Friday, September 27, 2019

Syria Situation Report: September 11 - 24, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Map summarizes significant developments in the war in Syria during the period September 11 - 24, 2019. Key SITREP events include anti-Bashar al Assad regime protests in Southern Syria, ISIS's targeting of officials among U.S.-backed local forces, and efforts to deny Iran the ability to further entrench itself along the Syria-Iraq border.

Click the image to enlarge the map.

Monday, September 23, 2019

ISIS Prepares for Breakout in Prisons and Camps

Key Takeaway: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is preparing to free its loyal fighters and followers from prisons and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi signaled the start of this campaign in a speech released on September 16, 2019, in which he called on his fighters to liberate prisoners and save women in displacement camps. The Al-Hawl Camp in Northern Syria represents a particular risk. ISIS is already active in Al-Hawl Camp. It has been fundraising in the camp via encrypted channels (such as Telegram) since at least June 2019. It is likely organizing similar activity in other displacement camps in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is likely preparing to free its loyal fighters and followers from prisons and displacement camps across Syria and Iraq. ISIS Emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi commanded his supporters and soldiers to take action in a speech released on September 16, 2019, asking his followers how they could “accept to live while Muslim women are suffering in the camps of diaspora and the prisons of humiliation under the power of the Crusaders?”[1] ISIS is already active (and raising funds via encrypted channels) in displacement camps in Northern Syria. It is likely organizing similar activity in Iraq.[2] ISIS likely intends to mount a campaign of prison breaks and raids across Iraq and Syria. ISIS (then al Qaeda in Iraq) used a similar campaign called ‘Breaking the Walls’ to fuel its reconstitution in 2012-2013.

The Al-Hawl Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in Northern Syria represents a particular risk. The UN established Al-Hawl Camp to hold refugees from Iraq in 1991.[3] The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) reopened the camp in April 2016 to hold civilians displaced during operations against ISIS in Eastern Syria.[4] Al-Hawl Camp has since become severely overpopulated after more than 63,000 ISIS family members and civilians surrendered to the SDF in Eastern Deir ez-Zour Province between December 2018 and April 2019.[5] ISW warned in May 2019 that ISIS would attempt to aid its recovery by exploiting conditions in Al-Hawl Camp and engineering breakouts of detained fighters and displaced persons in Northern Syria.[6] ISIS loyalists are already actively recruiting and fundraising in Al-Hawl Camp.

Pro-ISIS social media channels (likely affiliated with individual supporters) began distributing propaganda materials from Al-Hawl Camp in mid-July 2019. Female ISIS members released a video pledging loyalty to Baghdadi inside Al-Hawl Camp on July 15.[7] Pro-ISIS social media channels later shared a video of female ISIS members and their children raising a homemade ISIS flag over Al-Hawl Camp on July 16.[8] The channels also shared videos of children inside Al-Hawl Camp chanting pro-ISIS slogans on July 22.[9] The exact origin of these channels is unclear. Their posts nonetheless allow ISIS to demonstrate the continued allegiance and unrepentant attitude of its local followers to its global audience.

Children chant pro-ISIS slogans in a video from Al-Hawl Camp on July 22.[10]

Female ISIS members and their children raised an ISIS flag in Al-Hawl Camp on July 16.[11]

Supporters of ISIS launched two campaigns on Telegram to raise funds and advertise the group’s presence in Al-Hawl. One of the accounts has also published calls to liberate the camp’s population.

Justice for Sisters. ISIS supporters created a Telegram channel titled ‘Justice for Sisters’ in June 2019 that posted in Arabic, English, and German.[12] The account called for donations to support women in Al-Hawl Camp via PayPal and provided tips to avoid detection. Telegram removed the channel in July 2019.[13] It is unclear if the campaign continues through other channels or social media platforms.

An image from 'Justice for Sisters' including a donation link on PayPal.[14]

Kafel. ISIS supporters created a series of Telegram channels titled ‘Kafel’ in English, Arabic, and French on July 15 with a stated purpose to “help families of the Mujahidin in the Sham.”[15] The channel claimed on August 10 that it provided new toys for children in Al-Hawl Camp.[16] The account published alleged letters from female ISIS members in Al-Hawl Camp. One such letter called for Muslims around the world to “wake up” and help their “sisters” on August 9. Posts also called for Muslims to break female ISIS members out of Al-Hawl Camp.[17] Kafel English released a propaganda image depicting an imprisoned female on September 18, citing religious text that calls for Muslims to “free the prisoners.”

An alleged report from a female ISIS member published on Kafel English on August 9.[18]

An alleged report from a female ISIS member published on Kafel English on August 9.[19]

Kafel English published an image depicting an imprisoned woman on September 18.[20]

ISIS’s propaganda has spread to additional displacement camps across Northern Syria. Kafel English released an alleged message from a supporter in Roj Camp in Northern Hasakah Province on September 17.[21] Kafel Arabic later posted another alleged message from a supporter in Ayn Issa Camp in Raqqa Province on September 17.[22] These channels continues to operate as of September 19.

Kafel English published an alleged message from a supporter in Roj Camp on September 17.[23]

Kafel Arabic published an alleged message from a supporter in Ayn Issa Camp on September 17.[24]

ISIS’s supporters are regenerating these channels in order to circumvent efforts to delete their accounts by Telegram. Telegram deleted the original channels for Kafel Arabic and Kafel French, but Kafel continues to publish on backup channels titled ‘Islamic Kafel for After Deletion’.[25] ISIS members have also taken steps to secure these communications. Kafel warned female ISIS members to avoid using internet cafes in displacement camps in order to maintain their security in a message posted on September 12.
Kafel warns supporters to avoid using internet cafes in displacement camps on September 12.[26]

Formal ISIS media channels have not directly shared this propaganda. ISIS may be attempting to avoid providing too much attention to Al-Hawl Camp to avoid provoking a response from the SDF and U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition. ISIS did call upon its followers to “save” detained men and women in its latest Al-Naba on September 19.[27] The issue also called for individuals to conduct attacks in revenge for detained fighters.[28]

Competing al Qaeda Propaganda

The untenable security and humanitarian challenges at Al-Hawl Camp and other detention facilities across Iraq and Syria fuel jihadist threats beyond ISIS. Al Qaeda-linked accounts began using the plight of women and children in Al-Hawl Camp to fundraise in Syria even before ISIS. Al Qaeda likely seeks to compete with ISIS for the support of this population and other potential recruits. Al Qaeda supporters started a fundraising campaign called ‘Fukku al-Asirat’ [‘Free the Female Prisoners’] via Telegram in January 2019.[29] Pro-Al Qaeda individuals stated that the channel aims to raise money to work with smugglers to free all Muslim women from the camps, including ISIS members. Pro-Al Qaeda individuals claimed to have already freed one [“immigrant sister”] using donations from Fukku al-Asirat in July 2019.[30] The channel is still active as of September 19.

A report from the Fukku al-Arisat Campaign.[31]


The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition is operating on borrowed time when it comes to detainees in Syria and Iraq. The SDF has attempted to relocate some of its ISIS detainees to more formal – and fortified – prisons, but it still lacks the necessary funds, equipment, and manpower to secure this population according to the U.S. Department of Defense.[32] ISIS has reportedly already extracted small numbers of its fighters from these prisons, possibly using bribes derived from online fundraising.[33] Furthermore, humanitarian conditions remain dire in detention facilities and displacement camps alike.[34] The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition faces a high risk in coming months of successful prison breaks and raids on displacement camps by ISIS. These operations would reinvigorate ISIS’ festering insurgency in Iraq and Syria.[35]

[1] “IS Leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Orders Fighters to Redouble Efforts at All Levels, Promotes Religious Activism,” SITE, September 16, 2019,
[2] The Government of Iraq is reportedly closing down displacement camps near Mosul and transferring individuals with reported ties to ISIS to other camps in Northern Iraq. ISIS could exploit these transfers to reach new vulnerable populations and organize future operations. See: Hiwa Shilani, “Iraq Begins Closure of Displacement Camps in Nineveh Governorate,” Kurdistan24, September 16, 2019,
[3] “Deaths in Al-Hawl Refugee Camp after the Outbreak of Typhoid,” Syrians for Truth and Justice, August 30, 2018,
[4] Ibid.
[5] “Al-Hol Situation Report: Update Number 4,” UNFPA Syria, April 1, 2019,
[6] John Dunford and Jennifer Cafarella, “ISIS's Opportunity in Northern Syria's Detention Facilities and Camps,” Institute for the Study of War, May 13, 2019,
[7] Bjorn Stritzel, Twitter, July 16, 2019,; JihadoScope, Twitter, July 15, 2019,
[8] Mohammed Hassan, Twitter, July 16, 2019,
[9] JihadoScope, Twitter, July 22, 2019,; Hollie McKay, “Refugee Children Praise ISIS, Vow to ‘Crush’ Apostates, Videos from Syrian Camps Show,” Fox News, July 22, 2019,
[10] JihadoScope, Twitter, July 22, 2019,
[11] Mohammed Hassan, Twitter, July 16, 2019,
[12] Richard Hall, “ISIS Suspects in Syrian Camp Raise Thousands Through Online Crowdfunding Campaign,” The Independent, July 25, 2019,
[13] Ibid.
[14] Switched, Twitter, June 20, 2019,
[15] Kafel English started posting on August 8. See: Kafel English, Telegram, August 8, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en.
[16] Kafel English, Telegram, August 10, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/17.
[17] Kafel English, Telegram, September 18, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/142.
[18] Kafel English, Telegram, August 9, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/8.
[19] Kafel English, Telegram, August 9, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/11.
[20] Kafel English, Telegram, September 18, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/142.
[21] Kafel English, Telegram, September 16, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/136.
[22] Kafel English, Telegram, September 17, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/137.
[23] Ibid.
[24] [“Islamic Kafel After Deletion,”] Telegram, September 17, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel0/222.
[25] Kafel French, Telegram, September 16, 2019, https://t(.)me/kavel7fr/8.
[26] Kafel English, Telegram, September 12, 2019, https://t(.)me/kafel4en/130.
[27] “Al-Naba Newsletter: Issue Number 200,” Jihadology, September 20, 2019,
[28] Ibid.; Mina al-Lami, Twitter, September 19, 2019,
[29] Fukku al-Arisat, Telegram, January 28, 2019, https://t(.)me/assiraat/10; Faisal Irshaid, “Analysis: Jihadist Fundraisers in Syria Proliferate in 2019,” BBC Monitoring, August 9, 2019,
[30] Fukku al-Arisat, Telegram, July 10, 2019, https://t(.)me/assiraat/69.
[31] Ibid.
[32] “Defeat-ISIS Task Force Director Chris Maier Provides an On-the-Record, Off-Camera Press Briefing in the Pentagon Briefing Room,” U.S. Department of Defense, September 18, 2019,
[33] Ibid.; Shelly Kittleson, “Distrust of SDF, Unclear Future Divide Syrian Tribal Massacre Area,” Al-Monitor, June 10, 2019,
[34] “Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Mueller: Briefing to the Security Council on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria,” UN OCHA, September 19, 2019,
[35] Jennifer Cafarella with Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou, “ISIS’s Second Comeback: Assessing the Next ISIS Insurgency,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2019,

Friday, September 20, 2019

Russia in Review: The Kremlin Controls the Pace of Operations in Syria's Idlib

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 Takeaways: The Kremlin is setting conditions to enable new pro-regime offensive operations against Greater Idlib Province in Northern Syria, including the deployment of a new battalion-sized element from the Wagner Group. The Kremlin is likely unwilling to expend the large amount of resources required to enable Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retake all of Greater Idlib Province. Instead, Russia will likely use the Russian Air Force, Special Forces, and Wagner Group to enable limited operations in service of its own more limited objectives in Syria, such as protecting its Hmeimim Airbase on the Syrian Coast.

The Kremlin is setting conditions to enable further pro-regime offensive operations against opposition-held Greater Idlib Province in Northern Syria. “Hundreds” of Russian Wagner Group Private Military Contractors (PMCs) equipped with tanks - likely constituting a battalion-sized armored unit - deployed to frontlines near Greater Idlib Province in early September 2019. At least some elements of this force deployed to the town of Khan Sheikhun in Southern Idlib Province on September 6.[1] The unit is reportedly preparing for operations to clear urban terrain in Idlib Province alongside the Syrian Arab Army (SAA).[2] Russia often uses the Wagner Group to carry out high-risk assaults beyond the capabilities of the SAA without risking domestic backlash against combat deaths in Russia. The Wagner Group used a similar-sized armored unit to assault a position defended by the U.S. in Eastern Syria in February 2018.[3]

Russia has also displayed other indications of continued preparation for future combat operations in Greater Idlib Province. Pro-regime forces reopened a humanitarian crossing in Eastern Idlib Province on September 14 and Russia deployed a battalion of Ingush Military Police to Syria on September 17 - both common precursors of prior pro-regime offensive operations in Western Syria.[4] Russian Special Forces are also still actively conducting reconnaissance and raids around the periphery of Greater Idlib Province. The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) killed three Russian Special Forces officers with a mine in Western Hama Province on September 3.[5] The Russian Defense Ministry denied the deaths, likely to limit domestic backlash and avoid blaming the casualties on Turkey.[6] Russian Special Forces played a crucial role enabling pro-regime gains in Greater Idlib Province in May to August 2019, acting as forward observers for airstrikes, providing indirect fire and anti-tank support, and conducting frontline raids.[7] Russian President Vladimir Putin stressed that the Kremlin will continue to support “local operations aimed at neutralizing the terrorist threat” in Greater Idlib Province on September 16.[8]

Russia effectively controls the pace and operational focus of pro-regime offensive operations through its allocation of military assets including the Special Forces and Wagner Group. Pro-regime forces have achieved limited territorial gains (with significant losses) in Greater Idlib Province since May 2019 largely due to the assistance provided by Russia.[9] Russia also played a key role in brokering a temporary ceasefire in Greater Idlib Province that began on August 31.[10] Syrian President Bashar al-Assad lacks the capability to conduct successful offensive operations without the support of Russia and Iran. An estimated twenty-to-thirty-thousand opposition fighters armed with heavy weapons and entrenched in extensive tunnel networks defend Greater Idlib Province.[11] Idlib Province also hosts roughly three million civilians, creating a massive logistical and humanitarian challenge for pro-regime forces despite their attempts to depopulate the region through evacuation corridors and indiscriminate airstrikes against civilians.[12]

Russia likely intends to use its reinforcements to degrade opposition forces that threaten pro-regime positions and its own basing on the Syrian Coast. The Kremlin recognizes that any major offensive to recapture all of Greater Idlib Province would likely result in months of heavy casualties and require levels of resources that Assad is unable - and Russia is unwilling - to provide. Russia will likely enable limited pro-regime offensives targeting launch points for drone and rocket attacks against the Hmeimim Airbase, including positions in Southern Idlib and Northern Latakia Provinces.[13] Russia will also likely support operations to seize additional terrain in Southern Idlib Province in order to mitigate the threat of opposition counterattacks that have inflicted heavy casualties on key pro-regime units such as the SAA Tiger Forces.[14] Russia will play a leading role shaping in the timing, scale, and goals of further pro-regime operations in Greater Idlib Province to achieve its own (and often more limited) strategic objectives in Northern Syria.

[1] Gian Micalessin, “Khan Sheikhun: Alongside the Russians Towards the Last Jihadist Stronghold,” Inside Over, September 3, 2019,
[2] Stepan Kravchenko and Henry Meyer, “Putin’s ‘Chef’ Preps Soldiers for Final Assault on Syrian Rebels,” Bloomberg, September 6, 2019,
[3] Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “How a 4-Hour Battle Between Russian Mercenaries and U.S. Commandos Unfolded in Syria,” New York Times, May 24, 2018,
[4] “Authorities Complete Procedures to Receive Citizens at Abu al-Dhuhur Crossing in Idlib Countryside,” SANA, September 14, 2019, https://www.sana(.)sy/en/?p=173249; [“Ingushetia Sends a Battalion of Military Police to Syria,”] Enab Baladi, September 17, 2019,
[5] Ivan Safronov, [“Three Russian Soldiers Killed in Syria,”] Vedomosti, September 5, 2019, https://www.vedomosti(.)ru/politics/articles/2019/09/05/810570-v-voennosluzhaschih.
[6] The families of the deceased confirmed they were active duty Russian Special Forces officers. See: [“RBK Publishes Photos of the Military Dead in Syria,”] RBK, September 6, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/06/09/2019/5d723e759a79477798534ee3.
[7] “In Pictures: Russian Special Forces Fight Alongside the Syrian Army in Hama Province,” Muraselon, May 11, 2019,; Bosni94, Twitter, May 11, 2019,; “Syrian Rebels Say Moscow Deploys Ground Forces in Idlib Campaign,” Reuters, July 17, 2019,; “Suspected Russian Special Forces Operation Eliminates Several Foreign Al-Qaeda Members in Idlib,” Al-Masdar News, August 5, 2019, https://www.almasdarnews(.)com/article/suspected-russian-special-forces-operation-eliminates-several-foreign-al-qaeda-members-in-idlib/; Anton Mardasov, “What Are Russian Special Operations Forces Doing in Idlib?” Al-Jazeera, August 29, 2019,
[8] “Press Statement and Answers to Media Questions Following a Trilateral Meeting Between the Leaders of the Guarantor States of the Astana Process on the Settlement in Syria,” Kremlin, September 16, 2019, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/transcripts/61542.
[9] Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman, “Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2019,
[10] “Bulletin of the Centre for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides and Refugee Migration Monitoring in the Syrian Arab Republic (September 1, 2019),” Russian Ministry of Defense, September 1, 2019,; ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct, “Syria Situation Report: August 1 - September 10, 2019,” Institute for the Study of War,
[11] “Syria: Who’s in Control of Idlib?” BBC, June 22, 2019,; ANNA News, [“Underground Cities of Terrorists - Full Video,”] YouTube, September 5, 2019,
[12] Suzan Fraser and Zeynep Bilginsoy, “Russia, Iran, Turkey Say Syrian Constitution Committee Ready,” AP, September 16, 2019,
[13] Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman, “Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2019,; [“Russia Announces Its Response to Attack Targeting Hmeimim in Syria,”] Baladi News, August 12, 2019,
[14] Michael Land, Matti Suomenaro, Mason Clark, and Elizabeth Teoman, “Pro-Assad Regime Forces Locked in Battle of Attrition in Idlib Province,” Institute for the Study of War, July 2, 2019,

Russia in Review: Putin's Deepening Dictatorship

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: Darina Regio

Key Takeaways: Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party retained its political dominance in Russia following local and regional elections on September 8, 2019. Western media is incorrectly framing the outcome of the election as a victory for the opposition and a blow to the Kremlin. United Russia won the vast majority of elections and lost seats in only two electoral districts. The opposition parties that gained seats at the expense of United Russia are predominantly members of the “systemic opposition” coopted by the Kremlin – the Russian Communist Party, the Liberal Democratic Party, and A Just Russia Party. The West should recognize that treating these elections as a true expression of the popular will in Russia simply reinforces a false narrative designed to mask the dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party continues to maintain political dominance in Russia. Russia held local and regional elections on September 8, 2019.[1] Journalists have lauded the election results as a victory for opponents of the Kremlin.[2] Yet United Russia lost seats in only two electoral districts  Moscow and Khabarovsk Krai.[3] The Kremlin employed multiple tactics to rig the election and ensure the victory of its preferred candidates, including vote buying, ballot-box stuffing, the relocation of polling stations, and voter fraud via deceased individuals.[4] The Saint Petersburg Election Commission initially refused to finalize ballot counts in a move that the opposition labelled as “extra time” to fix the elections results.[5] United Russia also ran party members as independent candidates in several regions to mask their affiliation.[6]

The Kremlin proclaimed victory for United Russia and refused to acknowledge any election violations. United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak stated on September 9 that United Russia had won a majority in eleven of twelve regional legislatures.[7] Kremlin Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov similarly stressed that the election results proved the political leadership of United Russia.[8]

Putin will likely tighten the Kremlin’s control over the election process prior to the Russian Duma (Legislative) Elections in September 2021. The Kremlin will likely abolish direct voting for individual candidates at the regional level in order to counteract tactical voting by the opposition. Voters would instead be required to vote for a political bloc, granting an advantage (due to its name recognition and deep coffers) to United Russia. Opposition parties coopted by the Kremlin have also advocated for this change.[9] The Kremlin will likely also employ a range of its other trusted tactics to fix the 2021 Russian Duma Elections.

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo (Credit: Ronprzysucha/U.S. State Department).  

The opposition’s attempt to undermine United Russia has empowered other political parties affiliated with the Kremlin. Alexei Navalny – a leading opposition figure – advocated for citizens to practice “smart voting” and cast their ballots for the candidates most likely to be elected after United Russia.[10] His call mainly targeted voters in Moscow. The Moscow Administration had banned several independent opposition candidates, sparking violent protests over several weeks in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

The “smart voting” strategy granted the biggest gains in Moscow and Khabarovsk Krai to opposition parties with longstanding ties to the Kremlin. These parties include the Russian Communist Party (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR), and A Just Russia Party.[11] These parties are led by associates of Putin who support his wider foreign policy strategy and political stances even if they disagree with specific domestic policies from the Kremlin. They are also outspoken critics of Navalny and his policy agenda to build ties with the West.[12]

The West is erroneously focusing on the narrative that local elections weakened the Kremlin. Western media outlets have largely framed the outcome of the elections to Moscow City Hall as a win for opponents of Putin. This framing omits the overwhelming political dominance of United Russia in the other regional elections throughout Russia. Russia is not just Moscow City Hall. The Kremlin’s main military installations and economic drivers (i.e., oil and natural gas) are located well outside of Moscow. The Kremlin retains deep control over Russia and likely plans to further crack down on democratic and electoral institutions  a process it has already begun.[13] Russia is not a true democracy. Putin sets the conditions of each election and retains control over every aspect of the process, ensuring that the outcome remains acceptable. Treating these elections as a true expression of the will of Russians simply reinforces another one of the false narratives designed to cloak the ever-strengthening dictatorship of Vladimir Putin.

[1] [“Elections in Russia: What Must Be Monitored on September 8, 2019 (Including the Moscow City Duma),”] Meduza, September 8, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2019/09/08/vybory-v-rossii-za-kotorymi-nuzhno-obyazatelno-sledit-8-sentyabrya-2019-goda-pomimo-mosgordumy-putevoditel-meduzy.
[2] Leonid Ragozin, “Putin’s Star Is Fading,” Politico, September 11, 2019,
[3] [“United Russia Took St. Petersburg, Lost Moscow, Failed Khabarovsk,”] Svobodnaya Pressa, September 9, 2019, https://svpressa(.)ru/politic/article/243147/.
[4] [“Village Votes,”] Novaya Gazeta, September 10, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/articles/2019/09/10/81913-derevenskie-golosa; [“United Russia Became Opposition in Khabarovsk Krai,”] RBC, September 8, 2019, https://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/08/09/2019/5d7558099a7947dce36b1c0c; [“United Russia Party List, ‘Questionnaire List’, and a Thousand Rubles,”] Novaya Gazeta, September 10, 2019, https://www.novayagazeta(.)ru/articles/2019/09/10/81892-spryachte; [“Voter Turnout in Vladikavkaz Is 22.8%; Abuse Reported,”] Kavkaz Realii, September 8, 2019, https://www.kavkazr(.)com/a/30152920.html.
[5] [“In St. Petersburg, They Cannot Summarize the Results of the Election of Deputies; Oppositionists Report Mass Violations in Counting,”] Meduza, September 9, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2019/09/09/v-peterburge-ne-mogut-podvesti-itogi-vyborov-deputatov-oppozitsiya-zayavlyaet-o-podtasovkah.
[6] [“Moscow City Hall Elections: Which of the Self-Nominees Is Really Not Connected with the Government,”] Deutsche Welle, August 8, 2019,
[7] [“Peskov Acknowledges the Election Results as Favorable for United Russia,”] NTV, September 9, 2019, https://www.ntv(.)ru/novosti/2231427/.
[8] Ibid.
[9] [“Zhirinovsky Proposed to Participate in Elections Only Through Parliamentary Fractions,”] RIA, September 9, 2019, https://ria(.)ru/20190909/1558492433.html.
[10] [“Address on a Quiet Day,”] Navalny, September 7, 2019, https://navalny(.)com/p/6227/.
[11] [“Opposition Received Half the Seats in the Parliament, Leader of United Russia in Moscow Lost Results of the Moscow City Hall Election,”] Meduza, September 9, 2019, https://meduza(.)io/feature/2019/09/09/oppozitsiya-poluchila-polovinu-mest-v-parlamente-lider-edinoy-rossii-v-moskve-proigral.
[12] [“Zuganov Called Navalny ‘Young, But Sober, Yeltsin’,”] Radio Svoboda, March 24, 2017, https://www.svoboda(.)org/a/28389101.html; [“Vladimir Zhirinovsky: ‘Falsification System Was Built Under Boris Yeltsin’,”] Ekspress Gazeta, September 10, 2019,
[13] Andrew Osborn, “Russia Carries Out Mass Raids on Kremlin Critic Navalny’s Supporters,” Reuters, September 12, 2019,

Friday, September 13, 2019

Syria Situation Report: August 21 - September 10, 2019

By ISW's Syria Team and Syria Direct

The following Syria Situation Report (SITREP) Maps summarize significant developments in the war in Syria during the periods August 21 - 31 and September 1-10, 2019. Key SITREP events include a reported deployment of Russian private military contractors in Idlib Province, Iranian attempts to entrench its proxy networks further in Eastern Syria along the border with Iraq, ISIS-linked attacks in Southern Syria, and U.S. strikes against al Qaeda targets involved in external terror plots.

Map 1: September 1-10, 2019 (click image to enlarge)

Map 2: August 21-31, 2019 (click image to enlarge)

Thursday, September 5, 2019

The Balancing Challenge for Ukraine

By Nataliya Bugayova

Key Takeaways: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s emerging policies have the potential to spur economic development but pose risks for Ukraine’s democracy and sovereignty. Zelensky has a uniquely strong public mandate and a capable and eager new team that can advance reforms. He is simultaneously consolidating power and taking steps that could endanger freedoms of speech and information. Zelensky promises to achieve peace in Eastern Ukraine within six months. He has yet to present a plan to do so without making major concessions to Russian President Vladimir Putin, however. An upcoming prisoner exchange and the concessions that the Kremlin has likely secured are indicators of the strength of Putin’s pressure. Putin is posturing for peace while he continues to consolidate control over his proxies in Eastern Ukraine, suggesting that the Kremlin might be setting conditions for multiple scenarios. Putin’s campaign to gain international acceptance of Russia’s illegal behavior is continuing to advance. The West should help Ukraine balance its effort to achieve peace and preserve sovereignty, and seek to prevent the normalization of Russia’s aggression outside its borders.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has appointed several reform-oriented professionals to key government positions and announced ambitious reform plans. The Ukrainian Parliament, in which Zelensky’s Servant of the People party (SP) holds the majority, voted for a new Cabinet of Ministers on August 29. The cabinet includes many motivated, reform-oriented ministers.[1] Zelensky pledged to make critical economic reforms, such as lifting the moratorium on the sale of Ukraine’s agricultural land, privatizing Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, and implementing additional anti-corruption measures.[2] The Ukrainian Parliament passed a landmark reform bill on September 3 stripping lawmakers of immunity from prosecution, which corrupt parliamentarians have previously abused.[3] Zelensky’s swift action on reforms while he maintains his unprecedented mandate is a positive step for Ukraine.

Zelensky also took steps to deepen Ukraine’s partnership with the West. He met with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw on September 1 and August 31, respectively. Zelensky took a joint stance with Poland, stating that the European Union’s sanctions on Russia must remain in force until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.[4] The U.S., Ukraine, and Poland also signed a memorandum to diversify gas supplies for Poland and Ukraine through the purchase of liquefied gas from the U.S.[5] Ukraine continues to look for ways to enhance its energy security amid growing energy pressure from Russia.[6]

Photo: U.S. Navy, Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class T. Logan Keown

Zelenksy and his allies are consolidating power. Zelensky’s political mandate provides a unique chance to implement reforms, but his efforts to consolidate power create risks for Ukraine’s democracy. Backsliding would align with Putin’s long-term goal to ensure that Ukraine does not becomes a democracy that Russian citizens might see as a model. Ukraine and the West should pay close attention to the emergence of signs of authoritarian behavior. Zelensky’s SP party chose not to form a coalition with another political party, framing this decision as a desire to own full responsibility for the outcome of the government’s policies.[7] Zelensky chose Oleksiy Honcharuk as his prime minister. Honcharuk is a reform-oriented professional but also likely a Zelensky loyalist. Zelensky thus has strong influence over the Cabinet of Ministers. SP chairs most of the committees in the parliament. European Solidarity, the party of former president Petro Poroshenko, accused SP of violating the proportionality norm and allocating fewer chairmanships than European Solidarity’s 8% vote share warranted. [8] Ukrainian lawmakers might also be more vulnerable to pressure through politically motivated criminal charges in the short term, having lost their immunity, as Ukraine does not yet have a system of independent courts.

Zelensky retained Arseniy Avakov as Ukraine’s Interior Minister, ignoring allegations of Avakov’s involvement in several corruption cases.[9] Zelensky might believe that Avakov will be a loyal ally, as his position would at least partially depend on Zelensky’s support. Zelensky intends to subordinate Ukraine’s National Guard – a part of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry – directly to his office, as Putin did in Russia.[10] Zelensky might be attempting to limit Avakov’s de facto authority, but this change to the command structure would further consolidate Zelensky’s power.

Zelensky and his team are cracking down on select Ukrainian powerbrokers. The new cabinet voted to limit the powers of Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitchko at Zelensky’s request.[11] Zelenksy’s team may seek to remove another Poroshenko-era official and gain control over Kyiv, Ukraine’s largest city and capital. Zelensky continues to focus on associates of Poroshenko. He ordered an audit of Porosehenko ally Yury Kosiuk’s business activities.[12] There are ongoing investigations into Valeria Gontareva, the former National Bank Governor during Poroshenko’s presidency, and into Poroshenko himself.[13] Zelensky might be preparing to take actions against some of Ukraine’s oligarchs. Zelensky stated that he has questions about the source of funding supporting Russia-linked oligarch Victor Medvedchuk on September 1, accusing him of being financed by foreign powers.[14] There are also unconfirmed reports of Zelensky targeting Ukraine’s largest oligarch, Rinat Akmetov.[15]

Some of these probes may be warranted, but they could also serve to selectively eliminate Zelensky’s rivals. Zelensky does not seem to target his supporter and Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy or Yulia Tymoshenko, Zelensky’s former opponent in the presidential race and the leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” political party. Zelensky also seems to tolerate Kremlin-linked powerbrokers displaced by the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution – allies of the former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych – reentering Ukrainian politics.[16] The most recent figures in this camp include Renat Kuzmin, a fugitive Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine under Yanukovych. Kuzmin became a member of the Ukrainian Parliament. [17] Yanukovych’s notorious Health Minister Raisa Bogatyryova also returned to Ukraine in August. Ukrainian authorities arrested her upon arrival only to release her on bail paid by Russia-linked Ukrainian lawmaker Vadym Novinskyi.[18]

Zelensky’s actions raise concerns about whether freedoms of speech and information will be protected in Ukraine. Ukraine’s new cabinet stopped live broadcasting of its sessions and no longer allows journalists to attend them.[19] Zelensky’s Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan stated that Zelensky’s team does not require intermediaries, such as journalists, to communicate with the Ukrainian people.[20] Another SP deputy verbally attacked a journalist from Novoye Vremya, one of Ukraine’s leading publications.[21]

SP gave the chairmanship of the Parliamentary Committee on Freedom of Speech to Nestor Shufrych, who is overtly sympathetic to Russia. Shufrych was a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, before joining the even more heavily Russia-linked Opposition Platform.[22] He voted for the notorious “dictatorship laws” of January 16, 2014, which intended to increase censorship and caused a major escalation in the 2014 Euromaidan revolution.[23] He said that “no one should be limited in what information they receive and what information they provide,” when asked how he would protect Ukraine against Russian disinformation, thus likely implying that Russian media should not be restricted in Ukraine.[24] Shufrych often gives interviews to Russian media and calls Russia’s war against Ukraine an internal Ukrainian conflict, echoing the Kremlin’s false narrative.[25] SP justified the decision to give Shufrych the position to fulfill the requirement to provide some chair positions to other parties in the parliament.[26]

SP registered a draft bill on “Electronic Communications,” which has the potential to limit civil liberties.[27] SP is framing the law as a step toward digitizing government processes in Ukraine. One of Zelensky’s stated priorities is to create a “state in a smartphone.”[28] The law, however, would obligate Ukrainians to provide passport information when buying a mobile phone SIM card. SP recalled the draft for “additional review” after Ukrainian civil society representatives criticized it.[29] The Kremlin has gradually increased identification control related to purchases of communication devices in Russia.[30]

Zelensky’s haste to establish peace in Eastern Ukraine create opportunities for the Kremlin to exploit. Zelensky has doubled down on his core election promise to restore peace promptly in Eastern Ukraine and to bring Ukrainian prisoners home – a promise he can deliver on only if Putin allows him to. Ukraine’s new Foreign Affairs Minister Vadym Prystaiko stated that the government is planning to solve the crisis in the Donbas region in Eastern Ukraine in six months.[31] Russian Senator Aleksey Pushkov called Prystaiko’s plan “ambitious, but doubtful” and recommended that Ukraine first “stop shooting and withdraw its forces.”[32]

Zelensky has yet to share his plan for achieving peace in this short timeframe without making major concessions to Putin. ISW has repeatedly warned that Putin likely seeks a political settlement legitimizing his proxies in Donbas within Ukraine’s official state structures and reintegrating a pro-Russia bloc of voters into Ukrainian politics as a permanent lever of influence.[33] Prystaiko expressed willingness to consider elections in the occupied territories, ending Ukraine’s economic blockade against these territories, and introducing an international peacekeeping force. These measures would all provide ample opportunities for the Kremlin to exploit.[34] SP also merged the Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights with the Committee on Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories. [35] Zelensky or Russia-linked actors might exploit the framing of reintegration as a human rights issue to secure amnesty for Russian proxies. Russia-linked Ukrainian lawmaker Vadym Novinskyi registered a draft bill on August 29 on amnesty for all “participants of events” in Luhank and Donetsk that would include Russian-controlled proxies.[36]

The Kremlin has likely already manipulated Zelensky’s promise to secure the return of Ukrainian prisoners. Putin stated on September 5 that a large prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine will be finalized shortly.[37] The statement came after Ukraine released Volodymyr Tsemakh, a potential suspect and key witness in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 by Russia-controlled forces in 2014, despite numerous European requests not to extradite Tsemakh to Russia.[38] This concession might be a result of the Kremlin’s manipulative actions last week. Multiple sources, including some officials from Zelensky’s team, stated on August 30 that Russian-held Ukrainian prisoners were on their way to Ukraine, though Zelensky’s administration later criticized these statements as premature.[39] Ukrainian National Security Council Secretary Oleksandr Danilyuk and relatives of the prisoners spent hours at the airport in anticipation of their arrival.[40] The exchange did not take place, however. A number of unconfirmed reports suggested that Putin demanded inclusion of Tsemakh as an additional concession. It remains difficult to assess the real dynamics behind the prisoner exchange from open source information. Putin might have led Zelensky to believe that Zelensky was close to achieving the swap last week to extort additional concessions, such as Tsemakh, and gain additional leverage in advance of potential negotiations with Ukraine. Putin might have also been testing Zelensky and ways to undermine his political standing.

The Ukrainian and international narrative on Russia continues to drift in the Kremlin’s favor. French President Emmanuel Macron said on August 27 that “pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error,” and that Europe “will never be stable or secure, if we don't clarify our relations with Russia.”[41] Macron also expressed willingness to consider Russia’s return to the G7 (organization of advanced industrial economies), though the G7 has not reached consensus on the issue.[42] Ukrainian oligarch and Zelensky supporter Ihor Kolomoyskiy suggested on August 28 that Ukraine should offer to lift part of the sanctions imposed on Russia for its actions in Donbas in order to help Ukraine negotiate an end to the war. [43] Zelensky’s speech on Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24 focused on achieving peace and unity and did not explicitly mention Russia as an aggressor.[44]

Such rhetoric helps Putin’s multi-year effort to normalize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its illegal behavior globally. Normalization will have significant consequences for Ukraine and the West.[45] Putin and the Kremlin’s top officials also met with the leaders of several European countries, including France, Germany, and Finland, in August in a likely attempt to rally support for the Kremlin’s version of a peace deal in Ukraine that could help lift sanctions against Russia.[46]

Russia is posturing for peace, but its proxies are not – a potential indicator that the Kremlin is setting conditions for multiple scenarios. Putin continues to express “cautious optimism” about Zelensky.[47] Putin will likely conduct the prisoner swap with Ukraine despite the initial false start. The Kremlin is also taking preparatory steps to engage in a likely Normandy Four meeting in September along with Ukraine, France, and Germany.[48]

The rhetoric of the leaders of the Russian-controlled, self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR)” and “Luhansk People's Republics (LNR)” does not demonstrate a desire to reconcile with Ukraine, however. LNR officials stated that the LNR’s only path forward is together with the Russian Federation, while DNR officials dismissed Kyiv’s rhetoric about reconciliation as “just talk.”[49] The DNR and LNR held major celebrations in honor of Russia’s Flag Day on August 22 and installed Russian flags on their administrative buildings – a change from their usual display of DNR and LNR flags.[50] Zelensky might face more friction than he expects with the DNR and the LNR in his reconciliation efforts. The Kremlin can choose to tame its proxies. The Kremlin, however, can also choose to seize on the inevitable tensions to push its narrative about an internal conflict in Ukraine – a narrative that Putin uses to posture as a peacemaker and to undermine the sanctions regime.

The Kremlin continues to consolidate control over its proxies. The DNR and LNR united their railway systems in a joint venture on July 25.[51] Vasily Nazaryan, reportedly a Russian citizen and former employee of Russian Railways, will lead the new venture.[52] The Federation of Russian Trade Unions and the LNR signed a cooperation agreement on August 22.[53] Andrey Kozenko, the head of the Russian parliamentary committee on Russia-Donbas integration, visited the DNR and LNR in August.[54] Russia may be building a stronger bond with its proxies in anticipation of a deal to ensure it has long-term control. The Kremlin might also be setting conditions for alternative scenarios if a deal’s terms are not amenable to Putin.

The West should help Ukraine balance its effort to achieve peace and preserve sovereignty, and prevent normalization of the Kremlin’s behavior. Putin’s pressure on Ukraine and his efforts to court the international community will likely mount amid growing domestic pressure. The West should reject the inevitability that Putin will gain international acceptance of Russia’s illegal behavior and that peace in Ukraine will come at the expense of Ukraine’s freedom. The West should also closely monitor the trajectory of Zelensky’s efforts to consolidate power and maintain a commitment to assisting Ukraine preserve its emerging democracy.

[1]“Here’s Every Member of Ukraine’s New Cabinet of Ministers,” Kyiv Post, August 29, 2019, https((:))//; Toma Istomina, “Honcharuk Unveils Plans in Interview with Ukrainian Press,” Kyiv Post, August 31, 2019,
[2][“Reforms from Zelensky,”] Korrespondent, September 2, 2019, https((:))//; Oleksiy Sorokin, Anna Myroniuk, “Zelensky to Cabinet: Adopt Budget, Lift Land Moratorium, Legalize Casinos — Fast!” Kyiv Post, September 2, 2019, https((:))//; Ilya Timtchenko, “Ukraine Still Stuck with Land-Sales Moratorium,” Kyiv Post, November 16, 2018,; “Remarks by Vice President Pence and President Duda of Poland in Joint Press Conference,” The White House, September 2, 2019,; “Zelensky Says 74 Anti-Corruption Bills Already Submitted to Parliament,” Unian, September 2, 2019,
[3] Natalia Zinets, Matthias Williams, “Quick Win for Zelenskiy as Ukrainian Parliament Strips Lawmakers` Immunity,” Reuters, September 3, 2019,; Oleksiy Sorokin, “Parliament Lifts Lawmakers’ Immunity from Prosecution, Amends Constitution,” September 3, 2019, https((:))//
[4]Oleksiy Sorokin, Anna Myroniuk, “Zelensky Revives Dialogue with Poland, Aims to Buy More US, Polish Energy Supplies,” Kyiv Post, September 2, 2019, https://www((.)); Fakty ICTV [“Zelensky in Poland: What has the President Agreed to with Andrzej Duda?”] Youtube, August 31, 2019,
[5]“Ukraine, Poland and US Sign LNG deal,” Energy Reporters, September 3, 2019,; “U.S. to Help Poland, Ukraine Disconnect from Russian Gas,” Reuters, August 31, 2019,
[6] Steven Pifer, “Heading for (another) Ukraine-Russia Fight?” Brookings Institution, August 30, 2019,
[7][“There will be No Coalition, the Servant of the People Party will Create a Mono-majority,”] Fakty, August 29, 2019, https((:))//
[8] [“About the Deputy Groups (Factions) in Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine,”] The Ukrainian Parliament, July 27, 1994, https://zakon((.))
[9] Oleg Sukhov, “Corruption Accusations Dog Avakov, Ukraine’s Top Cop,” Kyiv Post, March 30, 2018, https://www((.)); Oleg Sukhov, “Zelensky, Parliament Keep Avakov as Interior Minister, Ignore Civil Society,” Kyiv Post, August 29, 2019,
[10] [“Zelensky is Asking Parliament to Give Him the National Guard,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, August 30, 2019,
https((:))//; [“The Draft Law on the Introduction of Amendments to the Law on the National Guard of Ukraine,”] The Ukrainian Parliament, August 29, 2019,
[11] [“How Klitchko Lost the Battle for the Capital,”] Novoye Vremya, September 4, 2019, https((:))//; Oleksiy Sorokin, “Cabinet Approves Firing of Klitschko as Head of Kyiv Administration,” Kyiv Post, September 4, 2019, https((:))//
[12] [“Zelensky Ordered to Audit Subsidies of "Agrobarons,”], September 2, 2019, https((:))//
[13] [“State Investigation Bureau Launched an Investigation due to Poroshenko’s Vacation on Maldives,”] Ukrayinska Pravda, August 6, 2019,; [“Pechersky District Court Allowed the State Investigation Bureau toBring in Gontareva for Questioning by Force,”] Novoye Vremya, September 4, 2019,
[14] Tatyana Ivzhenko, [“Zelensky Accuses Medvedchuk of Receiving Funds from Abroad,”] Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 1, 2019,
[15] Volodymyr Verbyany, Alexander Sazonov, “Ukraine’s Ex-Comedian President Is Taking on Its Richest Man,” Bloomberg, August 23, 2019,
[16] Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,
[17] Oleg Sukhov, “Yanukovych’s Old Guard is Staging a Comeback,” Kyiv Post, August 30, 2019,
[18] ibid.
[19] Bermet Talant, “Government Meetings Closed, Ending Presence of Journalists and Live Broadcasts,” Kyiv Post, September 2, 2019, https://www((.))
[20] [“Bogdan: We Do Not Need Journalists to Communicate with Society,”], August 3, 2019, https((:))//
[21] Max Buzhanskiy, Telegram, August 18, 2019,; [“Member of Parliament from Servants of the People Party Insulted the Journalist from the Novoye Vremya Publication,”] Gordon, August 19, 2019,
[22] Oleksiy Sorokin, “Zelensky’s Party to Chair Most Parliament Committees, pro-Russian Party Gets Freedom of Speech Committee,” Kyiv Post, August 28, 2019, https((:)//
[23] Wikipedia, “Anti-Protest Laws in Ukraine,” Accessed September 5, 2019,
[24] Kristina Berdynskykh, Facebook, August 29, 2019,
[25] Russia-24, [“Nestor Shufrych: Zelensky Should Have Guaranteed the Safety of NewsOne Journalists,”] Youtube,
[26] [“He is not Such a Bad Person. Member of Servant of the People Party Spoke about Shufrych,”] Novoye Vremya, August 29, 2019, https((:))// 

[27] [“Parliament Want to Oblige Ukrainians to Buy SIM-cards Using a Passport,”] Segodnya, September 3, 2019,
[28] [“How Does the “State in a Smartphone” Work,”], July 19, 2019,
[29] [“A Bill that Would Have Obliged Ukrainians to Buy SIM-cards with Using a Passport was Recalled from the Parliament,”], September 3, 2019,
[30] [“Russia Tightened the Rules for the Sale and Use of SIM-cards,”], June 1, 2018, https(:)//
[31] [“The Foreign Ministry has Six Months to Advance the Peace Process in Donbas,”] Ukrainian National News Agency, August 29, 2019,
[32] Alexey Pushkov, Twitter, August 20, 2019,
[33] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine's New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Exploiting Transition in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, July 12, 2019,; Nataliya Bugayova, “Russia in Review: Recasting the War in Ukraine,” Institute for the Study of War, August 13, 2019,
[34] [“Pristayko Said Amnesty and Lifting of the Blockade is Under Consideration,”’] RBC, August 28, 2019, https://www.rbc((.))ua/rus/news/pristayko-dopustil-amnistiyu-snyatie-blokady-1567097692.html.
[35]“Preparatory Group Approves Personal Composition of Leadership of Rada Committees,” Kyiv Post, August 28, 2019,
[36] Dmytro Barkar, [“Novinsky Wants to Pass an Amnesty Law,”] RFERL, September 30, 2019,; [“The Draft Law on the Prohibition of Criminal Prosecution of the Participants of the Events in Donetsk and Lugansk Regions,”] Ukrainian Parliament, August 29, 2019, http((:))//
[37] “Ukraine prisoner swap 'nearly complete': Putin,” Reuters, September 5, 2019,
[38] “Dutch MH17 Prosecutors Want To Question Ukrainian Prisoner Who Fought In Donbas,” RFERL, September 4, 2019,; “MH17 Case: 40 MEPs Appeals to Zelenskyi not to Extradite Tsemakh to Russia,”, September 5, 2019, https://censor((.))
[39] Will Englund, “Ukrainians and Russians Working on a Major Prisoner Exchange,” Washington Post, August 30, 2019,
[40] [“Danilyuk at the Kyiv Airport Commented on the Possibility of Prisoner Exchange,” TSN Channel, August 30, 2019,; [“Journalists and Relatives of Ukrainians Held in Russia Gathered at Kyiv Airport,” August 30, 2019, TASS,
[41]“Keeping Russia out of Western fold a ‘Strategic Error’,” France 24, August 27, 2019,
[42] “No Consensus on Inviting Russia to G7 Next Year: Macron,” Reuters, August 26, 2019,
[43]Yuri Butusov, [“Igor Kolomoisky: "Zelensky is a Sailor Zheleznyak. If the 'Servants of the People' Will Blow, They Will Be Dismissed in a Year,"], August 27, 2019,
[44] 112 Ukraine, [“Zelensky’s Speech on Independence Day, 08.24.19,”] YouTube, August 24, 2019,
[45] Nataliya Bugayova, “Ukraine’s New President: The Stakes for Ukraine and the West,” Institute for the Study of War, April 22, 2019,
[46] “German Foreign Minister Urges Russia, Ukraine to Revive Peace Talks,” Deutsche Welle, August 21, 2019,; Sylvie Corbet, “Putin, Macron Hold French-Russian Talks Before G-7,” AP, August 19, 2019,; “Joint News Conference with President of Finland Sauli Niinisto,” Kremlin, August 21, 2019, http://en.kremlin((.))ru/events/president/news/61349.
[47] “Putin: Conversations with Zelensky Inspire Cautious Optimism,” Unian, August 19, 2019,
[48] [“Advisers to the Heads of State of the ‘Normandy Format’ Will Discuss on September 2 the Agenda and preparations for a Future Meeting of Leaders – Zelensky’s Assistant,”] Interfax, September 2, 2019,
[49] [“The Head of the LNR Met in Luhansk with the State Duma Delegation,”] Ria, August 22, 2019, https://ria((.))ru/20190822/1557790248.html; [“The President Appreciated the Statements of the Kyiv Authorities to Dialogue with the DNR,”] Ria, August 21, 2019, https://ria((.))ru/20190821/1557743982.html.
[50] [Leonid Pasechnik,] Twitter, August 22, 2019,
[51] [“The DNR and LNR Have Created the Concern Railway of Donbas,”] DNR Live, August 8, 2019, http://dnr-live((.))ru/dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-kontsern-zheleznyie-dorogi-donbassa/.
[52] [“Fighters from 'DNR' and 'LNR' Created a New Cross Border Concern,”] Lenta, August 8, 2019, https://lenta((.))ua/boeviki-iz-dnr-i-lnr-sozdali-novyy-transgranichnyy-kontsern-20873/; [“”’DNR’ and ‘LNR’ Combined the Railways in the Concern ‘Railways of Donbass,’”] Antikor, August 19, 2019,
[53][“ The leaders of the Federation of Trade Unions of Russia and the LNR Signed a Cooperation Agreement,” Federal News Agency, August 22, 2019, https((:))//
[54][“Pushilin Met the Deputies of the State Duma, Who Arrived in the DNR to Celebrate Miner's Day,”] Donetsk News Info, August 21, 2019, https://dan-news((.))info/politics/pushilin-vstretil-deputatov-gosudarstvennoj-dumy-pribyvshix-v-dnr-na-prazdnovanie-dnya-shaxtera.html.

Al Qaeda Pushes Unity Among Aligned Groups in Syria

This analysis is copublished by the Institute for the Study of War and the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

Al Qaeda’s senior leadership reinvigorated its effort to unite anti-Assad groups into a single military force in northwest Syria after Russia enabled the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad to break a months-long stalemate in northwest Syria in August 2019. Greater cooperation between two separate al Qaeda–linked operations rooms in Idlib may indicate these forces will attempt to implement this directive despite a long history of failed attempts to unify.

Russian special forces and pro-Assad militias seized Khan Sheikhoun, an urban center on the M5 highway connecting Damascus to Aleppo, on August 22. The advance is a major win for Assad, Russia, and Iran after a months-long, grueling stalemate had imposed heavy casualties on the pro-Assad forces. Further regime gains threaten to constrict al Qaeda’s governing project in Idlib to a smaller corner of northwest Syria, west of the M5 highway. It is thus a major threat to al Qaeda’s project, but it is also an opportunity for al Qaeda to reinvigorate and possibly unify the Salafi-jihadi movement in Syria. The renewed military pressure has stimulated al Qaeda’s global recruitment and fundraising for operations in Syria. It has also enabled senior al Qaeda leaders to try unifying anti-Assad forces again after years of infighting.

Al Qaeda’s General Command issued a call for mobilization in Syria on August 15 to halt the regime’s advance into Idlib province. It directed fighters to return to the model of Jaysh al Fatah, the joint operations room that seized Idlib city in March 2015 and threatened the regime’s control in Hama province, farther south, and in the Syrian coast in Latakia province. Russia’s intervention in Syria in September 2015 sought to halt and reverse this serious threat to Assad’s survival. Senior al Qaeda commanders in Syria led Jaysh al Fatah, which included participation from U.S.-backed groups and was the high-water mark to date for unified military effort in northwest Syria. By referencing Jaysh al Fatah, al Qaeda’s General Command is harkening back to that period of victory in Syria to stimulate a new period of cooperation.

Al Qaeda has always supported multiple Salafi-jihadi groups in Syria to generate a diverse Salafi-jihadi movement that it can lead and that it calculates can replace the pro-democracy rebellion over time. Intense infighting and disagreements have emerged in Syria between these groups, occasionally disrupting their cooperation. Much of this infighting relates to the question of what concessions are permissible to grant to Syrian opposition groups and external actors, such as Turkey, to leverage their help. The statement from al Qaeda’s General Command is an instruction to the Salafi-jihadi forces in Syria that it supports setting aside these arguments in favor of marshaling a more coherent military response to the pro-Assad advance. It also gives permission and enticement to al Qaeda leaders in Syria, such as Abu Mohammed al Joulani, who have sought to mask the extent of their role in al Qaeda to openly collaborate with more overtly globalist Salafi-jihadis.

A new Jaysh al Fatah would require greater cooperation between groups currently spread across two separate operations rooms: Incite the Believers, which includes the al Qaeda–linked Hurras al Din, and Fatah al Mubin, which includes the al Qaeda–linked Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and Turkish-backed opposition forces. Hurras al Din’s leaders include senior al Qaeda figures who have resisted cooperation with Fatah al Mubin due to disputes over leadership and Turkish support. These two operations rooms (Incite the Believers and Fatah al Mubin) both announced the start of a counterattack against pro-Assad forces on August 27, their first publicized coordination in northwest Syria since each was formed. It may indicate expanded coordination will follow. However, Russia announced a cease-fire in Idlib on August 30. It does not apply to al Qaeda–linked groups but indicates Russia will now attempt to renegotiate with Turkey and possibly Europe for a new deal in Idlib before resuming military operations.

Veteran al Qaeda figures both inside and outside of Syria continue to invest in shaping the actions of al Qaeda–linked groups in Idlib. Al Qaeda General Command eulogized Sari Shihab (aka Abu Khaled al Muhandis), a Jordanian Hurras al Din leader and senior al Qaeda militant who was assassinated in Idlib city on August 22. Shihab was an associate of al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab al Zarqawi and was related by marriage to senior al Qaeda official Saif al Adel. Shihab and Adel were two of five senior al Qaeda members released from Iran in 2015 after al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula kidnapped an Iranian diplomat in Yemen to facilitate the hostage exchange. A statement attributed to Adel on August 14 warned that Turkey seeks to compromise al Qaeda’s effort in Syria. The statement is an example of the ongoing argument at senior leadership levels over how to proceed in Idlib.

American strikes on al Qaeda operatives planning external attacks from Idlib may disrupt greater cooperation between groups in northwest Syria. Concern over drawing U.S. strikes has encouraged Syrian opposition groups to resist greater unification with al Qaeda–linked groups in the past. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) conducted a strike targeting al Qaeda leadership planning an attack “threatening U.S. citizens and partners” north of Idlib on August 31. The strike targeted members of the al Qaeda–linked Ansar al Tawhid and possibly Hurras al Din. CENTCOM previously struck an al Qaeda cell planning an external attack at a facility near Aleppo in northwestern Syria on June 30.