Friday, September 23, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Aleppo Province: September 20 - 22, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia intensified its air campaign against the Syrian opposition in and around Aleppo City from September 20 – 22 following the breakdown of the nationwide ceasefire in Syria. The dramatic uptick in Russian airstrikes coincided with the Syrian Arab Army’s announcement of the start of an offensive to seize the remaining opposition-held districts of Aleppo City on September 22, demonstrating Russia’s continued commitment to support pro-regime operations against the Syrian opposition. Russian strikes concentrated against opposition-held terrain in the southern districts of Aleppo City as well as in the city’s western countryside, marking the largest three-day surge in Russian airstrikes against the city and its environs since mid-August. Russian warplanes reportedly conducted several airstrikes using cluster or incendiary munitions, including an alleged wave of incendiary attacks against opposition frontlines south of Aleppo City, while regime jets also intensified their bombardment of the city and its suburbs. The surge in Russian strikes defied U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s demand on September 21 that pro-regime forces “immediately ground all aircraft” flying over opposition-held areas in order to “restore credibility” to U.S.-Russian negotiations on the Syrian Civil War. Russia has periodically intensified and tempered its air operations in Aleppo Province during negotiations with the U.S., wielding the threat of even deeper humanitarian crisis and the defeat of the acceptable opposition in Aleppo City in order to extract concessions. Russia will not accede to a partnership with the U.S. except on its own terms, and will continue to wage its air campaign in Syria coercively in order to secure them.    

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. 
High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.
Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.

**ISW was unable to assess any Russian airstrikes in Aleppo Province with high confidence from September 20 - 22, 2016.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Iraq’s Parliament Ousts Kurdish Finance Minister

 By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) voted out Kurdish Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari in a vote of no-confidence rendered by simple majority on September 21. The vote was held by a secret ballot in a vote of 158 to 77. The Iraqi Constitution (Article 61.8.A) mandates that a minister be dismissed on the basis of an absolute majority, which is 165 CoR members. The vote was rendered therefore in a simple majority, the same method that the CoR dismissed Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25. CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi denied a request from 102 CoR members for re-vote on whether to proceed from the questioning session, held on August 25, to a vote of no-confidence. Juburi also denied a request from Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to postpone the no-confidence vote. PM Abadi argued that Zebari is critical to Iraq’s ongoing negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) regarding major international loan agreements. Juburi likewise denied a request from 50 CoR members to postpone the vote.

The Kurdistan Alliance has effectively collapsed, due intra-Kurdish tensions in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that spilled into politics in Baghdad. Kurdish political parties have varying interests in Arbil, but they have historically agreed to present a unified platform in Baghdad in order to exact concession for the KRG. However, tensions between Zebari’s party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and a Kurdish opposition party, Gorran, in the KRG have escalated and now affect politics in Baghdad. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has split loyalties in the dispute, and this internal fracture has failed to prevent the vote from succeeding. Early reports suggest that most non-KDP Kurdish CoR members voted to dismiss Zebari, likely in order to punish the KDP. The KDP issued a statement calling the dismissal a “violation of the Constitution and the law.” The fracture of the Kurdistan Alliance will deprive all Kurdish parties their ability to influence politics in the Iraqi Government.

Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s shadow party, the Reform Front, spearheaded the vote, as it did for Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi. Maliki hit on fault lines in the Kurdistan Alliance in order to benefit his own interests. Maliki is seeking allies that can support a bid for the premiership and has repeatedly courted the PUK and Gorran to join his support base. He is also targeting ministers who are key allies for PM Abadi in an effort to undermine Abadi’s premiership.

ISW has previously assessed the implications of Zebari’s dismissal. These include:

1.   Zebari dismissal could compromise ongoing financial negotiations that are critical for Iraq’s economic stability. This includes ongoing discussions with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which are scheduled to resume in Washington, D.C., in early October. Zebari has been instrumental for obtaining the $5.3 billion standby loan. His absence may prevent Iraq from unlocking greater loan amounts and addressing Iraq's overall financial crisis.
2.   The U.S. campaign for Mosul could suffer if the KDP and Baghdad, two of the U.S.’s major ground partners, no longer have an effective relationship. The breakdown of relations between the KDP and the Iraqi Government may complicate the current plan and timeline for Mosul. The majority of anti-ISIS operations in northern Iraq have occurred in KDP-governed terrain and alongside KDP-Peshmerga, who will be the primarily Peshmerga force to participate in Mosul operations, which are intended to launch in the upcoming months. The KDP made “historic” agreements with Baghdad on September 19 over coordination and force composition in the Mosul operations. If the KDP rejects the oversight of the federal government, or if the U.S.’s ability to work with the KDP is hampered by poor Baghdad-Arbil relations, the timeline or success of the Mosul operations may suffer. The KDP may also use poor relations with Baghdad to rebuff plans for the post-ISIS administration of Mosul that do not include Kurdish governance. The KDP may also push to expand Kurdish territory outside of the KRG’s boundaries.
3.     Maliki and the Reform Front may ultimately target PM Abadi with a no-confidence vote. Maliki and the Reform Front has now successfully engineered the unconstitutional removal of two ministers, putting the survival of any minister in the Iraqi Government at stake. Zebari and Defense Minister Obeidi were two of PM Abadi’s important allies in the Iraqi Government. Maliki’s ability to remove PM Abadi’s allies and gain support for himself could prompt a call for a dismissal of PM Abadi. Without the support of the Kurdish and Sunni parties, PM Abadi may have insufficient support to ensure he survives the vote.
4.   The split between the Kurdish parties jeopardizes a push for Kurdish independence because an independence referendum would require the support of all Kurdish parties. An independent Iraqi Kurdistan without the PUK-governed territories – primarily the oil-rich Kirkuk Province – is not financially viable. The PUK, which controls half of the Kurdish territories, may block attempts by the KDP to declare independence because the move would be spearheaded by KRG President Masoud Barzani and the KDP. Kurdish independence is less likely, though Barzani will escalate calls for a referendum. However the KDP could still withdraw from Iraqi Government. This will further remove an obstacle for Maliki to gain overarching influence in the CoR and move to retake the premiership.

For more of ISW’s analysis on the situation, read here.

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre- and Post Cessation of Hostilities

By Genevieve Casagrande

Key Takeaway: The cessation of hostilities agreement in Syria has collapsed and violence has once again ramped up across Syria. The nationwide ceasefire brokered by Russia and the U.S. on September 9 stipulated that after at least seven days of reduced violence and uninterrupted humanitarian access across Syria, the U.S. and Russia would establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) to coordinate strikes against ISIS and al Qaeda. The ceasefire, although short-lived, was ultimately a success for the Syrian regime and Russia. Both parties utilized the cessation in order to consolidate recent gains in Aleppo City and to redeploy military assets to other critical frontlines in likely preparation for upcoming offensives. Russian and regime airstrikes escalated against opposition forces in Aleppo and Idlib Provinces in the 48-hours prior to the cessation of hostilities going into effect on September 12. Russia subsequently pivoted its strikes towards ISIS-held terrain in Eastern Syria throughout the tenuous ceasefire with the opposition, but began to break the terms of the ceasefire and intensify strikes against opposition targets in Homs Province on September 16 – 17. Reported Russian airstrikes targeting a UN humanitarian aid convoy on September 19 marked a dangerous phase line in the willingness of Russia and the Syrian regime to violate international law and deny besieged opposition-held areas humanitarian aid. Hardline elements of the Syrian opposition meanwhile continued to use the failed ceasefire to increase their own influence among mainstream opposition factions, undermining efforts by the U.S. to compel independent opposition groups to distance themselves from al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. Both Russia and the Syrian regime will continue to use subsequent ceasefires to solidify gains against the Syrian opposition in Aleppo City and to employ siege-and-starve tactics to force the defeat of the opposition in critical terrain. Russia will continue to exert pressure on the U.S. and the international community by escalating levels of violence in order to extract concessions in negotiations over the Syrian Civil War.

The preceding graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. 

High-Confidence reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.


The General Command of the Syrian Arab Army declared an end to the seven-day ceasefire on September 19 as violence by all parties escalated in Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs Provinces. Russian airstrikes on a UN humanitarian aid convoy only hours after the Syrian regime’s declaration of the end of the cessation represented a dangerous escalatory step in the pro-regime willingness to violate international law and deny aid to besieged opposition-held areas in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has nonetheless continued to reiterate that the “ceasefire is not dead,” despite its near-constant violations and the Syrian regime’s denial of humanitarian aid to besieged populations throughout the country. Members of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) similarly agreed on September 20 to “pursue” a ceasefire based upon the terms of the U.S.-Russia deal announced on September 9. Pro-regime airstrikes have meanwhile escalated across the country, resulting in over 38 deaths in Aleppo Province on September 18 - 19 alone.

The U.S.-Russia Ceasefire Deal

The U.S. and Russia announced the resumption of a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ in Syria on September 9. The agreement stipulated that after at least seven consecutive days of “reduced violence” and unimpeded humanitarian aid deliveries beginning on September 12, the U.S. would establish a Joint Implementation Center (JIC) in order to coordinate U.S. and Russian airstrikes against al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. The deal required Russia to ensure the regime’s adherence to its terms to include the prevention of regime warplanes from conducting air operations in areas where “the legitimate opposition” or “[Jabhat] al Nusra” is present as designated by maps drawn up during technical meetings between Russia and the United States. The full terms of the agreement were not publically disclosed, but the U.S. reportedly shared the text of the deal to designated “partners” after considerable pressure from France and Russia. The deal nonetheless lacked the necessary enforcement mechanisms or consequences to ceasefire violations to prevent pro-regime forces and Salafi-Jihadist groups from spoiling the cessation of hostilities.

Russian and the Regime Violations

Russian and the Syrian regime amplified their air campaigns against the Syrian opposition in the 48-hours prior to the ceasefire deal going into affect on September 12. The Russian air campaign subsequently pivoted to primarily target ISIS in eastern Syria after the onset of the cessation of hostilities. Pro-regime forces meanwhile continued operations against remaining opposition-held pockets in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus and the northern Homs countryside; Russian airstrikes notably began to escalate against opposition-held areas in northern Homs from September 16 - 17 in violation of the agreement. Pro-regime forces will likely try to consolidate control over the central corridor to include the collapsed opposition-held pockets near the regime strongholds of Damascus and Homs cities over the coming months.

Pro-regime airstrikes on a UN humanitarian convoy in western Aleppo Province just hours after the regime’s declared end to the ceasefire marked a dramatic escalation in efforts to deny humanitarian aid deliveries in opposition-held terrain. The targeted strike violated both international law and the terms of the ceasefire brokered by the U.S. and Russia. It killed an estimated 20 civilians and at least one aid worker while destroying 18 trucks destined for opposition-held areas of western Aleppo Province. The UN subsequently announced the suspension of all humanitarian aid convoys into Syria. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes stated on September 20 that the U.S. holds “the Russian government accountable” for the airstrikes against the aid convoy. Rhodes did not specify if the strike was carried out by the Syrian regime or Russia, but unidentified U.S. officials reported that preliminary analysis of the strike indicated two Russian aircraft carried out the attack. Russia likely seeks to use the escalating levels of violence to constrain the U.S. and the international community into increasing the threshold for acceptable levels of violence in Syria in order to allow the Syrian regime to pursue victory over the Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria.

Russia had already exerted its own control over the flow of humanitarian aid into Aleppo at the time of the strike, however. The UN ultimately remained unable to deliver humanitarian aid to the estimated 300,000 civilians in Eastern Aleppo City throughout the cessation, despite the deal’s requirement for unhindered humanitarian aid deliveries to Aleppo. Russian forces deployed a “mobile observation post” at the entrance to Aleppo City along the Castello Road on September 13, which was the primary supply route into opposition-held areas of eastern Aleppo City before pro-regime forces severed it in late July 2016. Pro-regime forces temporarily withdrew from their positions along the road to transfer control of the critical supply route to Russian forces on September 15, but ultimately returned to their positions along Castello after opposition forces refused to withdraw. There was little indication, however, that the Russian forces withdrew from the supply route. The movement of Russian personnel to Castello Road allowed Russia and the regime to block humanitarian aid deliveries to Aleppo City in support of the Assad regime’s siege-and-starve tactics to force the surrender of the opposition in Aleppo under a crippling siege. Russia agreed to the cessation of hostilities deal only after pro-regime forces with considerable Russian air support were able to reestablish the siege on Aleppo City on September 4, essentially freezing frontlines with the opposition in the city. The ceasefire allowed the regime and Russia to reset operations in Aleppo in order to consolidate these recent gains, while the Syrian opposition remains constrained by the ceasefire and unable to launch a counteroffensive.  

Operational Reset

The Syrian regime and Russia used the cessation of hostilities to shift military assets to frontlines with ISIS. Russia allegedly deployed four Mi-28 ‘Havoc’ attack helicopters, a transport helicopter, and a contingent of fifty special operations forces to the Shayrat Airbase near Homs City on September 18, according to local activists. Russia has used prior ceasefire agreements to redeploy additional military assets to key frontlines within Syria, including a deployment of attack helicopters to the Shayrat Airbase in the wake of the original ‘cessation of hostilities’ brokered in February 2016. Pro-regime forces exploited the dynamic rotary wing strikes to retake the city of Palmyra from ISIS in central Homs in March 2016 during the previous nationwide ceasefire. Russia and the Syrian regime likely sought to similarly use this period of cessation to divert resources away from previously active frontlines with the opposition to clear remaining ISIS-held terrain threatening the regime-held city of Palmyra and the remaining regime-held areas of Deir ez Zour City.

Russian airstrikes during the cessation of hostilities primarily concentrated against ISIS-held areas in Deir ez Zour Province amidst a pro-regime offensive in the area. However, these operations were disrupted by reported U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on pro-regime forces in Deir ez Zour on September 17 that accidentally killed at least sixty-two pro-regime fighters. U.S. CENTCOM released a statement confirming that coalition aircraft may have “mistakenly struck” pro-regime forces while conducting operations against ISIS near Deir ez-Zour City, stressing that the coalition would not “intentionally strike” a known regime position. The Russian Ministry of Defense blamed the incident on the “stubborn refusal” of the U.S. to coordinate its air operations with Russia in Syria, exerting additional pressure on the U.S. to partner with Russia amidst escalating hostilities with opposition forces in western Syria.

Syrian Opposition and the Ceasefire

The failed attempt at a ceasefire ultimately risks driving the remaining “legitimate” members of the opposition towards hardline groups and fueling anti-U.S. sentiment. Twenty-one "FSA-affiliated" opposition factions and prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al Sham released joint statements on September 12 agreeing to allow humanitarian aid into besieged areas in Syria. The groups also expressed considerable reservations about the lack of enforcement mechanisms to prevent indiscriminate pro-regime aerial bombardment and rejected the “targeting of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or any other faction that fights against the regime.” The joint statement represented tentative support for a general ceasefire in Syria, but a sharp condemnation of the current terms of the nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ brokered by the U.S. and Russia. Hardline elements of the opposition such as Jabhat Fatah Al Sham (JFS) – successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al Nusra -- have used the failed ceasefire to increase their own influence within opposition ranks in Syria. JFS Emir Abu Mohammad al-Joulani condemned the U.S.- and Russian-brokered nationwide ceasefire on September 17. He stressed that the deal between the two countries aims to impose a “political solution that would result in the complete surrender. Continued failures of the United States to bring about a functioning ceasefire to Syria will ultimately drive the long term staying power of hardline groups like JFS in Syria as anti-U.S. sentiment grows. The U.S. risks driving these “legitimate” groups closer to al Qaeda in Syria, rather than forcing these groups to distance themselves from hardline, Salafi-Jihadist groups.


The U.S. cannot accept a partnership with Russia in Syria so long as it continues to function as a belligerent actor in the conflict. Russia will continue to pursue its vital interests in Syria to include the preservation of the Assad regime and will continue to prioritize the defeat of the Syrian opposition, which remains the Syrian regime’s primary adversary. Russia and the regime will therefore pursue a strategy to remove mainstream opposition forces from the battlefield either through their submission, destruction, or the transformation of these groups into radical elements that can be rightfully targeted as terrorists. Russia is purposefully driving this radicalization through its deliberate targeting of civilian and humanitarian infrastructure. Russia will pursue an escalatory path in Syria that will constrain the U.S. and the international community into accepting certain levels of violence in exchange for a U.S.-Russia deal that will discourage Russia from escalating further. The U.S. must develop appropriate enforcement mechanisms to ensure both pro-regime forces and opposition groups adhere to the terms of any potential ceasefire in Syria and cannot rely upon Russia to ensure compliance with international law, let alone ceasefires.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: September 7-19, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

Security forces are overextended across Iraq due to increased ISIS attacks and provincial security issues. ISIS continues to strategically open offensives in northern and western Iraq in order to stretch ISF forces thin and reduce their ability to retake terrain. ISIS continues to attack ISF positions around Qayyarah and its airbase, rebuffing ISF attempts to advance northwards, and near Rutba in western Anbar, which required the ISF to deploy additional forces on September 9. Meanwhile, ISIS continues to launch spectacular attacks in central Baghdad, despite the ISF’s concentration in the capital and surrounding belts. Ongoing tribal conflict up in southern Iraq has further tied up the ISF, recently requiring ISF units to deploy to Maysan Province on September 13. ISIS’s ability to stretch the ISF thin across Iraq weakens the ISF’s ability to focus on recapturing remaining ISIS-held terrain and also magnifies the burden of providing ad hoc security in the southern provinces.  These forces in Baghdad and western Anbar will continue to be tied up by ISIS attacks or held in reserve for force protection, making them unavailable for efforts in Mosul.

The Coalition continues to proceed on a schedule that assumes the Mosul operation will launch before the end of the 2016. U.S. troops arrived at the Qayyarah airbase on September 17 in order to provide logistical support to rehabilitate the base as a launching pad for Mosul. Coalition partners Netherlands, Belgium, and Finland announced that they would expand or extend their mission in Iraq to support the Mosul operation. However, the shortage of Iraqi security forces will prevent this timeline if security forces cannot leave their posts in western Anbar or Baghdad in order to participate in Mosul. This shortage could leave openings for unsavory actors, such as Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, to join the operation. The Coalition will need to rapidly generate a sizeable and effective force if it wishes to stay on track to retake Mosul in 2016 with forces it can rely on to hold the city afterwards.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: July 28 - August 29, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner with Christopher Kozak

Russia continued to focus its air campaign against Aleppo City and its environs after opposition groups lifted the siege of the eastern districts of the city on August 6, setting conditions for a potential pro-regime counteroffensive to reestablish the encirclement. Russia conducted airstrikes in support of pro-regime forces in frontline districts on the southern outskirts of Aleppo City undertaking repeated efforts to roll back opposition gains. Meanwhile, Russia increasingly directed its air operations against a swathe of opposition-held terrain in the western and southwestern countryside of Aleppo Province in an attempt to block the opposition from dispatching reinforcements from Idlib Province towards Aleppo City. Russia also continued to conduct sorties targeting opposition-held suburbs northwest of Aleppo City in an effort to prevent the opposition from threatening the new regime ground line of communication (GLOC) to Western Aleppo City through the nearby Castello Highway. At the same time, Russia maintained its targeting of core opposition terrain in Idlib Province, including a wave of reported incendiary attacks on August 28 – 29 that came in likely response to the start of a new opposition offensive in Northern Hama Province. Russia will continue to use its air power in order to disrupt the movement of opposition forces in Northern Syria and thereby render the opposition increasingly vulnerable to a pro-regime counteroffensive in Aleppo City.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the start of air operations in Syria from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base in Hamedan Province in Western Iran on August 16 following the deployment of Tu-22M3 ‘Backfire’ strategic bombers and Su-34 ‘Fullback’ fighter-bombers to the airbase the preceding day. Russia claimed to use the base to conduct several airstrikes against ISIS and Syrian Al Qaeda successor Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in Aleppo, Ar-Raqqa, and Deir ez-Zour Provinces between August 16 and August 22. Russia previously used Shahid Nojeh Air Base as a transit point for its aircraft in November – December 2015. Russian MP Adm. Vladimir Komoyedov stressed that the “issue of costs for combat actions is paramount right now” amidst reports that basing the strategic bombers in Western Iran would allow Russia to reduce the flight time of its long-range bombers by roughly sixty percent when conducting strikes in Syria. Russia aims to minimize the financial and logistical costs of its intervention in the Syrian Civil War after almost one year of constant military operations. Russia also hopes to enhance its broader operational flexibility by securing the use of an additional base from which to conduct air operations in support of pro-regime forces in Syria. Russia promoted its use of the airbase in a likely attempt to underscore the participation of regional allies in its military intervention in the Syrian Civil War and highlight for the U.S. the strength and depth of the Russian-Iranian partnership. At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that Russian warships launched cruise missiles from their positions in the Mediterranean Sea against alleged Al Qaeda targets in Western Aleppo Province on August 19. The public disclosure of Russia’s use of the airbase nonetheless generated significant domestic pressure inside Iran. The Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on August 22 that Russia had “finished for now” its operations from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base, claiming that Russia had only sought “temporary” permission for use of the base. Meanwhile, Iranian Minister of Defense Hossein Dehghan condemned Russia for “grandstanding and incivility” in the announcement of its presence at the airbase, noting that there had been “operational coordination” between the two countries but “no written agreement” for use of the facility. The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed the return of all its aircraft from Iran but added that further use of the base could occur “depending on the prevailing circumstances” in Syria. The abrupt end to the apparent basing deal highlights a degree of tension between Russia and Iran despite their mutual support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. This miscommunication may hamper coordination between Russia and Iran on the ground in Syria, but the potential for Russia to use the airbase in the future suggests that it is unlikely to alter Russia and Iran’s shared objective of bolstering the Syrian regime against its military and political adversaries.
The tempo of the air campaign declined significantly following the departure of Russian warplanes from the Shahid Nojeh Air Base on August 22. This decrease in activity also corresponds with the start of a cross-border intervention by Turkey into Northern Syria on August 24. Opposition groups supported by the Turkish Armed Forces and U.S.-led coalition airstrikes seized the ISIS-held town of Jarabulus as part of an offensive entitled ‘Operation Euphrates Shield.’ The operation began roughly two weeks after Turkish President Recep Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg in the culmination of an ongoing diplomatic rapprochement between Turkey and Russia. The relative lull in airstrikes from August 24 – 29 may be a tangible result of this thawing of relations. Turkey reportedly received assurances from Russia that its forces would not be targeted during the operation. Nonetheless, Turkey’s continued support for the opposition and insistence on regime change in Syria will likely preclude deeper coordination between Turkey and Russia in the Syrian Civil War. Alternatively, the de-escalation of the air campaign during this period could reflect continuing efforts by Russia to negotiate an agreement with the U.S. for joint military action in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov claimed on August 26 that the U.S. and Russia had moved "very close" to a new deal to reestablish a nationwide ‘cessation of hostilities’ in the Syrian Civil War following discussions between the two sides in Geneva. Kerry and Lavrov previously held talks in Moscow in July 2016 to discuss a proposal for bilateral military cooperation between the U.S. and Russia against ISIS and Al Qaeda in Syria in exchange for concrete progress towards a ceasefire and political transition. Russia also signaled on August 18 its support for a weekly forty-eight-hour ceasefire in Aleppo City as called for by UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura, albeit under terms and conditions favorable to the regime. The decline in strikes and support for ceasefires mark a continuation of Russia’s efforts to portray itself as a good-faith actor amidst the ongoing negotiations. The trajectory of the campaign on the ground, however, suggests that the recent decrease in the intensity of the air campaign will likely be temporary at best. 
The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. 
High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.
Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: August 31-September 6, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

Iraqi Kurdish parties fractured over the impending no-confidence vote against Kurdish Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, two Kurdish opposition parties in the Kurdistan Alliance, indicated on August 30 and September 1 that they would dismiss Zebari in order to undermine the influence of his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). However, several PUK leaders have recognized both that Zebari’s dismissal could empower former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to reclaim the premiership, possibly to the detriment of Kurdish political interests, and that the Kurds will lose their influence in the Iraqi Government if the Kurdistan Alliance fails to maintain a unified position. PUK Deputy Secretary Generals Kusrat Rasul and Barham Salih tried to consolidate PUK support for Zebari by creating a “decision center” on September 2, but anti-KDP members, including politburo leaders Mulla Bakhtiar and Hero Ibrahim, wife of PUK founder Jalal Talabani, resisted the attempt. President Fuad Masoum, a senior PUK member, and an Iranian delegation visited PUK and Gorran leaders in Suleimaniyah on September 4-6 in order to ensure Zebari’s survival and resolve the PUK’s internal issues. Continued Kurdish participation in Baghdad is necessary for stability in Iraq and the continuation of a single Iraqi state, key Iranian interests. The attempts were reportedly unsuccessful. However, the Council of Representatives (CoR) failed to reach quorum on September 6, precluding a no-confidence vote against Zebari. The CoR will reconvene September 8, however the upcoming Eid al-Ahda holiday recess, starting on September 9, will likely also result in a lack of quorum, moving any no-confidence vote until after the holiday, around September 27.  The holiday could give the KDP time to secure support for Zebari from other blocs and give PUK time to improve party discipline to support Zebari.

Meanwhile, the National Alliance, the pan-Shi’a bloc in the CoR, selected Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) leader Ammar al-Hakim as its new chairman on September 5. The selection is likely an effort to revive the ineffectual Shi’a alliance, which fractured largely over the political maneuverings of the Reform Front, Maliki’s shadow party in the CoR, and PM Abadi’s attempts to reshuffle the Cabinet. Hakim succeeds Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who held the position for six years as the National Alliance remained deadlocked between electing Hakim or Ali al-Adeeb, a Maliki-backed candidate, as Jaafari’s successor. Hakim’s selection therefore indicates that Maliki was heavily pressured or incentivized to drop his case. Both Hakim and Maliki met with Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Danaifar on September 3 and 4, respectively, who likely passed on Iran’s insistence that the Shi’a parties reunite and that Maliki stand down on his refusal to support Hakim for the position. A fractured Iraqi Shi’a alliance could promote increased instability, limiting Iran’s influence in Iraq. Political parties, including both Kurdish and Sunni parties, have praised Hakim’s selection, as he is regarded as a mediator figure. A unified National Alliance could provide a stabilizing effect for the Iraqi political system which has rapidly deteriorated since April. However, it remains to be seen how Maliki and the Reform Front will respond to the National Alliance’s revitalization and whether or not the National Alliance will be able to unite Shi’a political parties in the CoR. Hakim may use the Eid al-Ahda recess to realign the Shi’a parties and to mediate ongoing crises amongst the Kurdish and Sunni parties in order to stabilize the government.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Putin's Gambit in Ukraine: Strategic Implications

By Kathleen Weinberger

Vladimir Putin has mobilized military forces in Crimea and on Ukraine's northern and eastern borders.  He has raised the level of fighting in eastern Ukraine to levels not seen in over a year and then arranged a ceasefire.  He has moved advanced air defense systems into Crimea and is raising new Russian divisions near Ukraine.  Analysts are baffledSome note that this unprecedented mobilization makes little sense if Putin does not mean to fight Ukraine soon.  Others dismiss it as the normal activities of a great power’s military.  Neither view is correct.  There is nothing normal about this mobilization, but neither does Putin desire a war with Ukraine.  He intends, rather, to use this mobilization and escalation of conflict to create leverage to weaken EU sanctions, destabilize the Ukrainian government, undermine NATO, and present the next American president with a series of faits accomplis.  He is likely to succeed in all these aims.

Escalation against Ukraine

Putin has maintained a significant military presence in Crimea and eastern Ukraine since the Russian invasion in 2014. Putin and the separatists he supports have failed to resolve the conflict by either military or diplomatic means. Putin has steadily increased Russia’s military presence in and around Ukrainian territory and the Black Sea since early 2016, with much of the groundwork having been laid in 2014.  He announced plans to move the advanced S-400 air defense system to Crimea in July.  The recent escalation, however, has been much more sudden, rapid, and substantial than his previous undertakings.

Putin seized on rumors of a Ukrainian sabotage operation in Crimea on August 7th and 8th to shift his operations into high gear.  Local sources began reporting many Russian troops and much military hardware moving to the de-facto border between Ukraine and Crimea, onto the Crimean Peninsula from Russia, and along Ukraine’s northern border on those very days. The S-400 system appeared in Crimea on August 12th. Russian rhetoric during this period hyped the threat of war while framing these measures as defensive. Putin said on August 10th that Russia would take “additional measure to provide security, including serious additional measures.” These actions and threats are likely intended to press Ukraine, France, and Germany to make significant concessions to Russia in order to avoid further escalation.

The deployment of additional military capabilities to Crimea in the context of this invented tension serves another purpose for Putin.  It allows Russia to create a formidable exclusion zone that extends north into much of Ukraine and across a large portion of the Black Sea. Putin has probably always planned to increase his military capabilities in the region significantly, as his steady expansion of forces in Crimea shows. The “crisis” he created in August, however, has allowed him to frame these deployments as a response to Ukrainian aggression, accomplishing in days what might otherwise have taken months. The atmosphere of crisis and desire on the part of Europeans to de-escalate it, moreover, have spared Putin any consequences for these moves, which are likely to be permanent.


But what is Putin trying to do?  Conditions for a Russian invasion of Ukraine have been set for some time now.  Continued delay works only to the advantage of Ukraine.  Putin may be pursuing some more nuanced strategy that will end up in war, but it appears that he is actually pursuing other aims.  He is working, in fact, to pressure EU states to remove sanctions and negotiate a settlement in Donbas that will upset Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s regime.  He seeks, in other words, to obtain his objectives without having to fight for them, as is his customary strategy.

Putin’s primary desire is likely to erode or eliminate European sanctions against Russia while also advancing his goals in Ukraine.  He seeks to force the Europeans to capitulate on all fronts, in other words, without making any concessions himself.

EU sanctions against Russia based on the conflict in Donbas are valid until January 31, 2017 unless renewed.  Lifting them is, in principle, contingent on Russia fulfilling all points of the Minsk agreements. Those agreements require Russia to withdraw all of its forces from Ukraine and to permit the demobilization of the separatist militias in Donbas.  Putin clearly desires to do neither, and so seeks to use his newly-created leverage to cajole Europe into easing sanctions in any case.

This strategy appears to be working. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stated on August 19th that the EU could “gradually phase out sanctions” if Russia could demonstrate progress and offered that Russia could rejoin the G7. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has softened her previous stance, saying that the “sanctions will be weakened” when Russia makes “progress in the Minsk negotiations.” French President Francois Hollande stated that there is a “real risk of escalation in Ukraine.” Putin will meet with Merkel and Hollande on the sidelines of the G20 on September 4-5 and is likely to press both leaders to take a more lenient stance in exchange for avoiding further conflict.

Putin can also use this escalation to push for a settlement of the conflict that undermines domestic political support for pro-Western Ukrainian President Poroshenko. Pressure from European partners and Russia’s military posture may be sufficient to make Poroshenko accept an unfavorable deal regarding the separatist regions. Poroshenko’s government already faces significant criticism for Ukraine’s poor economic performance. His hold on power is further threatened by populist and pro-Russian parties, which have been positioning themselves to make a comeback in Ukraine. An unpopular resolution of the conflict in Donbas could be enough to trigger snap elections and allow these anti-Western parties to return to power in Ukraine’s parliament. A settlement that grants the separatist regions significant autonomy could also upset the pro-Kyiv volunteer battalions. These militia groups, which have fought hard against Russian-backed forces since the beginning of the conflict, already oppose Poroshenko on many issues. Poroshenko could lose the limited support he now has were he to accept a deal on Donbas that looked like surrender.


A number of factors combined to make August a propitious moment for Putin to force this issue.  The looming elections to Russia’s legislature, the Duma, as well as the impending U.S. election have long made it likely that Putin would act now.  The failed Turkish coup and resulting Russo-Turkish rapprochement, however, created the ideal environment for the current gambit.

Russo-Turkish Rapprochement

Russo-Turkish relations soured badly at the end of 2015 as Russian aircraft flew combat sorties against Turkish-backed opposition forces in Syria.  Turkish forces shot down a Russian Su-24 jet in November, 2015, starting a tense confrontation between Moscow and Ankara.  President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought out Russia’s enemies as partners in this confrontation, starting military cooperation with Ukraine. The two states conducted two joint naval drills in the Black Sea in March and April 2016 and signed a military cooperation plan in May.

Erdogan began the rapprochement with Russia in June, before the coup attempt, apologizing for shooting down the Su-24.  He has turned increasingly to Russia after the coup, moreover, discussing economic and military cooperation, while Turkey’s Prime Minister hinted that Russia might be allowed to use the NATO airbase at Incirlik from which the US Air Force is currently operating.  Turkey and Ukraine have not undertaken further joint cooperation efforts, in the meantime, and public displays of close relations have ended.

Erdogan has simultaneously pursued a policy of confrontation with the US, demanding the extradition of a Turkish exile he accuses of plotting the coup and blaming various senior US military officials for supporting it.  Erdogan has not officially changed his policy towards Ukraine or towards the US, and his hostile anti-US rhetoric has softened somewhat in recent days. Turkey’s improved relations with Russia, however, changed the regional security balance so that Russia could escalate the conflict in Ukraine without fear of complications in Turkey.

Russian Parliamentary Elections

The Russian parliamentary elections are likely the main driver of the timing of this offensive, however.  Putin seeks to rally support ahead of the September elections, which is challenging because of the falling popularity of United Russia, his party.  That support could grow if Putin could announce progress on sanctions relief.

Russia’s budget is in dire straits because of the continuing low price of oil, as well as structural problems and corruption.  Putin could hope to stabilize it only through one of two high unpopular measures: drawing more heavily on Russia’s sovereign wealth funds, or introducing confiscatory taxes. The promise of the easing of sanctions and the reintegration of Russia into European markets could allow Putin to avoid taking these measures, at least in the short term. He could expect to gain at the polls if he could secure some promise of sanctions relief from the key European leaders he has been simultaneously courting and threatening.

US Presidential Elections

The timing of US presidential elections is the third factor that makes this moment so opportune for Putin’s aggressiveness.  The Obama administration has been busily attempting to negotiate an agreement to work with Russia in Syria and has eschewed any reaction to various Russian aggressive actions in the Middle East and Ukraine—or even to reports of Russian attempts to influence the US election.  Putin likely sees an opportunity to establish himself solidly in Ukraine, with a settlement or the promise of one in Donbas, with sanctions eased or lifted, and with his base in Syria secure when the next American president takes office.  Such a position would be an admirable baseline from which Putin could begin either to try to normalize relations with the US or to expand his gains further—or both.

Prospects for Putin’s Gambit

Sanctions fatigue in Europe and protracted political instability in Ukraine mean that Putin will likely accomplish two of his goals. Europe is likely to ease and eventually lift most sanctions as Brexit, immigration, and other factors combine to strain the EU as an institution, and as Russia’s long-standing and concerted efforts to improve relations with individual EU states bear fruit. Austria, Greece, Hungary and Italy, among others, have expressed pro-Russian sentiments and are continuously targeted by Russia with economic and diplomatic incentives. The EU Council requires sanctions votes to be unanimous, so one state could veto their renewal, particularly if the leading states of Europe are wavering.

Putin will also likely succeed in removing pro-Western Poroshenko in Ukraine and seeing him replaced with either an anti-Western populist or a pro-Russian leader. Economic hardship, low satisfaction with the current regime, frustration on the part of foreign partners and competition from other political parties mean that Poroshenko is incredibly vulnerable to further shocks, such as an unpopular resolution of the conflict in Donbas. Even if Poroshenko retains power some sort of bad deal, Ukraine’s economy will most likely further suffer as international attention wavers and European desires to reconcile with Russia increase.

Putin will probably be able to use these successes to continue to split Europe to the detriment of NATO and the US.  Europe faces extreme pressure from the refugee crisis and prospect of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU.  Putin is working hard to advance controversial projects, such as the NORDSTREAM II pipeline to Germany, which would further align western European states with Russia.  The eastern states will continue to fear Russia, however—all the more if it appears that Putin is succeeding in bending Ukraine to his will.  Russia will also continue to try to leverage its operations in Syria to push for cooperation with European countries and the US, which could decrease the alliance’s ability to posture against Russia without threatening interests in the Middle East.  All of these activities will tend to paralyze and divide the Western alliance, making concerted resistance to Russian aggression difficult if not impossible.


If Putin succeeds in having sanctions significantly eased or removed and resetting relations with a number of key European countries, the new US president may be unable to rely on a united EU or NATO response to Russian actions. Russia would have greater leverage in Europe by which to increase ties with certain states and to undertake increasingly hostile actions against others. Putin might choose to threaten or even undertake military operations against other European countries, such as the Baltic States, Finland or Norway. He is more likely to use the weakening of the Western alliance to cajole them into neutral or pro-Russian policies.

The replacement of pro-Western Poroshenko with a populist or pro-Russian leader would be the first step towards returning Ukraine to Russia’s sphere of influence. Ukraine would not likely be able to reorient again towards a pro-Western, pro-democratic path in the near future. This development would constitute the first forceful reintegration of a former Soviet state back into Russia’s control, and would stand as a precedent for future operations.

Establishment of these conditions will allow Russia to renegotiate relations with the US from a position of significant strength. Without the weight of the conflict in Donbas or the stigma of sanctions, Russia would be able to undergo a second “reset” in relations with the West, despite having illegally annexed the sovereign territory of a European state. The new US administration would be forced to negotiate with a newly emboldened Russia without the same political and economic tools available during the Obama administration, and potentially have fewer allies in countering Russian aggression.