ria((.))ru/20200319/1568864253.html.
[5] [“China Called for Lifting Sanctions on Iran in Pandemic,”] Ria Novosti, March 16, 2020, https://ria((.))ru/20200316/1568656298.html.
[6] [“About the Meeting of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Russia I.V. Morgulov with the Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China in Russia Zhang Hanhui,”] Russian MFA, March 2, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/maps/cn/-/asset_publisher/WhKWb5DVBqKA/content/id/4067203; [“About the Telephone Conversation of the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation I.V. Morgulov with the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of the PRC Luo Zhaohui,”] Russian MFA, March 12, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/maps/cn/-/asset_publisher/WhKWb5DVBqKA/content/id/4084864; [“On a Telephone Conversation Between Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergei Lavrov and Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi,”] Russian MFA, March 18, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/maps/cn/-/asset_publisher/WhKWb5DVBqKA/content/id/4089923; [“Russian MFA Information and Press Department Commentary Regarding a Collective Appeal to the UN Secretary General Calling for Demanding the Removal of Unilateral Sanctions in the Spread of the Coronavirus,”] Russian MFA, March 27, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/maps/cn/-/asset_publisher/WhKWb5DVBqKA/content/id/4093009; [“On a Telephone Conversation Between Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergei Lavrov and a Member of the State Council, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi,”] Russian FMA, March 28, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/maps/cn/-/asset_publisher/WhKWb5DVBqKA/content/id/4093137.
[7] Colum Lynch, “U.N. Calls for Rolling Back Sanctions to Battle Pandemic,” Foreign Policy, March 24, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/24/un-coronavirus-cuba-iran-venezuela-north-korea-zimbabwe-sanctions-pandemic/.
[8] “Ease Sanctions Against Countries Fighting COVID-19: UN Human Rights Chief,” UN News, March 24, 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/03/1060092.
[9] “Putin Calls for Sanctions ‘Moratorium’ at G20 Summit,” Moscow Times, March 26, 2020, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2020/03/26/putin-calls-for-sanctions-moratorium-at-g20-summit-a69770.
[10] Russian Mission UN, Twitter, March 25, 2020, https://twitter.com/RussiaUN/status/1243011675554529280
[11] [“Italy Called for Lifting Sanctions Against Russia amid COVID-19 Pandemic,”] Izvestia, March 21, 2020, https://iz((.))ru/989678/2020-03-21/v-italii-prizvali-sniat-sanktcii-s-rossii-na-fone-pandemii-covid-19; [“Germany Urged to End Sanctions Against Russia to Support the Economy,” Lenta, March 19, 2020, https://lenta((.))ru/news/2020/03/19/germ/.
[12] AFD MP Waldemar Herdt, who called for the EU to remove sanctions on Russia on March 18, traveled to attend an economic forum in Crimea in violation of Germany’s official position in April 2019. The other two MPs are Robby Schlund and Anton Frizen. [“Germany Urged to End Sanctions Against Russia to Support the Economy,” Lenta, March 19, 2020, https://lenta((.))ru/news/2020/03/19/germ/; [“Germany Called for Lifting Sanctions Against Russia Amid the Fight Against Coronavirus,”] Lenta, March 18, 2020, https://lenta((.))ru/news/2020/03/18/sankt/; “Waldemar Herdt & Markus Frohnmaier: ‘Russia’s Men in the Bundestag,’ Call for Lifting of EU Sanctions,” EU Today, March 23, 2020, https://eutoday.net/news/politics/2020/afd-russian-influence; Austin Davis, “AfD Lawmaker to Travel to Crimea Despite International Protest,” DW, April 17, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/afd-lawmaker-to-travel-to-crimea-despite-international-protest/a-48357923.
[13] [“Russia Conducted a PR Operation in Italy Thanks to Far-Right MP from Germany – Bild,”] Ukrainskaya Pravda, March 28, 2020, https://www.pravda.com((.))ua/rus/news/2020/03/28/7245508/.
[14] [“Italy Called for Lifting Sanctions Against Russia amid COVID-19 Pandemic,”] Izvestia, March 21, 2020, https://iz((.))ru/989678/2020-03-21/v-italii-prizvali-sniat-sanktcii-s-rossii-na-fone-pandemii-covid-19; [“Who We Are,”] Criminal Chambers of European and International Law, Accessed April 3, 2020, https://www.camerepenali.org/
[15] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf; Fredrick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20CTP%20Report%20-%20Confronting%20the%20Russian%20Challenge%20-%20June%202019.pdf; Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros, “Putin Accelerates Ukraine Campaign Amid Converging Crises,” Institute for the Study of War, March 24, 2020, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/putin-accelerates-ukraine-campaign-amid-converging-crises.
[16] Yuri Sheiko, [“Russia and China Help Italy in the Fight Against Coronavirus: Nobility or PR?”] DW, March 24, 2020, https://www.dw.com/ru/рф-и-кнр-помогают-италии-в-борьбе-с-коронавирусом-благородство-или-пиар/a-52904286.
[17] Isabel Togoh, “From Russia with Love? Putin’s Medical Supplies Gift to Coronavirus-Hit Italy Raises Questions,” March 26, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/isabeltogoh/2020/03/26/from-russia-with-love-putins-medical-supplies-gift-to-coronavirus-hit-italy-raises-questions/#760f1c744a47.
[18] “Vladimir Putin’s Annual news Conference,” Kremlin, December 19, 2019, http://en.kremlin((.))ru/events/president/transcripts/press_conferences/62366.
[19] Jennifer Cafarella with Jason Zhou, “Russia’s Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20Report%20-%20Russia%E2%80%99s%20Dead-End%20Diplomacy%20in%20Syria%20-%20November%202019.pdf; Fredrick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019, http://www.understandingwar.org/sites/default/files/ISW%20CTP%20Report%20-%20Confronting%20the%20Russian%20Challenge%20-%20June%202019.pdf.
[20] [“Trump Believes that Moscow Will Seek From Him the Lifting of Sanctions,”] TASS, March 30, 2020, https://tass((.))ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/8117241; Brett Samuels, “Trump Says he’ll Speak with Putin on Monday,” The Hill, March 30, 2020, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/490126-trump-says-hell-speak-with-putin-on-monday.
[21] Jack Detsch, “Democrats Push back on Sanctions, Citing Coronavirus Fears,” Foreign Policy, March 27, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/27/democrats-coronavirus-sanctions-waivers-iran-venezuela/.
[22] [“Media Commentary on the Consideration by the UN General Assembly of the Declaration of Solidarity in the Fight Against the Coronavirus Pandemic,”] Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, April 2, 2020, https://russiaun((.))ru/ru/news/pressrelease_020420.
[23] “UN Adopts Resolution Urging Global Cooperation on COVID-19,” New York Times, April 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2020/04/02/world/europe/ap-un-virus-outbreak-un-resolution-.html.
[24] [“Media Commentary on the Consideration by the UN General Assembly of the Declaration of Solidarity in the Fight Against the Coronavirus Pandemic,”] Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, April 2, 2020, https://russiaun((.))ru/ru/news/pressrelease_020420.
[25] [“Slutsky Called the Position of Ukraine on Anti-Russian Sanctions Selfish,”] Ria Novosti, March 19, 2020, https://ria((.))ru/20200319/1568844960.html; [“Mironov Called Sanctions Amid the Coronavirus Epidemic Inappropriate,”] Ria Novosti, March 24, 2020, https://ria((.))ru/20200324/1569081128.html; [“Briefing by Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesman M.V. Zakharova, Moscow, March 27, 2020,”] Russian MFA, March 27, 2020, https://www.mid((.))ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/4093042#4.
[26] Ian Talley, Benoit Faucon, “U.S., Swiss Formally Open Humanitarian Trade Channel to Iran,” Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-swiss-formally-open-humanitarian-trade-channel-to-iran-11582846163.
[27] Dianne E. Rennack, Cory Welt, “U.S. Sanctions on Russia: An Overview,” Congressional Research Service, March 23, 2020, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/IF10779.pdf.
[28] George Barros, “Viral Disinformation: The Kremlin’s Coronavirus Information Operation in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, March 11, 2020, http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/viral-disinformation-kremlin%E2%80%99s-coronavirus-information-operation-ukraine.

Iraq Situation Report: March 25 - 31, 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 25 - 31, 2020. 

Key Takeaway: Iran advanced multiple lines of effort in Iraq to compel the U.S. withdrawal from the country. Iran successfully organized political opposition from the most powerful Iraqi Shi’a blocs to deny parliamentary backers to Prime Minister-designate Adnan al-Zurfi. Zurfi, who enjoyed tacit U.S. and international support, is now unlikely to win a vote of confidence. The U.S. completed pre-planned consolidations from three major Iraqi bases and several smaller camps, while several European nations either completely or partially withdrew their forces from Iraq over COVID-19 concerns. Meanwhile, the U.S. deployed Patriot missile defense systems to two large bases where U.S. troops are present in Iraq. The Patriot deployment is necessary force protection for Coalition forces but signals that the Iraqi government will not take meaningful action to hold proxy militias accountable for killing U.S. and Coalition personnel.

Click image below to enlarge. Download the PDF here.


Thursday, April 2, 2020

Syria Situation Report: March 18 - 31, 2020

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

Click image below to enlarge. Download the PDF here


Iran’s Proxies Accelerate Soleimani’s Campaign to Compel U.S. Withdrawal from Iraq

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace 

Key Takeaway: Iran continues to escalate proxy attacks against the U.S. in Iraq, demonstrating that it remains undeterred despite the January 3 strike that killed IRGC - Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and key Iraqi proxy leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis and subsequent U.S. strikes. Iran’s proxy network in Iraq is advancing its campaign to compel an American withdrawal by increasing the operational tempo of its attacks on U.S. and allied personnel. Iran’s proxies are responsible for at least 15 attacks on American and U.S.-led Coalition personnel since January 3. A new militia group, Usbat al-Thairen, claimed several recent attacks, indicating that the proxy network may be reorganizing in observance of the shared vision of Soleimani and Muhandis and that Iran may have reached a new phase in its campaign to expel U.S. forces form Iraq.

Context:

Iran launched an effort to align and reorganize its Iraqi proxies after the U.S. strike that killed IRGC – Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani and de-facto Iraqi proxy leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis on January 3. Iran’s proxy network convened a series of meetings to overcome internal and intra-militia divisions to establish a more unified resistance movement opposing the continued U.S. presence in Iraq.[1] Meeting participants began referring to that effort with variations on the name “Iraqi Resistance Front.”[2] The so-called “Iraqi Resistance Front” is likely an informal alliance between Iran’s usually fractious Iraqi proxies rather than a formal organization, and its existence does not end the deep-seated rivalries between many proxy militia groups and officials.[3] Nonetheless, the efforts of that informal alliance were initially successful and allowed Iran’s proxies in Iraq to work with their usual political and military rival, Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sar. On January 5, Sadr and the proxies passed a non-binding, exclusively Shi’a-backed resolution asking the Iraqi government to expel all foreign forces.[4] The proxies also received support from Sadr to organize a 250,000-person anti-U.S. march in Baghdad on January 24 and to suppress Iraq’s ongoing popular protest movement which, in part, opposed Iran’s Iraqi proxy network.[5] The efforts of the “Iraqi Resistance Front” increased political pressure on the U.S. in Iraq and refocused the political wings of Iran’s political proxies on that objective.

Iran’s militia proxies in Iraq, meanwhile, are responsible for at least 15 rocket and mortar attacks on U.S. and U.S.-led Coalition personnel since January 3.[6] These attacks are becoming more aggressive, but are inconsistent in frequency and scale. Two recent attacks on Camp Taji used over 30 rockets each, but most such attacks employ fewer than five rockets.[7] A third attack that same week used just two.[8] The proxy network is demonstrating that it is prepared to periodically increase the scale of rocket and mortar attacks and that it is willing to cause U.S. and Coalition casualties.

The 15 proxy attacks following Soleimani’s death have invalidated the assumptions of the White House, which intended the strike that killed Soleimani “to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks against United States forces and interests, to degrade Iran’s and Quds Force-backed militias’ ability to conduct attacks, and to end Iran’s strategic escalation of attacks.”[9] Instead, Soleimani’s death demonstrably failed to deter or significantly disrupt the ability of Iran’s proxies to conduct attacks in Iraq.

Click image to enlarge. 


Figure 1: This updated ISW-CTP graphic demonstrates the escalating proxy attacks on U.S. and Coalition personnel in Iraq since the January 3 U.S. strike that killed Soleimani and Muhandis. Iran’s proxies never halted their military campaign to compel the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

Assessment:
The Iran-backed “Iraqi Resistance Front” has politically and militarily advanced its campaign to compel an American withdrawal since the “million-man” march. The increase in the scale and frequency of its attacks marks the advancement of Iran’s proxy campaign in Iraq. While Soleimani was alive, the tempo and size of proxy attacks were carefully factored in to Iran’s broader regional strategy. Escalations and de-escalations were part of an orchestrated, phased campaign intended to achieve Iran’s strategic objectives, including sanctions relief and the ouster of the U.S. from Iraq and the broader Middle East. For example, Iran directed its major Iraqi militia leaders to simultaneously attack the U.S. Embassy in Iraq under the guise of a protest on December 31, 2019. That attack was carefully orchestrated to demonstrate U.S. vulnerabilities and encourage a U.S. withdrawal.[10] The proxy network has proven that it will hold fast to its pattern of gradual escalation in keeping with Soleimani’s premortem plans.

The proxy network has also achieved several political and rhetorical wins. In February, it navigated an entire round of failed government formation without any inter-militia violence, even as its consensus around the candidacy of Prime Minister (PM)-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi disintegrated.[11] In early March, proxy leader Hadi al-Ameri organized parliamentary resistance to the PM candidacy of Adnan al-Zurfi, a dual U.S.-Iraqi citizen.[12] Zurfi will likely be unable to pass through the proxy firewall blocking his government formation. And in mid-March, the proxy network revealed its latest rhetorical device in the form of an ostensibly new Shi’a militia group, Usbat al-Thairen.

The “new” Shi’a militia group, Usbat al-Thairen, is likely under the direct control of Kata’ib Hezbollah and the proxy network. On March 15 and 17, a new Shi’a militia group calling itself Usbat al-Thairen, the League of Revolutionaries, claimed responsibility for three rocket attacks on U.S.-led Coalition forces at Camp Taji and Besmaya Base on March 11, 14, and 16.[13] March 11, the day this round of attacks began, was Soleimani’s birthday – now a symbolically significant date.[14] The creation of this group indicates that Iran’s proxies have moved forward with implementing Soleimani’s strategy in Iraq. In an October 2019 meeting, Soleimani reportedly ordered Kata’ib Hezbollah leader Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis to form and direct a new Shi’a militia group to conduct rocket attacks on Americans in Iraq.[15] Qais al-Khazali, another leader in the “Iraqi Resistance Front,” vowed that the proxy network would take revenge for the death of Muhandis “equal” to the revenge of Iran for Soleimani.[16] Usbat al-Thairen announced its existence on March 15, a deadline previously set by Kata’ib Hezbollah for Iraqis to cease all cooperation with the U.S. and U.S.-led Coalition forces or face unspecified consequences. The U.S. has already specifically identified Kata’ib Hezbollah as responsible for the March 11 attack for which Usbat al-Thairen claimed sole responsibility.[17] The targets and means of the claimed attacks are consistent with those used by both KH and the broader proxy network. Most transparently, the imagery, rhetoric, and name of Usbat al-Thairen all directly reference Iran’s broader Axis of Resistance.

It remains to be seen whether Usbat al-Thairen is merely a thin veneer for the activities of Kata’ib Hezbollah, or is in fact the result of coordinated action by some elements of the “Iraqi Resistance Front” that the proxy network began organizing following Soleimani’s death. Regardless, Usbat al-Thairen has already demonstrated the type of advanced attack capabilities that U.S. officials have typically associated with Kata’ib Hezbollah.

Using a new name for the same proxy activities offers Iran greater plausible deniability in unclassified settings. The Pentagon and State Department have repeatedly stated that the U.S. will hold Iran accountable for proxy actions.[18] However, anonymous American officials told the New York Times that there was “no firm evidence” that Iran directly ordered the attacks claimed by Usbat al-Thairen.[19] Classified intelligence may easily link attacks on U.S. forces to groups like Kata’ib Hezbollah, but claims by other groups muddy the waters of public accountability. The U.S. may find it increasingly difficult to justify retaliatory strikes, especially on Iranian assets, when the attacks themselves are claimed by unknown or non-Iranian actors. The U.S. would then face a difficult choice on the world stage: declassify intelligence, potentially risking assets, or take unilateral action, thereby risking a loss of support from its European allies or others who may be dissuaded from holding Iran accountable for its proxy activities.

Iran and its proxies likely intend to bait the U.S. into a harsh kinetic response in Iraq that could alienate Iraqis who currently oppose Iran’s effort to expel the U.S. The proxies have already been somewhat successful in this regard; the U.S. retaliation for the March 11 attack on Camp Taji killed not only Kata’ib Hezbollah militants, but also non-militia members of the Iraqi Security Forces: three soldiers in the 19th Iraqi Army Division and two soldiers in the 3rd Babil Emergency Police Regiment.[20] In a press release, the Iraqi Joint Operations Command said that such strikes are not part of a partnership and do not respect the sovereignty of Iraq.[21] Iraq’s political class seeks to contain the fallout from repeated Iranian escalations inside Iraq. Iraqi politicians could conclude that the easiest mechanism to contain that fallout is to compel the withdrawal of U.S. forces rather than to curtail the proxy militias and establish a government monopoly on use of force inside of Iraq. Some Iraqis will likely perceive more aggressive U.S. kinetic action against the proxies in Iraq to be further violations of Iraqi sovereignty. Further U.S. retaliation to attacks could incentivize the next Iraqi PM to accede to the January 5 parliamentary request, using his authority to end the executive agreement that allows U.S. and Coalition troops to remain in Iraq.

However, it is far from given that Iran will succeed. Many Iraqi politicians fortunately recognize that a continued U.S. presence in the country is necessary to contain ISIS, strengthen the Iraqi Security Forces, and attract international investment. The support of those politicians, particularly members of Kurdish and some Sunni blocs, will continue to obstruct Iranian-proxy efforts to convince the Iraqi government to expel U.S. and Coalition forces. Iran’s Iraqi proxies may content themselves with an indefinite extension of the term of current Caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi, who resigned in November 2019 but has remained in power and delegated much of his responsibility to his cabinet. Mehdi has proven to be an acceptable actor for Iran; he can work with Tehran and with Washington without applying too much pressure to Iran’s Iraqi shadow state.

In preparation for further escalation, the U.S. began to increase its force protection measures in Iraq in early March through troop consolidations and the deployment of missile defense systems. The U.S. deployed Patriot surface-to-air missile defense systems to Erbil and Ain al-Assad bases the week of March 30 after announcing plans to do so on March 10. [22] They are likely accompanied by counter rocket, artillery, and mortar systems (C-RAMs).[23] The operational-level headquarters for the counter-ISIS fight, Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), also withdrew American forces from three smaller bases in what the Department of Defense described as a “long-planned adjustment” of force posture on March 19.[24] CJTF-OIR credits this withdrawal to the success of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in combatting ISIS and added that it is also a precautionary effort to combat the spread of COVID-19. CJTF-OIR Spokesperson Col. Myles B. Caggins III stated that “we will see [the U.S.-ISF] partnership in the future from fewer locations and with fewer people, but our commitment remains the same.” This consolidation of U.S. and Coalition forces to better-defended, larger bases reduces the risk to U.S. forces. It may also provide the force protection necessary for the U.S. to conduct more severe retaliatory strikes on proxy groups at acceptable levels of risk.

Iran’s proxies are claiming the U.S. troop consolidation as a victory. A spokesperson for KH immediately declared that the U.S. withdrawal from the first base, al-Qaim on the Iraqi-Syrian border, was a “humiliating escape” and “the beginning of defeat” for the U.S. in Iraq. Askari called on KH fighters to prepare for “strategic operations if the enemy insists on its occupation and violation of sovereignty.” Askari instructed KH fighters to continue targeting Americans and Iraqis who worked with the U.S., including “logistical support companies and security companies that are working to serve the enemy.”[25] The leader of Iranian proxy militia Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada congratulated Iraqi security forces, the Popular Mobilization forces, and the Iraqi people for achieving the withdrawal of U.S. forces and threatened to renew attacks on U.S. personnel if the American “occupation” of Iraq continues.[26] Meanwhile, the deputy secretary general of Iranian proxy militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq attributed the U.S. withdrawal to the actions of the “Islamic Resistance,” another name for the “Iraqi Resistance Front” effort.[27]

The U.S. is also adding economic pressure in an effort to block Iran’s political plays and deter further escalation. On March 26, the U.S. issued a 30-day waiver to allow Iraq to continue importing Iranian energy, thereby circumventing the maximum pressure campaign of U.S. sanctions against Iran.[28] The U.S. also sanctioned 20 people and entities of various national origins taking advantage of exemptions to funnel money to the IRGC. The timeframe for this waiver is the shortest ever issued to Iraq and will expire on April 26, ten days after the constitutionally mandated deadline for PM-designate Zurfi to form a government.[29] The waiver deadline provides leverage to the United States. Its short window warns Iran and its proxies to not sabotage the government formation process or risk significant financial losses. Iraqi politicians, meanwhile, need to demonstrate progress toward energy independence. The combination of U.S.-imposed sanctions, critically low oil prices, and COVID-19-induced productivity shocks are wiping out Iraq's economy; the renewal of the energy sanctions waiver is necessary for Iraq to forestall its looming fiscal cliff.[30] However, this point of leverage may not be enough to deter proxy violence around other important dates within this time frame.

Horizon Scanning:

U.S. and Coalition personnel should prepare for escalating and increasingly lethal attacks. Rhetorically, Iran’s proxies will continue to frame the ongoing, pre-planned consolidation of U.S. forces within Iraq as a victory in their campaign to expel U.S. forces. They will continue to frame themselves as the heroes of the counter-ISIS campaign, and they will inaccurately frame the U.S. as a colonizing force interested only in exploiting Iraqi resources. They will build on each of these narratives to further empower the Popular Mobilization Forces and, by extension, to further consolidate the role of the proxy network in the Iraqi state. The means by which Iran and its proxies hope to achieve their operational objective, the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, may have changed, but the objective itself has not.

Iran’s proxy militias may adapt their attack targets and types. The establishment of Usbat al-Thairen is one indicator that the Iranian proxy network may have reached a new phase in its campaign to chip away at American resolve to remain in Iraq. Based on the group’s first three claimed attacks, this new phase may be marked by a periodic but accelerating and increasingly lethal series of attacks on U.S. and Coalition personnel. The Iranian proxy network could detonate explosive devices against logistic convoys for multinational corporations and convoys of U.S. or partnered forces. Likely proxy militants likely already targeted one U.S. supply convoy with a small explosive on February 10.[31] Proxies could also kidnap or physically harass contractors, domestic workers for foreign companies, or military personnel and partnered forces. Most dangerously, Iran’s proxies could begin to use the short-range ballistic missiles smuggled into Iraq in recent years to strike U.S. and Coalition forces or U.S. allies in the region. The Patriot anti-missile systems that can defend from such an attack currently cover only two U.S. positions, leaving other bases, the Embassy in Baghdad, the consulate in Erbil, and regional allies vulnerable. The launching of these short-range missiles remains unlikely but would constitute a major escalation by Iran.[32]

The U.S. is considering more-aggressive strikes on militia targets. Those strikes are unlikely to achieve their desired effect and may play into Iran’s hands. Recent reports indicate that the Pentagon began drafting plans for a large-scale campaign to “destroy” KH on March 15.[33] The U.S. would need to conduct nearly simultaneous strikes on the group’s leadership, key weapons facilities, and bases to degrade KH’s capabilities. Such an escalation by the U.S. may trigger non-KH proxies to increase their own attacks on U.S. and Coalition forces.[34] Major military escalation against KH could force Iraqis to choose between the country’s two closest allies. The U.S. has already made clear its intentions to leave Iraq, while Iraqis understand that Iran will always be their international neighbor indefinitely. If forced to choose between U.S. and Iranian interests in Iraq, many Iraqis would, by necessity, choose Iran.

Iran’s proxy network is preparing for large-scale clashes with U.S. forces. These preparations include training exercises and rhetorical condition setting so that any action Iran or its proxies takes against the U.S. can be justified as a necessary action undertaken to prevent a U.S.-directed conspiracy. Iranian actors contributed to setting those conditions when, on March 22, an anonymous Quds Force commander told Kuwaiti newspaper al-Jarida that the U.S. is plotting a military coup in Iraq.[35] On March 25, Kata’ib Hezbollah announced that the U.S. was planning an airborne assault on KH and PMF forces. On March 26, KH announced that it had conducted a live-fire tactical exercise in Jurf al-Nasr (formerly known as Jurf al-Sakhar), 60 km southwest of Baghdad to practice repelling U.S. air drops on KH positions. A KH spokesperson claimed that “thousands” participated in the exercises, which simulated urban warfare as well as ground and air assaults.[36] This exercise was likely timed to coincide with the planned U.S. drawdowns from smaller bases. It allows KH to demonstrate its supposed invulnerability while providing valuable training to its forces.

These attacks and the pre-planned American troop consolidations have long-term implications for the Coalition’s counter-ISIS fight. ISIS will benefit from the decreased U.S. pressure as the group works to reconstitute itself. U.S. assets may be directed away from the counter-ISIS fight as the U.S. concentrates on defending itself from and deterring Iranian proxy aggression. Increased global perceptions of U.S. aggression could also drive away European partners and other members of the U.S.-led Anti-ISIS Coalition, threatening the hard-fought gains made by U.S. and Coalition forces since they returned to Iraq in 2014. 


ENDNOTES

[1] Suadad al-Salhy , “EXCLUSIVE: Iran Tasked Nasrallah with Uniting Iraqi Proxies after Soleimani's Death,” Middle East Eye, January 14, 2020, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/exclusive-iran-asked-nasrallah-organise-iraqi-militias-after-soleimanis-death.

[2] Katherine Lawlor with Brandon Wallace. “Warning Intelligence Update: Iran Increases Pressure on U.S. Forces in Iraq.” Institute for the Study of War, January 23, 2020. http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/01/warning-intelligence-update-iran.html.

[3] John Davison. “Fractures Grow among Iraq Militias, Spell Political Retreat.” Reuters, April 1, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-militias/fractures-grow-among-iraq-militias-spell-political-retreat-idUSKBN21J5EZ.

[4] Katherine Lawlor. “Iraq's Parliament Votes to End U.S. Troop Presence in Iraq.” Institute for the Study of War, January 5, 2020. http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/01/iraqs-parliament-votes-to-end-security.html.

[5] Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace. “Anti-U.S. Protests in Baghdad: Interim Summary.” Institute for the Study of War, January 24, 2020. http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/01/anti-us-protests-in-baghdad-interim.html.

Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace. “Sadr Withdraws Support for Iraq's Popular Protest Movement.” Institute for the Study of War, January 29, 2020. http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/01/sadr-withdraws-support-for-iraqs.html.

[6] Kyra Rauschenbach. “US-Iran Escalation Timeline Update.” Critical Threats Project, March 20, 2020. https://www.criticalthreats.org/analysis/US-iran-escalation-timeline.

Ayman Henna. “Rockets Hit Iraq's Green Zone, US-Led Coalition Leaves Base.” Agence France-Presse, March 26, 2020. https://news.yahoo.com/rockets-hit-iraqs-green-zone-us-led-coalition-092238277.html.

[7] Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace. “Iraq Situation Report: March 11 - 17, 2020.” Institute for the Study of War, March 20, 2020. http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/03/iraq-situation-report-march-11-17-2020.html.

[8] Samya Kullab. “Iraqi Military: 2 Rockets Hit Training Base South of Baghdad.” Associated Press, March 17, 2020. https://www.military.com/daily-news/2020/03/17/iraqi-military-2-rockets-hit-training-base-south-baghdad.html.

[9] Catie Edmondson. “White House Memo Justifying Suleimani Strike Cites No Imminent Threat.” The New York Times, February 14, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/us/politics/white-house-memo-suleimani-strike.html.

[10] Frederick W. Kagan, Jason Zhou, Kyra Rauschenbach, and Nicholas Heras. “Iranian Escalation Timeline.” Institute for the Study of War, January 10, 2020. http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/iranian-escalation-timeline.

[11] Brandon Wallace. “Iraq's Political Elite Identify Consensus Candidate for Prime Minister-Designee.” Institute for the Study of War, February 3, 2020. http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/02/iraqs-political-elite-identify.html.

Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles. “Iraq's Prime Minister-Designate Withdraws Candidacy for Post.” Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/iraqs-prime-minister-designate-withdraws-candidacy-for-post-11583104989.

[12] Ranj Alaaldin. “Iraq Has a New Prime Minister. What next?” Brookings Institution, March 20, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/03/20/iraq-has-a-new-prime-minister-what-next/.

[13] Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace. “Iraq Situation Update: March 11 - 17, 2020.” Institute for the Study of War, March 19, 2020. http://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/iraq-situation-update-march-11-17-2020.

Louisa Loveluck. “U.S.-Led Coalition to Withdraw Hundreds of Troops from Smaller Bases in Iraq.” The Washington Post, March 16, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/us-led-coalition-to-withdraw-hundreds-of-troops-from-smaller-bases-in-iraq/2020/03/16/4af2b69e-6783-11ea-b199-3a9799c54512_story.html.

[14] Kim Sengupta. “Revenge for Qasem Soleimani's Death Still Arriving, but Could Be Slowed by Coronavirus.” The Independent, March 12, 2020. https://www.independent.co.uk/independentpremium/world/qassem-soleimani-iran-iraq-taji-airbase-coronavirus-a9398246.html.

[15] “Inside the Plot by Iran's Soleimani to Attack U.S. Forces in Iraq.” Reuters, January 4, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-security-soleimani-insight/inside-the-plot-by-irans-soleimani-to-attack-u-s-forces-in-iraq-idUSKBN1Z301Z.

[16] Qais al-Khazali. Twitter, January 9, 2020. https://twitter.com/QaisAlKhazali/status/1215247622363062272.

[17] “Statement by the Department of Defense.” CJTF - Operation Inherent Resolve, March 13, 2020. https://www.inherentresolve.mil/Releases/News-Releases/Article/2110922/statement-by-the-department-of-defense/.

[18] Idrees Ali. “Pentagon Says Still Looking at How U.S. May Respond to Attack on American Forces.” Reuters, March 18, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iraq-middleeast-military/pentagon-says-still-looking-at-how-us-may-respond-to-attack-on-american-forces-idUSKBN2153LW.
Steve Holland. “Trump, Pompeo Walk to Brink of Blaming Iran for Rocket Attack.” Reuters, March 20, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-iran-trump/trump-pompeo-walk-to-brink-of-blaming-iran-for-rocket-attack-idUSKBN2173C8.

Ryan Browne. “Esper Blames Iranian-Backed Militias for Rocket Attack That Killed American Troops.” CNN, March 12, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/12/politics/esper-iraq-attack/index.html.

[19] Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt. “Pentagon Order to Plan for Escalation in Iraq Meets Warning From Top Commander.” The New York Times, March 27, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/world/middleeast/pentagon-iran-iraq-militias-coronavirus.html.

[20] Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace, "Iraq Situation Report: March 11 - 17, 2020," Institute for the Study of War, March 20, 2020, http://www.iswresearch.org/2020/03/iraq-situation-report-march-11-17-2020.html

[21] Iraqi Joint Operations Command Press Release. Facebook, March 13, 2020. https://www.facebook.com/372862740162806/posts/614993395949738/

[22] General Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr., USMC. “CENTCOM Testimony.” U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, March 10, 2020. https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/hearings/20-03-12-united-states-central-command.

[23] “US Deploys Extra Patriot Missiles to Iraq amid Troop Drawdown.” Middle East Eye, March 30, 2020. https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/us-deploys-extra-patriot-missiles-iraq-amid-troop-drawdown.

[24] “CJTF-OIR Statement on Repositioning of Forces.” Operation Inherent Resolve, March 20, 2020. https://www.inherentresolve.mil/Releases/News-Releases/Article/2119563/cjtf-oir-statement-on-repositioning-of-forces/#.XnX-ExUfajc.twitter.

[25] “Hezbollah Brigades Official Deems U.S. Pull Out from 3 Bases the Beginning of ‘Defeat.’” SITE Intelligence Group, March 19, 2020. https://ent.siteintelgroup.com/pdf/Statements/hezbollah-brigades-official-deems-u-s-pull-out-from-3-sites-the-beginning-of-defeat.

[26] Abu Alaa Wala'i. Twitter, March 29, 2020. https://twitter.com/aboalaa_alwalae/status/1244316715137282051.

[27] Sayyid Mohammed al-Tabatabaei. Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq, March 29, 2020. DO NOT GO TO SITE: https://ahlualhaq.com/post/12524.

[28] Isabel Coles and Benoit Faucon. “U.S. Again Limits Iraq's Waiver to Import Energy From Iran.” The Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2020. http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-again-limits-iraqs-waiver-to-import-energy-from-iran-11585241227.

[29] “Iraq Security and Humanitarian Monitor: March 19 - March 26, 2020.” EPIC - Enabling Peace in Iraq Center, March 26, 2020. https://enablingpeace.org/ishm247/#Headline4.

[30] Alissa J. Rubin. “Oil Prices Crash, Virus Hits, Commerce Stops: Iraq Is in Trouble.” The New York Times, March 29, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/29/world/middleeast/virus-iraq-oil.html.

[31] “Explosion Targets Convoy of US Military Vehicles South of Iraqi Capital.” Al Arabiya English, February 10, 2020. https://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/middle-east/2020/02/10/Explosion-targets-US-troops-south-of-Iraqi-capital.html.

[32] Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt. “Iran Is Secretly Moving Missiles Into Iraq, U.S. Officials Say.” The New York Times, December 4, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/04/us/politics/iran-missiles-iraq.html.

[33] Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt. The New York Times, March 27, 2020

[34] Maria Fantappie and Sam Heller. “In Iraq, Restraint Is America's Best Option.” War on the Rocks, March 30, 2020. https://warontherocks.com/2020/03/in-iraq-restraint-is-americas-best-option/.

[35] *Fazed Qasemi. “[Translation] Iran Prepared for an American Coup in Iraq.” al-Jarida, March 22, 2020. https://www.aljarida.com/articles/1584809786840621900/.

[36] Saif Salah al-Hety. Twitter, March 26, 2020. https://twitter.com/saifsalahalhety/status/1243278198349201408?s=20.