UA-69458566-1

Monday, August 29, 2016

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

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.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Opposition Forces Break the Siege of Aleppo City

By Christopher Kozak
Opposition groups lifted the siege of Aleppo City on August 6, dealing a severe setback to efforts by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies to force the surrender of the primary stronghold of the opposition in Northern Syria. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – the successor of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra – and other groups in the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room seized the Ramouseh Artillery College and neighboring Ramouseh Industrial District following several days of heavy clashes with pro-regime forces. These gains opened a one-mile-wide corridor to opposition-held districts of the city, representing the high-water mark of a major opposition counteroffensive that began on July 31 with a stated aim to break the siege after pro-regime forces completed the encirclement of opposition-held districts on July 28. The estimated quarter-million remaining residents of Eastern Aleppo City nonetheless face a continued threat of siege amidst ongoing clashes and heavy aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian warplanes that have prevented humanitarian groups and civilians from using the newly-established supply route.

Both the opposition and the regime are preparing to escalate their military campaigns in Aleppo City over the coming weeks. The opposition has advertised their intent to carry the fighting into the regime-held districts of Western Aleppo City. Prominent Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham declared a military zone over several regime-held neighborhoods, while the Jaysh al-Fatah Operations Room released a statement on August 7 announcing the start of the battle to seize all of the city. The opposition nonetheless risks losing momentum in the heavily-populated urban terrain of Western Aleppo City, where the population remains largely supportive of the regime. Meanwhile, pro-regime forces have begun to muster reinforcements for a counterattack to reestablish the siege. Unconfirmed sources claimed that Iran deployed several thousand Iraqi Shi’a militiamen as well as a special forces unit from Lebanese Hezbollah on August 7 to reinforce Aleppo City. President Assad also replaced the head of the Aleppo Security Committee with Syrian Republican Guard Deputy Commander Brig. Gen. Zaid Saleh on the same day in a major reshuffle that reflects the prioritization granted to the upcoming fight for Aleppo City. The regime will likely concentrate its upcoming operations in the rural southern outskirts of the city rather than the urban terrain targeted by the opposition. If pro-regime forces succeed in drawing the fight away from the urban core of the city, they could potentially use their advantage in artillery, airpower, and armor to encircle opposition forces within a new, wider perimeter.

The success of the opposition counteroffensive, even if temporary, marks a major victory for al Qaeda in Syria. Aleppo City represents the main hub of acceptable opposition groups in the Fatah Halab Operations Room that retain relative independence from al Qaeda in Northern Syria and thus one of the last remaining pools of potential partners for the U.S. in Syria. The U.S. nonetheless failed to provide meaningful political or military support to prevent the siege of the city, with some commanders even claiming that the U.S. slowed its provision of critical anti-tank missiles to vetted opposition groups in recent weeks. These grievances provide Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham an opportunity to leverage their integral role in lifting the siege to generate public support and draw opposition groups into a closer partnership. This integration would advance the long-term goal of al Qaeda to unify the jihad in preparation for the establishment of an Islamic Emirate. The conditions for this outcome are already being set. The Fatah Halab Operations Room released a video statement on August 6 praising the unity of all opposition factions. Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the High Negotiations Committee – the delegation representing the opposition in internationally-sanctioned negotiations with the regime - stated on August 8 that the victory in Aleppo City reinforced the message that “depending only on political solutions will achieve nothing” in the Syrian Civil War. The current groundswell of goodwill thus stands to only strengthen irreconcilable extremist groups such as al Qaeda in Syria, setting the stage for further conflict and radicalization that erodes the strategic interests of the U.S.

Iraq Situation Report: August 3-8, 2016

By Emily Anagnostos and the ISW Iraq Team

The Popular Mobilization, including major Iranian-backed Shi’a militias, sought to formalize their participation in operations in northern Iraq. IRGC-Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani reportedly visited unnamed locations in Ninewa Province to discuss operations in Mosul with Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and militia leaders on August 4. Suleimani’s presence in theater before the start of major operations in the past has preceded intense militia involvement in the operation. Suleimani’s visits to Fallujah at the start of the operation in late-May and Baiji in mid-October 2015 heralded a significant increase of militia participation in the operations. The pattern will likely remain true, and his visit to Ninewa Province on August 4 indicates that Popular Mobilization, including proxy militias, could play a serious role in upcoming operations in Shirqat and even Mosul. Senior militia leaders, including Badr Organization leader Hadi al-Amiri and Popular Mobilization Deputy Chairman Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, also met with senior ISF officials under Salah al-Din Operations Command on August 6 to discuss participation in Shirqat. The Popular Mobilization, however, will face resistance against their deployment to northern Iraq from Coalition, Kurdish, and Ninewa officials out of fear of sectarian reprisals on Ninewa’s majority Sunni population. The Coalition will also reject militias imposing on long-cultivated Coalition turf. The Coalition will shape the Mosul operation by leveraging air support to eliminate militia participation and by increasing its presence on the ground. The Pentagon announced on August 5 the beginning of the deployment of the 560 soldiers announced on July 11 in order to provide logistical support to Qayyarah airbase, which was recaptured on July 9. The base will serve as a logistics hub for operations into Mosul. Coalition basing in both Qayyarah and Makhmur may limit the militias’ expansion towards Mosul, though they are likely to participate in Shirqat.