Sunday, October 22, 2017

ISW Intelligence Summary: October 13-20, 2017

Jennifer Cafarella

Key takeaway: The US-led campaign against ISIS achieved a major victory in Raqqa, but post-ISIS conflict in northern Syria remains likely due to the dominant role of the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the Raqqa operation and its commitment to shaping post-ISIS governance in accordance with the vision of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime are meanwhile preparing to cut a deal with the YPG for the future governance of northeastern Syria, which could oust the U.S. Turkey is exploiting US calls for action in Idlib to establish military positions in the province that posture Turkey for future confrontation against the YPG to the north. Turkey is not meaningfully constraining al Qaeda. In Iraq, the Kurdish retreat across Iraq's disputed internal boundaries could destabilize northern Iraq rather than unify the country if Kurdish civilians now under the control of Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies turn to violence. Early indications of civil unrest have already emerged. The Kurdish retreat is nonetheless a political win for Prime Minister Abadi and a military win for Iran, whose proxies are now consolidating control over formerly contested cities and advancing further into northern Iraq. 


Raqqa fell, but under conditions that favor continued insurgency. The US announced the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seized the last pocket in Raqqa City held by the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) on October 20th. Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Forces (YPG) exploited the victory for political gain. A large contingent of female Kurdish (YPJ) fighters held a photo shoot in Raqqa’s central roundabout with massive YPG/YPJ flags and a large photo of PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan on October 19th. YPG forces also reportedly arrested Arab fighters flying Syrian revolutionary flags in Raqqa City. This could be an isolated incident, but the YPG’s clear effort to dominate the narrative after defeating ISIS in Raqqa city will drive support for Sunni Arab resistance against the YPG. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition has recruited and trained 1,600 fighters in a “Raqqa Internal Security Force” to provide security in Raqqa after its recapture. It is unclear how much military training these forces received from the coalition, however. They will likely depend on continued YPG support to defend Raqqa against infiltration and spectacular attacks by ISIS and possibly al Qaeda

Female YPJ units pose for a photo shoot honoring PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan in Raqqa City on October 19th.

Pro-regime forces seized Mayadin, the headquarters of ISIS senior leadership & external operations.
Pro-regime forces claimed to seize the city on October 14th, although it is unclear whether ISIS withdrew preemptively. ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and other ISIS senior leaders, including external operators, had reportedly relocated to Mayadin from Mosul and Raqqa in late 2016 and early 2017. They most likely relocated to Abu Kamal IVO the Syrian-Iraqi border. Pro-regime forces are now positioned to disrupt further SDF movements along the Middle Euphrates River Valley (MERV) southeast of Raqqa City. 

Russia and the Syrian regime are preparing to cut a deal with the YPG that could oust the US from northeastern Syria. The Syrian Kurdish YPG reportedly handed over the Conoco gas field in Deir ez Zour Province to the Syrian regime, who will most likely allow Russian contractors to operate it. The handover is a first sign of a future deal between the YPG and the Syrian regime for the governance of northeastern Syria, which ISW forecasted in September. Negotiations are already underway for that deal, which could apply limits on US presence. A most dangerous possibility is that Russia and the Syrian regime will demand a full withdrawal of US forces in Syria in return for a federal status and return of services to SDF-held areas. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with senior officials of the YPG’s political wing in Qamishli on the Syrian-Turkish border on October 18th. Russian Senator Ziyad Sabsabi of Chechnya later arrived in Qamishli on October 19th. Russia will reportedly host a conference regarding the Syrian Kurds at the Bassel al-Assad International Airport on the Syrian Coast on 10 NOV. Anonymous sources also claimed that Syrian National Security Bureau (NSB) Director Ali Mamlouk met with senior officials from the Syrian Kurdish YPG in Qamishli on October 17th. The two sides allegedly discussed the post-conflict role of the YPG in Syria as well as the long-term presence of the U.S. in Northern Syria, although the YPG’s political wing denied the meeting took place

Turkey deployed to Idlib, but in coordination with al Qaeda. Turkish armed forces deployed to multiple locations in northern Idlib Province beginning on October 13th in accordance with an agreement with Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. Turkey is exploiting US calls for Turkish action to constrain al Qaeda-held in Idlib and is instead posturing against the YPG, which holds a “canton” north of Idlib Province. Turkey’s deployment to Idlib positions Turkish troops on a second flank of the Kurdish canton, setting conditions in Turkey’s favor for future confrontation. Turkey is also positioning its troops as potential guarantors of its de-escalation agreement with Russia and the Syrian regime Idlib Province. Turkey’s deployment does not meaningfully constrain al Qaeda, and instead limits U.S. options in Idlib Province. Unconfirmed reports indicate Turkey has offered to help provide targeting intelligence to the U.S. to eliminate high value al Qaeda leaders. High value target (HVT) strikes in Idlib could degrade senior al Qaeda leadership in Syria, but will not reverse al Qaeda’s ongoing and successful efforts to embed within Syrian society in Idlib and to govern through a network of local affiliates and proxies.


Peshmerga forces collapsed across most of the front line in Iraq’s Disputed Internal Boundaries, ceding terrain to ISF and Iranian proxies. The Kurdish retreat empowers Iran and could destabilize northern Iraq rather than unify the county. Iraq and Iran, through Qassem Soleimani and Badr Organization leader Hadi al Amiri, demanded a Kurdish withdrawal from areas seized since 2014, starting with Kirkuk. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran's proxies in Kirkuk.
Two Iranian proxy leaders – Hadi al Ameri and Abu Mehdi al Muhandis – participate in a flag raising in Kirkuk City along with leadership of the Iraqi Counterterrorism Services (CTS) on October 16th.

Iraqi forces began to push farther north on 20 OCT, raising fears of a push into Iraqi Kurdistan beyond the 2014 Kurdish front line.
Iraqi Counter Terrorism Services (CTS) and unspecified other Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) seized Ton Kubri, ten kilometers north of Dibis, Kirkuk Province and 40 KM southeast of Arbil, after clashing with Peshmerga forces.

Kurdish populations now under the control of the Iraqi government and Iran's proxies may drive an insurgency. Civil unrest against Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies began in Kirkuk and Khanaqin on October 18th. Prime minister Abadi reportedly ordered a handover of security in Kirkuk to local police, and early reports indicate Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies may have drawn back from Khanaqin in northern Diyala. It is unclear whether these withdrawals will pacify the Kurdish population.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Iraq and Iran compel Kurdish withdrawal from Kirkuk

by: Omer Kassim, the ISW Iraq Team, and Jennifer Cafarella

A collapse of the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga under joint pressure from Iraq and Iran shortly after the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25, 2017 empowers Iran and could destabilize northern Iraq rather than unify the country.  Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from disputed areas across northern Iraq on October 16th and 17th, 2017. A combined force of Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian proxies gathered south of Kirkuk starting on October 13th in order to compel Iraqi Kurdistan to relinquish control of the oil-rich city. The combined ISF-proxy force moved in to secure the city as well as nearby military bases and oil fields on October 16th after the Peshmerga abandoned their positions. Peshmerga forces also withdrew from areas in Ninewa, Salah al Din, and Diyala Provinces. The Iraqi Government and Iran likely signaled their intent to use military force to compel the Peshmerga withdrawals in those provinces, if necessary. The Kurdish retreat is a win for both the central Iraqi government and Iran, whose proxies have seized new key terrain and consolidated control over previously contested cities. Iran has downplayed the role of its proxies in order to legitimize them as instruments of the Iraqi state. Western media coverage and statements from US officials have assisted Iran with this deception by denying the role of Iran’s proxies in Kirkuk. Kurdish populations now under the control of the Iraqi government and Iran's proxies may drive an insurgency, however. Civil unrest against Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies began in Kirkuk and Khanaqin on October 18th. Prime Minister Abadi ordered a handover of security in Kirkuk to local police, and early reports indicate Iraqi forces and Iran's proxies may have drawn back from Khanaqin in northern Diyala. It is unclear whether these withdrawals will pacify the Kurdish population. 

Monday, October 16, 2017

Russia Renews Targeting Civilians: August 14 – October 7, 2017

By Matti Suomenaro and the ISW Syria and Turkey Teams

Russia renewed its violent, indiscriminate air campaign against civilians in Western Syria in order to coerce groups opposed to the Bashar al-Assad regime to accept a ceasefire or ‘de-escalation zone’ in Idlib Province. Russia shifted its air campaign to target rebel-held terrain in Idlib and Hama Provinces following an offensive launched by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – the successor of Syrian al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – in Northern Hama Province on September 19. The Russian Ministry of Defense launched an immediate disinformation operation to present this shift in its air campaign as a legitimate series of strikes against extremist groups attempting to disrupt a ‘de-escalation zone’ in Idlib Province brokered by Russia, Turkey, and Iran on September 15. Russia nonetheless mounted a systematic campaign of airstrikes against civilian infrastructure – including hospitals, schools, power stations, and mosques – as well as former U.S.-backed rebel groups unaffiliated with HTS or al Qaeda. The strikes marked a return to the widespread punitive air campaigns Russia previously directed against opposition-held terrain across Western Syria. Russia also employed advanced weapons systems to further inflict violence against Idlib Province under the guise of counter-terrorism operations. The Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Permanent Mediterranean Task Force launched Kalibr cruise missiles targeting Ma’arat al-Numan in Southern Idlib Province on September 22. Russia Tu-95MS ‘Bear’ strategic bombers later launched Kh-101 cruise missiles targeting the outskirts of Idlib City on September 26. Russia’s deliberate use of violence against civilians precludes any legitimate, Russian-enforced ‘de-escalation’ zone in Idlib Province.

Russia also leveraged its ongoing air campaign to co-opt Turkey away from the U.S. and NATO in order to further set conditions for the planned ‘de-escalation zone’ in Idlib. Russia concentrated its airstrikes in areas of Western Idlib Province along the Syrian-Turkish Border from September 25 - 30. The Russian Air Force likely sought to interdict the movement of HTS and opposition forces ahead of a Turkish Armed Force (TSK) deployment into Idlib by targeting rebel-held areas connecting Western Aleppo Province to the Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing on the Syrian-Turkish Border as well as key supply routes around Idlib City. Turkish President Recep Erdogan subsequently announced the start of cross-border operations to implement the Idlib ‘de-escalation zone’ on October 7. Erdogan stated that Russia would support his intervention. The TSK began deployments to observation positions in Northern Idlib Province near the majority-Kurdish Afrin Canton on October 12 following earlier reconnaissance missions. Russia likely perceives an opportunity to exploit widening diplomatic fissures between the U.S. and Turkey. Russia could thus attempt to use the ‘de-escalation zone’ to compel Turkey into deeper – albeit temporary – cooperation with Russia in Northwestern Syria at the expense of the United States.

The following graphic depicts ISW’s assessment of Russian airstrike locations based on reports from local Syrian activist networks, statements by Russian and Western officials, and documentation of Russian airstrikes through social media. This map represents locations targeted by Russia’s air campaign, rather than the number of individual strikes or sorties. The graphic likely under-represents the extent of the locations targeted in Eastern Syria, owing to a relative lack of activist reporting from that region.

High-Confidence Reporting. ISW places high confidence in reports corroborated by documentation from opposition factions and activist networks on the ground in Syria deemed to be credible that demonstrate a number of key indicators of Russian airstrikes.

Low-Confidence Reporting. ISW places low confidence in reports corroborated only by multiple secondary sources, including from local Syrian activist networks deemed credible or Syrian state-run media.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The "War after ISIS" begins in Iraq

by: Jennifer Cafarella and Omer Kassim with Najjam Malik

Key Takeaway: A battle is underway between the Iraqi Government, backed by Iran, and Iraqi Kurds for control of Kirkuk, Iraq. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Counterterrorism Services (CTS), Federal Police, and Iranian-backed popular mobilization forces (PMF) launched a combined offensive with intent to seize the K1 military base, the Kirkuk airport, and Kirkuk’s oilfields from Kurdish Peshmerga forces at 2:00 a.m. on October 15th. The offensive follows two days of failed negotiations after the government of Iraq (GOI), backed by Iran, demanded Kurdish forces withdraw. US efforts to de-escalate failed. Iran’s role in the offensive further strengthens its influence within Iraq, sidelines the U.S., and will increase Arab Shiite popular support for Iranian-backed candidates in Iraq’s upcoming elections, currently scheduled for April 2018. Iran’s use of an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) against U.S. forces in Salah al Din Province, southwest of Kirkuk, on October 1 likely signals Iran’s resolve to use force to deter the U.S. from taking a direct military role. ISW is monitoring the situation and will provide regular updates.

What happened: Elements from a combined force of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF), Counterterrorism Services (CTS), Federal Police, and Iranian-backed popular mobilization forces (PMF) south of Kirkuk City launched a probing attack against Peshmerga forces southwest of Kirkuk at 2:00 a.m. on October 15th. The Iranian-backed units include the Badr Organization’s Turkmen Brigade (the 16th PMU brigade) and three brigades from Asai’b Ahl al-Haq (the 41st, 42nd and 43rd PMU brigades). Clashes are ongoing in the industrial zone southwest of Kirkuk City at the time of writing.

Context: The Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the government of Iraq (GoI) have been in a standoff after the KRG held a referendum on September 25, 2017 to affirm its right to declare independence. The governments of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey have strongly opposed the Kurdish referendum and took action to compel the KRG to stop short of declaring independence.The Iraqi Supreme Court declared the referendum illegal on September 18th, pending legal review. The Iraqi government and Iran both prohibited flights to Kurdistan. Iraq held military exercises with Iran along the latter’s border with Iraqi Kurdistan on October 1 and conducted symbolic military exercises with Turkey on September 26 in order to demonstrate solidarity against the referendum. Iraq’s Council of Representatives (CoR) voted on September 27 to authorize Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi to retake Kirkuk and its oil fields, prompting a Kurdish boycott of the CoR.

The Iraqi Kurds have thus faced a decision about whether to declare outright independence from Baghdad after receiving a popular mandate to do so through the referendum. Intra-Kurdish divisions both within Iraq’s main Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), complicated the Kurds’ way forward. KRG President Masoud Barzani, the President of the KRG and head of the KDP, has been the referendum’s staunchest supporter. His chief lifetime rival, Jalal Talabani, died on October 3, 2017 after a stroke in 2012 and protracted hospitalization. Talabani’s death accelerated a pre-existing competition for leadership over the PUK movement between his family and a separate sub-faction led by KRG vice president Kosrut Rasoul. The battle for Kirkuk will unify the PUK and KDP in defense of the Kurdish region despite their political differences. Its outcome will likely affect the timeline of KRG elections currently scheduled for November 1, 2017.

What changed: The government of Iraq backed by Iran began to compel Iraqi Kurdistan into withdrawing its armed forces from Kirkuk on October 12. Baghdad and Tehran separately issued ultimatums to the KRG. Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and leader of the Iranian-proxy Badr Organization, Hadi al Ameri, both issued statements on October 13 demanding Kurdish forces relinquish unilateral control over Kirkuk. Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani traveled to Iraq and likely delivered a direct ultimatum from Ayatollah Ali Al Khameni to Kurdish leader. He also delivered a message of Khameni’s support to Abadi. He remains in Iraqi Kurdistan at the time of writing, according to local reports.

The joint Iraqi-Iranian demand followed the deployment of a combined force of Iranian-backed militias, Federal Police, and the 9th Iraqi Armored Division to frontline positions with the Kurdish Peshmerga south and west of Kirkuk City on October 12th. Local Kurdish Peshmerga commanders claimed that the local PMF and ISF commanders demanded Peshmerga forces withdraw from oil installations, the Kirkuk airport, and the K1 military base within 48 hours, citing a decision from Prime Minister Abadi. The KDP and PUK immediately deployed as many as 6,000 reinforcements to Kirkuk and withdrew from areas west and south of Kirkuk City in order to consolidate a new defensive perimeter. A lethal Iranian proxy group, AAH, attacked the headquarters of the PUK in Tuz Khurmatu, a disputed Kurdish and Shiite Turkmen town, overnight on October 13. The attack signaled Iran’s commitment to fight if the Kurds refused to back down.

Iraqi Kurds initially attempted to de-escalate the situation in Kirkuk without relinquishing control of the installations and facilities demanded by Abadi. The Kurdish President of Iraq Fuad Masum traveled to Suleimaniya on October 14 to mediate a possible resolution of the standoff in Kirkuk. He later met with leadership from both the PUK and the KDP in Dokan, Suleimaniya province and then delivered a five-point proposal to Baghdad. Baghdad rejected the proposal.

Implications: The attack against Kurdish forces in Kirkuk could lead to full-sale war between the KRG and government of Iraq. Iran’s role in the offensive further strengthens its influence within GoI and will increase Arab Shiite popular support for Iranian-backed candidates in Iraq’s upcoming elections, currently scheduled for April 2018. It also sidelines the U.S. Iran’s likely use of an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP) against U.S. forces in Salah al Din Province, southwest of Kirkuk, on October 1 likely signals Iran’s resolve to use force to deter a direct U.S. military role, if necessary.

ISW is monitoring the situation and will provide regular updates.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Return of Signature Iranian Explosive Could Signal Escalation in Iraq

Jennifer Cafarella

Key Takeaway: The return of a signature Iranian explosive device in Iraq could indicate that Iran may already have escalated against U.S. forces in Iraq either to deter the roll out of a new US strategy against Iran, or to retaliate against it.

President Trump has signaled his intent to decertify the Iranian nuclear agreement and is scheduled to announce a new counter-Iran strategy on October 13th. Iranian officials have signaled that Iran may take military action against US forces in the region if the U.S. takes harsh steps against Iran such as designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization. Iranian proxies in Iraq that once fought against the US have also repeatedly signaled their intent to oust US forces from Iraq after defeating ISIS. The spokesman for Katai'b Hezbollah stated that "we look at America as our first enemy" in early 2017, for example. Iran is most likely to use its proxies to escalate in Iraq, where US forces are vulnerable. 

A high-end Iranian signature weapon, an Explosively Formed Penetrator (EFP), killed U.S. soldier Specialist Alexander W. Missildine and wounded another soldier on a major road in Iraq’s Salahuddin Province on October 1st. The U.S. military is still investigating the origin of the explosive. Yet Iran is the likely perpetrator. The EFP is a high-end explosive device that Iran previously provided to its proxies in Iraq to kill U.S. soldiers during the Iraq War. Iranian-provided EFPs killed nearly 200 US soldiers and wounded over 800 from 2005-2011 according to figures declassified by US Central Command.  

ISW and CTP forecasted in September 2017 that Iran may opt for a “most dangerous” course of action in the next six months and order its proxy forces in Iraq to attack US personnel or contractors in Iraq. The use of an EFP against US soldiers in Iraq could indicate the start of this Iranian path of escalation.

ISW and CTP forecasted that Iran’s plans in the 6 months from September 2017 will be:

Main Effort: Iran will continue to prioritize efforts to constrain, disrupt, and ultimately expel the U.S. from Syria. Iran will conduct operations to block further expansion by coalition partners on the ground, including the Syrian Kurdish YPG near Raqqa City. Iran will continue supporting operations to bolster the presence of pro-regime forces in Deir ez Zour Province in Eastern Syria. The pro-Assad coalition remains unlikely to launch major urban clearing operations in Deir ez Zour City. They will likely choose to conduct further operations to secure key oil fields and minor population centers along the Euphrates River Valley. Iran will help Assad consolidate his control over Aleppo, Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Dera’a Provinces in western Syria. Iran remains unlikely to contribute additional, large combat forces to these efforts unless required to preserve its proxies’ combat power or to counter an emergent threat to Assad. Iran will likely remain cautious in supporting operations in southern Syria to reduce the risk of a major direct conflict with Israel, which Iran is not pursuing at this time. Iran will prioritize efforts to maintain and develop the Russo-Iranian coalition as well as the Quartet with Russia, the Assad regime, and Iraq.

Main Effort: Iran will focus on political efforts in Iraq to secure its influence and the full withdrawal of U.S. forces. Iran will attempt to shape the outcome of the 2018 Iraqi Parliamentary Election in order to cultivate a favorable government in Baghdad. Iran will likely attempt to craft a coalition that sets political constraints on current Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. Iran could alternatively seek to ensure the election of a more responsive premier. Iran will continue its efforts to establish durable influence within the ISF. Iran has a number of possible courses of action it may pursue in support of its main effort in Iraq in the next six months. They include:
  • Most Likely Course of Action (MLCOA) - Iraq: The Russo-Iranian coalition takes new steps to offset the U.S. role in Iraq and set political conditions that accelerate an ultimate U.S. drawdown. Iran uses its proxies to coerce the Iraqi government into launching clearing operations in ISIS-held Tel Afar, now completed, and Hawija with heavy PMU involvement and minimal U.S. involvement (this operation is well underway). Iran uses these operations to further develop its influence within the Iraqi Ministry of Defense while sidelining the U.S. Russia offers military advisors to the ISF, PMU, or both in order to offset the U.S. role. Russia and Iran may undertake a combined effort to build up Iraq’s rotary wing capability independent from the U.S. and possibly in direct support of the PMU. Russia and Iran both pressure key Iraqi leaders, possibly including Abadi, to call for a full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq rather than a residual U.S. troop presence.
  • Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA) - Iraq (A): Iran orders its proxy forces to attack U.S. personnel or U.S. contractors in Iraq in order to compel a U.S. withdrawal. This COA directly places forces at risk and might escalate beyond Iraq. It is not likely unless the U.S. decides to increase the U.S. troop presence in Iraq or to take aggressive action against Iran after the U.S. policy review concludes, such as imposing meaningful secondary sanctions against the entire IRGC. Iran’s proxies could also target U.S. personnel that deploy to Iraq to secure the highways from Jordan and Saudi Arabia to Baghdad.
  • MDCOA - Iraq (B): Iran deploys ground forces into Diyala Province in eastern Iraq in order to secure the province. This course of action is likely if ISIS shifts reinforcements to Diyala Province or has unspent capabilities there – not visible through open sources – that let ISIS achieve a major breakthrough. This COA is dangerous because it would further undermine Iraqi state sovereignty and set a precedent for foreign intervention in Iraq that could embolden Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to increase his own involvement in northern Iraq. Supporting Effort (enduring): Iran will prioritize efforts to strengthen the capabilities and cohesion of the Axis of Resistance. Iran will attempt to limit the costs of its ongoing interventions in Iraq and Syria by discouraging large-scale troop deployments or sudden, massive military campaigns by Assad. It will work to preserve and expand its existing proxy forces including Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shi’a militias. Iran will also continue supporting the al Houthi movement in Yemen, although it remains unlikely to expand that support dramatically in either scope or scale.

Supporting Effort (enduring): Iran will vigorously oppose the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan. It will try to block or delay a declaration of independence in principle and in practice after the independence referendum. It will use military means to deny the incorporation of contested terrain and key positions into Kurdistan. It will begin by positioning military assets to deter Kurdish forces, but is willing to use force if deterrence fails. Its primary instrument will be its proxy forces within the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units. Iranian-backed PMU are currently positioned on the southern and western borders of the oil-rich disputed Kirkuk Province, currently largely under Kurdish control. They are also present around contested areas in both Diyala and Salah al Din Provinces. Iran will also use coercive means to deter local councils in disputed areas from joining the referendum. This effort is already underway. Iran will also pressure Arab politicians to reject the referendum, and possibly to oppose it through force.

Friction: Iran’s primary source of friction will be the continued threat posed by ISIS in Iraq. Iran is unlikely to press for the rapid expulsion of the U.S. from Iraq if it would risk a resurgence by ISIS. Iran will opt to increase political pressure on Baghdad to gradually reduce and ultimately end the U.S. presence in Iraq. Iran will likely wait until after anti-ISIS operations in Kirkuk and Anbar provinces conclude to push this campaign. Iran could nonetheless orchestrate a more dramatic campaign to expel the U.S. from Iraq if it perceived a more manageable threat from ISIS and al Qaeda or a more urgent threat from the U.S. Iran could pursue this option if the U.S. attempts to increase its force posture in Iraq or challenges Iran elsewhere in the Middle East. Iran must also balance its hostile policy towards the U.S. and Israel against its obligations in the Russo-Iranian coalition. Iran will avoid generating a major confrontation with the U.S. in Syria. Iran will also refrain from openly spoiling negotiated deals between the U.S. and Russia in Syria. Iran could reevaluate its priorities if tensions escalate between the U.S. and Iran elsewhere in the Middle East. Increased pushback by the U.S. against Iran — including sanctions legislation passed this year and tougher rhetoric — remains unlikely to generate such a decision in the absence of wider threats to Iran’s core strategic interests.

Syria Situation Report: September 27 - October 10, 2017

By: ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct 

This graphic marks the latest installment of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. This graphic depicts significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from September 27 – October 10, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphic is accurate as of October 10, 2017.

Special credit to Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for the text of this Syria SITREP Map.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Moscow Seeks to Destabilize Increasingly Vulnerable Ukraine

By Franklin Holcomb and Kyle Miller

The Kremlin continued its campaign to destabilize Ukraine while political tensions in Kyiv escalated as major players began to position for 2019 elections. Ukraine took further steps toward NATO and EU integration, but key anti-corruption reforms stalled. The Kremlin’s campaign continued to focus on exploiting political, cultural, and ethnic divisions in Ukrainian society and attempting to legitimize its proxy forces in Donbas while they continued relatively low-level combat operations against Ukrainian forces in Eastern Ukraine. The U.S. signaled broader military support for Ukraine, but it must take a holistic approach to helping Kyiv defend itself from the Kremlin’s multifaceted campaign. 

The Kremlin continued its covert and overt campaign aimed to destabilize Ukraine. Russian proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine conducted daily attacks on the positions of Ukrainian Armed Forces in the East, damaging local infrastructure and killing Ukrainian soldiers. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) also reported pro-Russian agents engaged in acts of subversion and sabotage across Ukraine designed to damage Ukrainian infrastructure and spread discontent. The SBU announced on 17 AUG that it obtained information indicating that the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) was planning kinetic attacks within Ukraine. The Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff accused Russian special services of destroying a major Ukrainian arms depot in the Western province of Vinnytsia on 27 SEP, the fourth Ukrainian arms depot destroyed since the conflict began. Ukraine has been unable to halt these acts of sabotage and report that they are starting to seriously impact the Armed Forces of Ukraine's (AFU) combat readiness.

The Kremlin attempted to isolate Ukraine by exploiting Eastern European cultural, ethnic, and political tensions with mixed success. The SBU detained members of a group of saboteurs on 02 OCT in Western Ukraine before they could damage a Hungarian monument. The SBU claimed that these men had conducted similar attacks against Polish monuments, government buildings, and diplomatic facilities in Ukraine and were connected to members of the defunct pro-Russia “Party of Regions.” The Kremlin would likely have attempted to frame Ukrainian nationalists as the perpetrators of the sabotage of the Hungarian monument, as it did in the previous incidents against Polish structures. This act of sabotage was likely intended to inflame existing tensions between Hungary and Ukraine. Hungarian leaders condemned a Ukrainian education bill mandating the use of Ukrainian in school, which they argue harms the small ethnic Hungarian population in western Ukraine. Poland, Moldova, and Romania have also expressed concerns about the welfare of their ethnic populations in western Ukraine. The Kremlin will continue to use its operatives in Eastern Europe to drive wedges between European states and decrease regional political, economic, and military cooperation.

The Kremlin made a peace overture designed to allow it to posture as a responsible international actor and frame Ukraine and the West as the drivers of the conflict. The Kremlin submitted a draft resolution to the UN with terms known to be unacceptable to Kyiv calling for the deployment of peacekeepers, including Russian soldiers, to Donbas on 05 SEP. The Kremlin’s proposal limited the role of peacekeepers to protecting international monitors in restricted areas in eastern Ukraine, rather than assisting with the implementation of the Minsk II ceasefire.  The Kremlin also continued to call for Ukraine to negotiate directly with separatist forces, which would help legitimize its proxies. Ukraine and the U.S. rejected the Kremlin’s proposal. Ukraine provided a counter-proposal that called for peacekeepers to be deployed throughout the conflict zone, including the Russian-Ukrainian border, with a broad mandate to help stabilize the region. The Kremlin rejected Ukraine’s proposal and accused Kyiv of delaying the peace process, while continuing its military campaign against Ukraine.

Ukraine advanced its military integration with Western military and economic structures, while it lost momentum in its fight against corruption. The AFU furthered integration with NATO and improved joint interoperability through participation in multinational military exercises such as ‘Platinum Lion 2017’ and NATO exercise ‘Rapid Trident 2017.’  Ukraine also agreed to deepen military cooperation with Poland by expanding the role of the Lithuanian-Polish-Ukrainian brigade. Ukraine formally entered into an Association Agreement with the EU, which will accelerate economic, judicial, and government reforms to meet EU standards, on 01 SEP. Ukrainian civil-economic reforms nonetheless showed signs of stagnation despite this progress. Ukraine failed to advance its initiative to establish much-needed independent anti-corruption courts, due to resistance from within the Ukrainian government. The last members of the independent advisory board for Ukraine’s state-owned oil and gas company Naftogaz, which had been a flagship of reforms, resigned on 21 SEP and accused the Ukrainian government of “dismantling” reform efforts. All other members of the advisory board had previously resigned and leveled similar accusations against Poroshenko’s government.

Ukraine’s domestic political volatility increased ahead of the 2019 presidential elections. Former Georgian president and former governor of Odessa Oblast, Mikheil Saakashvili, whose citizenship Poroshenko had previously revoked, entered Ukraine on 10 SEP after his supporters helped him break through Ukraine’s western border. Saakashvili condemned the Poroshenko administration for corruption and pledged to lead protests against the current government. He met with Ukrainian opposition politicians, including ‘Fatherland’ opposition party leader Yulia Tymoshenko. He also attempted to court the reformist bloc by supporting many of its policy recommendations including the formation of independent anti-corruption courts. Saakashvili is unlikely to gain enough support to challenge Poroshenko, but his momentum indicates rising discontent with Poroshenko in Ukraine’s reformist coalition. Pro-Russia political players are also setting conditions ahead of the elections. Leader of the pro-Russia political party ‘Ukrainian Choice’ Viktor Medvedchuk and an ally of President Putin held a closed-door meeting Putin in Crimea on 18 AUG, during which they likely refined the Kremlin’s strategy of returning Kyiv to its sphere of influence. The Kremlin will seek to exploit and foster the growing political instability in order to fracture the pro-Western coalition and boost its political proxies in Ukraine. Poroshenko and the reformists must address core governance issues ahead of the 2019 elections, particularly by taking decisive anti-corruption measures, or risk losing control of the government.

The U.S. advanced legislation intended to bolster its military support to Ukraine, although additional efforts will be needed to counteract the Kremlin’s multifaceted subversion campaign. The U.S. Congress passed a bill allocating $500 million to Ukrainian defense on 19 SEP that includes a provision authorizing the supply of lethal defensive aid. This is a critical step in supporting the AFU’s efforts to reform into a modern military force capable of defending Ukraine. The U.S. and its partners must nonetheless take a comprehensive approach to successfully counter the Kremlin’s destabilization of Ukraine, including economic incentives and pressures to encourage Ukraine to pursue reforms. The West should not be distracted by the Kremlin’s disingenuous negotiating proposal, and keep pressure on the Kremlin to remove its forces from Ukraine.