Friday, October 29, 2021

Turkey in Review October 13-28, 2021

Turkey’s Defense Industry Transforms Its Outreach to Africa and Beyond

By Ezgi Yazici

The Turkish government has consistently expanded its Africa outreach as a component of enlarging and diversifying Turkey's global footprint since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s election in 2003. Ankara more recently began using defense ties to strengthen the diplomatic foundations of its outreach to African states. Growing international interest in Turkey’s domestic defense industry is speeding up this shift toward a defense-oriented approach in bilateral relations, particularly since Azerbaijan’s Turkey-enabled victory in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.

Turkey is increasingly securitizing its foreign policy by leveraging its growing defense industry. Ankara is presenting its military industries and NATO-level capacity-building training programs to numerous developing countries in exchange for investment, energy deals, and construction projects that benefit the Turkish economy and Ankara’s influence abroad. Turkish drones serve as a relatively low-cost defense option for countries like Azerbaijan, Morocco, and Ukraine.[1] The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) offer training to foreign armed forces including those of Somalia, Azerbaijan, and Libya.[2] The role of Turkish armed drones and TSK military training programs in aiding Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh likely boosted global interest in Turkish defense assistance offerings.[3] Ankara is increasingly leveraging this demand and its growing domestic defense production to include military defense deals and sales to its bilateral agreements -- most significantly in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Central Asian Turkic states.[4]

Defense sales and cooperation are playing a growing role in Turkish outreach to African countries that Erdogan has long prioritized. Turkish outreach to Africa in the early 2000s centered on expanding Turkey’s presence in diplomatic-humanitarian terms. Since Erdogan’s election, Turkey has increased its exports to sub-Saharan Africa tenfold, diversified its energy imports to include more African countries, quadrupled its number of embassies in the continent, and completed hundreds of construction and infrastructure projects with its companies in Africa.[5] More recently, however, Ankara began to build upon that two-decade-old foundation with more targeted outreach in the defense. Turkey now sells its Bayraktar TB2 combat drones to Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya and is exploring new sales to Nigeria and potentially Ethiopia.[6] Turkey sells other arms to Kenya, Uganda, and Tunisia; and offers TSK training programs to Somalian and Libyan forces.[7] Turkey also promotes itself as a security partner on the ground, working with various states in the Sahel and Horn of Africa in security, counterterrorism, and military initiatives.[8] The number of African countries engaging with Turkey’s defense industry through drone sales, arms sales, and training programs is growing steadily.

Expanding Turkey’s influence in Africa has been key to President Erdogan’s foreign policy objectives and self-perception. Since the early 2000s, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has perceived Africa as an untapped opportunity that could diversify Turkey’s diplomatic outreach beyond Europe and the United States while offering new markets to its companies. Successful Africa outreach also elevates Erdogan’s self-perception as a leader of both the Muslim and of the “Global South” and larger developing world.[9]

Erdogan’s recent four-day trip to Africa aimed to secure key defense and energy deals. President Erdogan and top Turkish officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, visited Angola, Togo, and Nigeria between October 17 and 20, 2021.[10] Angolan and Turkish officials discussed Turkish drone and armored vehicle sales, bilateral trade agreements, and Turkish powerplant projects.[11] Turkey and Togo agreed to advance trade and military cooperation in the first presidential-level state visit Turkey has made to the country.[12] Turkey also signed numerous trade agreements with mutual promises to strengthen military defense and cooperation with Nigeria—likely in line with Nigeria’s desire to purchase Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones.[13] 

Turkey’s Africa outreachspecifically to Nigeria and Angolais critical for at least two Turkish strategic objectives.

  • Turkey seeks to expand access to and diversify its imports of energy resources away from Russia and Iran and toward Africa and the Caucasus. Nigeria and Angola are two of the top African oil producers and exporters to Turkey.[14] Nigeria is also Turkey’s top sub-Saharan trading partner and has a natural gas agreement with Turkey that was set to expire at the end of October.[15] Turkey also faces other expiring natural gas agreements with Russia at the end of 2021 just as Turkey is likely to see an increase in demand during the winter months.[16]
  • Turkey seeks to build and expand a unique global footprint where it can coexist or compete with global actors. Turkey under Erdogan has pursued opportunities to create low-cost, asymmetrical, competitive advantages that increase its leverage over larger countries despite Turkey’s faltering economy and limited global experience. In Africa, Ankara is combining its willingness to offer arms deals and military training with effective rhetoric. Erdogan often capitalizes on the lack of an Ottoman-Turkish colonial history in sub-Saharan Africa to position Turkey as a benevolent ally that promotes “African solutions for African problems” —an implicit criticism of external European involvement in the continent. [17] Ankara is likely observing and learning from China and Russia’s activity in Africa in order to coexist or compete with their investments.  

Turkey’s young defense industry will continue to shape the country’s outreach abroad as it refines and expands its defense production at home. Ankara is likely to sharpen the defense component of its outreach, to observe and learn from larger external actors in the region, and to capitalize on its advantages over them to carve out a greater role for itself in the continent. Its lower-cost drones are one of those key advantages. However, Ankara may face diplomatic consequences for exporting combat drones to a growing number of countries and may face production obstacles and an increasingly competitive market for drones as it pursues this path. Ankara’s unique defense assistance and military outreach will increasingly sharpen and spearhead its foreign relations as it seeks to insert itself into regions already crowded with many external players with greater capital and resources than those of Turkey.

  1. October 26: Turkey prepared for a potential cross-border military campaign into northern Syria. Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) sent at least ten military convoys to reinforce its military positions across northern Syria.[18] The largest convoys—with tanks, heavy weaponry, cement blocks, armored personnel carriers, and likely other equipment—reached Tal Abyad in Raqqa Province and Jabal Zawiyah in Idlib Province between October 26-28.[19] Local sources estimate up to 400 vehicles are in Idlib, and a few hundred are in Tal Abyad as of October 28.[20] Local sources also reported additional reinforcements to Ras al Ayn, Hasakah Province, on October 28. The Turkish government has not confirmed any deployments, but a Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) spokesperson confirmed that SNA deployments have occurred in preparation for a Turkish incursion.[21] The reported TSK and SNA reinforcements span a long frontline from Idlib to Raqqa Governorate that could challenge the Turkish military and resource bandwidth more than previous incursions.[22] Turkey will likely need to prioritize a specific area between the Euphrates River and the Turkish-controlled “Peace Spring Zone” in northeast Syria, most likely Ayn Issa or Ayn al Arab, as a result. Pro-regime forces and Iranian militias sent military reinforcements toward Tal Rifat in anticipation of a potential Turkish military offensive.[23]
  2. October 26-27: Turkey extended troop deployment in Iraq and Syria until October 2023 despite opposition disapproval. The Turkish Parliament ratified a motion to extend Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) deployments to Syria and Iraq for two years on October 26—likely until after the upcoming general elections in 2023.[24] Erdogan recommended a two-year extension for the first time ahead of the current motion’s expiration on October 31.[25] Further Turkish military incursions into Iraq and Syria require Parliament’s approval, as does the potential military campaign against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria that Erdogan and other government officials signaled in recent weeks. Erdogan’s coalition holds the majority of parliamentary seats. Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) voted against the motion for the first time, accusing the government of mismanaging Turkish forces in Syria.[26] The CHP likely seeks to retain the support of Turkey’s large Kurdish electorate, who mostly oppose actions against the YPG, ahead of a potential run-off election between Erdogan and CHP’s presidential candidate in 2023.
  3. October 18-28:  Turkish officials proposed purchasing Russian fighter jets to pressure the United States for F-16 sales. Turkish officials likely prefer US aircraft, which are easier to integrate with Turkey’s existing systems, to their Russian counterparts. Turkish officials are therefore likely trying to coerce the United States, rather than truly changing their acquisition priorities. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated on October 28 that Turkey will consider buying Russian-made SU-35 and SU-57 fighter jets if the United States “does not resolve issues over F-35 jets.”[27] Turkish Defense Industries President Ismail Demir also said that Turkey will turn to Russia for new aircraft if US-Turkish talks on the F-16 fighter jets fail.[28] Turkey requested 40 F-16s and 80 modernization kits for its existing jets to upgrade its air force fleet after its 2019 removal from the F-35 fighter jet program.[29] Turkish officials argue that Washington needs to provide Turkey with F-16 fighter jets to compensate for Turkey’s $1.4 billion payment into the F-35 program.[30] US leaders have said that US defense sales to Turkey cannot resume until Turkey gives up its already-purchased Russian S-400 missile systems and commits to not acquiring the system in the future.[31]  
  4. October 14: Turkey hosted Taliban leaders in Ankara: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted a Taliban delegation led by Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi in Ankara on October 14.[32] The two parties discussed bilateral relations, trade, humanitarian aid, migration, and air transport issues.[33] The Taliban held a series of meetings with Western countries in Qatar earlier that week.  Muttaqi encouraged Turkey to provide renovation and reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.[34] Separately, a group of former Afghan government officials announced the formation of the “National Resistance Council” on October 22.[35] Local sources have reported some former Afghan government officials, including Abdul Rashid Dostum, Atta Noor, and Masoom Stanekzai, have been in Turkey in recent months.[36] Various social media accounts speculated that the Council may be based in Istanbul, Turkey, but these claims are unverified.
  5. October 18-25: President Erdogan threatened to expel ten foreign ambassadors for supporting jailed Turkish philanthropist. Erdogan demanded the Turkish Foreign Ministry declare US Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield and nine other ambassadors to be “persona non grata” and threatened to remove them from Turkey on October 21. The ambassadors called for the release of imprisoned philanthropist and businessperson Osman Kavala in a joint statement on October 18.[37]  Erdogan stepped back from his initial threat after a cabinet meeting with his ministers on October 25. Turkish officials, including Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, likely sought to soften Erdogan’s reaction to avert a diplomatic crisis with multiple countries. The ambassadors of the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and New Zealand joined the October 18 statement. Erdogan’s mercurial position on this diplomatic confrontation also led to significant fluctuations of the Turkish lira as part of a longer-running free fall of the currency’s value.

Contributors: Fem Koymen, Fatih Cungurlu, Ezgi Yazici





[4] The host countries often welcome Turkish investments and interest as a means to diversify often energy-dependent economies, improve militaries, bring in industry expertise from Turkish companies, and forge partnerships with a new actor on the continent. In return, Ankara receives favorable energy and investment deals to expand and diversify Turkey’s access to various energy and mining resources. It pragmatically prioritizes resource allocations to regions with geopolitical or energy assets that are important to Turkey.







[10] Turkish Foreign, Defense, and Energy ministers joined Erdogan for the tour

The high-level Turkish delegation left Turkey at a time of and despite a heightened possibility for a new Turkish incursion in northern Syria. Ankara’s prioritization to put Syria decision-making on hold and travel to three African states highlights Turkey’s Africa outreach as a key priority for the leadership.




Turkey and Nigeria likely extended the expiring natural gas deal. Neither delegation confirmed the extension, however.


[15] Turkish and Nigerian officials signed an energy cooperation deal. However, neither country formally recognized the extension of the natural gas deal. Turkey’s original natural gas deal with Nigera dates back to 1995.






[21] The SNA spokesperson statement

[22] Turkey increased its reconnaissance activities across northern Syria including Tal Rifat, Idlib Governorate, and Ayn al Arab.

[23] Turkish-backed and pro-regime forces also both dropped leaflets to the Tal Rifat area warning of a possible Turkish incursion in early October.









[32] The delegation included Information and Culture Minister Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, Intelligence head Abdul Haq Wasiq, Deputy Interior Minister Noor Jalal Jalali,  Shahabuddin Delawar, Suhail Shaheen, Mohammad Ibrahim, and Abdul Qahar Balkhi.




Abdul Rab al-Rasul Sayyaf, Mohammad Mohaqiq, Younus Qanuni, Salahuddin Rabbani, Atta Mohammad Noor, and Abdul Rashid Dostum members of the council according to anonymous reporting  

[36] Claims that the NRC is based in Istanbul, Turkey are unconfirmed and are disputed.
An Ankara-based account shared the video of Masoom Stanekzai visiting an immigration office in Ankara on October 14.

Another account reports that Ankara asked Atta Noor to leave Turkey after Cavusoglu met with Muttaqi

Abdul Rashid Dostum fled to Turkey in 2017 and was receiving medical treatment in Turkey earlier in 2021. He likely returned to Afghanistan in August. His current location is unknown.



Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Afghanistan Warning Update: IS-KP in Afghanistan is Expanding Faster than Anticipated

Key Takeaway:

Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-KP) is expanding its support zones and attack zones across Afghanistan as part of a campaign to undermine and replace the Taliban government. Most IS-KP attacks target Taliban fighters and officials in Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces. The presence of IS-KP propaganda materials indicates that IS-KP is expanding in northern and southern Afghanistan. Bombings at major Shi’a mosques in Kunduz on October 8 and Kandahar on October 15 indicate that IS-KP is attempting to incite sectarian conflict in Afghanistan.[1] Taliban land expropriations from largely Shi’a communities to Sunni Taliban fighters are also increasing sectarian tensions. The contradictory efforts to protect these communities while redistributing their land will complicate the Taliban’s efforts to pose as a defender of Afghanistan’s Shi’a. If IS-KP continues to expand and strengthen, it could develop havens that enable it to conduct attacks outside Afghanistan.

IS-KP Efforts to Undermine the Taliban Government

IS-KP rejects the legitimacy of the Taliban government and is attempting to prevent the Taliban from gaining legitimacy in the eyes of Sunni Afghans.[2] IS-KP is attempting to achieve this goal through frequent kinetic attacks that undermine the Taliban’s ability to govern, guarantee security, and respond to the ongoing catastrophic economic crisis.

IS-KP is prioritizing kinetic attacks against the Taliban government over its secondary campaign to stoke a sectarian conflict within Afghanistan. The majority of IS-KP’s attacks within Afghanistan are improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against isolated Taliban patrols and assassinations of officials. These attacks occur on a near-daily basis, mostly within Kabul, Nangarhar, and Kunar provinces. The Taliban responded to these attacks with retaliatory killings of individuals accused of being affiliated with IS-KP.[3] The Taliban committed these killings without following its own stated judicial procedures.[4] This approach to fighting IS-KP may fuel IS-KP recruiting rather than weaken the group.

IS-KP Operational Campaign in Afghanistan

IS-KP is expanding its attack zones and support zones across Afghanistan. IS-KP currently has attack and support zones within Nangarhar, Kunar, Kabul, and Parwan provinces. Recent attacks in Kunduz and Kandahar indicate that IS-KP is expanding attack zones to those provinces and likely has support zones in or near those provinces. [5]  IS-KP’s activity in Jowzjan, Uruzgan, Zabul, Khost, and Paktia Provinces indicates that it is attempting to expand support zones to those provinces. [6] Taliban splinter groups appear to be defecting to IS-KP, helping enable its expansion. Fighters previously affiliated with Mullah Manan Niazi’s Taliban splinter faction in Herat Province allegedly defected to IS-KP.[7] These defections may have prompted a firefight between Taliban forces and IS-KP in Herat City on October 24.[8] Expanding IS-KP support zones and attack zones will likely lead the Taliban to spread out its security forces, opening space for IS-KP to develop havens from which it could launch attacks beyond Afghanistan.

IS-KP is attacking economic infrastructure in Afghanistan to worsen the economic crisis and to undermine Taliban efforts to maintain Afghan government institutions. IS-KP repeatedly destroyed electricity pylons in Parwan Province in June and July 2021, threatening the supply of electricity to Kabul.[9] IS-KP carried out similar attacks near Jalalabad when it resumed its offensive against the Taliban on September 18 and was responsible for a blast on October 21 that shut off power to Kabul. [10]

IS-KP Efforts to Gain Strength

Younger fighters and mid-level commanders in the Taliban movement are consistently reported to be more radical than the Taliban leadership.[11] The Taliban government showed a certain willingness to compromise on its most hardline values by allowing high school-age girls to go back to school in certain parts of Afghanistan.[12] The Taliban also offered a general amnesty for Afghan government officials and encouraged many of them to return to their old positions.[13] The Taliban likely intend for these compromises to help it maintain government institutions and gain international support, but these actions also support IS-KP’s messaging campaign portraying the Taliban leadership as apostates and false jihadists. This dynamic could fuel increased defections by younger and more radical Taliban fighters to IS-KP. Such defections will increase internal turmoil within the Taliban movement, possibly worsening ongoing power struggles within the Taliban movement and increasing the likelihood of serious infighting.[14]

IS-KP aims to incite sectarian conflict within Afghanistan by repeatedly attacking Shi’a mosques. IS-KP group released a statement that it intended to strike Shi’a communities “from Baghdad to Khorasan” shortly after it carried out a suicide bombing at the Shi’a Fatima Mosque in Kandahar on October 15.[15] The statement also cast the Taliban as “allies of the Rafidha (Shi’as).” The Taliban government pledged on October 17 to increase security at Shi’a mosques.[16] In Helmand and Kandahar, local Taliban security officials met with Shi’a communities and pledged to protect their religious centers. [17] The Taliban explicitly taking a stance to defend Shi’a communities may further encourage radical Sunni elements within the Taliban to defect to IS-KP.

The Taliban rewards its fighters with land expropriated from Hazara (Shi’a) communities, undermining its efforts to pose as the defender of Afghanistan’s Shi’a against IS-KP. Local Taliban officials are rewarding their supporters by expropriating land from Hazaras and other peoples perceived to be opposed to the Taliban government. These expropriations started in September in Daikundi and Uruzgan provinces, where the Taliban and local Pashtuns evicted at least 2,800 Hazaras and seized their homes and crops.[18] Similar evictions are taking place in Kandahar, Helmand, and Mazar-e-Sharif.[19] The Taliban will need to expropriate land (although not necessarily from Shi’as) if it is to fulfill promises, such as those made by the Taliban’s interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, to reward the families of suicide bombers with allotments of land and money.[20] The Taliban risks alienating members of its hardline base if it fails to fulfill these promises and prioritizes protecting Shi’a communities. If the Taliban continues to victimize Shi’a communities as IS-KP attacks them, however, it risks damaging its relations with Iran and causing Shi’a communities to mobilize to protect themselves.

IS-KP attacks are already encouraging Shi’a community mobilization. A new Hazara militia announced itself as “The Anonymous Soldiers of Hazaristan” on October 8.[21] This group declared that it saw no difference between the Taliban and IS-KP and would fight both groups.[22] Such mobilizations may encourage revenge attacks by Shi’as and consequently lead to Sunni Afghan communities arming themselves. If regional actors such as Iran become involved in protecting Shi’a communities, this dynamic may strengthen IS-KP’s rhetoric that Hazara groups will seek to dominate Sunni communities in the same manner as other Iranian proxies, such as Hezbollah.[23] A sectarian war within Afghanistan could open new areas of recruitment and support for IS-KP. This course of action would be a historical aberration in recent ethnic relations in Afghanistan and is a most dangerous rather than most likely scenario.

Possible Future Courses of Action

IS-KP could develop a haven in Afghanistan and begin planning attacks in Europe and the Middle East. US Department of Defense Undersecretary for Policy Colin Kahl stated on October 26 that IS-KP could generate the capability to conduct attacks abroad within six to 12 months.[24] A haven in Afghanistan could encourage Islamic State (IS) leadership across the globe to migrate to Afghanistan and make it the preeminent hub for organizing IS activity. The migration of skilled and experienced leaders and fighters would increase the capability of IS-KP forces within Afghanistan. Encouraging a regional sectarian war could be a way for IS-KP to disrupt its rivals and establish the havens needed to plan attacks abroad in the Middle East and Europe.

A major sectarian conflict in Afghanistan could draw Iran into more active military engagement in Afghanistan. The official Iranian position on Afghanistan remains supportive of working with the Taliban and refraining from sending forces or fighters into the country.  Continued IS-KP attacks against Afghanistan’s Shi’a could cause elements of the Afghan Fatimiyoun forces that Iran has developed and used to fight for the Assad regime in Syria to return to Afghanistan to protect Shi’a Afghans.  These attacks could also raise pressure among Iran’s hardline factions to defend Shi’a communities under attack. IS-KP may be seeking to draw Iran or Iranian-backed forces into the fight in Afghanistan as a way of mobilizing Sunni support for its cause.








IS-KP supporters claimed they raised IS flags over government buildings in Aqcha District in Jowzjan Province
Local sources stated that IS-KP raised their flag and distributed propaganda material in Deh Rawood District, Uruzgan Province. IS-KP promised 30,000 AFN to anyone who joined IS-KP.
There were reports of a firefight between IS-KP and Taliban forces in Arghandab District, Zabul Province, with 17 Taliban fighters and 4 IS-KP fighters killed in action.

It is possible this IS-KP cell carried out the October 6 grenade attack at a mosque in Khost which caused several Taliban casualties.

Taliban officials arrested 5 suspected IS-KP militants who were planning attacks in Paktia Province



[9] https://www.khaama(dot)com/four-isis-associates-accused-of-demolishing-power-pylons-arrested/






SITE - Naba 308 Editorial

[16] https://ariananews(dot)af/iea-pledges-to-increase-security-at-shiite-mosques-after-2nd-deadly-bombing

Abdul Khalid, Taliban intelligence chief for Helmand Province, met with representatives of the Shi’a community and assured them the Taliban would protect their religious centers day and night.






SITE - Naba 308 Editorial




Friday, October 22, 2021

Iran’s Axis of Resistance in Review, October 10-20, 2021


Iranian Proxy Violence Possible in the Wake of Iraqi Elections

By Katherine Lawlor

Iran’s Iraqi proxies will likely increase their use of violence and other forms of coercion against political opponents and the Iraqi state in the coming months. The political wings of Iran’s Iraqi proxies lost two-thirds of their parliamentary seats in Iraq’s October 10, 2021, elections, which they are legally contesting due to perceived fraud. Iran’s Iraqi proxies may escalate against UN, US, Emirati, or suspected Israeli personnel or assets in retaliation for their perceived role in the proxies’ political losses in the coming months. Domestic political conflicts, Iranian decision-making, Iranian proxy attempts to enforce the December 31 deadline for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, and the potential for a new regional ISIS campaign to stir up sectarian violence could exacerbate post-electoral Iranian proxy violence in Iraq.

Political State of Play

Iran’s proxies lost ground in Iraq’s October 10, 2021, parliamentary elections while their rival, nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, made dramatic gains, setting conditions for a potential second term for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. All Iraqi parties are now negotiating to form the “largest bloc” in Parliament, which will have the first chance to appoint a prime minister-designate. That prime minister-designate must then form a cabinet within 30 days and secure the support of at least 165 parliamentarians (out of 329) to form a government. The leading bloc is Toward Reform, the party of the notoriously mercurial Sadr, who went from controlling the largest bloc in 2018 with 54 seats to an overwhelming 73-seat plurality in 2021.[1] Sadr is most likely to nominate the politically independent current prime minister, Kadhimi, for a second term; Sadr’s other three named picks are Sadrists of whom few parliamentarians would approve.[2]

Candidates representing Iran’s proxy militias lost badly in the 2021 elections; Iran’s parliamentary proxy—the Conquest Alliance bloc that encompasses the political wings of Badr Organization and US-designated terrorist organization Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)—secured only 16 seats, a dramatic loss from its 2018 high of 47.[3] Proxies are politically disadvantaged even when factoring in their five seats among minority quota candidates and the one seat secured by US-designated terrorist organization Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH)’s Rights Movement, KH’s first foray into parliamentary politics. Proxy militias and politicians, as well as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have all claimed that the elections were stolen by the United Nations, the United States, Israel, or the United Arab Emirates and demanded recounts.[4]

Iranian leaders appear to be comfortable with a Sadrist-dominated government under a second-term Prime Minister Kadhimi.  Iranian officials described Sadr’s victory as a win for Shi’a Islamists and characterized Iraq’s elections as successful.[5] Tehran has historically been able to bend Sadr to its will when necessary and likely believes that a combination of Iranian pressure and Sadr’s inherent anti-US tendencies will be sufficient to advance Iran’s core strategic objectives: ousting US forces from Iraq and maintaining a non-threatening, Shi’a-led client state there. Iranian rhetoric suggests that Iran’s leadership is unwilling to dramatically destabilize Iraq over the election results alone. Tehran knows that the makeup of Iraqi governments has never been determined by electoral results alone and that its proxies will likely still have a say in the process. Separately, Iran will likely order a resumption of proxy attacks on US forces near the end of 2021 to force a complete withdrawal of all US forces, including advisors, from Iraq. US combat forces (but not advisory forces) plan to depart Iraq by December 31, 2021.

A potential new ISIS campaign could stir up sectarian conflict. ISIS’ Afghanistan affiliate, IS-KP, has called on ISIS cells around the world to attack Shi’a mosques “from Baghdad to Khorasan” to mirror the October 15 ISIS attack on a Shi’a mosque in Kandahar.[6] An ISIS attack on a Shi’a mosque or another symbolic Shi’a target in Iraq could become an opportunity for Iranian proxies to rally support among Iraq’s Shi’a population by attacking Sunni groups. Iraqi Security Forces and their Coalition advisors must remain vigilant in the coming months to prevent attacks by ISIS from igniting Iraqi tensions into broader sectarian conflict.

Below are the most likely trajectories for Iraq to follow in order of highest- to lowest-assessed probability.

Possible Trajectories:

  1. Quick Government Formation: Fast government formation would likely be a positive outcome for both Iraqi domestic stability and US interests. Sadr has set conditions for a quick government formation process if he can capitalize on his plurality without alienating other large, non-Iran-aligned blocs. Sadr will likely work with other parties—including Sunni Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi’s Progress Party (38 seats), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (33 seats), and some nominally independent members of parliament (37 total)—to ensure he retains the prerogative to appoint his prime minister of choice—Sadr prefers to be the kingmaker, not the king. Other politicians, including some Iran-backed groups, will likely attach themselves to Sadr’s coalition to retain their share of the governmental spoils if Sadr is able to quickly secure his position as the leader of the largest bloc. Iraq’s political system has historically led to the same powerful parties and leaders preserving their role regardless of electoral outcomes. In this scenario, Iran will likely tolerate a second Kadhimi government to retain stability but will allow some of its proxies, like Kata’ib Hezbollah, to directly, and sometimes violently, oppose that government. If a newly emboldened, Sadrist-led government elects to crack down on proxy militias, as Sadr threatened to do in his victory speech, the proxies will likely respond with violence against Sadrists or government officials.[7]
  2. Political Stalemate: Iran’s proxies may benefit from prolonged negotiations to form a government, which would allow them to threaten or incentivize other parties into joining their preferred coalition. Sadr’s capricious nature could also lead him to put forward a Sadrist candidate instead of a more widely accepted nominee like Kadhimi, ensuring a prolonged and possibly violent government formation process. The horse-trading required to garner sufficient votes to form a cabinet in Iraq’s fragmented political system typically takes around six months. Iran’s proxies are most likely to join a parliamentary coalition led by Shi’a former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (35 seats) and encompassing the Iranian proxy Conquest Alliance (16 seats), US-sanctioned Sunni businessman Khamis al-Khanjar’s Determination Alliance (12 seats), proxy co-opted minority candidates (at least five seats), some of the nominally independent MPs (37 total), and others to attempt to reach the largest bloc designation. A State of Law MP claimed on October 14 that his coalition has secured a bloc of over 110 seats to nominate Maliki for a third term.[8] Iran and its proxies would support a Maliki premiership, which remains unlikely. Sadr’s supporters would likely resort to violence before allowing the return of Maliki, their political rival, to power. The longer a government formation stalemate lasts, the more likely it becomes that Iran’s proxies turn to direct threats and political violence to further their objectives.
  3. Kinetic Escalations: Iran could approve violent escalation by its proxies to secure its objectives in Iraq if it determines that a new Iraqi government is attempting to shut out Iranian influence. A shift in official Iranian rhetoric toward either condemning the election results or the government formation process would indicate that Tehran has greenlit additional proxy violence to constrain Sadr’s influence. Iran could also decide to resume proxy attacks to simultaneously discredit a new government, build leverage ahead of the resumption of the US-Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiations, and attempt to enforce the December 31, 2021, deadline for the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq. Some Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated outlets already began recirculating Iraqi proxy claims of election fraud as the proxies set conditions for a “protest march” in Baghdad’s fortified international district, the Green Zone.[9] The ostentatiously unarmed protesters backed by Iran’s proxies employed English language signage to target Western media audiences and help publicize their false claims of voter fraud.[10]

Violence by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) against proxy protesters or staged violence by proxy infiltrators within the ISF could trigger a proxy escalation without Iran’s approval. Any proxy escalation against the government in Baghdad could incite Sadr, the electoral victor, to mobilize his own militias, risking a cyclical descent into intra-Shi’a conflict and possibly civil war. Potential targets of Iranian proxy violence include US forces, facilities, and personnel, the UAE embassy, and personnel affiliated with the United Nations or international electoral observation missions. A prolonged and contentious government formation process would also provide greater opportunities for ISIS to exploit political divides and trigger sectarian violence that could intersect with and exacerbate political tensions.

  1. Lebanese Hezbollah will likely attempt to deescalate violence in Lebanon related to the Beirut port explosion investigation, but miscalculations could trigger further intra-Lebanese conflict or an escalation with Israel. Militants likely affiliated with the Christian Lebanese Forces party fired on protesters affiliated with the Shi’a Lebanese Hezbollah and Amal political movements in Beirut on October 14, killing seven and sparking clashes as the Shi’a groups marched to condemn the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port explosion.[11] Iranian officials and state media immediately blamed Israel for the violence.[12] Hezbollah blamed the Lebanese Forces party.[13] Hezbollah will likely attempt to avoid further clashes with the Lebanese Forces party; neither side is interested in an uptick in confessional violence ahead of Lebanon’s March 2022 elections. The Lebanese Forces and other political rivals will likely condemn Hezbollah’s activity but allow the group to continue its pressure campaign against the judiciary because a free investigation would likely find fault with multiple parties, causing widespread political damage. Any subsequent protests and violence in Beirut will increase the likelihood of miscalculation, which could spark widespread violence in Lebanon. Hezbollah could also attempt to divert attention from domestic tensions by horizontally escalating against Israeli forces in Southern Lebanon or Israel. A realignment of Hezbollah messaging to mirror Iranian rhetoric blaming Israel for the violence would indicate that Hezbollah may be preparing to reduce domestic pressure by provoking Israel.
  2. Iran’s Iraqi proxies are falsely accusing the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of interfering in Iraqi elections and may begin kinetic attacks against UAE targets to protest the results. Iraqi channels affiliated with proxy militias like US-designated terrorist organizations Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah circulated conspiracy theories that the UAE undermined the political wings of the militias through the UAE-based servers used by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission to process votes.[14] A media commentator affiliated with Iran’s proxies claimed that “drones, precision missiles, and ballistic missiles will be launched from the Iraqi soil towards the UAE, to send a deterrence message to the leaders of the conspiracy [to steal the elections].”[15] Proxy channels also heavily implied that nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr secretly visited Dubai aboard a private jet to coordinate with his UAE handlers.[16] Iran’s Iraqi proxies launched a drone attack against Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in January 2021 after publicly blaming the Saudi government for funding ISIS and interfering in domestic Iraqi affairs.[17] Proxy militants could conduct a similar attack into the UAE from Iraqi soil using long-range drones or launch drone or rocket attacks on UAE-affiliated targets in Iraq. Iraqi proxy groups could also coordinate with the Yemeni al-Houthi movement to attack the UAE on behalf of Iran’s Axis of Resistance as a whole. The Houthis previously claimed two attacks on Abu Dhabi and Dubai airports in 2018.[18]
  3.  Iranian proxies are increasingly threatening the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI). Proxy-directed protesters and media channels condemned UNAMI and its head, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, for the mission’s role in coordinating international observers and elections procedures.[19] One proxy fa├žade group, Saraya Awliya ad-Dam, threatened to attack UN convoys after it became clear that proxy political candidates had performed poorly in the elections.[20] That group previously claimed a 2020 IED attack on a UN World Food Program convoy, which the group claimed was cover for US intelligence personnel operating in Ninewa Province.[21] Intra-Shi’a violence in Iraq could increase following a proxy attack on UN personnel or facilities if Iraqi nationalist Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose bloc won the most seats in the October elections, perceives that attack as a threat to his authority or international legitimacy. Sadr supported UN involvement in Iraq’s elections even as Iran’s proxies framed UNAMI as an Israeli intelligence asset.[22] A Sadrist militia mobilization to protect UNAMI facilities could further politicize the role of the UN in Iraq, risking additional violence and reducing already-low public faith in the electoral system.
  4. Likely Iranian proxy militants launched a coordinated drone and rocket attack on US forces’ living quarters in Tanf, Syria, risking US casualties and a larger regional escalation. Unidentified militants launched approximately five suicide drones and an unspecified number of indirect fire munitions (rockets or mortars) at a US base in Tanf.[23] Combined rocket and drone attacks can disrupt and bypass air-defense systems in a way that rockets or drones alone cannot. The attack reportedly targeted the living quarters of US forces around 2130 local time when those areas are likely to be occupied, indicating that the proxies intended to cause US casualties.[24] Iran likely greenlit this attack to deter US and Israeli actions against Iranian interests following recent Israeli military exercises, an October 13 Israeli attack on Iranian proxies in Palmyra that flew through Tanf’s airspace, and rhetoric from US and Israeli officials threatening Iran’s nuclear program.[25]  Iran and its proxies may increasingly be equating the threats posed by the United States and Israel and may respond more frequently to Israeli provocations with attacks on US forces. The attack is the first on US forces in Iraq and Syria since July 29, 2021, and signals a likely resumption of Iranian attacks against the United States and its partners across the region.[26] Those attacks will likely ramp up in Iraq as the December 31, 2021, deadline for the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq nears.


Contributors: Katherine Lawlor, Zach Coles


[1] “Iraqi Parliament Election 2021 – Preliminary Results: Candidates’ Votes by Electoral District, Baghdad: Independent High Electoral Commission,” Iraq Independent High Electoral Agency, 2021. app dot powerbi dot com/view?r=eyJrIjoiNmUzYjAzNTYtZTJiNS00NzhkLTg0ZWUtMzlkZDAyZGM5NmMzIiwidCI6IjNkZTVhZmM2LWZhMDItNDM3OS04MDJkLThjZjY3YjNmYzQ0ZiIsImMiOjEwfQ%3D%3D&pageName=ReportSection17cb90c44073d7b88131

[2] “Muqtada Al-Sadr Puts Four Names on the Table to Head the Next Government,” Shafaq News, October 06, 2021. Shafaq dot com/ar/%D8%B3%DB%8C%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%A8%D9%8A%D9%86%D9%87%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%83%D8%A7%D8%B8%D9%85%D9%8A-%D9%85%D9%82%D8%AA%D8%AF%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B5%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D9%8A%D8%B7%D8%B1%D8%AD-%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B9%D8%A9-%D8%B3%D9%85%D8%A7-%D8%B9%D9%84%D9%89-%D8%B7%D8%A7%D9%88%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D9%83%D9%88%D9%85%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%82%D8%A8%D9%84%D8%A9

[3] Jessa Rose Dury Agri and Patrick Hamon, “Breaking Down Iraq’s Election Results,” Institute for the Study of War, May 24, 2018.

[4] ”Iraqi Elections: The Condition of Political Currents on Accepting the Election Results” Tasnim News Agency, October 14, 2021. tn dot ai/2590305

[5] “Welcoming the Successful Holding of Elections in Iraq,” Fars News, October 11, 2021.  farsnews dot ir/news/14000719000074/%D8%AE%D8%B7%DB%8C%D8%A8%E2%80%8C%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%AF%D9%87-%D9%85%D8%B0%D8%A7%DA%A9%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%88%DB%8C%D9%86-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AE%D9%84-%D9%88%D8%B2%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AA-%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%AC%D9%87-%D9%BE%DB%8C%DA%AF%DB%8C%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D9%85%DB%8C%E2%80%8C%D8%B4%D9%88%D8%AF-%D9%87%DB%8C%DA%86-%D8%AF%D8%B1%D8%AE%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%AA%DB%8C

[6] Najibullah Lalzoy, “Shi’ite Muslims to be Targeted Everywhere: Warns ISIS,” Khaama Press, October 17, 2021. khaama dot com/shiite-muslims-to-be-targeted-everywhere-warns-isis-67976967/

[7] "In His Victory Speech, Al-Sadr Pledges to Exterminate All Militias," Shafaq News, October 11, 2021.  shafaq dot com/en/Iraq-News/In-his-victory-speech-al-Sadr-pledges-to-exterminate-militias-even-those-who-pretend-resistance

[8]Mashreq Risan, “Iraq: Al-Sadr’s Opponents Gather around Al-Maliki to Form the Largest Bloc,” Al-Quds, October 14, 2021.

[9] “Widespread Popular Protests Against the Announced Results of the Iraqi Parliamentary Elections,” Mashregh News, October 17, 2021. mashreghnews dot ir/news/1287268/%D9%85%D9%88%D8%AC-%DA%AF%D8%B3%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%B6%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%B1%D8%AF%D9%85%DB%8C-%D8%B9%D9%84%DB%8C%D9%87-%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%A7%DB%8C%D8%AC-%D8%A7%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85-%D8%B4%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AA%D8%AE%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%AC%D9%84%D8%B3

[10] Sabereen News, Telegram Post. October 19, 2021, 7:59. t dot me\sabreenS1/32644

[11] Ben Hubbard and Hwaida Saad, “Beirut, a City Where Everyone Gets by, Revisits Sectarian Violence,” New York Times, October 16, 2021.

[12] Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Khatib Zadeh, Iranian Foreign Affairs Ministry Twitter,

[13] “Fragile Calm in Beirut after hours of clashes and shootings / Identification of 10 rioters,”] Iranian Students’ News Agency, October 14, 2021, www (dot) isna (dot) ir/news/1400072215631/%D8%A2%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%85%D8%B4-%D8%B4%DA%A9%D9%86%D9%86%D8%AF%D9%87-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%A8%DB%8C%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%AA-%D9%BE%D8%B3-%D8%A7%D8%B2-%D8%B3%D8%A7%D8%B9%D8%AA-%D9%87%D8%A7-%D8%AF%D8%B1%DA%AF%DB%8C%D8%B1%DB%8C-%D9%88-%D8%AA%DB%8C%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%B2%DB%8C-%D8%B4%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A7%DB%8C%DB%8C

[14] Hamdi Malik, “The Muqawama's post elections threats against UNAMI and the UAE,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 19, 2021.

[15] Ahmad Abdussada, “The Coordination: we reject the elections and the consensus | with Mullah Tallal” UTV, October 17, 2021.

[16]Sabereen News Telegram, October 19, 2021. t dot me/sabreenS1/32777

[17] Katherine Lawlor and Nicholas Carl, “Iraqi militant attack on Riyadh could signal a larger shift in Iran’s regional approach.” Institute for the Study of War and the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, January 29, 2021.

[18] Jessica Kocan, “September 2020 Map Update: Al Houthi ‘Balanced Deterrence’ Campaign,” American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project, September 23, 2020.

[19] Hamdi Malik, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 19, 2021.

[20] Sabereen News, Telegram Post. October 13, 2021, 12:16. t dot me/sabreens1/32112.

[21] “Awliya ad-Dam Brigades Adopt the Bartella Operation, and Al-Hakim’s Alliance Condemns It,” Al-Noor News, August 27, 2020. alnoornews dot net/archives/268992/%d8%b3%d8%b1%d8%a7%d9%8a%d8%a7-%d8%a7%d9%88%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%a7%d8%a1-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%af%d9%85-%d8%aa%d8%aa%d8%a8%d9%86%d9%89-%d8%b9%d9%85%d9%84%d9%8a%d8%a9-%d8%a8%d8%b1%d8%b7%d9%84%d8%a9-%d9%88%d8%aa/?utm_sourc

[22] “Iraq: Videoconference Briefing and Consultations on UNAMI” Security Council Report, February 15, 2021.

Islamic Resistance in Iraq Saraya Awliya ad-Dam [Guardians of Blood], Telegram Post. September 20, 2021.

Sabereen News, Telegram Post. September 20, 2021, 13:09. t dot me/sabreenS1/30404

Sabereen News, Telegram Post. September 20, 2021, 00:04. t dot me/sabreenS1/30357

[23] Luis Martinez and Matt Seyler. “No US injuries in attack on remote American base in Syria” ABC News, October 20, 2021.

[24] “[TRANSLATION] Syria's ‘allies’ carry out their promise: the American base of al-Tanf is under fire!” Shaam Times, October 21, 2021. Shaamtimes dot net/357760/%d8%ad%d9%84%d9%81%d8%a7%d8%a1-%d8%b3%d9%88%d8%b1%d9%8a%d8%a7-%d9%8a%d9%86%d9%81%d9%91%d8%b0%d9%88%d9%86-%d9%88%d8%b9%d8%af%d9%87%d9%85-%d9%82%d8%a7%d8%b9%d8%af%d8%a9-%d8%a7%d9%84%d8%aa/

[25] “Israel said to approve $1.5 billion budget for potential strike on Iran” Times of Israel, October 19, 2021. Timesofisrael dot com/israel-said-to-approve-1-5-billion-budget-for-potential-strike-on-iran/

Anna Aronheim, “Israel, Iran holding separate large scale aerial drills” The Jerusalem Post, October 21, 2021. Jpost dot com/middle-east/israel-iran-holding-separate-large-scale-aerial-drills-682747

Rachel S. Cohen, “The Air Force is testing a new bunker-busting bomb that could counter North Korea and Iran” Air Force Times, October 12, 2021.

Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Pro-Iran militias warn of forceful response after Israeli strike on Syria's Palmyra” Reuters, October 14, 2021.

Matthew Lee. “US, Israel say they are exploring a ‘Plan B’ for Iran” Associated Press, October 13, 2021.

[26] Katherine Lawlor, “Recent Iranian Proxy Attack in Iraqi Kurdistan Unlikely a Signal for New Escalation” Institute for the Study of War, September 17, 2021.