ISW Daily Update April 11, 2017

These are the major events from April 11, 2017 in the theaters and from the trans-national groups that ISW monitors: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, and ISIS.

SYRIA:  The White House messaged continuity in its military policy towards the Syrian Civil War even as it attempted to leverage its limited strikes against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to press for a wider realignment of Russia on the Middle East. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that there is “no further role” for Assad and called on Russia to “realign” with the U.S. in Syria ahead of a scheduled visit to Moscow on 12 APR. In a separate interview, Tillerson nonetheless noted that the “first priority” remains the defeat of ISIS in Syria and warned against “violent regime change” in favor of a political transition guided by “ceasefires and zones of stabilization”. U.S. National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster also noted the need for a “degree of simultaneous activity” against both ISIS and Assad that nonetheless “sequences the defeat of ISIS first”. Russia remains highly unlikely to abandon its alignment with Assad and Iran given their shared strategic objectives and mutual military dependence.

IRAQ: Internal and Iranian pressure may force the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to withdraw from its strong push for independence, jeopardizing the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-led push for an independence referendum. PUK leaders are facing a possible revolt from the rank-and-file of the party for the PUK’s support for a push for independence, as lower-level leaders view it as a KDP-dominated move. PUK members may have been emboldened by an April 10 visit by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force commander Qassim Suleimani, who likely discouraged the PUK’s push for independence and encouraged stronger ties with the Kurdish opposition and Baghdad.

AFG: Pro-ISIS militants are attempting to expand influence and establish territorial control in Northern Afghanistan. In Jowzjan Province, pro-ISIS Uzbek militants continued their offensive IVO Darzab District Center for the fourth day in an attempt to capture the district. In Kunduz Province, Taliban militants reportedly kidnapped 23 individuals in Dasht-e Archi District for having ties to ISIS. This follows low-confidence reporting of ISIS activity in the province in early 2017. It is possible ISIS Wilayat Khorasan is attempting to recruit Taliban and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) militants in the north in order to spread its influence and establish additional regional bases outside of its strongholds in Nangarhar Province. 

EGY: ISIS returnees from Syria pose an imminent threat to the stability of Egypt. Egyptian security sources stated that both Egyptian suicide bombers involved in the bombing of two Coptic churches on 09 APR have been to Syria recently. Egyptian investigators reportedly claimed that both attackers belonged to the same ISIS cell, and that the attack was deliberate and coordinated, indicating a clear case of transfer of capabilities. The attacks were ISIS’s first coordinated and simultaneous attacks in mainland Egypt. As ISIS’s position weakens in Syria and Iraq, it aims to launch attacks elsewhere and may focus on Egypt as a priority effort.

RUS/UKR: Widespread protests in Serbia in opposition to pro-Russian President Aleksandar Vucic’s 02 APR election victory threaten the political stability of Serbia. Thousands of activists rallied in Belgrade for the ninth consecutive day of “anti-dictatorship” rallies. President Vucic’s close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin potentially enable Moscow to leverage Serbia within the European Union to further its agenda in Europe. Russia views a wave of protests against Moscow-friendly states, including the 2014 Euromaidan movement in Ukraine, as western-orchestrated subversion of pro-Russia actors. Russia likely views the protests in Serbia as a threat. Russia will likely expand its support to Vucic’s administration and intensify a strategic messaging campaign in order to solidify Vucic’s control of the country and undermine the protests.