Sunday, May 21, 2017

Russia Lays a Trap in Syria

By Genevieve Casagrande and Ellen Stockert

Russia seeks to use the establishment of “de-escalation zones” to reset its operations and constrain U.S. policy options in Syria. Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed an agreement to establish four de-escalation zones in western Syria on May 4. The agreement intends to preempt the unilateral establishment of “interim zones of stability” by the U.S. in Syria. The de-escalation zone agreement has provided Russia, Iran, and the Bashar al-Assad regime with a period of rest and refit to refocus their efforts in Eastern Syria, particularly in areas where the U.S. is leading operations with Syrian rebels. Russia pivoted its air campaign to focus on ISIS-held terrain in Eastern Syria from May 1 - 18.  Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime likely intend to use the period of de-escalation to disrupt joint U.S.-rebel operations to push north against ISIS in Homs and Deir ez Zour Provinces, while bolstering pro-regime advances against ISIS in both central Homs and eastern Aleppo. Pro-regime forces seized Jirrah Airbase from ISIS in eastern Aleppo Province on May 13 with Russian air support. Pro-regime forces also advanced towards a joint rebel-U.S. base at Tanaf in eastern Homs Province amidst the period of de-escalation. The U.S. responded to the threat against Tanaf by striking pro-regime and Iranian-backed militia forces near the base on May 18, however. 

Russia has also used the de-escalation agreement to reshape its deployment to Syria. Russia claimed to withdraw 30 aircraft from the Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia Province upon signing the de-escalation agreement on May 4. The alleged withdrawal does not represent the degradation of Russian capabilities in Syria, nor does it preclude Russia from conducting airstrikes. Rather, Russia likely seeks to replace particular air assets with alternate air frames and capabilities better suited for the next phase of pro-regime operations in Syria, similar to previous Russian “withdrawals” throughout 2016. Russia reportedly deployed at least 21 M-30 Howitzers and a new shipment of missiles for the advanced S-400 Surface-to-Air Missile System operated by Russia in Syria in early May. Russia also deployed at least one A-50U ‘Mainstay’ Aerial Early Warning and Control Aircraft to Bassel al-Assad International Airport on the Syrian Coast as of May 3. 

Russia deliberately drove fluctuations in the levels of violence in rebel-held Syria in order to compel local and international actors to submit to the Russian-Iranian-Turkish de-escalation zones. Russia escalated and subsequently tapered its air campaign in Syria prior to the Astana Talks in Kazakhstan from May 3 – 4, after which Russia, Turkey, and Iran signed the ‘de-escalation zone’ agreement. Prior to the agreement, Russia intensified its air campaign against mainstream elements of the Syrian opposition, relief providers, and civilian infrastructure such as hospitals in Idlib and Hama Provinces from April 26 – 30. However, Russia subsequently halted its air campaign on the proposed de-escalation zones on May 1 and shifted its focus toward ISIS-held terrain in eastern Syria from May 1 - 18.  The de-escalation zones provided Russia and its Iranian allies with a period of reset to recover following heavy losses in clashes with opposition forces in northern Hama Province throughout April 2017. Pro-regime forces have meanwhile begun to slowly escalate violence within the de-escalation zones, repeatedly violating the agreement with artillery strikes in Dera’a and Hama Provinces. Russia’s continual use of violence to coerce local and international actors to accept agreements that primarily serve Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al Assad precludes any possibility of a legitimate, Russian-backed ceasefire agreement in Syria.

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. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

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.

Iraq Situation Report: May 6 - 20, 2017

                                                                  By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri and the ISW Iraq Team

Iran-backed Shia militias set conditions to disrupt or deny U.S.-backed forces freedom of maneuver near the Iraq-Syria border. Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Unit (PMU) forces began clearing territory in western Ninewa Province toward the Syrian border. Iran-backed PMU forces also conducted offensives against ISIS in northern Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces, and defended positions north of the Makhoul Mountains and southwest of Tuz Khurmatu from ISIS ground assaults. ISIS remains operational in eastern Iraq, particularly in Diyala Province, despite clearing operations led by the Badr Organization since late 2014. ISIS also launched attacks in and around Baghdad in the week prior to its annual Ramadan campaign, anticipated to begin on May 26.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Syria Situation Report: May 10 - 18, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Russia, Iran, and Syria redeployed forces to constrain the activities of the U.S. in Eastern Syria. Pro-regime forces reportedly deployed hundreds of fighters along the Damascus - Baghdad Highway in Central Syria at the urging of Russia following several weeks of advances in the area by opposition groups backed by the U.S. and Jordan. The U.S. later conducted an airstrike against a pro-regime convoy advancing against opposition groups at Al-Tanaf on the Syrian-Iraqi Border on May 18. Pro-regime forces also seized the Jirah Airbase in Eastern Aleppo Province from ISIS on May 12. These movements suggest that pro-regime forces intend to insert themselves into the campaigns against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City and Deir ez-Zour Province - thereby preempting long-term expansion by the U.S. in Eastern Syria. ISW has previously recommended that the U.S. refocus the campaign against ISIS towards Deir ez-Zour Province as a long-term base for operations against both ISIS and the Russo-Iranian Coalition in Syria. 

The U.S. and Turkey likely failed to overcome their strategic divide during a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan on May 16. Trump reiterated his support for Turkey in the “fight against terror groups” including as ISIS and the PKK but did not address his recent decision to directly arm the Syrian Kurdish YPG. Erdogan condemned the decision as an “absolutely unacceptable” measure that presented a “clear and present danger” to Turkey. Erdogan also reiterated his calls for the U.S. to extradite exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. The White House likely offered greater cooperation with Erdogan against the PKK in Turkey and Northern Iraq to mitigate the risk of an imminent rift with Turkey. These efforts nonetheless remain insufficient to reverse the growing strategic divergence between the U.S. and Turkey. 

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. This graphic depicts significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of May 10, 2017.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Syria Situation Report: April 20 - May 10, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

Russia, Iran, and Turkey agreed at a new set of Astana Talks on May 3 - 4 to establish four large “de-escalation” zones over opposition-held regions of Western Syria. The deal allows for the three countries to deploy forces along the borders of the “de-escalation zones” to monitor a faltering nationwide ceasefire that excludes all opposition forces “associated” with Al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. Activists reported a general decrease in violence except along key frontlines such as Damascus and Northern Hama Province after the deal went into effect on May 6. Russia likely intends to leverage to “de-escalation zones” to subordinate the political process to its objectives, reset its military deployments, and block future unilateral action to implement so-called “zones of stabilization” by the U.S. in Syria. Pro-regime forces will likely also use the relative lull in Western Syria to refocus their military campaign towards Eastern Syria to preempt the U.S. from establishing a long-term foothold in regions formerly held by ISIS in Syria. Conditions on the ground remain unfit for a durable ceasefire or political settlement to end the Syrian Civil War. 

The U.S. signaled its intent to move forward with an imminent offensive to seize Ar-Raqqa City from ISIS that includes the Syrian Kurdish YPG despite clear objections from Turkey. U.S. President Donald Trump signed an order on May 8 authorizing the U.S. Department of Defense to directly provide weapons, ammunition, and other equipment to the YPG “as necessary” in support of upcoming operations against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. Pentagon Spokesperson Dana White stated that the weapons deliveries will be “limited, mission specific, and metered out incrementally” in order to prevent the transfer of weapons to the PKK in Turkey. The U.S. also floated plans to expand an intelligence fusion center based in Ankara targeting the PKK in Turkey. These efforts remain insufficient to address the security concerns of Turkey. The decision will likely fuel a further breakdown in relations between Turkey and the U.S. that could include new cross-border operations by Turkey against the YPG in Northern Syria. This strategic break will form a core area of disagreement during a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan in Washington D.C. on May 16.

These graphics mark the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. These graphics depict significant recent developments in the Syrian Civil War. The control of terrain represented on the graphics is accurate as of April 3, 2017, and May 10, 2017, respectively.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Ukraine Update: Russia's Active Campaign in Ukraine

By Benjamin Knudsen, Alexandra Lariiciuc, and Franklin Holcomb

Key Takeaway: Russia has continued its destabilization campaign in Ukraine using its proxy forces and other means of subversion. The Trump Administration has indicated it is willing to support Ukraine as the Eastern European country faces Russian aggression. President Trump must act to strengthen the U.S.-Ukraine partnership and increase pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a broader campaign to deter Russian aggression globally.

U.S. officials emphasized their support for Ukraine in a series of diplomatic meetings in May. U.S. President Donald Trump held separate meetings with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin in Washington on May 10 during which he reportedly stressed “Russia’s responsibility to fully implement the Minsk agreements.” This rhetoric echoes previous statements by Trump administration officials. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. will maintain sanctions against Russia “until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered them.”

Russia nevertheless continued to fuel the war in Ukraine and destabilize the country politically while waging a disinformation campaign to portray Ukraine as the aggressor. Russian-backed separatist forces violated their obligations under the Minsk Ceasefire Agreement. They resumed attacks against Ukrainian forces near the strategic cities of Mariupol, Donetsk, and Popasna following a brief lull for the celebration of Orthodox Easter on April 16. Russia resisted efforts to deploy international peacekeepers in order to preserve its proxies’ freedom of action. Russia also continued to exploit social tensions in Ukraine. Pro-Russia hooligans clashed with pro-Ukrainian activists, nationalists, and law enforcement personnel across Ukraine during Victory Day Celebrations on May 9. These provocations failed to create widespread public discontent, but demonstrate the persistent Russian-backed campaign to destabilize Ukraine from within. Russia also likely continues to try and undermine Ukraine’s relationships with European nations. Unidentified assailants attacked Polish and Lithuanian diplomatic facilities in Lutsk on March 29 and Kyiv on April 24, respectively. Ukrainian and Polish officials previously accused Russia of using similar incidents to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its Eastern European partners.

Ukraine’s government made progress in combating corruption and creating a favorable business environment as it confronts a stagnant economy. President Petro Poroshenko expanded the critical e-declaration system on March 27, through which Ukrainian government officials must publicly reveal their assets. Ukraine also launched a number of corruption investigations into officials in the banking and government sectors. Ukraine’s Ministry of Economic Development and Trade announced that the GDP decreased from projected estimates due to the ongoing conflict. The financial burden from the war has contributed to slow economic growth, which increasingly undermining public confidence in the government.

The U.S. must not only support Ukraine in its economic and political reform efforts, but also take a strong stance against Russia’s aggression. Previous levels of Western pressure have failed to effect a significant change in the Kremlin’s policy toward Ukraine, including in the period since President Trump took office. Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely fuel the war and foment instability until he returns Ukraine under his sphere of influence or until the cost of continued aggression becomes unacceptable. The U.S and its allies must support Kyiv’s efforts to maintain a stable economy, advance political reforms, and strengthen the Armed Forces of Ukraine, or risk growing Russian aggression and subversion in a country and region vital to America’s national interests.

The U.S.-Turkey Divide Beyond Raqqa

By Elizabeth Teoman and Ethan Beaudoin

Key Takeaway: The U.S. should start to reorient its long-term relationship with Turkey during the upcoming meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Erdogan on May 16. The U.S. and Turkey suffer from a deep strategic divergence that goes far beyond operational disagreements over the offensive against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. The U.S. must instead prioritize its remaining leverage on efforts to halt and reverse this mounting divide and reenlist Turkey as a legitimate NATO ally against the threats posed by Salafi-Jihadist Groups and the Russo-Iranian Coalition.
The current friction between the U.S. and Turkey extends beyond operational disagreements over the anti-ISIS operation in Ar-Raqqa City. Turkey’s strategic objectives diverge from those of the U.S. in key ways. Turkish President Recep Erdogan ultimately seeks to reassert Turkey’s status as a regional power throughout the sphere of influence of the former Ottoman Empire. Erdogan promotes the spread of Islamism across the Middle East and North Africa as a means to create governments responsive to him and his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). His aspirations drive an independent regional policy that eschews traditional partnerships with the U.S. and Europe. He also leverages tools of the state to consolidate his increasingly authoritarian rule at home. These objectives - and the manner in which he pursues them – undermine the strategic goals of the U.S. in the Middle East and Europe. Erdogan’s distinct brand of ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ leads him to support Salafi-Jihadist Groups such as Ahrar al-Sham that serve as a vector for al Qaeda. His embrace of populist nationalism fuels an active conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is waging an insurgency in Turkey. The PKK’s Syrian branch – the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) – is the primary anti-ISIS ground force partner for the United States. Erdogan’s attempts to forge an independent foreign policy prompt him to pursue superficial yet deepening ties with Russia and Iran.
The U.S.’s myopic focus on the campaign against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City has ignored – and often exacerbated - the growing strategic divergence with Turkey. U.S. President Donald Trump has doubled-down on his predecessor’s preference for an offensive against Ar-Raqqa City led by the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The president authorized the U.S. Department of Defense on May 8 to provide direct material support, including weapons and ammunition, to the YPG despite the long-standing objections of Turkey. This decision subordinates long-term regional stability to short-term military expediency. It increases the risk that the U.S. will fail to secure its objectives because any near-term gains against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City will likely prove ephemeral. The YPG-led SDF will ultimately struggle to provide a political alternative acceptable to a Sunni Arab majority population that will not submit to the YPG’s vision even when it is implemented by other Sunni Arabs. This outcome will create an environment permissive for Salafi-Jihadist groups, including ISIS and al Qaeda. The decision also increases the risk that Turkey will launch cross-border operations targeting the YPG in Northern Syria, particularly against the town of Tel Abyad in Northern Ar-Raqqa Province. The U.S. may attempt to prevent this move - including with new military deployments along the border as well as expanded intelligence sharing against the PKK – but such responses will fail to address Turkey’s fundamental concerns. These efforts also risk expending sources of available leverage that the U.S. could instead use to drive a strategic realignment with Turkey on key issues such as the threats of al Qaeda, the Russo-Iranian coalition, and the wider Turkish-Kurdish War.

The U.S. should act to prevent Turkey from being drawn further into the Russo-Iranian orbit in Syria. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and Iran is transactional and contingent upon Erdogan’s perceived foreign policy gains. Turkey circumvents the European Union-regulated Southern Gas Corridor through Russian-backed TurkStream in order to transport gas supplies to southern Europe. Turkey also signaled its intent to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia as an allegedly more affordable option to NATO member states’ defense systems. Turkey participates in the Russian-led Astana talks as a guarantor in order to legitimize itself as a key actor in the Syrian theater. The December 2016 “cessation of hostilities” deal and the recent announcement of “de-escalation zones” support this effort by reinforcing Turkey’s de facto zones of control in Idlib Province and territorial control seized in Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield.

The U.S. needs to sever the link between Turkey and Salafi-Jihadist groups. Turkey channels its support for anti-regime operations through al Qaeda-aligned opposition groups. Turkey notably supported the “Jaysh al Fatah Operations Room” led by al Qaeda in Syria to seize the city of Idlib in 2015. Turkey included Ahrar al Sham – a Salafi-Jihadist group allied with al Qaeda – in its Operation Euphrates Shield. Turkey also tolerated ISIS’s territorial control along its southern border as an acceptable YPG deterrent. This outreach empowered irreconcilable actors on the ground at the expensive of acceptable opposition groups, blocking any prospect of a legitimate negotiated settlement to the Syrian Civil War. This empowerment also ensures continued safe haven for ISIS, al Qaeda, and other Salafi-Jihadist groups that threaten the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. thus cannot allow Turkey to unilaterally shape governance in Ar-Raqqa City or Northern Syria. The U.S. must over time persuade Turkish leaders that backing al Qaeda linked groups actually threatens Turkey’s interest. Turkey’s backing of al Qaeda-aligned groups exacerbates the risk of domestic terrorism in Turkey, elevates the terror threat to NATO member countries, and even competes with Erdogan’s own quasi-imperial vision of the Middle East.

The U.S. should seek to capitalize on points of short-term cooperation and set conditions to shape a long-term strategic convergence with Turkey against Russia, Iran, and Salafi-Jihadist groups. The U.S. and Turkey still share fundamental strategic objectives and short-term interests. The announced de-escalation zones in Syria benefit the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Russo-Iranian coalition more than advance Turkey’s interests. Both the U.S. and Turkey need to block the expansion of Russian and Iranian military presence in Syria. This deal will enable pro-Assad regime forces to regroup and reset for offensive operations in central and southern Syria, far from Turkey’s area of interest. Turkey is not likely to cede areas of opposition control to fully implement the agreement. The U.S. and Turkey can also cooperate on counter-terrorism operations inside Turkey.    
The U.S. still retains multiple sources of leverage over Turkey outside of Syria. The coordinated use of these levers can support a strategy to bring Turkey back into alignment with the United States. The U.S. can begin to roll back Turkey’s support for Salafi-Jihadist groups by addressing Turkey’s concerns over the YPG’s growing influence in northern Syria and taking tangible steps to pressure the Assad regime. The U.S. can assuage Turkish fears of PKK expansion by supporting operations to remove the PKK from Sinjar, Iraq.  Expanding economic aid could supplement Turkey's capacity to rebuild northern Syria.  Enhanced U.S. military and intelligence cooperation through NATO can bolster the weakened, post-restructuring Turkish Armed Forces that face a growing Russian-Iranian military footprint, provided that Erdogan curbs his post-coup authoritarian crackdown. The U.S. also has a range of counter-terrorism sanctions measures it can use to address the threat posed by al Qaeda-linked networks in Turkey. The U.S. can also pressure Turkey over human rights violations during Erdogan’s crackdown on domestic dissent.

The U.S. needs a broader strategic outlook on cooperation with Turkey. Turkey is an ally rapidly drifting away from the U.S. and Europe. Focusing exclusively or primarily on near-term anti-ISIS gains in Syria will put long-term U.S. strategic interests at grave risk. The Trump Administration must reframe the terms of engagement with Erdogan or risk losing an important NATO partner in Turkey. A Turkey that acts like a NATO ally can be an effective part of a U.S. strategy to destroy Salafi-Jihadist groups and roll back the influence of the Russo-Iranian coalition.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Campaign for Mosul: April 29-May 11, 2017

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri and the ISW Iraq Team 

Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) surged in northwest Mosul in a bid to clear the city prior to Ramadan, anticipated to begin on May 26. Emergency Response Division (ERD) and Federal Police (FP) units joined 9th and 15th Iraqi Army Division units in northwest Mosul on April 28. The combined forces recaptured the neighborhoods of Mushairfa and 30 Tamouz, and are fighting to seize the denser neighborhoods of Harmat, 17 Tamouz, and Hawi Kanisa as of publication. Meanwhile, Counter-Terrorism Services (CTS) recaptured three neighborhoods in western Mosul. ISF are unlikely to clear the city prior to Ramadan. ISIS claimed to launch attacks to retake two Old City gates, Bab al-Jadid and Bab al-Toub. ISIS will also continue to defend the Old City by conducting suicide attacks and attempting to draw fire on civilian gatherings. ISIS will concentrate its defenses around al-Nuri Great Mosque, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appeared publicly in 2014.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

ISIS Sanctuary: May 10, 2017

By Alexandra Gutowski and Jessa Rose Dury-Agri 

U.S.-backed forces continue to advance on the major ISIS-held urban centers of Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have encircled ISIS in Mosul’s Old City. The U.S.-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) captured Tabqa, a city adjacent to Raqqa that contains Syria’s largest dam. ISIS also lost terrain in southern Syria, as various factions of the Syrian opposition, including some with U.S. backing, cleared ISIS from positions in Suweida and the Qalamoun mountains. ISIS will attempt to offset these losses during its annual Ramadan offensive campaign, anticipated to begin around May 27. ISIS’s campaign in 2017 increasingly resembles its 2013 insurgent campaign; ISIS’s Ramadan plan will likely focus on synchronizing spectacular attacks across different locations for combined effect. Potential targets include religious sites, security forces, and oil infrastructure. ISIS may also conduct ground attacks in Salah ad Din, Anbar, and central Syria where ISIS retains latent combat capability.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Iraq Situation Report: April 21 - May 5, 2017

By Jessa Rose Dury-Agri and the ISW Iraq Team

ISIS is setting conditions for its annual Ramadan campaign, anticipated to begin on May 26 with intent to exploit security vulnerabilities across the country. ISIS tested security in and around Baghdad by conducting a successful Suicide Vehicle-Borne IED (SVBIED) attack in central Baghdad and attempting additional attacks in Balad, Tarmiyah, and Jurf al-Sakhr. ISIS strained Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) resources by increasing the tempo of attacks in Ramadi and far west Anbar Province. ISIS attempted numerous attacks in Salah al-Din province, which the ISF foiled. The attacks indicate ISIS's continued attack capabilities in this zone. ISIS attacked Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) near Mosul in a potential bid to incite sectarian violence and detract from Mosul operations. Security forces must complete the campaign for Mosul while protecting Baghdad and repelling ISIS attacks across Anbar, Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Ninewa Provinces. ISF resources are further strained in Maysan and Basra Provinces, which mobilized two operations commands to address tribal violence. ISIS will continue to create and exploit weaknesses in Iraqi security prior to its Ramadan offensive.