ISW Daily Update February 27, 2017

These are the major events from February 27, 2017 in the theaters and from the trans-national groups that ISW monitors: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, and ISIS.

Syria: Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – the successor of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham – conducted a complex attack involving five SVESTs targeting the State Security and Military Intelligence Branches in Homs City on February 25, killing at least forty pro-Assad regime officers. HTS Military Emir Abu Mohammad al-Joulani stated that the attack aimed to undermine the ongoing Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War and vowed a “chain of future operations” targeting pro-regime forces. HTS and allied Salafi-Jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham continue to set conditions for a likely offensive against Hama City after absorbing dozens of opposition factions in Idlib and Aleppo Provinces over the past two months. An alleged U.S. strike near Idlib City on February 26 reportedly killed Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a deputy leader for Al-Qaeda, which has set deep roots across Northern Syria and continues consolidating its power there.

Iraq: Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir met with Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi and Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad, the first time a Saudi foreign minister has visited Iraq since 1990. Iran has been deepening its ties with Iraq, including through a preliminary agreement on exporting Kirkuk oil through Iran. Saudi Arabia seeks to strengthen anti-Iranian Shi’a political leaders like PM Abadi in order to counter Iranian influence. Saudi Arabia will soon nominate a new ambassador to Iraq who will likely attempt to build relations with Shi’a and Sunni political parties ahead of parliamentary and provincial elections. A Saudi ambassador in Baghdad would support a longstanding U.S. effort to help restore Iraqi-Saudi relations, which is likely an important component of a post-Mosul strategy for the United States.

Afghanistan: Russian President Vladimir Putin reinforced Moscow’s growing involvement in Afghanistan as Russian and Tajik officials agreed to increase security along the Tajik-Afghan border to prevent “spillover” from the Afghan conflict. Separately, a U.S. strike reportedly killed the Taliban Shadow Governor for Kunduz Province Mullah Salam in Dasht-e Archi District. Mullah Salam organized an October 2015 assault on Kunduz City that helped the Taliban briefly capture the northern Afghanistan city and was planning another attack there for an upcoming spring offensive. Mullah Salam may have been instrumental in promoting Taliban militants' contacts with Russia. Afghan officials said in December 2016 Salam had met with Russian officials in Tajikistan.

Egypt: Egyptian prosecutors ordered the jailing of nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), including senior leader Mohamed Abdel Rahman El-Morsi, the right-hand man of the MB’s acting Supreme Guidance Mahmoud Ezzat. Egyptian authorities seek to weaken the old guard and traditional wing of the MB, but they will further empower young, revolutionary factions of the group. Separately, Egypt continues to balance economic and political deals with both the United States and Russia. Egyptian officials announced progress in a nuclear energy deal with Russia. Additionally, the head of U.S. Central Command General Joseph Votel said the U.S. is interested in resuming Bright Star, a biannual military exercise with the Egyptian Armed Forces.

Russia: Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that it deployed the Admiral Grigorovich frigate from its Black Sea base to Tartus, Syria, on the Mediterranean Sea. This frigate, equipped with Kalibr cruise missiles, took part in Russia's airstrikes in Syria in November 2016. Russia is strengthening its naval presence in the Mediterranean but currently lacks the facilities to deploy a larger fleet on a permanent basis. Russia will likely continue rotating ships from the Black Sea fleet to support its Syria operations, especially before major offensives.  

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that it will equip air defense units in Crimea with Buk M-2 and M-2 short range missile launchers. These additional systems will build redundancy in Russia’s anti-aircraft capabilities over the peninsula. Additional short-range systems also allow Russia to deploy its S-300 and S-400 systems exclusively for long-range targets.

Ukraine: The pro-Russian leaders of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples’ Republics threatened to seize coal mines operating in separatist territory and cut off coal supply to Ukraine on March 01 if pro-Ukrainian government activists do not lift an ongoing railroad blockade. This threat is likely intended to force the Ukrainian government to end the unofficial blockade. A coal mine shutdown would likely lead to high unemployment in separatist territory, threatening social unrest but also expanding separatists’ recruiting pool.

ISIS: Turkish forces captured al-Bab in Syria from ISIS last week, but pro-regime forces deprived Turkish President Erdogan of his strategic objective to hold the terrain separating the Kurdish cantons by capturing 14 villages southeast of the city. Pro-regime forces have additionally advanced to the outskirts of Palmyra, a contested ISIS stronghold. ISIS still has offensive capabilities in Syria, however. An ISIS affiliate seized two towns in western Dara’a province from the distracted Syrian opposition and also launched a series of attacks from Iraq into Jordan across the Trebil border crossing, continuing a recent uptick of ISIS activity intended to disrupt the fragile country. 

Separately, ISIS may be reconstituting in Algeria, where its Wilayat Jaza’ir claimed its second attack in as many weeks, after months of silence. ISIS also continues to threaten Western Europe, despite a lull in successful attacks; U.K. officials report ISIS has planned indiscriminate attacks in Britain on a scale not seen since the Irish Republican Army attacks of the 1970s.