UA-69458566-1

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: August 23-30, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos

The Council of Representatives (CoR) dismissed Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25, complicating the success of anti-ISIS operations and Sunni reconciliation efforts. The removal of Defense Minister Obeidi on the eve of strategic Mosul operations could limit the U.S.’s ability to effectively coordinate with the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). The ISF now lacks both a Defense and Interior Minister, who share responsibility of the security forces. Efforts to fill the defense ministry will likely further political instability within the Sunni parties, which fractured over Obeidi’s dismissal between parties supportive of Obeidi and those supportive of Sunni CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi, an Obeidi rival. The fracture has already setback government efforts of Sunni reconciliation, a requirement for anti-ISIS operations in Iraq, and could preclude Sunni ability to present and support a nominee. This paralysis could lead to the defense ministry transferring to a candidate more aligned with Iran, which may restrict U.S. involvement in Iraq as the Mosul operation approaches. 

The method by which the CoR dismissed Obeidi sets a dangerous precedence of lowering the threshold of support needed to dismiss a minister. The CoR dismissed Obeidi by a simple majority vote, despite the constitutional requirement for an absolute majority. The ruling was based on a Federal Court statement in December 2015 that qualified absolute majority as the “majority of those attending,” which is the definition of a simple majority. Under an absolute majority, the CoR needs at least 165 people to dismiss a minister, while a simple majority could require as little as 83 votes. The Reform Front, former PM Nouri al-Maliki’s support base, is consistently within reach of that minimum. 

The Reform Front may attempt to similarly oust other ministers who are allies of Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi in order to undermine his premiership, including Kurdish Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari. The CoR questioned Zebari on August 25, after which the Reform Front announced on August 30 that they had requested a no-confidence vote. No date has yet been set for the vote. Zebari’s dismissal could collapse ongoing negotiations regarding Kurdish oil exports and have a similar effect on the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan, which was primarily obtained due to Zebari’s efforts. Removing Zebari, who is well-liked across the Kurdish parties, could prompt a Kurdish walk out from the Iraqi Government if they see their participation in Baghdad as futile. The political fallout between Arbil and Baghdad, two of the U.S.’s key allies, could complicate operations in Mosul and may accelerate momentum towards a Kurdish independence referendum. 



Turkish Incursion in Northern Syria Signals Turning Point in Anti-ISIS Fight: August 30, 2016

By Jennifer Cafarella with Leah Danson

Key Takeaway: Turkey is unraveling America’s anti-ISIS partner in northern Syria in order to position itself as a major power broker in planned operations to retake Raqqa City. Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) crossed into Syria to seize the ISIS held border town of Jarablus alongside numerous Turkish- and U.S.-backed Syrian armed opposition groups on August 24. The operation, titled Euphrates Shield, is a turning point in American-Turkish relations and the war against ISIS by fulfilling longstanding American demands for more Turkish involvement in the anti-ISIS fight. Euphrates Shield also aims to prevent the expansion of Kurdish control along the border, however. The U.S. ordered the Syrian Kurdish People’s Defense Forces (YPG) to withdraw to the east bank of the Euphrates River in accordance with Turkish demands at the start of the operation. Turkey is leveraging Syrian opposition groups it trusts in Jarablus and intentionally sidelining groups that joined the Syrian YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), bringing U.S.- and Turkish- backed opposition factions into direct conflict with the American-backed SDF. The SDF opposed the Turkish incursion and attacked the joint Turkish-Syrian opposition force on August 27. A U.S. defense official announced that the two sides agreed to a “loose” truce on August 30. An unidentified Turkish military source, however, subsequently denied the existence of any such agreement. The Turkish intervention has meanwhile inspired local resistance against the SDF and YPG in Sunni Arab areas including Manbij City, south of Jarablus, and the northern Raqqa countryside. Turkey may exploit this local resistance to unseat the SDF from Manbij City and replace it with a military force that opposes the YPG.


Turkey is unraveling America’s anti-ISIS partner in northern Syria in order to position itself as a major power broker in planned operations to retake Raqqa City. Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) crossed into Syria to seize the ISIS held border town of Jarablus alongside numerous Turkish- and U.S.-backed Syrian armed opposition groups on August 24. The intervention brought the TSK and U.S. backed opposition forces into direct conflict with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s primary ally in the anti-ISIS fight. Turkey notified the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition, the Syrian regime, and Russia about the offensive, which it titled “Operation Euphrates Shield.” Turkish Special Operations forces led a joint military force into Jarablus, including an armored battalion from Turkey’s Second Army and as many as 5,000 Syrian opposition fighters from groups based in the northern Aleppo countryside including: the Sultan Murad Brigade, Suqour al-Jebel, Jaysh al Tahrir, Jabhat al Shamiya, Nour al Din al Zenki, Faylaq al-Sham, and Ahrar al Sham. ISIS mounted little resistance to the attack, instead withdrawing southwest to the town of al Bab. SDF fighters rejected the Turkish intervention as an “occupation” and attacked the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force. The Turkish intervention meanwhile appears to have emboldened local elements to resist the SDF openly. Sunni Arab elements in Manbij and the Raqqa countryside issued statements rejecting the SDF because of the YPG’s goal to establish an independent Syrian Kurdistan. Turkey likely will continue to advance south in order to unseat the SDF from Manbij and position loyal Syrian opposition forces as necessary ground partners in the operation to retake Raqqa City.

Turkey is leveraging Syrian opposition groups it trusts in Jarablus and intentionally sidelining groups that joined the Syrian YPG-led SDF. Local SDF groups from Jarablus declared the formation of the Jarablus Military Council on August 22 and stated their intent to seize Jarablus. The leader of the Jarablus Military Council (JMC), Abdussatar al-Jadir, was assassinated the following day. The JMC accused Turkish intelligence and attacked the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force on August 27. Turkey launched airstrikes against JMC and SDF positions south of Jarablus in response and has maintained an active air campaign targeting the area. The joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force advanced south, seizing over a dozen villages and reaching the Sajour River by August 29. The JMC nonetheless continues to marshal support from the Aleppo countryside. The SDF-linked Manbij Military Council announced its support for the JMC on August 27. Prominent Manbij Military Council (MMC) member Kataib Shams al Shamal deployed to reinforce the front line south of Jarablus. A delegation of tribal elders in Manbij later declared its support for the JMC on August 28. The escalation between the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition military force and coalescing SDF elements south of Jarablus have redirected the focus of the SDF’s Sunni Arab fighting force at a time when the U.S. intended to prepare for operations to retake Raqqa City.

Turkey’s intervention aimed to sideline the SDF and check the YPG’s rising strength along the Turkish border. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Turkey intended to fight the YPG “with the same determination” as fighting ISIS during a visit to Gaziantep on August 28.  He also vowed to provide “all necessary support” to Syrians living in Gaziantep who wanted to return to Jarablus, indicating his intent to repopulate Jarablus – and possibly its southern countryside – with Syrian refugees after finishing clearing operations. He will ensure that the refugees that resettle in Syria are Sunni Arabs in order to block future Kurdish activity in the area. Turkey had conditioned its support for the U.S.-led SDF operation to retake Manbij beginning in April 2016 on the mandatory withdrawal of the YPG to the east bank of the Euphrates river after the SDF captured the city, but YPG forces had not withdrawn as of the launch of Operation Euphrates Shield on August 24, despite seizing the city in early August. U.S Vice President Joe Biden was in Ankara on August 24 and expressed strong support for the operation. He also ordered the YPG to withdraw from Manbij to the eastern bank of the Euphrates, stating that the group, “will not under any circumstances get American support” if it does not comply. The YPG’s general command chose to back down rather than confront Turkey near Jarablus directly, but has not completely withdrawn as ordered. The YPG released a statement confirming its intent to remain focused on the overall anti-ISIS fight on August 27, signaling its acquiescence to American demands. Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. John L. Dorrian confirmed that the main element of the YPG relocated east of the Euphrates River, but stated that some forces remained to finish IED clearing operations. The YPG confirmed its presence near the front line south of Jarablus on August, but claimed the fighters had crossed back across the river to help evacuate civilians targeted by Turkish airstrikes. It is unclear whether the YPG is participating actively in clashes at the time of writing. U.S. secretary of Defense Ashton Carter acknowledged the YPG’s noncompliance on August 29, stating that the U.S. will “deconflict” and “clarify where the YPG elements of the SDF are and are not.”

Turkey will likely attempt to unseat the SDF’s Manbij Military Council next. The SDF formed the Manbij Military Council to recapture Manbij city on April 5. The SDF’s Manbij Military Council did not include the original Free Syrian Army-affiliated Manbij Military Council, which ISIS displaced in 2013. Turkey’s intervention emboldened the original Manbij Military Council and elements of the local population in Manbij to oppose the SDF openly. The original Manbij Military Council released a statement on August 28 rejecting the SDF and calling for shared control with the SDF over Manbij city. Residents of Manbij reportedly also issued a letter rejecting the SDF on August 28. Rising local dissent in Manbij follows a statement by Sunni Arab tribes in the Raqqa countryside that pledged to fight against the YPG in the area. Turkey may capitalize on local resistance to the SDF to recapture Manbij and install the original Manbij Miltiary Council. The commander of the U.S.-and Turkish-backed Sultan Murad Division, Col. Ahmed Osman, appeared to confirm this possibility. He stated that the Euphrates Shield offensive was “certainly heading in the direction of Manbij,” claiming that the YPG force in the area had not withdrawn from the city. Col. Osman stated that he expected Turkish-backed opposition groups would be able to seize Manbij within “a few days.” Turkey expanded its involvement after the SDF began to resist the intervention and appears willing to sustain an increased deployment. The TSK sent ten additional tanks and the same number of armored vehicles on August 25 and another six tanks after hostilities escalated on August 27. An unnamed Turkish official stated that Turkey would “continue operations until we are convinced that imminent threats against the country's national security have been neutralized” on August 25. The official added that Turkey could be willing to increase its total deployment in Syria to 15,000. A U.S. defense official later announced on August 30 that the Turkish and SDF forces reached a “loose agreement” to cease fighting and instead “focus on the [ISIS] threat.” It remains unclear if the tentative truce will hold as an unidentified Turkish military sources and an unidentified Turkish-backed opposition commander subsequently denied the existence of such an agreement.


Composition of the joint Turkish-Syrian opposition force

Operation Euphrates Shield demonstrates Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s willingness and ability to use military force to prevent the creation of an independent Syrian Kurdistan along the Turkish border even after an aggressive purge of the TSK following the failed July 15 coup attempt. The total initial Turkish deployment was close to 450 troops including 150 Special Forces plus 200 soldiers from the armored units and additional soldiers responsible for coordinating Turkey’s close air support and artillery support. Turkish Special Operations Forces under the command of Lieutenant General Zekai Aksakalli led the operation. LTG Akasakalli had remained loyal to Erdogan during the coup and was later promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General. His Deputy, Brigadier General Salih Terzi was in operational command of Special Forces  along the Syrian border before the coup. Terzi was allegedly involved in the coup attempt and was killed by pro-Erdogan security forces that night. The Turkish mechanized component deployed to Jarablus is meanwhile likely from the Second Army’s, 5th Armored Brigade, which is based in Gaziantep and deployable on short notice. The leadership of this mechanized component is unclear. 5th Armored Brigade Commander Major General Murat Soysal was detained after the coup attempt and his replacement is unknown at the time of writing. Erdogan’s confidence in the loyalty and capability of the Turkish Special Forces and Turkish second Army indicates his success thus far in consolidating the TSK under his own personal control without completely neutering its combat effectiveness.

Implications

Turkey’s intervention in Jarablus is a turning point in American-Turkish relations and the war against ISIS. Erdogan’s willingness to commit military force to the anti-ISIS fight fulfils longstanding American demands for Turkey to increase its contribution to the anti-ISIS mission. The recapture of Jarablus and ongoing operations to clear remaining ISIS-held portions of the border west of Jarablus have set the desired conditions for an offensive to retake Raqqa city by eliminating ISIS’s final supply line from Turkey. The YPG’s decision thus far to avoid open war with the Turkish forces indicates that the U.S. may be able to refocus the YPG on the planned Raqqa offensive. The infighting between the joint Turkish-Syrian opposition force and the Sunni Arab components of the SDF is a major complication, however. American planning relies on the Sunni Arab component of the SDF to provide the bulk of the fighting force for the Raqqa offensive, because a YPG-led operation would likely alienate civilians in the Sunni Arab-majority Raqqa City. A prolonged clash between the SDF and the joint Turkish/Syrian opposition force would derail planned operations to retake Raqqa City. Turkey may now offer its own military support and that of Turkish-backed opposition forces for an operation in Raqqa as an alternative to the SDF, positioning Turkey as a major power player in northern Syria.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Russian Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2AD) Range: August 2016

By: Kathleen Weinberger

Russia has altered the security balance in the Black Sea, Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East by establishing large anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) exclusion zones. Russia’s power projection in these regions has been further extended by the deployment of the S-400 air defense system to Crimea in August 2016 and to Syria in November 2015. Advanced air defense systems create A2AD “bubbles” that prevent Russia’s opponents from establishing air supremacy in strategically significant theaters. The Baltic States, much of Ukraine and the Black Sea, northern Poland, Syria and parts of Turkey fall under Russian A2AD bubbles created by S-300 and S-400 air defense systems. Russia operates advanced air defense not only within its own territory, but from sites in Syria and occupied Crimea, as well as cooperatively through the Joint Air Defense Network in Belarus and Armenia. Russia can use these systems to impede the ability of the U.S. to defend its NATO allies by disrupting the ability of US air forces to access conflict zones in the event of a crisis.





Thursday, August 25, 2016

Iraq's Parliament Ousts Defense Minister

By Patrick Martin and Emily Anagnostos with Tori Keller

Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and his entire cabinet are at risk of a no-confidence vote following Parliament’s ouster of Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi. 

The Situation

The Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) voted to withdraw confidence in Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25.
  • The Reform Front, an opposition party in the CoR driven by Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has spearheaded the process to oust Obeidi.
  • Obeidi attended the CoR on August 1 for the questioning session, the prerequisite for a vote of no-confidence. However during the interrogation, Obeidi accused his rivals within Etihad of corruption during a questioning session on August 1, including Speaker Juburi. The Federal Court acquitted Juburi of the corruption charges on August 9. Following Juburi’s acquittal, Obeidi’s rivals requested to proceed to the vote of no-confidence.
  • The CoR met on August 23 to consider the vote of no-confidence. However, the CoR lost quorum when two parties, the Sadrist Trend-affiliated Ahrar Bloc and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), walked out of the session.
  • The CoR met on August 25 to take up the issue again and voted no confidence.

The vote was rendered by a simple majority, while the Constitution stipulates that dismissing a minister requires a vote of absolute majority.
  • The CoR announced that Obeidi was dismissed; 142 CoR members voted against him, 102 voted in support, and the rest of the 263 attending CoR members abstained.
  • 142 members was enough for a simple majority. The Iraqi Constitution (Article 61.8.A) mandates that a minister be dismissed on the basis of an absolute majority, which is 165 CoR members.
  • A frequently-citied legal expert and two State of Law Alliance (SLA) stated that the requirements for removing a minister is a simple majority, contradicting the Constitution that states that removing a minister requires an absolute majority.

Context and Implications

Former Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and the allied Reform Front exploited internal rivalries within the Sunni political bloc to oust Obeidi. The Sunni bloc remains vulnerable to further fracture.
  • The Sunni political bloc, Etihad, is not unified. Obeidi’s party, Mutahidun, is a rival to the Iraqi Islamic party, to which Speaker Salim al-Juburi belongs. Etihad has remained a fixture in the CoR out of necessity to counter Shi’a political dominance, but the parties are not cohesive.
  • Obeidi’s removal was partly a self-inflicted casualty by Etihad. Obeidi accusations against his rivals within Etihad, including Speaker Juburi, during his questioning session on August 1, publically exposed a major rift between senior Iraqi Islamic Party and Mutahidun leaders, with Mutahidun leader Osama al-Nujaifi calling for Speaker Juburi’s removal.
  • The Reform Front is the shadow political bloc that emerged after the parliamentary crisis in April 2016 in which a rump Parliament formed and attempted to oust CoR Speaker Juburi.  It is covertly led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. 
  • The Reform Front exploited the internal Sunni political rivalry that led to questioning Obeidi to generate the necessary support to remove this key minister from PM Abadi’s government.
  • Maliki has attempted to regain the premiership by weakening his political rivals. He targeted Obeidi to 1) dismiss a key ally to Prime Minister (PM) Haidar al-Abadi and 2) weaken Etihad as a force that could resist his influence in the CoR.
  • Obeidi’s removal leaves the Iraqi Sunni political parties significantly weakened within the government. Speaker Juburi, himself the target of persistent efforts by the Reform Front to remove him from office, remains weak and vulnerable to a future no-confidence vote.
  • Internal Sunni disagreements and Obeidi’s removal could complicate national reconciliation efforts between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shi’a, essential to long-term success following the potential recapture of Mosul from ISIS.

The successor Defense Minister could be a worse partner to the U.S. and anti—ISIS Coalition in Iraq.
  • Etihad will likely insist that the Defense Ministry remain a Sunni position. However, the intra-Sunni fighting will inhibit any consensus on a replacement candidate. Therefore, should a Sunni candidate become Defense Minister, he will be weaker than his predecessor because he will lack full political backing from the Sunni parties.
  • It is possible that a compromised political figure may take the Defense Ministry, and may be more receptive to Iranian interests than those of the U.S. 
  • A Reform Front candidate or a pro-Iranian Defense Minister chosen from a proxy group such as the Badr Organization may restrict U.S. involvement in Iraq on the eve of major military operations to retake Mosul.

All ministerial positions – including the Prime Minister – are at risk if only a simple majority is required for no confidence, should the judiciary uphold this reading of the constitution.
  • The precedence of dismissing a minister with only a simple majority puts all weak ministers and allies of PM Abadi at risk.
  • A simple majority can be as low as 83 CoR members. The Reform Front, a Maliki support base, is in reach of the numbers to consistently vote out ministers. Maliki could push through the dismissal of any minister, provided that he is able to exploit political differences to generate the numbers necessary to balance against opposition blocs.
  • The CoR also began on August 25 to question Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the prerequisite for the vote of no-confidence. In addition, CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi remains a target of Reform Front animosity and remains vulnerable to a no-confidence vote.
  • The precedence of simply majority may also put the position of PM Haidar al-Abadi at risk. However, it will be more difficult to achieve a consensus on a replacement for PM Abadi, which would result in the collapse of government and trigger the process to form a new government.
  •  Iran and the U.S. have also made it clear that they are not willing to see PM Abadi go, having blocked a previous attempt by Maliki to oust him in April 2016. He will likely remain in his position, but severely weakened and robbed of political support from allies.

Moving Forward

Iraq currently has no Minister of Defense or Minister of Interior.
  • The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are split between the Ministries of Defense and Interior. The ISF currently has neither minister on the eve of the Mosul operation.
  • The former Minister of Interior, Badr Organization member Muhammad al-Ghabban, resigned on July 5, 2016 following the massive attack killing hundreds of civilians in Baghdad’s Karrada neighborhood on July 3. The Interior Ministry is currently led by a deputy minister aligned with the Badr Organization.
  • A minister is constitutionally deemed resigned from his position on the date of the withdrawal of confidence. As with the Minister of Interior, it will be PM Abadi’s responsibility to nominate an acting Defense Minister until a new candidate is approved. To date, a candidate for either the Defense or Interior Ministers has not been named.

The U.S. campaign to defeat ISIS by recapturing Mosul is in jeopardy.
  • U.S. coordination will continue through the Joint Operations Command (JOC).  However, Obeidi’s removal will likely diminish the U.S.’s ability to effectively coordinate with the ISF on the eve of strategic anti-ISIS operations in Mosul.
  • Political inability to fill the vacant position will delay the timeline to recapture Mosul, and remaining ISIS-held cities in Iraq. The U.S.’s intensive lobbying effort among political parties to retain Obeidi in his position failed, highlighting the limits of U.S. diplomatic influence within Iraq’s shifting political environment.
  • PM Abadi’s position to resist pro-Iranian overtures may be limited, especially if a Reform Front candidate, a pro-Iranian candidate, or a non-professional candidate assumes the Defense Ministry. 
  • The U.S. may lose its ability to operate in Iraq if a candidate opposed to the U.S. and Coalition presence in Iraq assumes the position.
  • The fracturing of Sunni political parties will prevent the reconciliation of Sunni populations to the government, a requirement for strategic success.



Iraq Control of Terrain Map: August 25, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and Iraq Team

The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and allied tribal fighters recaptured the Waleed Border Crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi Border on August 3. ISIS mounted a counterattack on August 8 - 9 against the Waleed Border Crossing as well as the Tanf Border Crossing in Syria, which is held by the U.S.-backed New Syrian Army. Both attacks were repelled. ISW is thus changing the status of Waleed Border Crossing to ISF Control.
Iraqi Peshmerga affiliated with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) launched clearing operations southeast of Mosul on August 14 - 15, seizing at least twelve villages in the Ninewa Plains. The operation originated from positions near the Khazir Military Base between Mosul and Arbil, and progressed south towards the town of Gwer. ISW is thus changing the status of this area from contested to KDP Peshmerga Control.
The ISF recaptured the city of Qayyarah on August 25 following more than a month of operations to secure terrain on the southern and western outskirts of the city after security forces seized the Qayyarah Airbase on July 9. The ISF breached the city limits of Qayyarah on August 23, encountering limited resistance in the southern neighborhoods. The ISF secured the city center and government complex on August 24 and Joint Operations Command announced full control over the city on August 25. ISW is thus changing the status of Qayyarah to ISF Control.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: August 16-22, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

Iraqi Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi faces an upcoming vote of no-confidence in the Council of Representatives (CoR) following accusations of corruption from the Reform Front, the opposition bloc driven by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The possibility of his dismissal has fractured the cohesion of the Sunni political blocs, risking the long-term success of efforts to reconcile and reintegrate Iraqi Sunnis with Baghdad. Obeidi may need to rely on support from non-Sunni blocs in order to survive the vote, currently scheduled for August 23. Osama al-Nujaifi - the leader of the Mutahidun Bloc that includes Obeidi - has reportedly met with Kurdish and Iraqi Shi’a parties, particularly the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), in order to broker a political deal to support the embattled minister. It remains unclear if the Reform Front’s effort to remove Obeidi has the support of the 165 CoR members required to dismiss a minister. This political crisis nonetheless comes at an inopportune time as the Coalition and the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) set conditions to retake Mosul. Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend assumed command of Operation Inherent Resolve on August 21 and vowed to retake Mosul during his one-year term. The successful removal of Obeidi and the likely follow-up changes to senior leadership in the ISF would complicate this timeframe.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Iraq Situation Report: August 9-15, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

Outgoing Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) Commander Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland gave his final briefing on August 10 where he discussed the pace of operations to retake Mosul. Gen. MacFarland remarked that the fast pace of operations to retake Mosul “is not a bad problem to have,” downplaying humanitarian concerns that the Iraqi Government will be ill-prepared to handle the wave of refugees from Mosul, which is estimated to have nearly one million still residing in the city. An accelerated timeline for Mosul may also limit how many forces are prepared for operations to retake and hold the city, as Gen. MacFarland stated that the holding force alone would require “thousands” of police forces, but that only a portion had been generated so far. The quickened timeline is likely a result of political pressure on both the U.S. Government, in the wake of a presidential election, and the Iraqi Government, as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s position remains tenuous. The pace may also be an effort to preclude Popular Mobilization participation in operations in northern Iraq and particularly in Mosul. The militias may perceive stalled operations as invitation to lend support, despite Coalition, Kurdish, and Ninewa officials’ objections to their presence. U.S. Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk met with senior security and political leaders in Baghdad and Arbil from August 11 to 13 to touch on force composition in Mosul, as the Coalition will continue to try and set the terms of militia participation in Ninewa as the operation for Mosul nears.

PM Abadi improved his credibility in the Iraqi Government when the Council of Representatives (CoR) approved five ministers, including for the coveted position of Oil Minister, on August 15 in a partial Cabinet reshuffle. The ministers are career technocrats, and the extent of their political loyalties remains unknown. The ease in which the ministers were approved suggests that PM Abadi had secured the support of political parties prior to the CoR session, in comparison with the massive blow-back in April when he attempted to pass a similar roster of ministers. It is unclear, however, what deals PM Abadi made to secure these reforms. Former PM Nouri al-Maliki and the Reform Front did not protest the reshuffle, even though he had the support base within the CoR to undermine the vote. Maliki may be focused on guaranteeing support within the CoR to dismiss Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi rather than distancing possible allies by frustrating attempts for reforms. Obeidi, whom Maliki unsuccessfully tried to dismiss in April 2015, may face a vote of no-confidence on August 23.


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Military Escalation by Russia in Crimea Against Ukraine


Preparations for conventional conflict between Russia and Ukraine are accelerating and the likelihood of open war is increasing rapidly. Russia has prepositioned military forces along all of its common borders with Ukraine: to the north in Bryansk district, to the east near Rostov, to the south in Crimea, and to the west in separatist-controlled Moldovan territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has escalated hostilities after claiming that Ukrainian forces entered Crimea on 07 AUG. On 11 AUG, he mobilized additional forces in the separatist republics and to the south in Crimea. In response, Ukraine is beginning to redeploy forces to adjust to Russia’s deployments, which may leave Ukrainian forces engaged in combat with Russian proxy forces in Donbas without access to adequate support and vulnerable to offensive operations. Russia has not yet articulated any clear political objectives or demands, making it impossible to determine on what negotiated basis the looming conflict might be resolved. Putin may be seeking to trigger a political crisis in Kyiv designed to topple Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The situation for now, however, is moving clearly in the direction of open conflict between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Donbas or elsewhere in Ukraine.

Russia began rapidly moving forces into Crimea and the Black Sea on 11 AUG:
  • The Ukrainian Armed forces claimed that Russian troops stationed along the de-facto Ukraine-Crimea border have been reinforced by additional men and vehicles and have begun digging trenches. 
  • There have been reports of Russian convoys moving through Kerch at the crossing point between Russian and Crimea, in Krasnodar, and moving north through Krymsk towards Crimea. 
  • Bastion-P coastal defense systems were spotted heading towards Crimea from Russia.
  • Russia announced that the Black Sea Fleet will hold drills in the Black Sea from 11-13 AUG (warning: link to .RU site).
  • Russian naval and air units have been reported entering the Black Sea.
  • Russia continued efforts to disrupt internet access in northern Crimea.
Russia has been engaged in a steady buildup around Ukraine:
  • Russia escalated its military buildup on Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders in August.
  • The Moldovan Foreign Ministry strongly condemned aggressive military exercises held on Ukraine’s western border with Russian regular forces and separatist troops in the pro-Russia separatist region of Transnistria on 08 AUG. (LINK: link to .md site.
Ukraine took steps to adjust to Russia’s redeployments as the international community examines the sides’ competing claims on 11 AUG:
  • Ukrainian troops are being deployed to the de-facto Crimean border and are on high alert.
  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is increasing the readiness of forces in Donbas and on the de-facto border with Crimea.
  • Ukrainian Naval Infantry and coastal artillery systems began live fire drills.
  • The UN Security Council is hosting an emergency meeting on Crimea.
  •  U.S. and EU officials noted the lack of independent verification of Russia’s claims about the alleged 07-08 AUG infiltration.
Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine escalated rhetoric and offensive operations on 11 AUG in what may be an attempt to exploit Ukraine’s military focus on other fronts.
  • Leader of the pro-Russia Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko announced that the “terrorist state” of Ukraine is preparing an offensive against separatist forces in Donbas. (warning: link to.ru site)
  • Separatist forces began to rapidly increase the intensity of their shelling of Ukrainian positions during the night of the AUG 11 near the key port city of Mariupol according to unconfirmed local sources.  (link, link, link)
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian paratroopers from the 331st parachute regiment rotated into frontline positions in Donetsk as Russia deployed additional artillery systems in Donbas.
Read ISW’s analysis of the situation as of 10 AUG here.

Military Escalation by Russia in Crimea Against Ukraine



Preparations for conventional conflict between Russia and Ukraine are accelerating and the likelihood of open war is increasing rapidly. Russia has prepositioned military forces along all of its common borders with Ukraine: to the north in Bryansk district, to the east near Rostov, to the south in Crimea, and to the west in separatist-controlled Moldovan territory. Russian President Vladimir Putin has escalated hostilities after claiming that Ukrainian forces entered Crimea on 07 AUG. On 11 AUG, he mobilized additional forces in the separatist republics and to the south in Crimea. In response, Ukraine is beginning to redeploy forces to adjust to Russia’s deployments, which may leave Ukrainian forces engaged in combat with Russian proxy forces in Donbas without access to adequate support and vulnerable to offensive operations. Russia has not yet articulated any clear political objectives or demands, making it impossible to determine on what negotiated basis the looming conflict might be resolved. Putin may be seeking to trigger a political crisis in Kyiv designed to topple Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The situation for now, however, is moving clearly in the direction of open conflict between Ukrainian and Russian forces in Donbas or elsewhere in Ukraine.

Russia began rapidly moving forces into Crimea and the Black Sea on 11 AUG:

  • The Ukrainian Armed forces claimed that Russian troops stationed along the de-facto Ukraine-Crimea border have been reinforced by additional men and vehicles and have begun digging trenches. 
  • There have been reports of Russian convoys moving through Kerch at the crossing point between Russian and Crimea, in Krasnodar, and moving north through Krymsk towards Crimea. 
  • Bastion-P coastal defense systems were spotted heading towards Crimea from Russia.
  • Russia announced that the Black Sea Fleet will hold drills in the Black Sea from 11-13 AUG (warning: link to .RU site).
  • Russian naval and air units have been reported entering the Black Sea.
  • Russia continued efforts to disrupt internet access in northern Crimea.


Russia has been engaged in a steady buildup around Ukraine:
  
  • Russia escalated its military buildup on Ukraine’s northern, eastern, and southern borders in August.
  • The Moldovan Foreign Ministry strongly condemned aggressive military exercises held on Ukraine’s western border with Russian regular forces and separatist troops in the pro-Russia separatist region of Transnistria on 08 AUG. (LINK: link to .md site)


Ukraine took steps to adjust to Russia’s redeployments as the international community examines the sides’ competing claims on 11 AUG:

  • Ukrainian troops are being deployed to the de-facto Crimean border and are on high alert.
  • Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko is increasing the readiness of forces in Donbas and on the de-facto border with Crimea.
  • Ukrainian Naval Infantry and coastal artillery systems began live fire drills.
  • The UN Security Council is hosting an emergency meeting on Crimea.
  •  U.S. and EU officials noted the lack of independent verification of Russia’s claims about the alleged 07-08 AUG infiltration.


Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine escalated rhetoric and offensive operations on 11 AUG in what may be an attempt to exploit Ukraine’s military focus on other fronts.

  • Leader of the pro-Russia Donetsk People’s Republic Alexander Zakharchenko announced that the “terrorist state” of Ukraine is preparing an offensive against separatist forces in Donbas. (warning: link to.ru site)
  • Separatist forces began to rapidly increase the intensity of their shelling of Ukrainian positions during the night of the AUG 11 near the key port city of Mariupol according to unconfirmed local sources.  (link, link, link)
  • Ukrainian intelligence reported that Russian paratroopers from the 331st parachute regiment rotated into frontline positions in Donetsk as Russia deployed additional artillery systems in Donbas.



Read ISW’s analysis of the situation as of 10 AUG here.

Russian Airstrikes in Syria: July 14 - August 9, 2016

By Jonathan Mautner

Russia intensified its air operations in and around Aleppo City after Syrian opposition groups lifted the regime’s blockade of the city’s eastern districts on August 6, demonstrating its continued commitment to bolster the regime in the Syrian Civil War. Russia continued to conduct strikes in Aleppo from July 28 – August 9 in support of the regime campaign to besiege Aleppo City and force the surrender of the primary stronghold of opposition factions acceptable to the West in Northern Syria. The opposition reestablished its ground line of communication (GLOC) leading out of the city on August 6, dealing a significant setback to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his attempt to capture Syria’s largest urban and commercial center. Russian warplanes subsequently intensified their airstrikes against opposition targets in eastern Aleppo City and villages along the M5 Aleppo – Damascus Highway in the southern Aleppo countryside, preventing civilians and humanitarian organizations from using the newly-established GLOC into the city. The targeted strikes also constrained the movement of opposition forces as they attempted to further consolidate control in the southwestern districts of Aleppo City. Russia’s continued use of air power against critical infrastructure and densely-populated terrain in Aleppo City follows U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement on August 4 that Russia’s “direct involvement” in support of regime operations to besiege the city has raised “very serious questions” about its commitment to a political resolution of the Syrian Civil War. Russia continues to prioritize the pursuit of pro-regime military objectives despite a recent proposal for partnership with the U.S. against ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. Russia is likely to continue to wage its air campaign in order to bolster pro-regime forces attempting to encircle the city, the surrender of which would pose an existential threat to the viability of the acceptable Syrian opposition in Northern Syria.

Russia also intensified its air operations against opposition targets in Idlib Province after an unidentified opposition group downed an Mi-8 Russian helicopter near the town of Saraqeb in northern Idlib on August 1, killing the five Russian military personnel on board. The downing of the helicopter marked the single deadliest event for Russia since its air campaign began in Syria on September 29, 2015. Russian warplanes conducted retaliatory airstrikes against several small opposition-held areas in the vicinity of Saraqeb from August 1 - 2 and targeted neighborhoods in Saraqeb from August 5 – 7. Local activist sources also reported that Russian jets dropped incendiary munitions while conducting airstrikes against Idlib City on August 7, suggesting that Russia intended to achieve punitive and deterrent effects against opposition forces in the province. Russia will likely continue to target core opposition-held terrain in Idlib Province in order to disrupt Idlib-based opposition forces massed in Aleppo. Russia also conducted airstrikes against ISIS-held terrain near the city of Palmyra in eastern Homs Province on August 7 following pro-regime deployments to Aleppo City from the Palmyra area. Russia likely aims to prevent ISIS advances against pro-regime forces in Palmyra as the regime is redeploying forces away from the area.


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. 

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.


Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Russia posturing to escalate militarily in Ukraine following alleged attack on Crimea

 By Kathleen Weinberger and Franklin Holcomb


Russian President Vladimir Putin has positioned Russian forces rhetorically and militarily to stage a large-scale operation in Ukraine. In response to claims that Ukrainian military intelligence staged an attempted infiltration of Crimea 07-08 AUG, Putin stated that Russia is obligated to respond. Putin cited this incident and a failed assassination attempt in separatist-held Luhansk 07 AUG as evidence that Ukraine is unwilling to settle the conflict in Eastern Ukraine through peaceful negotiation. Russia previously positioned troops and military hardware on Ukraine’s northern and eastern border, as well as in Crimea. Putin may use this incident to justify military escalation in Ukraine as an ostensibly defensive operation.

Russia’s security service arrested Ukrainian security officials as they attempted to enter Crimea, which resulted in clashes on 07, 08 AUG.
  • Russia claimed that Ukrainian security forces attempted to enter Crimea on the night of 07 AUG with 20 improvised explosive devises and mines before being detained (link).
  • Russian security services stated that a Russian soldier was killed by Ukrainian fire on 07 AUG near the de-facto Ukraine-Crimea border and that Ukrainian infiltrators killed an FSB officer during clashes on 08 AUG. Russia reported that ten other Russians were injured in the clashes.(link - link - warning: link to .RU website)
  • Russian security forces claimed to have detained at least one member of Ukrainian intelligence as well as six “local agents” near the town of Armyansk. (warning: link to .RU website)

Russia has been framing this incident as an attack that demands a reaction, while Ukraine denies that the incident took place:
  • The State Council of Russian-occupied Crimea referred to these actions as a “declaration of war” (link)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that the purported attack on Crimea by Ukrainian military intelligence “will not go unanswered” (link).
  • Putin directly addressed “European and American counterparts” and stated that Ukraine was not interested in resolving the conflict through negotiation. (link)
  • Putin cited an earlier failed assassination attempt against the leader of the separatist Luhansk People’s Republic as further evidence of Ukraine’s unwillingness to resolve the conflict peacefully. (link)
  • The Ukrainian government repeatedly denied Russia’s claims and issued a warning that Russia is planning to use this to escalate militarily. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko described Putin’s claims as “cynical and insane.” (link - link - link)

Russia has escalated military activity in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine 07-10 AUG:
  • Deputy Chairman of the Meljis Crimean Tartar self-governing body warned on 07 AUG that Russia was moving military personnel and hardware into the northern Crimean towns of Armyansk and Dzhankoy. (link)
  • After the warning was issued, internet access in the north of Crimea was restricted. (link)
  • The leader of Russian proxy forces in separatist-held Donetsk ordered officials to not go on vacation and adhere to a strict curfew in response to heightened threat environment in Donbas. (link)
  • There has been a report of a large military convoy of Russian forces moving towards Debaltseve in Eastern Ukraine on 10 AUG. (link)

Russia has expanded its military presence to Ukraine’s south, east, and northern borders in recent months in an effort to draw out Ukrainian forces, possibly setting the stage for expanded operations.
  • On 04 MAY, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the creation of three new divisions in Russia’s Western and Southern Military Districts. (warning: link to .RU site)
    • The 150th division near Rostov, which borders Ukraine to the East, will consist of 10,000 soldiers.
    • Two other divisions were created in Smolensk, on the border with Belarus, and Voronezh, on the border with Ukraine.
  • Russia moved two motor rifle brigades to Ukraine’s northern border in JUN 2016, one to Klintsy in the Bryansk region, 30 km from the Ukrainian border, one to Valuyki in the Belgorod region, 20km from Ukraine. (link)

Russia may use this to legitimize escalating militarily in Ukraine while framing the escalation as a defensive measure.

More information and analysis to follow.