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Monday, August 21, 2017

Moldova Update: Kremlin Will Likely Seek to Realign Chisinau

                                                             Franklin Holcomb, Sean Jones, Nataliya Bugayova


Russia likely perceives a requirement to subvert the Moldovan government before Moldova’s 2018 parliamentary elections or risk surrendering influence over the country’s decision-making. The broadly pro-Western Moldovan government recently took steps to curb Russia’s subversion, and expand its cooperation with Ukraine and NATO. Moldova’s pro-Russia President Igor Dodon has thus far failed to make meaningful progress in pushing Moldova into the Kremlin’s orbit. Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely attempt to destabilize the government of Moldova and empower President Dodon to reset the political situation in Chisinau in the Kremlin’s favor. The U.S. must support the forces in Moldova defending the country’s sovereignty against Russian aggression.

Moldova’s pro-Russia president Igor Dodon is attempting to push Moldova into Russia’s orbit, but is facing effective resistance from pro-Western elements of the government.[1] Dodon, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s key ally in Moldova, supports Moldova’s integration into Russia-controlled structures, including Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). He is currently unable to initiate membership talks or achieve any important progress without parliamentary support.[2] Dodon attempted to transition the country from a parliamentary system to a presidential one in order to expand his power.[3] The Moldovan Constitutional Court disrupted Dodon’s plan on July 27 by finding his planned September 2017 referendum on the issue unconstitutional.[4]  

The pro-Western Moldovan Parliament and the Prime Minister Pavel Filip have taken decisive steps to counter Russian subversion and integrate with Western structures. The Moldovan Parliament demanded that Russia’s “peacekeeping forces,” illegally deployed in the Russian-controlled separatist Transnistria region since 1992, withdraw from Moldovan territory on July 21.[5] Moldova also denied a number of high-profile Russians, including Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and a member of the Russian parliament, access to the country.[6] Moldova also expanded its security cooperation with Ukraine. Moldova reiterated its support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s proxy forces in Eastern Ukraine.[7] Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and Moldovan Prime Minister Pavel Filip participated in the opening of a joint border crossing designed to expand customs control and prevent smuggling, and likely intelligence activity, from Transnistria on July 17. The two governments agreed to expand that control on August 14.[8] Moldova continues to fight the ongoing flow of Russian mercenaries to and from Moldova and Eastern Ukraine.[9]  The Moldovan government expelled five Russian diplomats on May 29, whom it accused of recruiting Moldovans to fight alongside Russia’s separatist proxies in Eastern Ukraine.[10] The Moldovan government also continues to expand its ties with NATO, most recently agreeing to open a NATO liaison office in Chisinau.[11]  

Russia views these developments, in particular, Moldova’s steps to advance its cooperation with Ukraine and NATO as a threat to its regional security interests. The Kremlin uses its illegal military basing in Transnistria to threaten Moldova, Ukraine’s western flank and NATO member Romania. The Kremlin sees Moldova-Ukraine border posts as an attempt to isolate its base in Transnistria.[12] Russia has had difficulty moving troops and supplies into Transnistria due to its war in Ukraine, and expanding Ukraine-Moldova cooperation threatens to cut off its access to the region entirely. [13]The Deputy Chairman of the Russian Federation Council’s Committee on Defense and Security Bair Zhamsuev said on August 08 that Russia would use military force to protect Transnistria should Moldova or the West attempt to invade it.[14] 

Russia will likely escalate its efforts to undermine Moldova’s broadly pro-Western government. President Dodon’s legal options to achieve his goals are now highly limited, which is likely to prompt the Kremlin to directly subvert the Moldovan government. The Kremlin’s most likely course of action will be to use disinformation and political subversion to weaken the pro-Western government in order expand Dodon’s influence. The Kremlin’s most dangerous course of action would be to use its military and intelligence forces operating out of Transnistria to destabilize and, potentially, collapse the pro-Western government ahead of 2018 parliamentary elections. In both cases, the Kremlin is also likely to frame the Western presence in Moldova as a provocation in order to justify an expansion of Russian involvement in Transnistria.[15] Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has already claimed the U.S. is training Moldovan saboteurs to infiltrate Transnistria at a military base undergoing U.S.-funded renovation in Bulboaca, Moldova on August 07.[16] Dodon promised to watch the base for signs of a regional conflict provoked by the U.S.[17] The Kremlin will also likely exploit the growing political tensions, rising ahead of the 2018 elections. The Moldovan Parliament passed a controversial bill on July 20 that would change Moldova to a mixed electoral system. The legislation, which was criticized for perpetuating larger parties’ control of the government, caused protests and clashes between police and protesters.”[18] The Kremlin may use such discontent to foster further political instability.

The Trump Administration must support pro-Western political forces in Moldova in their efforts to counter Russian subversion and strengthen Moldova’s internal resiliency. The US must help Moldova secure its sovereignty and territorial integrity, develop a transparent and accountable government, and deter potential Russian aggression. Such support should include a range of assistance programs, including military and border security assistance. The US must reemphasize that Russian forces are illegally occupying Transnistria and must withdraw from Moldovan territory.








[1] Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Republic of Moldova Parliament: Last Elections,” ipu.org, http://www(.)ipu.org/parline-e/reports/2215_E.htm
[2] Alexander Tanas, “Moldova President sees Move Towards Russia-led Trade Union in 2017,” Reuters, July 28, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-moldova-dodon-idUSKBN1AD253 Novinite Staff, “Moldova President Supports the Eurasian Economic Union,” Novinite, July 12, 2017, http://www.novinite(.)com/articles/181167/Moldova+President+Supports+the+Eurasian+Economic+Union TASS Staff, “Moldovan President Hopes Putin will Visit Moldova Next Year,” TASS, July 25, 2017, http://tass(.)com/world/957763 Allessandra Prentice and Alexander Tanas, “Pro-Russian Candidate Triumphs in Moldova Presidential Race,” Reuters, November 13, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-moldova-election-idUSKBN1380TNMihai Popsoi, "Why did a Pro-Russian Candidate Win the Presidency in Moldova?" FPRI, November 23, 2016, http://www.fpri.org/article/2016/11/pro-russian-candidate-win-presidency-moldova/
[3] Mihai Popsoi, “Moldovan President Seeks Regime Change via Referendum,” Jamestown Foundation, March 06, 2017, https://jamestown.org/program/moldovan-president-seeks-regime-change-via-referendum/
[4] RFERL Staff, “Moldovan Court Finds President Dodon’s Referendum Plan Unconstitutional,” RFERL, July 27, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/moldova-president-dodon-referendum-unconstitutional/28642832.html
[5] Diana Preasca, “The Chisinau Parliament Calls for the Withdrawal of Russian Troops from the Territory of the Republic of Moldova,” Moldova.org, July 21, 2017, [Romanian] http://www.moldova(.)org/parlamentul-de-la-chisinau-cere-retragerea-trupelor-ruse-de-pe-teritoriul-republicii-moldova/Russian Ministry of Defense, "Peacekeeping Operation in Transnistria," Russian Ministry of Defense, http://eng.mil(.)ru/en/mission/peacekeeping_operations/more.htm?id=10336232@cmsArticle
[6] RFERL Staff, “Igor Dodon Threatens to Punish Those who Cause Worsening of Bilateral Relations with Russia,” RFERL, July 28, 2017, [Romanian], https://www.europalibera(.)org/a/28645115.html
RFERL Staff, “Dmitry Rogozin, Declared Undesirable in Moldova,” RFERL, August 02, 2017, [Romanian] https://www.europalibera(.)org/a/28654834.html
[7] RFERL Staff, “The Republic of Moldova Condemns the Proclamation of the so-called “Malorossiya” by the Secessionists in the Donetsk Region,” RFERL, July 21, 2017, [Romanian] http://www.moldova(.)org/republica-moldova-condamna-proclamarea-de-catre-secesionistii-din-regiunea-donetk-a-asa-zisei-malorusia/
[8] RFERL Staff, “Ukraine and Moldova have Opened a Common Border Crossing,” RFERL, July 17, 2017, [Russian] https://www.svoboda.org/a/28621398.html
RFERL Staff, “Moldova, Ukraine to Extend Joint Control at All Border Crossing Points on the Transnistrian Segment,” RFERL, August 14, 2017, [Romanian] https://www.europalibera(.)org/a/28676134.html
[9] Cristi Vlas, “Another Moldovan Mercenary Arrested for Fighting for Separatist Entities in Eastern Ukraine,” Moldova.org, June 28, 2017, http://www.moldova(.)org/en/another-moldovan-mercenary-arrested-fighting-separatist-entities-eastern-ukraine/
[10] UNIAN Staff, “Moldova Expels 5 Russian Diplomats,” UNIAN,  May 29, 2017, https://www.unian(.)info/politics/1948686-moldova-expels-5-russian-diplomats.html
[11] RFERL Staff, “The NATO Liaison Office in Chisinau Could be Opened in August,” RFERL, July 21, 2017, https://www.europalibera(.)org/a/28630897.html
[12] RFERL Staff, “Igor Dodon Assures Russia that the Moldovan Authorities will not make Transnistrian Problems Through Joint Customs Control with Ukraine,” RFERL, July 19, 2017, https://www.europalibera(.)org/a/28625964.html
[13] Stratfor Staff, “How Ukraine is Obstructing Russia in Transnistria,” Stratfor, June 12, 2017, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/how-ukraine-obstructing-russia-transdniestria RFERL Staff, “Moldova Refuses Russia “the Right to Cross its Airspace and Land Aircraft” at Russian Military Airports in Chisinau and Tiraspol,” RFERL, [Romanian] July 20, 2017, https://www.europalibera(.)org/a/28628072.html
[14] Nikita Kondratov, “Duma Member: “Russia Will Protect Transnistria,” First Transnistrian, August 08, 2017, [Russian] https://tv.pgtrk(.)ru/news/20170808/59941
[15] Steven L Hall, “Why the West should Pay More Attention to Moldova,” Stratfor, February 20, 2016, https://worldview.stratfor.com/article/why-west-should-pay-more-attention-moldova TASS Staff, “Transdniestria Leader Accuses Moldova of Stepping up Cooperation with NATO,” TASS, July 05, 2016, http://tass(.)com/world/886438
[16] Realitatea Staff, “Dmitry Rogozin: US Prepares Saboteurs and Soldiers of the Special Forces of Moldova for a new Transnistrian Conflict,” Realitatea.md, August 07, 2017, [Romanian] http://www.realitatea(.)md/dmitri-rogozin--sua-pregateste-sabotori-si-militari-ai-fortelor-speciale-din-r--moldova-pentru-un-nou-conflict-transnistrean_62197.html
[17] Arina Livadari, “What Dodon Found at the Bulboaca Military Polygon,” Moldova.org, August 14, 2017, [Romanian] http://www.moldova(.)org/en/dodon-found-bulboaca-military-polygon/ RFERL Staff, “Despite Russian Allegations, Moldova’s Dodon Finds no Fault with Training Base,” RFERL, August 14, 2017. [Romanian] https://www.rferl.org/a/moldova-dodon-refutes-russia-rt-allegations-military-base/28676040.html TASS Staff, “Moldovan President Accuses West of Attempting to Involve Chisinau in Regional Conflict,” TASS, August 14, 2017, http://tass(.)com/world/960270
[18]  RFERL Staff, “PPE and ALDE Call on the EU to Stop Moldova’s Funding and Assess the “Decline of the Rule of Law and Democratic Standards,” RFERL, July 26, 2017, [Romanian] https://www.europalibera(.)org/a/28639018.html; RFERL Staff, “The Parliamentary Majority in Chisinau Voted Unexpectedly in Favor of the Transition to the Mixed Electoral System at Final Reading,” RFERL, July 20, 2017, [Romanian] https://www.europalibera.org/a/28628262.html Diana Preasca, “Altercations Wednesday Evening in front of the Parliament in Chisinau. Two People Detained,” Moldova.org [Romanian] http://www.moldova(.)org/altercatii-miercuri-seara-in-fata-parlamentului-de-la-chisinau-doua-persoane-retinute-video/ RFERL Staff, “Appeals from the Opposition from Moldova to Protest Against the Vote in the Parliament on the Modification of the Electoral System,” RFERL, July 19, 2017. [Romanian] http://www.moldova(.)org/igor-dodon-a-promulgat-legea-privind-reforma-guvernului-voi-insista-ca-si-numarul-deputatilor-sa-fie-redus/

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Russia's Syria Mirage: July 17 - August 13, 2017

By Matti Suomenaro, Ellen Stockert, and Genevieve Casagrande

Russia continues to masquerade as an effective anti-ISIS actor in order to lure the U.S. into a counter-terrorism partnership in Syria. Russia seeks to leverage this partnership to expedite an American withdrawal from Syria, removing the U.S. as an obstacle to continued Russian build up and force projection in the Middle East. Russia may achieve short-term territorial gains against ISIS, but will ultimately undermine U.S.-led anti-ISIS efforts in Eastern Syria. The Russian-backed campaign will fail to decisively defeat ISIS and al Qaeda in Syria, however. Russian airstrikes in ISIS-held terrain regularly targeted civilian infrastructure such as mosques, schools, and medical centers from July 17 - August 13, according to local activists. Russian airstrikes also reportedly targeted an internally-displaced persons (IDP) camp in Zour Shamar in Eastern Raqqa province on July 23 - 24. Russia’s punitive strikes against vulnerable Sunni populations will exacerbate local grievances, increase sectarian tension, and pave the way for the resurgence of ISIS, al Qaeda, and other jihadist groups in areas recently seized from ISIS. Moreover, pro-Bashar al Assad regime forces’ rapid advance in Eastern Syria may indicate the regime is not allocating sufficient time or manpower to conduct effective clearing operations. Incomplete clearing operations could permit ISIS to leave behind latent attack cells or create ISIS-permissive zones along the Euphrates River Valley. The pro-regime coalition currently lacks the manpower required to secure and hold these areas in the long-term.

Iran and the Assad regime are already exploiting nascent U.S.-Russian cooperation to expand their control into Eastern Syria at the expense of the U.S. and its partners. Russian airstrikes primarily targeted ISIS-held areas from July 17 - August 13 in support of Iranian and Assad regime advances. Pro-regime forces backed by Russia and Iran recaptured Sukhna, which sits on the Palmyra - Deir ez Zour Highway, from ISIS on August 13 following a wave of ISIS counterattacks against the city from August 8 - 10. Russian airstrikes also targeted villages along the southern bank of of the Euphrates River in southeastern Raqqa Province, allowing the recapture of al Numaysah, al Jaber, and al Kumaysah towns by pro-Iranian and regime forces. These gains were facilitated by manpower freed from recent de-escalation zones brokered by Russia in Southwest Syria, the Eastern Ghouta suburb of Damascus, and northwestern Homs Province. Russia, Iran and Assad seek to leverage these gains to constrain the freedom of action of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition in Syria. Pro-regime positioning along the Euphrates River could block the advancement of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) southeast from Ar-Raqqa City after the completion of Ar-Raqqa City clearing operations. Russia’s gains against ISIS in Syria’s East will ultimately embolden Iran and the Bashar al Assad regime, rather than constrain them.

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.


CORRECTION: A previous version of this blogpost stated Russian airstrikes targeted an IDP camp in Raqqa Province on August 23-24. The correct date for the reported Russian strikes is July 23-34.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Syria Situation Report: July 27 - August 9, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

This series of graphics marks the latest installments of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria DirectThese graphics depict significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from July 27 to August 9, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphics is accurate as of August 8, 2017.

Special credit to Matti Suomenaro and Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for their contributions to the text and graphics of this series of Syria SITREP Maps.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Syria Situation Report: June 29 - July 27, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

This series of graphics marks the latest installments of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. These graphics depict significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from June 29 to July 27, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphics is accurate as of July 6 or July 16, 2017.

Special credit to Matti Suomenaro and Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for their contributions to the text and graphics of this series of Syria SITREP Maps.







Ukraine Update: Russia’s Aggressive Subversion of Ukraine

                                                  Catherine Harris, Franklin Holcomb, Charlie Bacsik, and Charles Frattini III



Key Takeaway: Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the West yielded important progress in the past two months. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s overall pro-Western reformist movement grew more vulnerable to internal destabilization and Russian subversion. Stalling reforms, a poor economy, and an increased focus on the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine provide momentum to populists and pro-Russian political elements, as well as additional opportunities for the Kremlin to exploit as it aims to return Ukraine to its sphere of influence. The Kremlin continued its military aggression in the east and expanded its subversion campaign throughout the country, focusing on low-visibility methods, such as paying individuals to conduct protests. The Kremlin will intensify these efforts in order to destabilize the Ukrainian government as Kyiv prepares for elections in 2019. The U.S. implemented a package of sanctions on August 02 that may restrain the Kremlin’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine and elsewhere. However, the U.S. must also provide full support to Ukrainian reform efforts or risk creating a permissive environment for Kremlin subversion in Ukraine.

Ukraine achieved noteworthy successes in deepening its integration with Western political, economic, and military structures, while the U.S. signaled a more active stance. The E.U. officially implemented a visa-free travel agreement with Ukraine on June 11, and the E.U, ratified an economic association agreement with Ukraine on July 11. Both steps will help Ukraine shift away from Russia’s economic and social spheres in the long term. The U.S. also signaled an interest in playing a larger role in resolving the Russia-backed war in Ukraine following a meeting between Ukrainian President Poroshenko and President Trump on June 21 and through the appointment of former NATO Ambassador Kurt Volker as U.S. Special Representative for the Ukraine . Volker indicated that the U.S. may supply lethal defensive arms to the Ukrainian Armed Forces following a visit to the Donbas frontline on July 24. Volker’s statement was reinforced on August 1 when the Pentagon announced a draft plan to provide defensive aid to Kyiv. Ukraine took important steps toward potentially integrating its military with Western military structures. President Poroshenko signed a bill on June 8 to articulate Ukraine’s intent to apply for NATO membership in 2020. The Armed Forces of Ukraine and the U.S. also conducted large-scale naval exercises in the Black Sea on July 10-22 with numerous NATO member-states.

The reform progress inside of Ukraine began to stall while political actors increasingly focus on positioning for the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. The Ukrainian parliament adjourned for the summer without passing many expected reforms, including healthcare reform, a new law on national security, the creation of an anti-corruption court, and others. Meanwhile, President Poroshenko revoked the Ukrainian citizenship of his political opponent Mikheil Saakashvili on July 26. Many Ukrainian reformists condemned Poroshenko’s move as one that undermines the democratic ideals of the Euromaidan Revolution. Other political players in Ukraine are also beginning to prepare for the upcoming elections. Populists, including pro-Russian elements, are likely to gain traction while Ukraine’s political reforms and economy stagnate. The combination of these factors makes the government and the reform movement in Ukraine vulnerable to internal destabilization and the Kremlin’s subversion, which will remain true until the Poroshenko administration takes decisive steps to reinvigorate the reform process and economy.

Russia continues to destabilize Ukraine through a variety of low- visibility subversive methods designed not to trigger a major international reaction. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) asserted that Russia conducted a major cyber attack against state and private entities via the malware “NotPetya” on June 27. The attack effectively destabilized many Ukrainian government networks marking the largest cyber attack in Ukraine’s history. The SBU also implicated Russian-backed elements in the assassinations of two top Ukrainian intelligence officers on June 27 and 28. Russia continued its attempts to drive a wedge between Ukraine and its EU allies. Protest participants claimed that Russia-backed elements paid them to instigate anti-Polish Ukrainian nationalist protests at the Polish embassy in Kyiv on July 7. Ukrainian and Polish officials recently accused Russia of conducting additional similar schemes in an effort to inflame nationalist tensions between Poland and Ukraine. The Kremlin’s proxies in Eastern Ukraine continued to conduct offensive operations against Ukraine’s Armed Forces in violation of the Minsk II ceasefire agreements.  The Kremlin’s extensive collection of low-visibility tools, designed to conceal its ongoing campaign to destabilize and eventually remove Ukraine’s pro-Western government, will continue to pose a serious threat Ukraine’s stability and sovereignty if Kyiv’s Western partners do not support efforts to counter them.
























Thursday, August 3, 2017

Iran and Al Qaeda Exploit Syria Ceasefire

By Genevieve Casagrande

Key Takeaway: The U.S., Russia, Jordan “de-escalation zone” in Southwest Syria advances the interests of U.S. enemies and adversaries, including Iran and al Qaeda. The U.S. likely sought to leverage the agreement to drive a wedge within the Russo-Iranian Coalition, while reducing violence and testing a potential partnership with Russia to improve security in Syria. The deal has temporarily reduced violence, but at great cost to long-term U.S. interests in Syria. The Russo-Iranian coalition is exploiting the agreement to consolidate in the south. Al Qaeda will likewise leverage the deal and the recent cut to U.S. support to vetted Syrian opposition groups to preserve and expand its influence in Southern Syria.

The de-escalation zone brokered by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan does not meaningfully constrain Iranian build up in Southern Syria and along the Golan Heights. The deal is rumored to include an “exclusionary zone” that requires Iranian and other non-Syrian forces to maintain a 30-40 KM distance from the Jordanian border. Iran and Hezbollah flaunted a large re-deployment away from frontlines in Dera’a City immediately after the de-escalation zone went into effect on July 9 in order to falsely demonstrate Iranian commitment to such an exclusionary zone to the United States. Most of the pro-Iranian forces relocated to areas just outside the exclusionary zone – including in the town of Sanamayn located approximately 50 KM from the Jordanian border – and to areas just outside Dera’a City, such as Athman. Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian forces retained many of their longstanding positions within the de-escalation zone and likely maintain some latent forces within Dera’a City, itself. Notably, the deal did not affect the historic pro-Iranian build up on the Golan Heights, a concern voiced by Israel in the weeks following the ceasefire. Iranian and pro-regime capabilities in the south remain largely unchanged. These local re-deployments and troop rotations still allow for Iran to quickly re-deploy to frontlines against anti-Assad forces as necessary.

The de-escalation zone agreement secures the freedom of movement of Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime at the expense of U.S. partners. The deal has allowed Iran to temporarily shift assets away from previously contested frontlines like Dera’a City to reinforce other active fronts against the U.S. and partnered forces. Pro-Iranian and regime forces with Russian air support launched operations against historically U.S.-backed opposition groups in Northern Suwayda and Eastern Rif Dimashq Provinces following the start of the ceasefire. The deal has freed up the pro-Assad coalition to continue to further project force into Eastern Syria. Pro-regime forces backed by Russia and Iran advanced to the outskirts of Sukhna along the ground line of communication (GLOC) between Palmyra and Deir ez Zour City on July 28. Iran, Assad, and Russia seek to reopen this GLOC to besieged regime-held areas of Deir ez Zour. These advances would ultimately constrain the freedom of action of the U.S.-led Anti-ISIS coalition in Eastern Syria and could block further advances by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) along the Euphrates River Valley.

Russian build up along the frontline stands to deepen the Russo-Iranian coalition’s penetration in Southern Syria. The deal lacks a legitimate, neutral enforcement mechanism and primarily relies upon Russian, Chechen, and Ingush forces to guarantee the agreement along the line of contact between regime and opposition forces. Russia cannot and will not restrain Iran and Assad. Russia deployed hundreds of military police including Ingush units to man observation points along the line of contact. The Russian force is positioned to protect -- not push back -- Iranian positions within this zone.

The ceasefire deal allows al Qaeda to preserve its strength and expand its influence in Southern Syria. Al Qaeda had begun to reinvigorate its campaign to transform the Syrian opposition in its own image prior to the declaration of the de-escalation zone. Al Qaeda dispatched approximately thirty senior officials to Southern Syria in May 2017. Al Qaeda likely seeks to replicate its recent success in Idlib Province in the South. The ceasefire deal will provide Al Qaeda with time and space to further network itself within the opposition, including through local governance and security structures. U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to halt some covert support to vetted opposition groups in Western Syria will only accelerate al Qaeda’s potential rise in the south. Syrian rebels have expressed dissatisfaction over U.S. demands to abandon the fight against President Assad and decreased U.S. support to rebels. Al Qaeda will exploit these grievances and attempt to fill the vacuum. Al Qaeda will position itself to eventually spoil the agreement, but will do so in a timeframe that supports its own interests.


Special credit to Matti Suomenaro and Sana Sekkarie for their research contributions to this publication.


Monday, July 31, 2017

Syria Situation Report: June 7 - 29, 2017

By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct

This series of graphics marks the latest installments of our Syria SITREP Map made possible through a partnership between the Institute for the Study of War and Syria Direct. These graphics depict significant developments in the Syrian Civil War from June 7 to June 29, 2017. The control of terrain represented on the graphics is accurate as of June 15 or June 22, 2017.


Special credit to Matti Suomenaro and Sana Sekkarie of the Institute for the Study of War for their contributions to the text and graphics of this series of Syria SITREP Maps.







Thursday, July 20, 2017

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: Pre- and Post-Ceasefire

By Genevieve Casagrande and Ellen Stockert

The Russian military is reshaping its air campaign in Syria in order to compel the U.S. into partnering with Russia, which cannot destroy jihadists, roll back Iran, or set conditions for a desirable settlement to the war. Russia prioritized airstrikes against ISIS in Homs, eastern Hama, and Deir ez Zour Provinces in support of the Bashar al Assad regime from June 8 – July 16. Russia also conducted a series of high-profile strikes, including long-range strategic bombing runs from Russia and cruise missiles launched from the Eastern Mediterranean against ISIS between May and July 2017. Russia de-prioritized its air campaign against the Syrian opposition in June and early July as part of an effort to encourage the U.S. to accept Russia’s proposal for a “de-escalation zone” in Southwest Syria. The U.S. later agreed to the de-escalation zone agreement on July 7 following a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia is disguising its strategic intent by masquerading as a reliable counterterrorism partner for the U.S. in Syria. President Trump’s reported decision to end support for some anti-Assad opposition fighters will likely only encourage Putin to seize greater control over the conflict and continue rolling back U.S. influence in the country.


The ‘de-escalation zone’ deal has further secured Russia’s freedom of action to support Iran and Bashar al Assad’s campaign. Russia has consistently used ceasefires in Syria to temporarily shift and reorient resources elsewhere in the theater. The U.S.-Russia-Jordan ceasefire is no exception. The deal has freed up Russian resources to surge airstrikes in support of pro-regime operations to disrupt the U.S. and its partner forces in Eastern Syria under the guise of fighting ISIS. Pro-regime forces with support from Russian airstrikes launched operations against U.S.-backed groups in Northern Suwayda and Eastern Rif Dimashq Provinces from July 8 – 10 amidst the start of the ceasefire, reportedly seizing over a “dozen” small villages and positions from rebels in the area. Russia has likewise surged strikes in support of pro-regime forces near Palmyra and Deir ez Zour. This shift seeks to constrain U.S. operations and provide leverage for Russia in future negotiations over a potential second ceasefire in Eastern Syria. 

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.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Campaign for Ar-Raqqa City: June 20 – July 17, 2017

By Christopher Kozak

The U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) achieved small but significant gains against ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City between June 20 and July 17. The SDF completed its full encirclement of Ar-Raqqa City on June 29 after seizing a number of villages on the southern bank of the Euphrates River. Operation Inherent Resolve Commander Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend stressed that the maneuver emplaced a “physical band” that would “prevent escape or reinforcement” by ISIS in Ar-Raqqa City. The SDF later breached the heavily-fortified Old City of Ar-Raqqa on July 3 after coalition airstrikes destroyed two twenty-five meter sections of the historic Rafiqah (Old City) Walls. These breaches enabled partner forces on the ground to avoid pre-positioned ISIS defenses at existing channels through the wall, including prepared direct and indirect fire zones, land mines, IEDs, and SVBIEDs. The SDF simultaneously continued to secure incremental gains along both the eastern and western axes of Ar-Raqqa City.

The battle for Ar-Raqqa City nonetheless stands to protract over the next several months. The SDF has reportedly encountered intensified resistance and “better-emplaced defenses” over the past four weeks following initial rapid gains in districts on the outskirts of Ar-Raqqa City. ISIS has extensively leveraged innovative tools to slow coalition advances, including drone-borne munitions and a new type of motion-activated IED. The SDF has struggled for over a month to penetrate one “significant defensive IED belt” on the northern outskirts of Ar-Raqqa City. The SDF must also contend with continued pressure to protect and evacuate the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 civilians that remain trapped in Ar-Raqqa City. These challenges have been exacerbated by the poor combat performance of elements of the Syrian Arab Coalition of the SDF. Most clearing operations are reportedly led by the Syrian Kurdish YPG while allied Sunni Arabs – often suffering from lower standards of training, equipment, and motivation – serve as the rear holding force. ISIS has exploited these seams to mount successful local counteroffensives against several districts originally cleared by the Syrian Kurdish YPG. These failures highlight future problems likely to be faced by the U.S. Anti-ISIS Coalition in the establishment of a reliable local holding force such as the Raqqa Internal Security Forces.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

Russia's Mediterranean Threat to NATO

By Charles Frattini III and Genevieve Casagrande

Key Takeaway: Russian President Vladimir Putin is establishing a long-term military presence in the Mediterranean Sea in part to contest the United States’ ability to operate freely and hold NATO’s southern flank at risk.[1] Russia’s military has deployed approximately 15 naval vessels as part of a permanent Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) as of July 5, 2017.[2] Russia secured long-term naval basing for the MTF in Tartous, Syria in January 2017 after signing a bilateral agreement with the Bashar al Assad regime that extends the previous lease on the Russian Naval Facility for the next 49 years.[3]

Russian warships from the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s MTF launched two series of Kalibr cruise missile strikes against ISIS positions in Syria on May 31 and June 23.[4] The MTF’s June 23 strikes included coordinated fixed wing airstrikes.[5] This strike highlighted Russia’s ability to execute a combined arms assault utilizing forward observation positions on land, strategic assets from the sea, and follow-on strikes from the air within an active combat zone. The increasing complexity of Russia’s coordinated strikes is indicative of Moscow’s dedication to the development and modernization of its military and to showcasing its arsenal for multiple audiences. Putin is exploiting the Syrian war to test Russia’s newest naval assets and weaponry in combat, including the P-800 Onyx supersonic anti-ship missiles.[6] The MTF will continue to receive the Russian Navy’s most advanced warships outfitted with Russia’s intermediate- and long-range land and ship attack cruise missiles. Russian officials have claimed that the MTF has also conducted a variety of operational and logistical naval exercises near the Libya and Egyptian coasts.[7] Russia, which is in a strategic coalition with Iran, will continue to utilize the MTF to expand Russian military influence along the Mediterranean basin, while simultaneously increasing the risk to U.S. freedom of maneuver in the Middle East and North Africa.[8] Russia’s growing naval capabilities, partnerships, and future basing expansion could threaten major global maritime trade chokepoints, including the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab al Mandab Strait, in the long term.[9]





[1] John W. Miller and Fredrick W. Kagan, “The New Cold War in the Mediterranean,” Fox News, February 17, 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2016/02/17/new-cold-war-in-mediterranean.html
[2] “Russia’s Mediterranean Group Incorporates Fifteen Black Sea Fleet Ships,” TASS Russian News Agency, June 01, 2017 http://www.tass(.)com/defense/948989 ; Russian naval deployments to MTF after June 1, 2017: SB-739 Tugboat, [“The Black Sea Fleet’s New Rescue Tugboat Began to Perform Tasks in the Mediterranean Sea”], Russian Ministry of Defense, June 28, 2017, http://www.function.mil(.)ru/news_page/country/more.htm?id=12131320@egNews ; Vasily Tatishchev Reconnaissance Ship, “Russian Navy Reconnaissance Ship Deployed off Syria,” Interfax, June 26, 2017, http://www.interfax.com/newsinf.asp?id=762557 ; Redeployment of Admiral Essen Frigate, “Admiral Essen Frigate to Join Russian Mediterranean Grouping-source,” TASS Russian News Agency, July 9, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/955483
[3] Rod Nordland, “Russia Signs Deal for Syria Bases; Turkey Appears to Accept Assad,” New York Times, January 20, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/20/world/middleeast/russia-turkey-syria-deal.html
[4] “Russian Cruise Missiles Hit Terrorist Targets Near Palmyra,” TASS Russian News Agency, May 31, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/948581 ; “Russian Warships C Cruise Missiles, Destroy IS Arms Depots in Syria.” TASS Russian News Agency, June 23, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/95298
[5] Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation Facebook Page, June 23, 2017, https://www.facebook.com/1492252324350852/videos/vb.1492252324350852/1944936562415757/?type=3&theater ; Ellen Stockert and the ISW Syria Team, “Russia’s Maneuvers in Syria: May 1 – June 7, 2017,” Institute for the Study of War, June 2017. Publication available upon request.
[6] Genevieve Casagrande and Kathleen Weinberger, “Putin’s Real Syria Agenda,” Institute for the Study of War, March 2017. Publication available upon request.
[7] Sharkov, Damien, “Russia Set for Rocket Fire Off Libya, Coast, U.S. FAA Warns,” Newsweek, July 5, 2017, http://www.newsweek.com/russia-set-rocket-fire-libya-us-faa-warns-610943 ; [“Russia Warns about its Fleet Live-Fire Training off the Coast of Libya”], RBC Information Systems, May 17, 2017, http://www.rbc(.)ru/politics/17/05/2017/591b90c09a7947e06e8652e0 ; “Russia’s Black Sea Fleet Holds Drills in the Mediterranean,” TASS Russian News Agency, May 23, 2017, http://www.tass(.)com/defense/947124 ; “Russian Warships Conduct Anti-Sub Drills in Mediterranean,” Al Defaiya Arabian Defense and Aerospace Business, May 30, 2017, http://www.defaiya.com/news/Regional%20News/MENA/2017/05/30/russian-warships-conduct-anti-sub-drills-in-mediterranean; [“Russia closed the area off the coast of Libya to carry out missile strikes”], Lenta, May 17, 2017, https://lenta(.)ru/news/2017/05/17/po_komu_priletit/
[8] Putin, Vladimir and Rogozin, Dmitry, et al.,“Russian Federation Marine Doctrine,” President of Russia Website, July 26 2015, http://en.kremlin(.)ru/events/president/news/50060 ; Christoper Kozak, “The Strategic Conversion of Russia and Iran,” Institute for the Study of War, February 2017. Publication available upon request.
[9] Jennifer Cafarella, Kimberly Kagan, and Frederick W. Kagan, “U.S. Grand Strategy: Destroying ISIS and al Qaeda, Report Four – America’s Way Ahead in Syria,” Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project, March 2017 ; Genevieve Casagrande, “Russia Moves to Supplant U.S. Role,” Institute for the Study of War and Critical Threats Project, March 2017. Publications available upon request.