Monday, March 28, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: March 22 - 28, 2016

By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Key Take-Away: Pressure continues to mount on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to reshuffle the cabinet. Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr gave PM Abadi until March 26 to submit the list of nominations for the new cabinet to the Council of Representatives (CoR). However, discussions underway in the pan-Shi’a political body, the National Alliance, over what positions blocs will retain in the new government stalled the reshuffle process, and PM Abadi missed the deadline as a result. In response, Sadr initiated his own sit-in inside of a tent in the Green Zone on March 27 to pressure PM Abadi to conduct reforms, refusing to meet with politicians and government officials. Political blocs meanwhile have pressured PM Abadi to conduct reforms to their own preferences, seeking to preserve their positions and increase their representation within the cabinet. Groups like the Sunni Etihad and the Kurdistan Alliance refused to submit nominations for the new cabinet positions, citing concerns over the unclear selection process. Meanwhile, the National Alliance decided on March 27 to form a new sub-committee aimed at “advising” PM Abadi during the cabinet reshuffle process. However, the presence of Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri and Popular Mobilization Commission Chairman Faleh al-Fayadh on the committee indicate that Iranian proxies are attempting to direct the final outcome of the cabinet reshuffle, an outcome that would undermine the U.S.’s ability to continue its advise-and-assist mission in Iraq and effectively combat ISIS. PM Abadi is being pulled in multiple directions by Sadr, pro-Iranian elements, and non-Shi’a political blocs in a way that makes it impossible to satisfy all parties involved. It is a distinct possibility that multiple political blocs will reject PM Abadi’s cabinet submission on Thursday, or that he may not be able to submit it at all, given the disparate demands of the political blocs. PM Abadi may thus face the real possibility of a questioning session and a subsequent vote of no-confidence if the reform process continues to stall.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Russian-Syrian-Iranian Coalition Seizes ISIS-Held Palmyra

By Christopher Kozak

Pro-regime forces seized Palmyra as well as the adjacent Palmyra Airbase in Eastern Homs Province on March 27 after ISIS withdrew from the city, completing an operation that began on March 7 with the aim of recapturing the strategic crossroads. The Syrian Arab Army and its auxiliary National Defense Forces conducted multiple offensives against ISIS in the western countryside of Palmyra in the eight months after its rapid fall to ISIS in May 2015, achieving limited tactical gains at a high cost in manpower and equipment. The latest offensive proceeded as a three-pronged frontal assault similar to previous regime-directed operations against Palmyra, displaying little-to-none of the sophisticated operational design that characterized the recent campaign in Aleppo Province. Instead, the regime relied upon large numbers of reinforcements from Russia, Iran, and other foreign backers as well as a lull in combat generated by a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ that began on February 27 in order to generate sufficient combat power to overwhelm ISIS in Palmyra.

Russia played a major role in enabling the successful seizure of Palmyra following months of indecisive engagements. The Russian Armed Forces shifted the focus of its air campaign against Palmyra and its environs in March 2016 despite a drawdown announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 14. The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed to conduct at least 41 sorties against 146 targets near Palmyra between March 22 and March 24 alone, while local activists reported that the constant aerial bombardment has destroyed up to fifty percent of the city. Russia paired its air campaign with a significant deployment of ground forces. ISIS claimed to kill up to five Russian Spetznaz personnel west of Palmyra on March 18 and posted images appearing to show one of the men standing in front of the symbol of the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU). Russia later confirmed that at least one special forces officer died near Palmyra while “directing airstrikes onto terrorist targets” near Palmyra.  Media reports also revealed the deployment of Russian TOS-1 and BM-30 ‘Smerch’ heavy multiple rocket launcher systems as well as Mi-24 ‘Hind’ helicopter gunships in support of operations to seize Palmyra.

The regime also received significant reinforcements on the ground in Eastern Homs Province in recent weeks, allegedly raising the total number of participants in the operation to over five thousand personnel. Activists noted that the offensive included hundreds of fighters from Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a Militias, and the Afghan Shi’a Liwa al-Fatimiyoun. The death of a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps near Palmyra on March 16 suggests that Iran also deployed its own ground forces in order to oversee its coalition of proxy forces in the operation. Meanwhile, the regime deployed a convoy of up to one thousand Syrian Marines and pro-regime militiamen from the Syrian Coast to Eastern Homs Province on March 18. These redeployments were enabled in part by the ongoing ‘cessation of hostilities’ which allowed the regime and its allies to withdraw troops from its frontlines with opposition groups in Latakia, Aleppo, and Quneitra Provinces without major risk.

The fall of Palmyra represents a major victory on the international stage for both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The new gains allow the Russian-Iranian-Syrian coalition to claim a significant win in the fight against ISIS, bolstering its narrative as the ideal partner in the anti-ISIS campaign. This message may stand to gain additional traction within Europe in the aftermath of a major terrorist attack by ISIS in Brussels, Belgium on March that killed thirty-one civilians and wounded several hundred others. The advance also bolsters the current position of strength held by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amidst the ongoing Geneva III Talks to end the Syrian Civil War. The seizure of Palmyra curtails the ability of ISIS to project force into Western Syria from its safe haven along the Euphrates River Valley and provides a much-needed buffer for several critical regime-held oil and natural gas fields that provide electricity to Western Syria. The regime and its allies will likely leverage Palmyra and its military facilities as an optimal forward position for follow-on operations against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour Cities, complicating the position of the U.S.-led coalition in the region.

Friday, March 25, 2016

ISIS’s Campaign in Europe: March 2016

By Harleen Gambhir with Claire Coyne and ISW’s Counterterrorism Team

ISIS is using its foreign fighters and safe haven in Iraq and Syria to execute a terror campaign within Europe. ISIS’s March 22 Brussels attacks support a larger strategy to punish, destabilize, and polarize the West. ISIS will likely continue to attempt attacks in France and Belgium in 2016, using its large Francophone foreign fighter population and local supporters. ISIS’s support networks in southern Europe may enable ISIS’s operatives to launch operations in other parts of the continent, including Austria, Germany, Spain, and Italy. ISIS may also increasingly target Westerners in Turkey in order to punish members of the anti-ISIS coalition and undermine the Turkish economy, as part of its stated objective to seize Constantinople. Current efforts to address these threats through law enforcement, surgical strikes on ISIS’s leadership, and linear attrition of ISIS’s terrain and resources are necessary but not sufficient to destroy the ISIS threat to Europe. The anti-ISIS coalition must deprive ISIS of its primary source of strength, its territorial control as a caliphate in Iraq, Syria, and now Libya.

ISIS’s suicide bombings in Brussels demonstrate that the jihadist threat to Europe is outpacing domestic and international law enforcement efforts. ISIS is successfully using its safe haven in Iraq and Syria to train as many as 600 foreign fighters for external attacks. ISIS’s fighters benefit from extensive support networks across the European continent. The logistical requirements for facilitating European foreign fighter travel into Iraq and Syria can also export those fighters from ISIS’s safe havens back to Europe. Reports following the November 2015 Paris attacks and the recent Brussels attacks indicate European governments have incomplete, fragmented intelligence on the identity and communications of ISIS’s members in Europe. ISIS likely retains attack cells and logistical networks within Europe that will enable it to launch additional spectacular attacks, with support from the organization’s leadership within Iraq and Syria.

ISW last published its ISIS’s Campaign in Europe map on December 2015. The graphic below updates that visualization to depict all attacks inspired or coordinated by ISIS in Europe from January 2014 to present. This group includes attempted and successful attacks in the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Turkey. The graphic also marks locations where ISIS-linked individuals have been arrested in that timeframe. Locations with more than two arrest events are depicted with opaque circles with varying sizes depending on the number of events. Events that occurred at an unspecified location within a country are marked on that country’s capitol. The graphic also highlights where ISIS has directed public threats or recruitment calls. Individuals inspired by and responsive to ISIS are active across Europe, particularly in France, Belgium, Germany, and the United Kingdom. ISIS-linked attacks and arrests in Europe are distinct from ISIS’s activity in Turkey, which reflects spillover from ISIS's campaigns in Iraq and Syria as well as ISIS's campaign to attack the West.

ISIS’s Objectives in Europe

The Brussels attacks are recent successes in ISIS’s long-standing strategy to punish, destabilize, and polarize the West. The Brussels attacks are recent successes in ISIS’s long-standing strategy to punish, destabilize, and polarize the West. ISIS’s leadership has encouraged supporters outside of Iraq and Syria to launch lone wolf attacks since September 2014. It has facilitated more sophisticated attacks by deploying foreign fighters to Europe since at least January 2015, when Belgian counterterrorism forces raided an ISIS attack cell in Molenbeek, Brussels. ISIS seeks to punish those attacking it in Iraq and Syria, as reflected in its post-Brussels statements criticizing “Crusader Belgium” and framing the attacks as a response to “aggression against the Islamic State.”

ISIS also aims to destabilize Europe more broadly through spectacular attacks. ISIS seeks to exacerbate tensions between European states, raise defensive requirements within those states, cause an environment of fear, and inflict additional economic damage on Europe. An official ISIS media outlet affirmed each of these operational objectives in a publication released January 2016. The graphic claimed the November 2015 Paris attacks “[weakened] European cohesion” and caused “demands to repeal the Schengen Agreement.” It also argued that the Paris attacks caused tension between France and Belgium over intelligence failures. It celebrated how the attacks created a “general state of unease” and predicted that decreased tourism revenues and increased security requirements would cost Europe “tens of billions of dollars.” ISIS’s directed and inspired attacks set conditions for the organization’s desired apocalyptic war by draining resources and exacerbating internal conflict in the West.

European unity is already threatened by financial pressures, debates over refugee policy, and Russian-funded far-right parties. ISIS’s successful attacks in Paris strengthened the position of European anti-immigrant parties, shown by support for France’s National Front (FN) party in first-round regional elections in December 2015 and the victories of Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD) party in state elections in March 2016. The Brussels attacks may strengthen organizations calling for Britain’s exit from the European Union, as indicated by U.K. Independence Party defense spokesman Mike Hookem’s March 23 claim that the attacks proved “Schengen free movement and lax border controls are a threat to our security.”

ISIS’s attacks and resultant European disunity will undermine efforts to address the regional refugee crisis, as demonstrated by Poland’s decision on March 23 to renege on a plan to settle 7,000 refugees from Syria and Eritrea. The crisis will likely intensify over the next year.  Refugee inflow on the Mediterranean from January to March 2016 increased more than sevenfold as compared to the same period in 2015. Russia may also be encouraging migration to Europe to exacerbate this problem, according to NATO Supreme Commander General Philip Breedlove and Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves. Increasing pressure on European security and cohesion will open opportunities for both Russia and ISIS to expand influence.

ISIS particularly aims to destabilize Europe through polarization, which it calls “destroying the grayzone.” ISIS hopes attacks in its name will provoke state and social backlash against Europe’s Muslim communities, encouraging radicalization and jihadist recruitment. Such reactions have already surfaced from the Brussels attacks, as Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders called to “de-Islamize the West” and as American presidential candidates suggested patrolling Muslim neighborhoods and banning Muslims from entering the U.S. ISIS will likely exploit these actions in order to claim it is the defender of Muslims in a broader cultural war.

ISIS is best positioned to launch attacks within France and Belgium due to in part to its large Francophone foreign fighter population. An estimated 1700 French citizens and 470 Belgian citizens are fighting in Syria, with the latter representing the largest per capita amount of any Western nation. ISIS’s Francophone fighters reportedly formed cohesive fighting units with Syria, likely forming the basis of attack cells deployed back to Europe. These operatives recruit and gain logistical support from their home networks in France and Belgium.

Emerging trends in 2016

Authorities have thwarted several attack plots linked to or inspired by ISIS in France and Belgium since December 2015, reflecting an enduring jihadist support base within those countries. The ISIS network responsible for the Paris and Brussels attacks demonstrated resiliency and adaptiveness over past months through the ability of Paris attacker Salah Abdeslam to go undetected and the progression to the group’s first large explosive attack in Brussels on March 22. ISIS likely maintains attack cells within France and Belgium and will continue to attempt spectacular attacks on soft targets in those countries over coming months in order to replicate the success of its previous attacks. European authorities may locate and detain some of this network through intelligence gained from Salah Abdeslam, but ISIS will likely balance this loss with new European recruits.

ISIS also retains pre-existing recruitment networks in Spain, Italy and the Balkans, as demonstrated by arrest patterns in 2016. This group will likely continue to provide financial and logistical support to individuals seeking to join ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya. ISIS’s recruitment networks in Spain may increasingly orient towards Libya, where ISIS’s affiliate controls terrain and operates training camps. This affiliate could attempt to strike Europe, possibly exploiting migrant flow to Europe to do so. ISIS’s networks in Italy and the Balkans could aid this effort, as those countries host major migrant entry points. German and Austrian authorities arrested alleged ISIS operatives in refugee shelters since December 2015, confirming that ISIS members are intentionally using refugee transit to enter Europe. ISIS likely does so in order to strengthen xenophobic organizations and rhetoric in Europe, thereby fueling anti-Muslim sentiment and encouraging cultural polarization.  

ISIS shifted its attack campaign in Turkey in 2016, possibly in order to discourage Turkish efforts to curb ISIS’s foreign fighter flows. ISIS already faces potential disruption of its primary supply route to Turkey due to U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Kurdish PYD gains in northern Syria. ISIS may intend to incite broader conflict within Turkey in order to forestall this development. ISIS has increasingly struck foreign, tourism-related targets in Turkey, a shift from its attacks against political and military targets from July to December 2015. An alleged ISIS operative launched a suicide attack near Istanbul’s Blue Mosque on January 12, killing twelve German and one Peruvian tourists. An ISIS-linked individual launched another suicide attack on a popular shopping area of Istanbul on March 19, killing one Iranian and three Israeli citizens.

Strengthening European law enforcement and intelligence capabilities will only address one element of the ISIS threat to Europe. Programs to counter ISIS’s message, its finances, and other capabilities will assist, but will not suffice.  ISIS’s safe haven within Iraq, Syria, and now Libya will continue to provide the logistical infrastructure necessary to train, resource, and direct attack cells in Europe. The anti-ISIS coalition must deprive ISIS of its territorial control as a caliphate, which is its primary source of strength, in order to destroy the ISIS threat to Europe.

Warning: Iraq’s Shi’a Parties Split Over Cabinet Reshuffle Amidst Protests

By Patrick Martin with Emily Anagnostos, Rachel Bessette, and Hannah Werman

Key Take-away: Political violence may erupt in Iraq as supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr continue large-scale protests to pressure the current government to reshuffle the cabinet fundamentally. Sadr had threatened on February 26 to withdraw his support from Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi if such an overhaul did not occur by March 29, 2016. The Sadrists began a large sit-in at the entrance to the Green Zone on March 18 and are harnessing the power of street demonstrations to either compel PM Abadi to comply or make it possible for him to do so. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his supporters within the State of Law Alliance (SLA), rather than Abadi, seem to be the chief obstacle to a cabinet reshuffle. Other political blocs seek to neutralize this faction while retaining their current representation in cabinet. Meanwhile, some political blocs, including the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrist Trend, are in the process of attempting to create a new political alliance that could challenge Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA) as the dominant political bloc. It would need to overcome a plethora of obstacles to succeed, but could be the basis for a cabinet reshuffle process aimed at weakening the SLA and its dominant leader, Nouri al-Maliki. ISCI and the Sadrists may throw a lifeline to Abadi, or he may be political collateral damage in their play to counter Maliki. It is unclear what Sadr will do if there is no cabinet reshuffle by March 29 that meets his standards. He may compromise, as he might sacrifice some of his reform demands in order to strengthen himself or weaken Maliki and his Dawa Party. Alternatively, the Sadrists may continue the sit-in and pull out of the government, as Sadr threatened to do on February 13. The prospect for violence – initiated either by the demonstrators or by the security forces to break up the sit-in – remains a possibility that could destabilize or even collapse the already precarious Abadi government, and it is far from certain that PM Abadi will be able to retain his position if a new government is eventually formed.

Above: Tens of thousands of supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrated in front of the gates to the Green Zone in Baghdad on March 18 before beginning the sit-in. 

Sadr Pressures the Government

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi announced a cabinet reshuffle on February 9, intending to form a government of technocrats. Most other political blocs predictably attempted to use the cabinet reshuffle to forward their own political goals and preserve their positions within the cabinet, and ISW previously assessed that a protracted cabinet reshuffle process could lead to street violence or even PM Abadi’s resignation if political blocs could find a consensus candidate. However, Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr, having moved to position himself as the leader of popular demonstrations against corruption and poor government performance, has organized and attempted to harness street demonstrations to force PM Abadi and the political blocs to enact broader reforms. Sadr gave the government a 45-day deadline on February 13 to conduct comprehensive reforms. He later escalated his pressure on PM Abadi by speaking at a large demonstration in Tahrir Square on February 26 before announcing a sit-in on March 12, calling on his supporters to assemble at the entrance to the Green Zone on March 18. 

PM Abadi and the leaders of political blocs expressed concern over the sit-in, which the Council of Ministers (CoM) and the Interior Ministry rejected on March 16 and 18, respectively, due to security concerns and their legality. Sadr responded with his own rejection of the possibility of shutting down the sit-in. Security forces deployed across Baghdad prior to the start date to prevent demonstrators from accessing the sit-in site, blocking off key roads with concrete barriers and closing off the Republican and Sinak Bridges. The heavy security presence may have led to violence between security forces and thousands of Sadrist supporters converging on the Green Zone; at least one confrontation was recorded in Baghdad, when riot police used water cannons against Sadrist supporters near the Republican Bridge, ostensibly to protect Baghdad Governor Ali al-Tamimi, who was nearby. However, the Baghdad Operations Commander, Abdul-Amir al-Shammari, ordered security forces to re-open entrances into the city and lift the barriers on the Republican and Sinak Bridges. Shammari’s actions reduced the possibility of confrontation but infuriated PM Abadi, who shortly thereafter, marched to the Joint Operations Command (JOC) and announced that the JOC, not Baghdad Operations Command, would thereafter have responsibility for Baghdad’s security file.

Above: Sadrist supporters approach a line of security forces on the Republican Bridge, northeast of the Green Zone, on March 18. Security forces withdrew from the barriers later in the video, allowing the demonstrators to pour through and over the bridge towards the Green Zone. 

Sadr’s Sit-in

The Sadrist Trend’s management of the sit-in process has been highly disciplined and organized. Notably, Sadr charged Ibrahim al-Jabiri, the leader of the Baghdad branch of Sadr’s charitable foundation, the Office of the Martyr al-Sadr, with overseeing the sit-in and forming a management committee. The day after the announcement, the committee began erecting tents and opening up to 93 centers across Iraq to register volunteers who wished to participate in the sit-in. 

Sadr stressed the importance of non-violence and discipline among the demonstrators, ordering sit-in participants to bring no weapons, initiate no violence, cooperate with the security forces, and obey the sit-in coordinators. He also insisted on maintaining a disciplined and national public image, calling on demonstrators to avoid blocking roads, keep the sit-in site clean, and not to create excessive noise that disturbs local residents. The sit-in’s organizing committee maintains close control over the sit-in participants’ activity, assigning them tents, requiring them to wear an identification badge, and encouraging them to don uniforms bearing the Iraqi flag. The Office of the Martyr al-Sadr has not only supplied tents and food to the demonstrators, but organized events as well, with Jabri leading regular prayer sessions, overseeing a pop-up art and book market, and attending poetry readings while conducting meetings with security forces officials to facilitate stability and coordination. Jabri’s attendance of a wide variety of events and the high level of central organization indicates little chance of the sit-in dispersing due to logistical shortcomings. 

Above: Head of the Baghdad branch of the Office of the Martyr al-Sadr, Ibrahim al-Jabri (bottom center in front of crowd) leads an evening prayer session in the Green Zone sit-in site. Several demonstrators are wearing Iraqi flag shirts, as encouraged by the Sadrist organizing committee. Others can be seen wearing identification cards on lanyards. 

The sit-in has continued since March 18, and Sadr has shown no willingness to back down. Instead, Sadr has taken the initiative and is attempting to force PM Abadi and other political blocs to concede to his reform agenda. The approaching end of Sadr’s 45-day deadline and the sit-in has set political blocs scrambling to come to an agreement over the cabinet reshuffle, but it appears that the only thing blocs can agree on remains their refusal to lose positions within the cabinet. PM Abadi publicly aired his frustration with the political blocs, blaming unspecified ministers for blocking the cabinet reshuffle process in order to keep their positions and privileges. 

The increased pressure has also revealed the divergent opinions of the political blocs on the cabinet reshuffle. Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance (SLA), Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), the Kurdistan Alliance, and the Sunni Etihad Bloc, favor either a partial cabinet reshuffle or measures to preserve their parties’ representation within the cabinet. They are therefore in multi-party negotiations. PM Abadi, President Fuad Masoum, and Council of Representatives (CoR) Speaker Salim al-Juburi hosted senior political bloc leaders at the Presidential Peace Palace to reach an agreement over the cabinet reshuffle on March 19. The parties agreed to the formation of three additional committees to address different aspects of government reform, but they reached no agreement over the cabinet’s final composition. The committee formed to assist PM Abadi with selecting new ministers has not even met. A member of the State of Law Alliance (SLA), the primary political rival of the Sadrist Trend led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, called the meeting “useless,” while an ISCI member noted that the results of the meeting were “not encouraging.” 

Former PM and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki is steering the cabinet reshuffle process in a manner that is preventing the political blocs from agreeing on the cabinet’s final composition. Maliki is technically a member of Abadi’s own political party, Dawa, a component of the SLA. He and his backers form an important source of parliamentary support for Abadi and his premiership. Maliki, however, is actually Abadi’s primary political rival, because he seeks to regain the premiership and could withdraw his support from Abadi in a manner that collapses his government. Abadi had tried unsuccessfully to force Maliki’s resignation in August 2015 by abolishing the position of the vice presidency, but the effort failed, and Maliki thus retained his position within government. 

Maliki therefore has likely commandeered Abadi’s efforts and holds the keys to the latter’s continued premiership. He is playing to win a greater share of power and patronage, if not the premiership itself, prior to next year’s provincial elections. A senior member of the SLA who is no longer an ardent Maliki supporter, Ali al-Adeeb, complained that the Dawa Party, along with the pro-Iranian Badr Organization and Mustaqilun Bloc, were more concerned with protecting their positions than pursuing genuine reform. This obstructionism has alienated ISCI. One ISCI party member, Muhammad al-Likash stated that ISCI insisted on ensuring the government’s independence from political interests, which could be guaranteed by either a fully independent selection of ministers, PM Abadi’s resignation from the Dawa Party, or his resignation from the premiership. If these options were not possible, then ISCI’s Mowatin Bloc would withdraw from government, as it had no interest in being party of a “Dawa Party government.” 

Sadr stated on March 21 that PM Abadi, Masoum, Juburi, and political bloc leaders displayed “ignorance” over the well-being of citizens and repeated calls for comprehensive government change. More worryingly, a senior al-Ahrar Bloc member, the main political party of the Sadrist Trend, dismissed the results of the meeting and warned that demonstrators could “storm the Green Zone” if reforms did not materialize by the March 29 deadline. Sadr had vaguely alluded to this possibility on February 26, when he stated that “we are on the walls of the Green Zone, and tomorrow, the people will be in it,” though a senior Sadrist official later insisted that demonstrations would remain peaceful. In addition, on March 22, Sadr announced that a committee he had formed on February 20 to nominate technocrats for the new cabinet had completed its work, producing a 90-name list for government nominations to be passed to PM Abadi. An al-Ahrar Bloc member insisted the list be reviewed and voted on in the CoR, lest al-Ahrar withdraw confidence from PM Abadi. By referencing the deadline, providing nominations, threatening a withdrawal of confidence, and continuing the sit-in, Sadr is escalating pressure on PM Abadi and other political blocs to support a comprehensive overhaul of government. 

The Cross-Sectarian Bloc and the Anti-Dawa Party Movement

On March 24, three notable events occurred that indicated that ISCI was challenging PM Abadi and the SLA. First, one of the most senior members of ISCI, Oil Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, resigned from his post and stated that he would no longer attend cabinet meetings. Although many ministers have offered their resignations in the past to indicate their support for reforms, Abdul-Mahdi appears to have actually resigned with the intention of vacating his position. It is unclear if he did so on Hakim’s order and if he is still receiving his salary. Second, ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim met with Muqtada al-Sadr in Najaf to discuss the ongoing reforms as Abadi met with the pan-Shia National Alliance in Baghdad. The National Alliance is an umbrella group for all major Shi'a political parties, including the SLA, ISCI, the Sadrist Trend, Fadhila Bloc, and the National Reform Trend. The National Alliance’s role is to unite and coordinate Shi'a political activity in Iraq, but it has largely been unable to overcome existing differences between political blocs. Third, Hakim also met with Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri to discuss reforms. The Badr Organization is an Iranian-supported proxy militia that fractured from ISCI in 2012. Maliki has lately cultivated its support, as he has with other Iranian proxy militias, since he otherwise lacks a powerful military organization. The meetings indicate that Hakim has been attempting to form agreements with senior political and military leaders regarding next steps in the cabinet reshuffle process. 

Finally, on March 24, Fail al-Shammari, a member of the Mowatin Bloc, which is a component of ISCI, stated that ISCI was in the process of forming a “cross-sectarian” bloc with a unified vision regarding the reforms. The statement reveals that efforts persist to form a new political alliance composed of members of multiple blocs. PM Abadi had called for such a bloc on February 27 to support national reform efforts. Sadr and Hakim met on March 2 and jointly expressed support for the creation of the bloc, which also received support from individual members of various Sunni, Kurdish, and Shi’a parties, including Dawa Party, Mustaqilun, Etihad, the Sadrist Trend, and ISCI’s Mowatin Bloc. The bloc aimed to produce a majority in the CoR in order to allow PM Abadi to pass reforms and legislation. Members of other parties, including the secular Wataniya Alliance and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are also reportedly interested in supporting Hakim’s effort to build the alliance. However, an SLA member, Rasul Abu Hasna, dismissed talk of the new bloc as “rosy dreams,” suggesting that the bloc faces opposition from within the SLA. It is important to note that Shammari’s account was not fully accurate – he also announced that all three ISCI members had withdrawn from government, which an ISCI spokesperson swiftly denied. However, the statement did indicate that backroom discussions over the cross-sectarian bloc were still in progress. 

Hakim’s pursuit of the cross-sectarian bloc – and the dismissal of it by an SLA member – makes sense in that he has been attempting to position himself as a powerful political figure for some time but has been consistently blocked by the SLA. Hakim had tried to secure the leadership of the National Alliance in January and February of 2015 with the support of Sadr, but never managed to obtain it, as the SLA – nearly three times the size of ISCI within the CoR – insisted that senior SLA member Ali al-Adeeb chair the National Alliance and blocked Hakim’s efforts. Unable to come to an agreement, the National Alliance political blocs reached a stalemate, and previous chairman and current Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari simply stayed on in his position. Hakim’s effort to build a new bloc could thus be a way for Hakim, who does not hold political office within the government, to increase his political power at the expense of Maliki and the SLA. By cutting out the senior SLA leadership – namely, pro-Maliki Dawa Party members – from the new alliance, ISCI would neuter the ability of the SLA to influence decision-making and increase ISCI’s influence, but would consequentially fracture the pan-Shi’a National Alliance. 

A new cross-sectarian alliance would also benefit other political blocs as it would level the playing field between them and the SLA. Members of minority groups, such as Sunni blocs and the Kurdistan Alliance, would benefit from any weakening of Maliki, who is a sectarian actor. The Sadrist Trend would benefit in that it could weaken Maliki, Sadr’s primary opponent, and strengthen the Sadrist Trend as a political force at the expense of the SLA. Pro-Maliki members of the SLA, such as components of the Dawa Party and the Badr Organization, however, are motivated to keep the National Alliance intact, as they are the dominant force within the National Alliance. The SLA is likely preoccupied with preserving its power within the cabinet – Adeeb’s statement on March 12 complaining about the SLA’s intransigence is a major indicator of this trend. 

If successful, the new cross-sectarian bloc would thus serve to unite a number of political blocs that are opposed to Maliki creating what is essentially an anti-Dawa Party alternative to the National Alliance. However, opposition to Maliki may not be sufficient to create a functioning alternative, as the new bloc would still have to overcome a bevy of other differences that exist between blocs. Etihad and ISCI, for example, differ greatly in their position towards Iran, with Etihad being generally opposed to Iranian activity in Iraq, and ISCI being amenable towards it. They also differ in what they view to be the ideal outcome of the cabinet reshuffle. Hakim, for example, supports a partial cabinet reshuffle, while Sadr is a vocal advocate of a complete overhaul of the government and replacing sitting ministers with technocrats. This sort of alliance could be viable in the short-term to disempower the SLA, but it is far from clear if it would be sustainable in the long-term, as the inability of Kurdish, Sunni, and Shi’a parties to come to agreements on important legislation has prevented major laws, such as the Federal Judiciary Act, the National Guard Law, and the Justice and Accountability Law from passing in the CoR.

Courses of Action

PM Abadi is in an extremely difficult situation. Many political blocs do not want him to overhaul the government, despite their public insistence that this is the case. Most of the major political blocs have not even submitted nominations for cabinet positions, indicating that they are still attempting to negotiate what the final composition of the cabinet will be amongst themselves. The only exception has been the Sadrist Trend’s 90-name list, which may not even be considered, because the list’s technocratic nature threatens to remove political party members from senior governmental positions. Yet many blocs, aside from pro-Maliki components of the SLA and affiliated parties, are opposed to Maliki and could form a united front against the Dawa Party-dominated SLA in order to promote their interests. This may be sufficient grounds for disparate parties to form a compromise over the final cabinet composition. 

There are several courses of action the cabinet reshuffle process may take, all of which can be problematic for U.S. interests. If PM Abadi attempts to initiate reforms along the lines of Sadr’s proposals, political blocs could obstruct their passing, as Sadr’s reforms would replace senior political bloc members with technocrats. If ISCI decides to form an agreement with the SLA and abandons talk of the cross-sectarian bloc and support for Sadr to protect its positions within the cabinet, then Sadr would react poorly, escalating his supporters’ street activity and potentially even leading to violence. Clashes between Sadrist supporters and the security forces would severely undermine the stability of the government and intensify the political crisis. Alternatively, security forces and even members of Iraqi Shi’a militias opposed to Sadr might attempt to break up the sit-in or keep demonstrators from reaching the Green Zone during the regular demonstration time on Friday, March 25, which might also lead to violence and instability. 

Alternatively, Sadr, ISCI, and other political blocs could successfully form a united anti-Dawa Party front through the new cross-sectarian bloc that sees Maliki’s power reduced. This would be contingent upon Sadr sacrificing some of his demands, as no other political party seriously wants their ministers removed from the cabinet. However, Sadr could be placated and could call off his sit-in if there is progress towards forming the new cross-sectarian bloc and loosening Maliki’s dominance over the government. Yet it is not clear if PM Abadi would be able to survive as the premier in this scenario, as PM Abadi, a Dawa Party member, may not be able to unshackle himself from the SLA. Both Sadr and members of ISCI have mused on the possibility of life after PM Abadi, however, and they may be comfortable attempting to identify a consensus candidate from within their own ranks if they cannot pry PM Abadi out of Maliki’s grip. It is also not clear if the new bloc can even function, as it must overcome myriad differences to achieve anything. 

How Sadr responds to the ongoing cabinet reshuffle, however, remains the major question regarding how the cabinet reshuffle process will play out. Sadr’s position differs from the other political blocs in that his motivations are not purely based on increasing his political power within the government through the accumulation of ministerial or senior government positions. He has been pursuing other paths to influence, including attempting to take the role of the leader of popular street demonstrations, a role that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani played prior to February 2016, when he ceased giving political sermons. He also appears to be attempting to reassert control over his own movement, including al-Ahrar Bloc; his public distancing from the bloc, the referral of the bloc’s two ministers to the Integrity Commission for corruption investigation, and the “detention” of former Deputy Prime Minister Bahaa al-Araji may indicate that he is distancing himself from the bloc’s behavior while attempting to reestablish control over its members. In addition, Sadr’s nominations for cabinet positions is more technocratic than representative of the Sadrist Trend, indicating that he may be willing to cede power within the cabinet in exchange for maintaining his role as a leader of the anti-corruption movement and bolstering his personal role in Iraqi politics. 

Sadr thus has several options. If the government undergoes a partial cabinet reshuffle, then he could incite his supporters to engage in further street demonstrations and possible political violence. Sadr may also resort to less extreme options. He might, for example, withdraw the al-Ahrar Bloc from the government and opt to continue the sit-in while preserving his position as the leader of popular demonstrations against corruption. Considering the historical lack of discipline of Sadr’s supporters, an extended sit-in and repeated demonstrations could also lead to instability and political violence; the fact that Sadr’s supporters reportedly almost attacked the Baghdad Governor is a poor indicator for the sit-in movement’s long-term discipline and adherence to non-violent behavior. Sadr might alternatively accept an increased number of Sadrists within the government – in effect, abandoning the idea of a comprehensive cabinet reshuffle for increased cabinet representation. This would however require Sadr to sacrifice much of his legitimacy as a leader of the anti-corruption performance, which is highly unlikely. 

Stuck amidst the realignment of interests within the Iraqi Shi’a political scene remains PM Abadi, who is tethered to Maliki through his membership to the Dawa Party but genuinely appears to want to undertake reform. Hakim and Sadr may be willing to keep PM Abadi in his position if they can accumulate enough collective power to form an anti-Dawa Party movement, but are likely equally willing to pursue deposing him if PM Abadi is unable to separate himself from Maliki. Similarly, the SLA may be willing to force PM Abadi to resign if he is unable to conduct reforms to their liking, and could attempt to pursue other Shi’a blocs of forming a new government with a new prime minister, such as current National Alliance chairman Ibrahim al-Jaafari. PM Abadi thus appears to be stuck between the Shi’a political blocs, and may not survive as premier no matter which direction he decides to take the reforms.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: March 15 - 21, 2016

By Patrick Martin and ISW Iraq Team

Key Take-Away: Supporters of Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr began a large sit-in in front of the entrance to the Green Zone on March 18. The sit-in escalates pressure on Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to follow Sadr’s reform agenda. PM Abadi, along with Council of Representatives Speaker Salim al-Juburi and President Fuad Masoum, met with the leaders of major political blocs on March 20 to discuss the cabinet reshuffle, but the assembled leaders could not form an agreement on the final shape of the cabinet. PM Abadi blamed unspecified individuals for blocking the reshuffle process for fear of losing their positions and privileges, indicating that political blocs are unwilling to lose control over ministries and the patronage that follows. Further disagreement over the cabinet cannot continue for much longer without provoking a response from an increasingly bold Sadr. He ordered the sit-in to continue on March 18 in defiance of orders from the Council of Ministers and the Interior Ministry banning the sit-in, and repeated calls for a full overhaul of the government, while a senior member of the Sadrist Trend, Sabah al-Ta’i, warned that protesters could “storm the Green Zone” if a technocratic government was not in place by March 29. PM Abadi thus faces no good options for completing the cabinet reshuffle process. Political blocs could obstruct PM Abadi if he attempts to impose a technocratic government that deprives political blocs of their ministerial positions. However, Sadr could incite further demonstrations or even violence if PM Abadi decides to conduct a partial reform that preserves political blocs’ power within the cabinet. Sadr could attempt to force PM Abadi’s hand through some bold action by the March 29 deadline that threatens to destabilize the government and end PM Abadi’s tenure.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ukraine Crisis Update: March 18, 2016

By Marta Kosmyna and ISW Russia and Ukraine Team

Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely attempting to leverage his gains in the Syrian Civil War to expand Russia’s freedom of action in eastern Ukraine. Russia and the separatists began to escalate operations in eastern Ukraine in mid-February, directly coinciding with the implementation of the Syrian cessation of hostilities agreement on February 27 and subsequent drawdown of Russian forces. The Syrian and Ukrainian theaters have been linked before. In September 2015, the Ukrainian military reported a partial withdrawal of heavy artillery and armor from the front line and a decrease in clashes with Russian-backed separatist forces, coinciding with Russia’s launch of its air campaign in Syria. Putin again directly linked the two theaters in his March 14 phone call with President Barack Obama on the Russian drawdown in Syria, stressing “the need for the complete fulfilment of the Minsk Agreements by the Ukrainian authorities.”
Russia and its proxies have escalated operations involving re-deployed heavy weapons in eastern Ukraine in February and March in order to set conditions for future operations and to test the levels of escalation the international community is willing to overlook. Russian-backed separatists likely intend to target multiple pressure points in order to stretch Ukrainian forces along the separatists’ western front in an attempt to disguise their intentions about which single position they intend to prioritize. 
Specifically, separatists based around Donetsk city, who had concentrated fire on government positions to its west in February, redirected their attacks north of the stronghold in early March. Separatists escalated attacks on Avdiivka, north of Donetsk city, firing rare heavy artillery, tanks, and mortars and clashing with Ukrainian troops starting March 4. Separatists also launched “Grad” multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS), banned from the front line by the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement,  west of Donetsk airport on March 3 and on February 16, showing their intention to escalate the conflict despite the ceasefire. Despite a mid-February withdrawal of separatist forces from a long-contested village east of Mariupol, separatists increased the scope of indirect fire attacks on Ukrainian positions east and northeast of the strategic port city. The tandem escalation of attacks in close proximity to the most populated government-controlled city in the region and Donetsk city may increase pressure on the Ukrainian government to make political concessions tied to the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement, including recognizing the special legal status of occupied Donbas, in an effort to deescalate the conflict. 
Heightened separatist operations in March are part of a larger trend of escalation since December 2015. Separatists have phased their operations as follows: 
 A)  December 2015; January-March 2016: Separatists seize uncontrolled village of Kominternove, east of Mariupol; separatists increase mortar attacks east of Mariupol
 B)  February-March 2016: Separatists target frontline government-controlled civilian checkpoints (northeast of Mariupol, south and west of Donetsk city, north of Horlivka)   
 C)  February 16 and March 3, 2016: Separatists launch “Grad” MLRS (northwest of Donetsk city)
 D)  March 4, 2016: Separatists shift focus of offensive operations from west to north of Donetsk city 
The unenforced “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement grants Western leaders an attractive non-military response to limiting Russian aggression through negotiations, supported by strict U.S. and European economic sanctions.  The “Minsk II” agreement, however, has allowed Russia to expand its political and military leverage over Ukraine. Russia is a belligerent posing as a mediator and can increase and decrease violence in order to coerce Ukraine into concessions. President Putin continues to blame hostilities along the front line on the Ukrainian authorities’ failure to uphold political obligations under the “Minsk II” ceasefire. European leaders’ support for maintaining sanctions may be weakening; the German and French economy ministers have made statements this year supporting the lifting of sanctions in the near term. The foreign ministers of Germany and France, who may prioritize the resolution of the Syrian Civil War over the war in eastern Ukraine, recently expressed hope that Ukraine would allow elections to be held in occupied Donbas by June 2016. 
Putin is taking steps to change political as well as military realities on the ground. The separatist “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) began issuing its own passports on March 16, a landmark in Russian-backed efforts to transform the occupied regions of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts into polities. The leaders of the DNR claimed the passports would be required to participate in local elections in the occupied region, thereby excluding internally displaced persons and pro-Ukrainian individuals from the vote. Despite Russia publically not recognizing the DNR as an independent state, the move may have been approved by President Putin to undermine Western-backed efforts to arrange elections in occupied territory in accordance with Ukrainian law and OSCE standards.
Russia will likely support political and military escalation in eastern Ukraine in the coming months while painting Kyiv as the spoiler of the ceasefire. Russian-backed separatists will continue to gradually escalate indirect fire attacks on Ukrainian positions and shift operations along the front near Donetsk city and Mariupol. Russia may privately support preparations for separatist pseudo-elections in 2016 in an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of its proxies. Previous separatist elections were held in November 2014 without Ukrainian approval, and the threat of another round of elections may be used as a bargaining chip during ceasefire negotiations. Western leaders previously engaged Russia to postpone separatist elections during the operational pause in eastern Ukraine in Fall 2015 and might again ask Russia to make this temporary concession, giving Putin leverage to request concessions from the West and from Kyiv.