Friday, May 29, 2020

Syria Situation Report: May 13-26, 2020

By Michael Land (ISW Syria Team) and Will Christou (Syria Direct)

Key Takeaway: Multiple ISIS attacks in southern and eastern Syria as well as a possible assassination in Idlib Province demonstrate the group’s continued reach across Syria as it reconstitutes across both Syria and Iraq. The attacks occurred in late May and marked the culmination of ISIS’s 2020 Ramadan campaign. A possible US drone struck a reported ISIS commander in the Turkish-occupied Afrin area of Aleppo Province, indicating the group may retain a presence in that area.

Click the image to enlarge. Click here to download the PDF.

Correction: A previous version of this map mislabeled the yellow region as “SDF-Dominated, Regime Presence” and the red-striped purple region as “Turkey-Opposition.” The key has been updated to correct this error. The red-striped purple region is “SDF-Dominated, Regime Presence” and the yellow region is “Turkey-Opposition.”

Iraq Situation Report: May 20-26, 2020

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway: Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi is seeking to develop closer energy relationships with Iraq’s Gulf neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, to demonstrate to the United States that Iraq is making progress in divesting from Iranian energy reliance and renewing relations with all of its neighbors before the June US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Delegations to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait likely secured new investments in Iraqi energy infrastructure that will enable some divestment from Iranian energy imports. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait also reportedly agreed to reduce their own oil production to allow Iraq to produce quantities above those established by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, potentially averting another hit to Iraq's already depressed government revenues.  Immediately after the delegation to Saudi Arabia, Iranian proxy militias issued statements condemning Saudi Arabia as a source of terrorism in Iraq and promising vengeance. Iran will likely attempt to prevent energy divestment; Iraqi imports of Iranian energy are a key economic driver for Iran.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: May 13-19, 2020

By Katherine Lawlor and Brandon Wallace

Key Takeaway:  New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seeks to balance a variety of opposing forces in Iraq. After a week of executive orders and appointments generally viewed as favorable to the United States, Kadhimi called the Iranian-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) heroes who are essential to the anti-ISIS fight in a visit to PMF headquarters. Kadhimi needs to maintain his ties with the PMF and Iran’s proxies in Iraq to prevent militia-led civil unrest and ultimately state collapse. However, Kadhimi also made a point of showcasing his leverage over the PMF by bringing with him the leaders of militias that defected from the PMF in April. Those defections threatened to fracture the PMF and offended the organization’s leadership which remains under Iranian, rather than Iraqi, government control.  Iran continues to work to demonstrate its influence over Iraqi affairs in other areas; the Iranian ambassador told Iranian media that Kadhimi asked for financial aid from Iran and said that Iraq remains “dependent” on Iran for financial support despite US pressure to sever those ties.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Pro-regime Forces in Idlib Posture for Resumption of Offensive

By Isabel Ivanescu and John Dunford

Key Takeaway: The ceasefire in Greater Idlib remains tenuous. Recent force disposition indicates that the Syrian Regime is preparing for a renewed offensive in Southern Idlib Province should the ceasefire break down, but both the timing and likelihood of the offensive’s success remain uncertain and conditions dependent. A renewed regime offensive will require Russian support to sustainably seize territory from anti-Assad forces. However, Russian support will likely be contingent on a new negotiated agreement between Russia and Turkey, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely delay such negotiations. The Syrian regime may attempt an offensive without Russian support despite the likelihood that it will be unsuccessful. Any regime offensive, whether Russian-backed or unilateral, will exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Greater Idlib.

This map provides an assessment of SAA and other pro-regime unit positions since the start of the ceasefire on March 5 to May 20 based on publicly-accessible information. Click on the map to expand it. Click here to read the full report. 

Friday, May 15, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: May 6-12, 2020

By: Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor

Key Takeaway: New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi jumpstarted his term by conducting a series of executive-level actions favorable to Iraq’s restive population and the United States, but potentially harmful to Iranian interests in Iraq. Kadhimi appointed powerful generals with US ties to head the US-trained Counterterrorism Service and Iranian-infiltrated Ministry of Interior, indicating a willingness to push back against corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq’s security sector. Kadhimi also issued orders likely designed to win over Iraq’s popular protest movement, which appeared divided over how to respond to the new government. Each of these moves challenges Iran’s influence in Iraq and may draw backlash from Iran’s political and militia allies in the country despite previous Iranian support for Kadhimi’s government. Kadhimi’s shift could benefit the United States, which Kadhimi is likely to court for financial support to mitigate Iraq’s ongoing budget crisis.

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Russia in Review: Russian Security Cooperation Agreements Post-2014

Authors: Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros with Aleksei Zimnitca, Aidan Therrien, and Kayla Grose

This assessment and map are part of ISW’s upcoming report on Putin’s geopolitical thinking.

Key Takeaway: The COVID-19 crisis has impeded some of the Kremlin’s efforts but has not changed its objectives, one of which is expanding Russia’s power projection capabilities internationally. Russia’s military footprint and basing opportunities are expanding but remain limited. Putin is thus using coalitions and partnerships to amplify Russia’s security space - as ISW will analyze in its upcoming major report on Putin’s geopolitical thinking.

The Kremlin has signed over 90 agreements with 73 different countries and international organizations since 2014 - ranging from basic memorandums of understanding (MoU) to comprehensive strategic partnerships. The Kremlin classifies many of these agreements as either “military cooperation,” focused on joint training and educational exchanges, or “military-technical cooperation,” focused on expanding arms sales and equipment maintenance.

Most of the Kremlin’s agreements have limited substance and serve as non-binding calls to increase cooperation. Even basic agreements provide the Kremlin opportunities to participate in security conversations, cultivate global human networks, and develop potential avenues for future arms sales or the deployment of Russian personnel. The Kremlin has additionally signed numerous issue-specific agreements with individual countries. These security agreements focus on cooperation in counterterrorism, counter-narcotics, and anti-piracy operations, primarily as a stepping stone to an increased Russian presence and a way to engage other countries in the Kremlin’s geopolitical agenda. These agreements also include joint intellectual property (IP) protection, port visitation rights that increase the Russian Navy’s power projection capabilities, military deconfliction agreements, and cooperation between internal security services and civilian national security agencies. Finally, the Kremlin has signed several high-level strategic partnerships, primarily with states in the former Soviet Union. 

Click here to view a detailed list of the agreements shown on the map.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Syria Situation Report: April 29-May 12, 2020

By Blane Wallace (ISW Syria Team) and Will Christou (Syria Direct)

Key Takeaway: The situation in southern Syria will continue to destabilize as insurgent activity increases and the Assad regime remains unwilling to commit the resources necessary to avert growing unrest. Security in southern Syria’s strategic and restive Daraa Province collapsed rapidly as pro-regime forces deployed to the south to conduct a security operation against anti-Assad actors targeting pro-regime positions. However, a Russian delegation intervened to negotiate with local Daraa leaders, thus circumventing the pro-regime operation. The outcome of the negotiations is unclear, but civilians will likely continue protesting against increased regime presence in the area.

Click image below to enlarge. Download the PDF here.

Correction: A previous version of this map mislabeled the yellow region as “SDF-Dominated, Regime Presence” and the red-striped purple region as “Turkey-Opposition.” The key has been updated to correct this error. The red-striped purple region is “SDF-Dominated, Regime Presence” and the yellow region is “Turkey-Opposition.”

Friday, May 8, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: April 29-May 5, 2020

By: Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor

Key Takeaway: Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government formation process further splintered Iraq’s already fractious political scene. Disagreements over cabinet appointments created new fractures within political blocs, calling into question whether individual members of parliament will vote along their usual party lines. Despite worsening political acrimony, Kadhimi maintains broad Sunni and Kurdish support in Parliament and will likely be able to satisfy enough Shi’a blocs to ascend to the office of prime minister with a partial cabinet. Because of their shared interest in Kadhimi's success, Iran and the US confined their competition to other lines of effort ahead of the June US-Iraq strategic dialogue, thereby creating enough space for Iraq’s political elites to negotiate government formation. One day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iraq to bring armed groups under state control, the US-funded outlet al-Hurra published a story indicating that recently formed militias in Iraq are under the direct control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.  
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Friday, May 1, 2020

Iraq Situation Report: April 22-28, 2020

By: Brandon Wallace and Katherine Lawlor

Key Takeaway: The government of Iraq remains beset by competing domestic and international forces, a political conflict that threatens to further destabilize the Iraqi state. Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani likely worked with caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi to remove key militias loyal to Sistani from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The order places these militias under the direct command of the Office of the Prime Minister, a move which will be viewed by Iraqis as a vote of no confidence by Sistani in the remaining Iran-backed PMF factions and leadership. Simultaneously, Iraq’s Shi’a political blocs, led by the Iran-backed Conquest Alliance, are frustrating Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to form a cabinet, calling into question whether Kadhimi will be able to overcome the partisan and ethno-sectarian deadlock to form a government. Additionally, Iran-backed parties are taking steps to weaken opposing ethno-sectarian groups by claiming some cabinet positions for Shi’a blocs rather than for their usual Kurdish occupants.

Click below to enlarge image. Click here to download PDF.