Thursday, August 22, 2019

Syria Situation Report: August 7 - 21, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period August 7 - 21, 2019. Key SITREP events include a pro-Bashar al Assad regime advance in Khan Sheikhoun, where the Assad regime conducted a chemical weapons attack in 2017; a deployment of Turkish-backed forces in Idlib Province; an ISIS campaign supporting the group's followers in an IDP camp; and joint Turkish-Russian military patrols north of Aleppo City.

Click image to enlarge.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Afghanistan's Warlords Prepare for Civil War

By Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: Key Afghan warlords have begun preparing for a potential civil war as the U.S. nears an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has observed indicators that Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders are taking steps to mobilize their ethnic communities in preparation for a looming power struggle as the U.S. and NATO leave Afghanistan. Afghan Pashtuns will also soon likely mobilize, if they have not already begun.

The U.S. is about to finalize a bilateral agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan.[1] The Taliban in return is reportedly promising to prevent transnational jihadists (including Al Qaeda and ISIS) from conducting global attacks from Afghanistan. It has also ostensibly committed to subsequent negotiations with other Afghan political leaders over the future of Afghanistan. The exact terms of these negotiations remain unclear, but the U.S. has declined to explicitly support a leadership role in the talks for the current Afghan Government – implying that talks would focus on establishing a new Government of Afghanistan.[2] The apparent decision to sideline the current Afghan Government is a major concession by the U.S. and NATO. The existence and terms of this bilateral agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, when finalized, will sideline and severely weaken the Afghan Government. It will remove the government’s core source of leverage over the Taliban – namely, the military forces and international aid money brought by the U.S. and NATO to Afghanistan.

Photo: U.S. Air Force/TSgt. Stephen Hudson

Afghan powerbrokers are already taking precautions against the likely collapse or cancellation of the promised future talks with the Taliban. They are preparing to defend their communities against the Taliban and to compete with their current and historical rivals in the ensuing power vacuum. Multiple Afghan warlords already retain independent military forces or have coopted government forces to serve their own ends. Others have begun to mobilize new militias from their historical support bases. These preparations in and of themselves raise the likelihood of a new civil war by increasing the strength of power centers outside the Government of Afghanistan and setting conditions for a rapid dissolution of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF).


Afghan Tajik powerbrokers are the most prepared for a power struggle. Key powerbrokers either already control or are remobilizing militias affiliated with the Tajik Jamiat-e Islami Party. Jamiat historically formed the core of the Northern Alliance, which partnered with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban in 2001. Two Tajik warlords are actively mobilizing forces as of August 13, 2019: Atta Mohammad Noor and Bismullah Khan Mohammadi.
  • Atta Mohammad Noor: Atta is the former governor of Balkh Province and Chief Executive of Jamiat. He is likely the most powerful current member of Jamiat. He already controls a network of private militias within the Afghan Local Police and Afghan National Police in Balkh Province.[3] This network receives patronage from him and responds to his orders despite formally serving under the chain of command of the Afghan Government. Atta demonstrated his control over these forces when members of the Afghan National Police loyal to him opened fire on Afghan Special Police Forces attempting to install a new police chief in Balkh Province on March 14, 2019.[4] Atta controls a lucrative border crossing with Uzbekistan, which could become a critical source of military, political, and economic power during a new Afghan Civil War.[5] ISW has not observed new indicators of mobilization by Atta since March 2019, but he likely does not require new mobilizations given his existing control of Balkh Province.[6]
  • Bismullah Khan Mohammadi: Bismullah Khan is the former Chief of Staff of the Afghan National Army. He is working to re-mobilize a network of militias in Panjshir Province, historically the base of military power for Jamiat. Credible local reports stated on August 2 that local militias of former Tajik Mujahedeen began re-mobilizing and operating alongside the ANDSF in response to a growing threat from the Taliban in Panjshir Province, which has been relatively secure since 2001.[7] Mohammadi visited security posts in Panjshir on August 7.[8] He is likely leading this new mobilization effort, although it remains unclear if he is simply mobilizing the local wing of Jamiat or if he is engaged in an intra-party power play to consolidate control over Panjshir Province. A persistent threat from the Taliban in Panjshir Province will drive further mobilization by Jamiat.
The Tajik mobilization risks stimulating a breakdown of the ANDSF. Jamiat–linked Tajik commanders have historically dominated the ANDSF and hold substantial influence within its ranks.[9] Jamiat’s powerbrokers are likely in positon to absorb defectors from the ANDSF should it collapse and could even encourage elements to defect to Jamiat.


Afghan Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum is also mobilizing his forces. Dostum’s Uzbeks formed the second major pillar of the Northern Alliance and a rival to Atta Mohammad Noor’s Tajiks. His recent activity indicates that he is retaking control over his network of militias within local security forces in Northwest Afghanistan, which fragmented during his exile in Turkey from May 2017 to July 2018.[10] Dostum made multiple visits in July 2019 to meet local commanders at outposts in Jowzjan and Sar-e Pul Provinces, both of which are contested between the Afghan Government and the Taliban.[11] Dostum allegedly took direct command of operations in these areas, which would imply that he took command of local ANDSF ostensibly under the control of the Afghan Government.[12] Dostum also held three large meetings with local commanders from the ANDSF in Jowzjan Province on July 21, August 3, and August 5.[13] His control of local militias could reignite the historical conflict between Dostum and Atta in Northern Afghanistan.


Multiple Afghan Shi’a Hazara warlords also maintain independent militias in the Hazarajat – a mountainous region spanning multiple provinces in Central Afghanistan. Urban Hazara communities also exist in Kabul. The Taliban has historically targeted the Hazara, most recently during an offensive in Ghazni and Uruzgan Provinces in November 2018.[14] ISIS Wilayat Khorasan also regularly attacks the Hazara in Kabul.[15] The Hazara have thus maintained militias to defend their communities.[16] Hazara leaders warn that continued violence against their population and continued government inaction could lead to increased mobilization among Hazara.[17] This mobilization will likely accelerate after any announced withdrawal by the U.S. and NATO.

Hazara warlord Abdul Ghani Alipur leads a militia active in the Hazarajat.[18] The Afghan Government attempted to arrest him twice in October-November 2018 but released him following large protests by urban Hazara in Kabul.[19] Senior Hazara powerbroker and former Afghan Deputy Chief Executive Mohammad Mohaqiq also criticized the arrest attempts in October 2018. Alipur can likely conduct further mobilization among ethnic Hazara.[20]

Iran may also become more active in mobilizing Hazara in Afghanistan. Iran returned thousands of fighters from Liwa Fatamiyoun – a proxy force drawn from ethnic Hazara – from Syria to Afghanistan by April 2019.[21] Iran’s continued relationship to these fighters is unclear from publicly available information. Alipur has reportedly recruited former Fatamiyoun into his militia and an anonymous security official accused him of supporting an effort by Iran to establish structures for a future rapid mobilization of Fatamiyoun in April 2019.[22] Multiple Hazara clerics and politicians also warned in early 2019 that there is a significant risk of remobilization among the Fatamiyoun if the Taliban and ISIS continue to threaten the Hazara.[23]

Further Mobilization and Maneuvers

The Taliban’s threat led the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara leaders to unite their militias and form the Northern Alliance in the 1990s. A similar unification could occur again. Several Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leaders – including Dostum – already support Jamiat member and Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in the September 2019 Afghan Presidential Election.[24] There is also an ongoing effort to persuade Atta and other influential members of Jamiat to support Abdullah.[25] The elections are unlikely to occur amidst a withdrawal by the U.S. and NATO, but this tentative political alliance indicates that the historically fractious Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara powerbrokers could be in a position to cooperate politically and militarily against the Taliban. However, historic divisions between these powerbrokers could still preclude them from reconstituting the Northern Alliance.[26]

Afghan Pashtuns are likely to mobilize soon, if they have not yet already. Former Pashtun Mujahedeen Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, could mobilize forces affiliated with his Hezb-e Islami Party. Hekmatyar agreed to demobilize his militias in a reconciliation deal with the Afghan Government in 2016.[27] However, he can still call upon supporters within the existing network of militias linked to Hezb-e Islami that never integrated – as called for in the deal – with the ANDSF.[28] Any mobilization by Hezb-e Islami would likely to reignite a historic rivalry with Jamiat.

Meanwhile, it remains unclear who currently leads the Durrani Pashtuns after the assassination of Kandahar Provincial Police Chief General Abdul Raziq by the Taliban in October 2018.[29] Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, former Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, and other influential tribal leaders are likely already preparing to activate their own support networks among the Durranis ahead of an anticipated power struggle with the Taliban. Kandahar is bitterly contested due to its strategic and cultural significance to both the Durranis and the Taliban. This struggle will only further accelerate after the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan.[30]

Afghanistan’s current political environment is highly unstable, as demonstrated by the remobilization of ethnic militias along historical divides. The Taliban and the Afghan political elite are setting conditions to secure their communities and their power through force rather than negotiation. The U.S. bears direct responsibility for this outcome given its successive drawdowns and policy recalibrations in Afghanistan, which led all parties to take up arms to protect themselves at the expense of the Afghan Government. Afghanistan is dangerously poised for a new Afghan Civil War reminiscent of the instability that followed the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in the 1990s.

[1] Kimberly Dozier, “The U.S. Is Close to a Peace Deal with the Taliban, Officials Say,” Time, August 8, 2019,
[2] U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, Twitter, July 27, 2019,
[3] “Afghanistan’s Strongmen and the Legacy of Impunity,” Human Rights Watch, March 3, 2015,
[4] “Rival Police Clash in North Afghan City in Spat Between President, Ex-Governor,” Gandhara, March 14, 2019,
[5] “Afghanistan’s Fragile Government Picks a Dangerous Fight,” Economist, March 1, 2018,
[6] Sharif Hassan, “Ousted But Not Out: Afghan Strongman Still Calls the Shots, Residents Say,” Washington Post, May 13, 2018,
[7] Massoud Ansar, “Local Forces Mobilize to Purge Taliban Threats in Panjshir,” Tolo News, August 2, 2019,
[8] Besmillah Mohammadi, Facebook, August 7, 2019,
[9] Mara Tchalakov, “Afghanistan Report 10: The Northern Alliance Prepares for Afghan Elections in 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, August 2013,; Deedee Derksen, “Hezb-e Islami, Peace, and Integration into the Afghan Security Forces,” U.S. Institute of Peace, July 2018,
[10] Deedee Derksen, “In Afghanistan, Today’s Pro-Government Militias Could Be Tomorrow’s Insurgents,” War on the Rocks, December 11, 2017,; Rod Nordland, “Accused of Rape and Torture, Exiled Afghan Vice President Returns,” New York Times, July 22, 2018,
[11] Gulabuddin Ghubar, “Taliban Uses Their Full Strength But Will Not Win: Dostum,” Tolo News, July 12, 2019,
[12] Babur, Twitter, July 11, 2019,; Mujib Mashal, Twitter, August 3, 2019,
[13] FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, July 21, 2019,; FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, August 3, 2019,; FVP Afghanistan, Facebook, August 5, 2019,
[14] Ali Yawar Adili and Martine van Bijlert, “Taleban Attacks on Khas Uruzgan, Jaghori and Malestan (II): A New and Violent Push into Hazara Areas,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, November 29, 2018,
[15] Abdul Qadir Sediqi, “Attack on Shi'ite Muslim Gathering in Afghan Capital Kills Three,” Reuters, March 7, 2019,
[16] Martine van Bijlert, “Security at the Fringes: The Case of Shujai in Khas Uruzgan,” Afghan Analyst Network, April 6, 2013,
[17] Mustafa Sarwar, “Amid IS Attacks, Hazaras Fear Dangerous Sectarian Divide in Afghanistan,” Gandhara, September 13, 2018,
[18] Hamid Shalizi, “Rebel Afghan Militia Leader Defies Government as Arrest Bid Fails,” Reuters, October 11, 2018,
[19] Ibid.; Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan, “Afghan Authorities Free Hazara Fighter Whose Arrest Ignited Street Clashes,” Washington Post, November 26, 2018,
[20] Hamid Shalizi, “Rebel Afghan Militia Leader Defies Government as Arrest Bid Fails,” Reuters, October 11, 2018,
[21] The U.S. Institute of Peace warned in March 2019 that “thousands” of Fatamiyoun were returning to Afghanistan. An anonymous Afghan security official claimed that 10,000 Fatamiyoun fighters had returned by April 2019, although this number is likely an overestimate. See: Ahmad Shuja Jamal, “The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 19, 2019,; Kathy Gannon, “Afghans Recruited to Fight in Syrian War Struggle Back Home,” AP, March 31, 2019,; Mohsen Hamidi, “The Two Faces of the Fatemiyun (I): Revisiting the Male Fighters,” Afghan Analysts Network, July 8, 2019,
[22] Dr. Antonio Giustozzi & Shoib Najafizada, “Assad’s Afghan Shi’a Volunteers,” Center for Research and Policy Analysis, November 13, 2018,; Kathy Gannon, “Afghans Recruited to Fight in Syrian War Struggle Back Home,” AP, March 31, 2019,
[23] Ahmad Shuja Jamal, “The Fatemiyoun Army: Reintegration into Afghan Society,” U.S. Institute of Peace, March 19, 2019,
[24] Frud Bezhan, “Who's Who Among the Afghan Presidential Candidates,” Gandhara, August 10, 2019,
[25] Massoud Ansar, “Atmar’s Team Members Begin Talks with Abdullah’s Campaign,” Tolo News, August 10, 2019,
[26] Mara Tchalakov, “Afghanistan Report 10: The Northern Alliance Prepares for Afghan Elections in 2014,” Institute for the Study of War, August 2013,
[27] “Afghanistan Signs Draft Deal with Militant Hekmatyar,” BBC, May 18, 2016,
[28] Deedee Derksen, “Hezb-e Islami, Peace, and Integration into the Afghan Security Forces,” U.S. Institute of Peace, July 2018,

[29] Taimoor Shah and Mujib Mashal, “An Afghan Police Chief Took On the Taliban and Won. Then His Luck Ran Out,” New York Times, October 18, 2018,
[30] Carl Forsberg, “Afghanistan Report 5: Politics and Power in Kandahar,” Institute for the Study of War, April 2010,; Thomas Ruttig, “Kandahar from Razeq to Tadin (2): The Collapse Foretold That Did Not Happen,” Afghanistan Analysts Network, August 14, 2019,

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Russia in Review: Recasting the War in Ukraine

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.

Author: Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaway: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s rhetoric is creating a permissive environment for the Kremlin to push its false narratives about the nature of the War in Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin is also further contesting the information space in Ukraine and setting conditions to renew the supply of fresh water to the occupied Crimean Peninsula - likely to test the new Zelensky Administration.

New Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is inadvertently supporting the Kremlin’s false narrative about the War in Eastern Ukraine. Zelensky held a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 7 after the death of four Ukrainian Marines in the Donbas.[1] Zelensky called on Putin to “influence the other side so that they stop killing our people” – language that implicitly absolved the Kremlin of its responsibility for the actions of its separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine. This language – a departure from the rhetoric used by the previous administration – aids the Kremlin in its attempts to falsely frame the violence as a civil conflict and present itself as a mediator rather than a belligerent in Ukraine.

Putin intends to shift the narrative regarding the War in Eastern Ukraine in order to achieve his preferred political outcome in the Donbas and gain relief from sanctions applied by the West.[2] Ukraine’s ability to maintain an unambiguous international stance in opposition to this narrative is vital to prevent Russia from legitimizing its illegal aggression against Ukraine. Zelensky’s rhetorical mistakes – while likely stemming from inexperience rather than ill intent – disrupt this unity and create a permissive environment for Russia.

Photo: U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet

The Kremlin is further attempting to regain influence in the information space in Ukraine. Echo of Moscow Editor-in-Chief Alexey Venediktov floated the idea of establishing a branch of the radio station in Kyiv on August 8.[3] Venediktov later claimed that he intended to communicate opinions from Ukraine to Russia - rather than the other way around - after his announcement caused public outcry in Ukraine.[4] Venediktov has cast himself as a domestic opponent of Putin yet he largely supports the foreign policy line of the Kremlin. He stated in a recent interview that he remains hopeful about the possibility of Russia and Ukraine finding a solution for the Donbas.[5] He also stated that Ukrainians would ultimately forget the human cost of the War in Eastern Ukraine.[6] Echo of Moscow is unlikely to receive permission to establish a bureau in Ukraine. Sergei Kostinskii – a member of Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting – stated that the council’s doors remained closed to Venediktov and “his friends” in Russia.[7]

The Kremlin is likely using these outreach efforts by Venediktov to test the Zelensky Administration’s tolerance of its agenda in Ukraine.[8] It might also be using his access and connections to gain additional insight into Zelensky. Venediktov claimed to deliver a letter to Zelensky on July 10 from the mother of former RIA Novosti-Ukraine Editor-in-Chief Kirill Vyshynsky, who is detained on charges of high treason in Ukraine.[9] The outreach also parallels similar efforts by the Kremlin to regain influence in the information space of the former Soviet Union. Pro-Russian Moldovan President Igor Dodon advocated for the resumption of broadcasts of banned television channels from Russia in Moldova on July 30.[10]

The Kremlin is also likely setting conditions to negotiate access to the supply of fresh water to the occupied Crimean Peninsula. Crimean authorities stated on August 12 that they would ask the Kremlin to help start negotiations on resuming the fresh water supply to Crimea, which Ukraine has blocked since 2014.[11] The authorities claimed they held a legal right to water in the Dnieper River given that it “originates” from Russia. Given that most of the rivers of Central and Eastern Ukraine originate in Russia, this statement amounts to a claim over most of the water in Ukraine - a claim at odds with international law.

This issue of water remains critical for the Kremlin, as it can draw upon only a limited number of expensive and suboptimal alternatives to provide water for Crimea.[12] The Kremlin may even have planned a contingency military option to seize the canal supplying fresh water to Crimea if former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko had won the 2019 Ukrainian Presidential Election.[13] It likely perceives an opportunity to negotiate with Zelensky. Russia might use the negotiations over the water supply in Crimea as a bargaining chip in its larger effort to advance its preferred scenario in Eastern Ukraine. It may find some limited support for this goal in the Zelensky Administration. At least one member of Zelensky’s Servant of the People Party has publically criticized the decision to cut off the water supply to the Crimean Peninsula.[14]

[1] “Zelensky Calls Putin Following Deadly Shelling That Killed Ukrainian Troops in Donbas,” UNIAN, August 7, 2019, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/10643202-zelensky-calls-putin-following-deadly-shelling-that-killed-ukrainian-troops-in-donbas.html.
[2] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[3] Svetlana Kryukova and Anastasia Tovt, [“Venediktov Plans to Set Up Radio ‘Echo of Moscow’ in Ukraine,”] Strana, August 8, 2019, https://strana(.)ua/news/216003-venediktov-otkryvaet-ekho-moskvy-v-ukraine.html.
[4] Sergei Buntman, [“We Will See: Interview with Alexey Venediktov,”] Echo of Moscow, August 10, 2019, https://echo.msk(.)ru/programs/observation/2479825-echo/.
[5] Dmitry Gordon, [“Alexey Venediktov on ‘Gordon’ (2019),”] YouTube, August 9, 2019,
[6] Ibid.
[7] Sergei Kostinskii, Facebook, August 9, 2019,
[8] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[9] “Ekho Moskvy Editor-In-Chief Gives Zelensky Letter From Mother of Vyshynsky,” Interfax, July 10, 2019, https://www.kyivpost(.)com/ukraine-politics/ekho-moskvy-editor-in-chief-gives-zelensky-letter-from-mother-of-vyshynsky.html.
[10] [“Dodon Will Seek to Restore the Broadcasting of Russian Television Channels,”] Ren, July 31, 2019, http://ren(.)tv/novosti/2019-07-31/dodon-budet-dobivatsya-vosstanovleniya-veshchaniya-rossiyskih-telekanalov.
[11] [“Crimea Intends to Initiate Negotiations with Ukraine on the Passage of the Dnieper to the Peninsula,”] TASS, August 12, 2019, https://tass(.)ru/politika/6755544.
[12] Vitali Portnikov, [“Water and Crimea,”] Radio Svoboda, July 30, 2019, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/30081878.html.
[13] Catherine Harris, Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberly Kagan, and the ISW Russia Team, “Warning Update: Russian Preparations for Military Operations in Ukraine Continue,” Institute for the Study of War, December 23, 2018,
[14] [“‘These Are Our Citizens’: Zelensky Party Candidate Says Ukraine Harms Crimeans,”] The World News, July 7, 2019, https://twnews(.)at/ua-news/eto-nashi-grazhdane-kandidat-ot-partii-zelenskogo-zaiavil-chto-ukraina-vredit-zhiteliam-kryma.

Russia in Review: Global Military Ties

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.

Author: Mason Clark

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is expanding its security partnerships and avenues for arms sales through the 2019 International Army Games. The Kremlin also leverages the military competition to advance internal military reforms and promote its military both at home and abroad.

The Kremlin is using its 2019 International Army Games to build global military ties, broker new arms sales and support its military reform priorities. The Russian Defense Ministry hosted its 5th Annual International Army Games from August 3 - 17, 2019.[1] The Army Games are widely described as the “military Olympics” with events ranging from a tank biathlon to a piloting competition for UAVs.[2] The Kremlin has steadily expanded the games from 16 states competing in 13 events hosted in Russia in 2015 to 37 states competing in 32 events hosted across ten countries in Central and East Asia in 2019.[3]

The Kremlin exhibits arms for export and develops ties with foreign militaries at the Army Games.[4] It provides both commonly exported and new military equipment to visiting teams, including its domestic-only Ratnik-2 Infantry Combat System in 2019. It also stages demonstrations of new weapons systems, such as its public debut of the Su-57 fighter jet in 2017.[5] Russia has successfully expanded the participant pool to include additional militaries from South America, Africa, and Asia.[6] Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and India hosted events for the first time in 2019 while Jordan, Cuba, Mali, Congo, Sri Lanka, Mongolia, and Cambodia were all first-time participants.[7] Key U.S. adversaries - such as China, Iran, and Venezuela - are major participants in the games, hosting competitions and competing in large numbers of events.[8]

The Kremlin’s expansion of the 2019 Army Games reflects evolving internal priorities in Russia. The Russian Armed Forces is concerned about retaining popular support amidst decreasing public approval of its deployment to Syria.[9] The Games thus attempt to glamorize the military to a domestic audience, with live broadcasts of events and a free-to-enter “fan zone” with opportunities to learn military skills and interact with military equipment.[10] The Games introduced new events focused on the Arctic and Special Forces, two areas repeatedly highlighted for development by the Russian Armed Forces.[11] The Kremlin also increased participation from non-military formations in Russia, including the Interior Ministry, National Guard, and the Federal Security Service.[12] It may intend to leverage the event to strengthen its internal security apparatus against growing displays of dissent against Russian President Vladimir Putin.[13]

The Kremlin will likely use the Army Games to lay the groundwork for future military cooperation agreements and arms deals as well as informal security partnerships across the globe. It will attempt to use these deals to provide a revenue stream that mitigates sanctions by the West. The Games may also increase the capabilities and knowledge exchange between key rivals to the U.S. such as Russia, China, and Iran.

[1] [“International Army Games 2019 Program,”] Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[2] “Russia’s ‘Military Olympics’: Highlights of 2018 International Army Games,” TASS, August 9, 2018, https://tass(.)com/defense/1016646; Andrew Roth, “The Russian Military is Building a Mini-Reichstag at Its Amusement Park So That Kids Have ‘A Real Building to Storm’,” Washington Post, February 22, 2017,; “Army Games 2019,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[3] The host countries in 2019 include Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran, Mongolia, India, and China. See: “Army Games 2019: Location of the Contests,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,; Andrew Roth, “Russia Holds its First International Army Games,” Washington Post, August 8, 2015,
[4] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,; Mark Galeotti, “The International Army Games Are Decadent and Depraved,” Foreign Policy, August 24, 2018,
[5] Commonly exported pieces of equipment used in the Games include the AK-74, T-72B3 Main Battle Tank, BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle, S-300 Surface-to-Air Missile System, and several variants of military aircraft. See: “Army Games 2019,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,; “Foreign Personnel Test Russia’s Ratnik Combat Outfit at International Army Games,” TASS, August 8, 2019, https://tass(.)com/defense/1072552; Rebecca Wright, Oren Liebermann, Darya Tarasova, and Mary Ilyushina, “Russia’s International Army Games Showcase Military Might,” CNN, August 14, 2017,
[6] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,
[7] Chen Zhuo, “New Highlights in International Army Games 2019,” China Military Online, July 5, 2019,
[8] Greece is the sole state from NATO participating in the Games. It solely competed in cultural rather than military events. Turkey, Slovakia, and the U.S. sent observers to the 2019 Army Games. See: “Four NATO Countries Delegate Observers to 2019 Army Games,” TASS, August 1, 2019, https://tass(.)com/world/1071404; “Army Games 2019,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[9] The Russian Defense Ministry founded a Military Political Directorate in July 2018 in part to coordinate activities to create a “patriotic consciousness” among the civilian population, and several high-level officers have discussed the important of ensuring civilian support for the military in future conflicts. Chief of the Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov stressed the importance of improving the “ideological, moral, and psychological stability of the [Russian] population” to maintain support for military action in a speech in March 2019. See: Valery Gerasimov, [“Vectors of Development of Military Strategy,”] Red Star, March 2, 2019, http://redstar(.)ru/vektory-razvitiya-voennoj-strategii/?attempt=1; “Fewer Than Half of Russians Support Syria Campaign, Poll Says,” Moscow Times, May 6, 2019,; [“Syria,”] Levada Center, May 16, 2018, https://www.levada(.)ru/2018/05/16/siriya/; Mason Clark with Catherine Harris, “Russia’s New Tool for Wielding Information,” Institute for the Study of War, January 15, 2019,; A.A. Bartosh, [“Friction and Turbulence in Hybrid War,”] Military Thought, January 2018,; V.A. Kislev, [“What Wars the Russian Armed Forces Will Be In,”] Military Thought, March 2017,
[10] [“Fans Club International Army Games 2019,”] Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[11] The Army Games held ‘Sayan March’ in late February 2019, testing Arctic combat capabilities as a component of the Kremlin’s ongoing preparation to conduct military operations in the Arctic. See: “Sayan March,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, Alexander Begej, and Darina Regio, “Russia in Review: March 15 - 26, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, March 26, 2019, The ‘Polar Star’ Special Forces competition included air landing, battlefield search-and-rescue, and nighttime operations, reflecting Russia’s increasing focus on special operations integrating lessons learned in Ukraine and Syria. See: Catherine Harris and Mason Clark, ‘Russia in Review: Russia’s Lessons Learned in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War, November 9, 2018,; “Polar Star,” Russian Defense Ministry, Accessed August 13, 2019,
[12] “Four NATO Countries Delegate Observers to 2019 Army Games,” TASS, August 1, 2019, https://tass(.)com/world/1071404.
[13] Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock, “Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy,” Institute for the Study of War, August 6, 2019,

Friday, August 9, 2019

Syria Situation Report: July 22 - August 6, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period July 22 - August 6, 2019. Key SITREP events include an ISIS triple bombing attack in an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces, pro-Bashar al Assad regime forces resuming an offensive following an ostensible ceasefire, and the reported visit of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Quds Force commander to the Syria-Iraq border where Iran's proxies have built up a presence.

Click image to enlarge.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Russia in Review: Domestic Discontent and Foreign Policy

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.

Authors: Nataliya Bugayova, Darina Regio, Mason Clark, and Michaela Walker with Alexandra McClintock

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is accelerating its parallel campaigns to suppress political dissent, create a viable option for Russian President Vladimir Putin to stay in power beyond 2024, and deepen Belarus’s integration with Russia. The Kremlin likely perceives a more urgent need to consolidate its gains domestically and internationally as internal pressures rise. 

The Kremlin will intensify its crackdown on peaceful political protests amid Putin’s falling approval ratings and a worsening economy. Thousands protested in Moscow on July 27 and on August 3 against the decision of Russian authorities to bar over a dozen candidates from the Moscow City Council elections scheduled for September 8.[1] The authorities likely have attempted to prevent anti-Kremlin candidates from running. The Kremlin used riot police and the National Guard to disperse the protests with an unprecedented level of violence.[2] Moscow authorities have arrested estimated approximately 2,000 protesters and several key opposition leaders – the largest number of arrests during a single protest wave in Russia since 2011.[3] The authorities opened an umbrella case for “inciting mass riots.”[4] Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who called for the protests, stated he was poisoned in custody.[5] Russian authorities failed to investigate the alleged poisoning; they instead announced an investigation into Navalny's anti-corruption foundation on August 3.[6]

Russian state-controlled media provided minimal coverage of the protests. Russian authorities raided the offices of independent television channel Dozhd after it made protest coverage available at no charge to non-subscribers.[7] Kremlin officials also tried to dispel the notion of discontent among Moscow’s residents, claiming “most of the riot members having no connection to Moscow whatsoever.”[8] The Kremlin accused the U.S. of interfering in Russia’s affairs after the U.S. Embassy in Moscow issued a demonstration alert for U.S. citizens identifying the publicly available protest route – a routine communication measure U.S. embassies use to ensure Americans’ safety.[9] This accusation aligns with Putin’s effort to redefine state sovereignty as forbidding even external commentary on events inside Russia.[10]

Forecast: The Kremlin will likely double down on its effort to isolate the protests.[11] Russia’s economy is worsening with declining salaries and supermarkets planning to sell food on credit.[12] New polls suggest that 38% of Russians do not want Putin to stay in power beyond 2024 – the highest number since 2013.[13] The Kremlin will attempt to make the protests irrelevant by restricting coverage and tarnishing the protesters as a small group paid by the West to destabilize Russia. The Kremlin will launch additional criminal cases and accelerate its efforts to expand control over the information space. The riots will further empower the security services, specifically the Federal Security Service and the National Guard. Police brutality will likely grow to show that no one is above the state machine. The Kremlin will further commit Russia to a path of isolation by sidelining or expelling opposing voices, trying to keep the broader Russian population blind, and framing Putin as the only viable option.

The Kremlin will likely manage to tame the protests in the near term. The Kremlin’s suppression of the 2011 anti-regime protests lasted for eight years. The Kremlin also subsequently escalated internationally. The recent protests may push the Kremlin to accelerate its global campaigns, but Putin can no longer expect to reap the same benefits in increased ratings as he did after his intervention in Ukraine. Russians are starting to question the cost-benefit ratio of his foreign adventures. The Kremlin’s control over the population is substantially stronger than in 2011, however. Putin has empowered hundreds of thousands of members of the security services – including police, the National Guard, and the intelligence agencies – who are now vested in the current system. The key indicator to watch is whether the protests expand beyond Moscow and occasional solidarity rallies in St. Petersburg.[14]

The Kremlin risks deepening the cracks within Russian society in the long run, however. The protests revealed a potentially growing wedge between the population and the security services. Select activists and members of the National Guard threatened to retaliate against each other’s families in social media.[15] Putin’s continued efforts to empower the security services on one side and frame any activism as anti-Russian on the other will only deepen this fissure.

The Kremlin is likely developing an option for preserving Putin’s power beyond 2024 through a constitutional change. Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the Duma (the lower house of the Russian parliament), advocated expanding the Duma’s authority to advise the President on cabinet appointees on July 17.[16] The Russian prime minister currently proposes the cabinet for the president’s approval without consulting with the Duma.[17] The Kremlin began introducing a narrative about constitutional change in 2018. Putin called the Russian constitution a “living [and] developing organism” in December 2018.[18] Volodin also proposed amending the Russian constitution on April 6.[19] Several other Russian officials publicly supported the idea of the constitutional change.[20]

Volodin’s proposal might be a contingency plan for the ruling United Russia party to preserve its influence after 2024 by allowing it to affect cabinet formation. The Kremlin might also be setting conditions to limit the power of the president if Putin becomes the prime minister. Finally, Volodin might be priming the information space for larger revisions, such as granting the Duma the authority to appoint the prime minister. This is likely one option in the broader set of possibilities the Kremlin is working on.

The Kremlin’s campaign to pressure Belarus to accelerate the Union Treaty process is succeeding. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko announced on July 18 his intent to finalize the terms of the Union State by December 8, 2019, the 20th anniversary of the Union Treaty.[21] The treaty calls for a federation-type state including Russia and Belarus that ensures the long-term allegiance of Belarus to Russia. Lukashenko has not previously specified any timeline for implementation and has worked to counter the Kremlin’s pressure.[22] Lukashenko’s statement likely indicates the success of the Kremlin’s aggressive campaign to integrate Belarus with Russia despite Lukashenko’s resistance.[23] Putin has personally engaged in an extensive meeting campaign with Lukashenko, including in-person or phone talks eight times since January 2019 – double the frequency of contacts in 2018.[24] The Kremlin has also used a variety of overt and likely covert pressures including cuts in economic aid.[25] Russia has notably lifted restrictions on the Belarusian sale of apples on July 23, days after Lukashenko’s July 18 statement.[26]

Putin’s and Lukashenko’s growing need to ensure continuity of their power amid domestic pressures is likely contributing to the acceleration of the Union State. Both likely seek the Union State as a source of post-presidency personal security and patronage. Lukashenko might also perceive more opportunity to shape the treaty to his advantage now, anticipating diminishing opportunities to leverage international partners and to negotiate with Putin, as well as a worsening economic situation in Belarus that heavily relies on Russia. Lukashenko continues to try to balance between Russia and other partners, however. He took out $600 million in loans from China to pay off Russian debts on July 10.[27] Belarus also put $157.4 million of Belarusian government bonds on the Russian market, nevertheless, underscoring Minsk’s continued dependence on Moscow.[28]

Lukashenko will continue to attempt to create long-term checks on Russian power in Belarus, but Belarus’ economic dependence on Russia and its geopolitical position limit its ability to counter the Kremlin.[29] Russia will likely reduce its economic pressure on Belarus in exchange for the implementation agreement. The Kremlin will likely attempt to establish a united currency and customs union, as well as expand its influence over Belarusian oil and gas infrastructure to control energy sales to Europe.[30] Belarus will likely retain nominal autonomy within the Union State, but Belarusian security structures would fall de facto under Russia’s leadership.

The West must prepare to face expanded Russian control over Belarussian security forces and additional Russian strategic basing that will threaten Ukraine and neighboring NATO members.[31] The West should reinforce its economic and military support of Belarus’ neighbors – Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia – to allow them to balance the Kremlin’s likely expansion. The West should also examine long-term conditions it can set to help Belarus achieve broader economic diversification and overall sovereignty.

[1] Mike Eckel, “Analysis: Why The Official Response to the Moscow Protests May Be a Turning Point,” RFE/RL, July 29, 2019,; Robert Coalson, “Russian Authorities, Opposition go Toe-to-Toe Over Moscow Duma Elections,” RFE/RL, July 24, 2019,; [“Independent Candidates are Disallowed Ahead of Russian City Council Elections,”], July 16, 2019, https(:)//; “Russian Police Detain Over 1,000 Opposition Protesters in Central Moscow,” The Moscow Times, August 4, 2019,; Matthew Luxmoore, “Police Detain Hundreds at Opposition Rally in Moscow,” RFERL, August 2, 2019,
[2] Nathan Hodge, “Protestors Are Taking to the Streets in Moscow. The Kremlin is Watching to See if Others Will Do the Same,”CNN, July 29, 2019,; Garbage Protesters in Russia’s North Brace for Showdown as Troops Descend,” The Moscow Times, April 30, 2019,; “Divisive Chechnya Deal Sparks Protest Calling for Ingush Leader’s Resignation,” The Moscow Times, March 26, 2019,; “Police Detain Navalny, Hundreds of Protesters At Anti-Putin Rally,” RFE/RL, May 5, 2018,; “Russians Protest Pension Changes,” Reuters, September 10, 2018,
[3] [“Head of the Fund of the Fight With Corruption Ivan Zhdanov Was Arrested For Fifteen Days for the Events of July 27,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 29, 2019, https(:)//; [“Vladimir Milov was arrested for Thirty Days for Actions in Support of Independent Candidates In the Russian City Council Elections,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 29, 2019, https(:)//; “Russian Police Detain Over 1,000 Opposition Protesters in Central Moscow,” Moscow Times,; Matthew Luxmoore, “Police Detain Hundreds at Opposition Rally in Moscow,” RFERL,; Vera Chelishcheva, [“The Limit of Detention is One Thousand Five Hundred,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2019, https(:)//
[4] [“Media: The Investigatory Committee has Opened Two More Cases Concerning the Violence Against the Russian National Guard at the Meeting at July 27,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2019, https(:)//; “10 ‘Mass Unrest’ Suspects Detained Ahead of Next Opposition Rally,” The Moscow Times, August 2, 2019,; Anton Bayev, [“The First Defendants From the July 27 Protests Were Sent to Jail,”] The Bell, August 2, 2019, https(:)//
[5] “Navalny Demands Official Probe Into Possible ‘Poisoning’ In Russian Custody,” RFE/RL, August 1, 2019,; “Police Beat, Detain Protesters and Opposition Figures at Moscow Rally,” RFE/RL, July 27, 2019,; Nataliya Vasilyeva, “Alexei Navalny, Face of Russia's Opposition, Hospitalized with Suspected Poisoning,” TIME, July 29, 2019,
[6] “Russia Probes Alleged Money Laundering by Opposition Leader Navalny,” RFERL, August 3, 2019,
[7] “Russia’s Independent Dozhd TV Channel Audited Amid Protest Coverage,” The Moscow Times, August 1, 2019,; Anna Kovalenko, [“Tax Inspectors Began Investigating ‘Dozhd’ Television Channel,”] The Bell, August 1, 2019, https(:)//
[8] [“‘They Compelled The Police to Use Force’: Sobyanin Comments on the Events of July 27 for the First Time,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 30, 2019, https(:)//; [“The Interior Ministry says that many of the July 27 protesters were newcomers. It looks like a propaganda trick,”] Meduza, July 29, 2019, https(:)//
[9] “Moscow to File Protests to US, Germany Over Interference in Russia’s Politics – Diplomat,” TASS, August 4, 2019, https://tass((.))com/politics/1071846; “Demonstration Alert: U.S. Embassy Moscow,” U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Russia, August 2, 2019,
[10] Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here With Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War,
[11] Nataliya Bugayova, “How We Got Here With Russia: The Kremlin’s Worldview,” Institute for the Study of War,
[12] [“Railway Shipments Are Down as Before Recession,”] The Bell, July 2, 2019, https://thebell(.)io/perevozki-rzhd-snizilis-kak-pered-retsessiej/; Marina Karpova, “Russian Supermarket Starts Selling Food on Credit,” Russia Beyond The Headlines, February 12, 2016, https(:)//
[13] Alexander Pyatin, [“Almost Forty Percent of Russians Do Not Want To See Putin In Power After 2024,”] Forbes, July 30, 2019,
[14] [“On action in St. Petersburg - about 2,000 people. Speakers Reznik, Vishnevsky, Tikhonova,”] Fontanka, August 3, 2019, https(:)//
[15] [“Representative of the Russian Guard called threats to the children of security forces a lesson,”] Vedomosti, August 4, 2019, https://www.vedomosti((.))ru/politics/news/2019/08/04/808060-rosgvardiya; Ivan Belyaev, [“’Pay with the blood of children’: social networks on anonymous threats to the opposition,”] Radio Svoboda, August 5, 2019,; [“A premonition of a civil war: protests turned into threats of reprisals against children,”] Sneg, August 5, 2019, https://sneg((.))tv/22278-predchuvstvie-grazhdanskoj-vojny-protesty-obernulis-ugrozami-raspravy-nad-detmi.
[16] [“ Volodin Proposed to Change the Constitution Again to Include the Duma in the Formation of the Government,”] Novaya Gazeta, July 17, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/news/2019/07/17/153399-volodin-predlozhil-zafiksirovat-v-konstitutsii-uchastie-gosdumy-v-formirovanii-pravitelstva;
[17] [“The Constitution of the Russian Federation,”] Kremlin, December 12, 1993, http(:)//
[18] [“Putin: The Constitution of the Russian Federation is a living, developing organism that is the Foundation of the Legal System,”] TASS, December 12, 2018, https(:)//
[19] [“Volodin Proposed to Change the Constitution. He Wants the Duma to Participae in the Naming of Ministers,”] Meduza, April 6, 2019, https(:)//
[20] [“Volodin Proposed Changes to the Constitution,”] Ria Novosti, July 17, 2019, https://ria%28.%29ru/20190717/1556603942.html.
[21] [“VI Forum of Regions of Russia and Belarus,”] Kremlin, July 18, 2019, http(:)//; [“Meeting with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, July 18, 2019, http://kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/61036, “Lukashenko Calls to Address All Issues Ahead of Belarus-Russia Union State Anniversary,”, July 18, 2019, https://www.belarus((.))by/en/press-center/news/lukashenko-calls-to-address-all-issues-ahead-of-belarus-russia-union-state-anniversary_i_101482.html.
[22] Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: May 9 - 13, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War, May 14, 2019,
[23] Mason Clark and Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: May 9 - 13, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War,
[24] [“Meeting with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, June 19, 2018, https(:)//; [“Meeting with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, May 14, 2018, http(:)//; [“Telephone conversation with the President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko,”] Kremlin, March 28, 2018, http(:)//;[“Vladimir Putin invited Alexander Lukashenko to Sochi,”] Kommersant, July 23, 2018, https(:)//
[25] “Russia Has Not Promised Belarus Help Over Oil Tax Overhaul: PM,” Reuters, January 14, 2019,
[26] [“At the IV Forum of Regions $550 million in contracts were closed,”] Belarus 24, July 19, 2019, http://belarus24(.)by/news/economics/na-vi-forume-regionov-zaklyucheno-kontraktov-na-550-mln/;
Sergey Izotov and Angelina Galanina, [“We will do everything we can,”] Izvestia, 19 July 19 2019, https://iz(.)ru/900846/sergei-izotov-angelina-galanina/budem-delat-vse-ot-nas-zavisiashchee; “Lukashenka Lambasts Moscow For 'Sanctions,' Threatens To Suspend Russian Oil Flow To Europe,” RFE/RL, April 11, 2019,
[27] “Belarus To Get Money From China To Pay Off Russian Debts,” RFE/RL, July 10, 2019,
[28] “Belarus Taps Russian Debt Market After a Decade,” Russia Business Today, July 31, 2019,
[29] [“Putin ‘uncovered’ data on trade with Belarus,”] Rosbalt, July 18, 2019, http://www.rosbalt(.)ru/business/2019/07/18/1792887.html.
[30] “Lukashenko Lambasts Moscow For 'Sanctions,' Threatens To Suspend Russian Oil Flow To Europe,” RFE/RL,; [“Apples and pears were banned, the oil pipe was threatened,”] Golos Ameriki, April 20, 2019, https://www.golos-ameriki(.)ru/a/russia-belarus-trade/4884370.html.
[31] Frederick W. Kagan, Nataliya Bugayova, and Jennifer Cafarella, “Confronting the Russian Challenge: A New Approach for the U.S.,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,; [“In Belarus the military doctrine of the Union State was approved,”] RIA Novosti, November 13, 2018, https://ria(.)ru/20181113/1532715720.html.