Friday, January 25, 2019

Syria Situation Report: January 10-23, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period January 10 - 23, 2019.

Click image to enlarge.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Russia in Review: December 12, 2018 - January 16, 2019

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

Reporting Period: December 12, 2018 - January 16, 2019

Authors: Catherine Harris, Darina Regio, and Andrea Snyder

Contributor: Matti Suomenaro

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is creating and exploiting opportunities to advance its campaigns aimed at countering the West in multiple theaters including Ukraine, Belarus, and Syria. Russia will continue to use multiple approaches to weaken pro-Western Ukrainian President Poroshenko ahead of the Ukrainian Presidential Elections on March 31, 2019. Russia will similarly continue to pressure Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to sign bilateral agreements that expand the Kremlin’s control over Belarus. Russia will also seek to expedite the announced withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria as part of its wider campaign to undermine and replace the U.S. in the Middle East and North Africa.

Russia is attempting to weaken Ukrainian President Poroshenko ahead of the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Elections. Russia is using multiple instruments of power including military pressure to threaten Ukraine as it approaches a key political milestone that could enable further integration with the West. The Kremlin may have intended to use the threat of a military escalation to coerce Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to implement an extension of martial law that would jeopardize his domestic support and weaken his position ahead of Ukrainian Presidential Elections on March 31, 2019. Poroshenko did not take this bait and allowed martial law to expire on December 26, 2018.[1] The Kremlin will thus likely adapt its approach to create instability in Ukraine. These efforts could include a mixture of military and non-military provocations, ranging from increased cyber-attacks and covert sabotage to a direct military escalation. Russia took one such move with the announced completion of a border fence on the occupied Crimean Peninsula on December 28, 2018.[2] Russia claimed that the fence aims to defend against saboteurs from Ukraine. It could serve other purposes, however. Russia may use its need to secure the fence to justify increased military assets along the southern border of Ukraine – raising costs to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and positioning itself for an unlikely but dangerous option to seize additional terrain in Kherson Oblast in Southern Ukraine. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has not yet detected clear evidence of such activities.

The Kremlin may also attempt to disrupt internal stability in Ukraine in order to create security concerns that undermine the Government of Ukraine. Multiple actors have conducted small-scale attacks using grenades across Ukraine since late December 2018.[3] The Ukrainian Security Services (SBU) arrested an individual reportedly planning to conduct a terrorist attack in Mariupol in Southern Ukraine on January 10, 2019.[4] The individual allegedly held ties to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Regardless of attribution, this violence generates problems for Poroshenko that will be exploited by the Kremlin.

Russia is using soft power to strengthen its influence over Belarus. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced the creation of an intergovernmental working group in late December 2018 tasked with developing bilateral proposals under the framework of the 1999 Russia-Belarus Union Treaty.[5] The Union Treaty envisions a federation-type state with a common military and political structure that will ensure the long-term allegiance of Belarus to Russia.[6] Putin likely leveraged the dominant position of his energy sector to extract this political concession from Lukashenko as previously assessed by ISW in August 2018.[7] Russia is gradually implementing an energy tax reform that will significantly raise the price of its petroleum products for consumers in Belarus.[8] Lukashenko has adamantly asserted that Belarus will remain a sovereign state amid the negotiations with Putin.[9] This rhetoric is likely disingenuous and targeted toward preempting domestic backlash against Lukashenko. Russia will continue to use its economic and political instruments of power to preserve and expand its perceived sphere of influence over Belarus.

Russia will capitalize on the announced withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria to expand its political and military influence in Syria and the wider Middle East. The Kremlin will attempt to expand its role as a mediator in the Syrian Civil War in order to gain critical natural resources and undermine the position of the U.S. in the Middle East. Russia is actively brokering negotiations between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - the primary ground partner of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in Syria. Russia will nonetheless seek to balance these talks against its ongoing effort to coopt Turkey as a strategic partner and wedge in NATO. Russia hosted a delegation from the SDF in Moscow in late December 2018.[10] The Kremlin likely offered token support to deter an offensive by Turkey against the SDF in Northern Syria. Russian Military Police began conducting joint patrols with the SDF near the contested town of Manbij near the Syrian-Turkish Border on January 10, 2019.[11] Russia nonetheless likely intends only to deter further territorial gains by Turkey in Syria rather than meaningfully defend the SDF. The Kremlin also seeks access to critical oil infrastructure held by the SDF in Eastern Syria that could serve as a source of revenue as well as a base to contest the freedom of maneuver of the U.S. along the Syrian-Iraqi Border. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed that Russia ultimately expects Eastern Syria to return to the control of Assad on January 16, 2019. The Kremlin will likely use a combination of military pressure and political incentives to compel the SDF to capitulate to such a deal with Assad. Russia will likely accelerate these efforts if it perceives any delay in the announced withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria.

[1] “Poroshenko Ends Martial Law in Ukraine as Tensions with Russia Continue,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, December 26, 2018,
[2] “Russia Builds Border Fence Between Crimea and Ukraine Proper,” Al Jazeera, December 28, 2019,
[3] [“An Explosion in Mariupol Apartment: People Died,”] Hromadske, January 6, 2019, https://hromadske(.)ua/posts/u-kvartiri-v-mariupoli-stavsya-vibuh-ye-zagibli; “Two Persons Reportedly Killed in Mariupol Flat Blast,” UNIAN, January 6, 2019,; [“In Ternopol: Grenade Exploded in a Hostel: One Dead, Two Injured,”] Zik Media, January 2, 2019,
https://zik(.)ua/news/2019/01/02/u_ternopoli_v_gurtozhytku_vybuhnula_granata_odyn_zagyblyy_dvoie_travmovanyh_1480977; [“Zaporizhya Police Seized About 280 Grams of Marijuana, Weapons, and Grenades,”] Ukrainian National Police - Zaporizhya Oblast, January 3, 2019,; Nova Gorlivka, [“An Explosion on the Bridge in Proletraskiy District,”] Twitter, January 2, 2019,
[4] [“SBU Prevented a Terrorist Act in Mariupol,”] Mariupol Municipality, January 10, 2019,
[5] “Meeting With President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko”, Kremlin, December 29, 2018, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/59618.
[6] [“Union Treaty Agreement,”] Information Portal of the Union State Treaty, January 16, 2019, http://www.soyuz(.)by/about/docs/dogovor5.
[7] [“Speech and Answers to Media Questions by Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov During a Press Conference Following Russian Diplomacy Activities in 2018,”] Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 16, 2019, www.mid(.)ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/-/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/content/id/3476729.
[8] [“Belarus Might Not Get Compensation for Russian Tax Maneuver,”] Vedomosti, December 14, 2018, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/business/articles/2018/12/14/789370-belorussiya-mozhet-ne-poluchit-kompensatsiyu.
[9] “Lukashenko: Sovereignty is a Sacred Thing for Belarus,” Belarus News Agency, December 14, 2018, https://eng.belta(.)by/president/view/lukashenko-sovereignty-is-a-sacred-thing-for-belarus-117354-2018.
[10] Elise Labott, “Bolton Leaves Turkey on Sour Note Over Trump’s Syria Plans,” Politico, January 8, 2019,; Matthew Bodner and Zeynep Bilginsoy, “Russian And Turkish Ministers Meet for Syria Talks,” Washington Post, December 29, 2019,; “Russia to Mediate New Talks Between Syrian Kurds, Damascus: Official,” Rudaw, January 1, 2019,
[11] “Syria: Russia Military Police Begin Patrols Around Manbij”, Defense Post, January 8, 2019,

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Russia's New Tool for Wielding Information

By Mason Clark with Catherine Harris

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin took a significant step to enhance the military’s ability to control the information space within the Russian Armed Forces by establishing a Military-Political Directorate within the Russian Ministry of Defense. This Directorate could also support efforts to shape the information space abroad. The U.S. and NATO must recognize that Russia is serious about integrating information operations with both conventional and unconventional military operations down to the lowest levels of combat and adjust their preparations for potential conflict with Russia accordingly.

The Kremlin is prioritizing conducting and defending against hybrid operations as part of its broader campaign to modernize the Russian Armed Forces. It is reorienting the military away from preparations for large-scale conventional warfare in favor of increased information and hybrid warfare capabilities as well as programs to counter information campaigns that threaten the integrity of its own narratives. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov has asserted that the transformation of modern warfare has shifted the relative importance of “military and non-military forms of struggle” in determining the political outcome of war. The Russian General Staff argued that this new ratio of “military and non-military forms of struggle” is as high as one-to-four during a research planning conference in 2017. This insight is likely driving much of its modernization campaign.[1] The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has previously argued that the Kremlin’s prioritization of reforms to military doctrine that incorporate hybrid warfare concepts is reflective of the most likely way it will engage in future conflicts.

The Kremlin is prioritizing the buildout of a new structure to support the cohesiveness of its own information operations. Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized the creation of a Military-Political Directorate within the Russian Ministry of Defense on July 30, 2018. He appointed Colonel General Andrei Valerievich Kartapolov - the former Western Military District Commander and former Chief of Staff of the Russian Forces in Syria - to lead the Directorate.[2] This promotion is a continuation of a pattern of promoting officers with combat experience in Syria to high-level positions in the Russian Ministry of Defense. ISW has previously assessed that Russian commanders in Syria hold significant influence in the development of the Russian Armed Forces. Kartapolov’s reassignment from the critical Western Military District to the Military-Political Directorate demonstrates the importance that this new structure holds in the overall modernization effort and therefore the likely trajectory of the future style of warfare practiced by Russia.

The Kremlin will integrate officers reporting to the Military-Political Directorate into all units of the Russian Armed Forces in a parallel command structure perceived to be suited to modern conflicts. Russian Ministry of Defense Public Council Deputy Chairman Alexander Kanashin articulated the official goals of the new Directorate on February 5, 2018.[3] Kanashin stated that the Directorate will integrate personnel into military units down to company-level as a separate command chain to manage “the moral and ideological component” in the Russian Armed Forces.[4] He argued that the “role of political and moral unity within the army and society drastically grows” in modern “conditions of a global information and psychological confrontation.”[5] Russia has not had political officers in its military since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The USSR integrated political officers throughout its military to ensure compliance with the Communist Party. The apparent reestablishment of these structures indicates that the Kremlin is concerned with ensuring military personnel act in accordance with its objectives. The Kremlin’s emphasis on countering enemy propaganda suggests that it is also concerned that external actors could threaten the integrity of its own narratives. The Kremlin will therefore likely use this structure to ensure its externally-focused information campaigns are pervasive throughout all levels of the Russian Armed Forces.

Kartapolov further expanded upon the goals of the Military-Political Directorate in a speech to officer cadets on September 1, 2018. Kartapolov stated that the Directorate would create “patriotic consciousness” throughout the military and carry out “military-patriotic work” with civilian society. He stressed that the Directorate would differ from the Soviet Union due to its lack of integration with a political party. He also stated his intent to integrate military-political training into the curriculum of officer training schools throughout the Russian Armed Forces by March 1, 2019.[6] The Kremlin is thus conducting institutional reform in order to ensure future generations of officers internalize the importance of political adherence to its goals and how to carry them out in the Russian Armed Forces.

The Military-Political Directorate may additionally be responsible for shaping external information campaigns in support of foreign military action by Russia. RBK - an independent news outlet - reported that it acquired an internal planning document that indicated an externally-focused role for the Directorate on September 4, 2018.[7] RBK claimed that the text was confirmed by an unnamed source within the Russian Ministry of Defense. RBK reported that the Directorate will organize “military-political propaganda” and collaborate with the civilian media to promulgate this information. The Kremlin regularly uses state-run media outlets to support its information campaigns and seeks to fully integrate these campaigns with its military lines of effort. This integration will expand its capability to match military actions with propaganda messaging and increase the flexibility of its information campaigns. The Directorate will also assume control over all “departmental media” of the Russian Armed Forces. This centralized control over information-framing will bolster the military’s ability to function in complicated information environments. The Directorate will additionally conduct “counter-propaganda work to protect personnel from negative information and psychological impact” in order to maintain political and moral unity within the Russian Armed Forces.[8] These reported goals are likely correct. Russian generals with command experience in Syria have repeatedly emphasized the importance of expanding their information warfare capabilities.[9] The Directorate will advance the Kremlin’s prioritization of information and hybrid warfare development.

The U.S. and NATO should be actively leveraging the information space against the Russian Armed Forces instead of reacting to information campaigns promulgated by the Kremlin. The Kremlin manipulates the information space in order to create plausible deniability and confusion that obscures its aggressive actions. The Military-Political Directorate’s formation suggests that the Kremlin perceives a vulnerability to similar tactics within its own forces. NATO can seek to exploit this vulnerability by reinforcing its own ability to saturate the information environment with the truth. The U.S. and NATO must also recognize the threat posed by Russia’s efforts to increase the coherence and pervasiveness of its information operations throughout the entire Russian Armed Forces.

[1] A.A. Bartosh, [“Friction and Wear in Hybrid War,”] Voennaya Mysl’, January 2018,
[2] [“The Russian Army Recreates Political Control,”] Meduza, July 30, 2018, https://meduza(.)io/news/2018/07/30/v-rossiyskoy-armii-vossozdali-politicheskoe-upravlenie.
[3] [“The Governing Political Body Will Be Recreated in the Russian Army,”] Interfax, February 5, 2018, https://www.interfax(.)ru/russia/598553.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] [“Deputy Defense Minister Named the Main Tasks of the New Military-Political Bodies of the RF Armed Forces,”] TASS, September 1, 2018, https://tass(.)ru/armiya-i-opk/5514456.
[7] [“’Propaganda Against Extremism’: What Shoygu’s Political Department Will Do,”] RBK, September 4, 2018, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/04/09/2018/5b8d247d9a79478151f3fc2d; [“RBK: Military-Political Management of the Ministry of Defense Will Deal with the Fight Against Extremism and Propaganda,”] Kommersant, September 4, 2018, https://www.kommersant(.)ru/doc/3731784; [“RBK Spoke About the Main Tasks of the Political Department of the Ministry of Defense,”] Vedemosti, September 4, 2018, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/politics/news/2018/09/04/779830-politupravleniya-minoboroni.
[8] [“’Propaganda Against Extremism’: What Shoygu’s Political Department Will Do,”] RBK, September 4, 2018,
[9] A.V. Dvornikov, [“Headquarters for New Wars,”] Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kur'yer, July 23, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/43971; A.P. Lapin, [“Syrian Academy,”] Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kur'yer, April 24, 2018, https://vpk-news(.)ru/articles/42359.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Syria Situation Report: December 13, 2018 - January 9, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following graphic marks the latest installment of the Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and Syria Direct. The map depicts significant developments in the war in Syria during the period December 13, 2018 - January 9, 2019.
Click image to enlarge.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Russia and Iran Prepare For New Syria Battlefield

By Matti Suomenaro, Samantha Leathley, and Aaron Hesse with Christopher Kozak

Key Takeaway: Russia and Iran have begun to exploit the new strategic environment created by the forthcoming withdrawal of the U.S. from Syria (map). Russia, Iran, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad mobilized additional units to the Middle Euphrates River Valley in Eastern Syria in late December 2018.[1] These reinforcements - which included elite units of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) as well as elements of the Russian Armed Forces - are postured to cross the Euphrates River and seize valuable oil-rich terrain currently held by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Russia and Assad also deployed reinforcements to block an imminent offensive by Turkey against the SDF in Manbij in Northern Syria on December 28. These deployments are not included in this graphic’s field of view. The Russo-Iranian Coalition likely intends to deter further gains by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while it engineers a political reconciliation between the SDF and Damascus.

The Russo-Iranian Coalition is also using the announced withdrawal to coopt partners and allies of the U.S. in Syria and Iraq. The SDF has recognized that it cannot withstand combined pressure from Russia, Iran, Syria, and Turkey without the support of the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. It has reopened talks - albeit from a weaker bargaining position - regarding a diplomatic resolution with Assad. It has also called for further pro-regime deployments to secure the Syrian-Turkish Border. The ultimate outcome of these negotiations will likely include the handover of large parts of Northern and Eastern Syria to the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Meanwhile, concerns over border security have also drawn Iraq closer to the Russo-Iranian Coalition. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mehdi dispatched a high-ranking delegation led by Iran-friendly Iraqi National Security Advisor Falih al-Fayyadh to Damascus on December 30. Assad authorized Iraq to conduct unilateral cross-border airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. Russia and Iran will likely attempt to encourage these deepening ties as yet another vector to increase their influence over the Government of Iraq and develop regional power projection capability at the expense of the U.S. in the Middle East.

The map below depicts the Russo-Iranian Coalition’s known positions in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq as of January 3, 2019. The graphic has also been updated to depict positions held by the SAA and Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Position locations are based on information available in open sources reviewed by the Institute for the Study of War. The map does not show positions held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition.

The following map depicts the Russo-Iranian Coalition's posture on December 19, 2018 -- the day the U.S. announced its impending withdrawal from Syria.

[1] “Russia Is at the Forefront Again in Deir Ezzor,” December 24, 2018, https://en(.); Euphrates Post, Twitter, December 22, 2018,