Publications

Competition between Russia and Turkey Drives Conflict across the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia

July 12, 2021 - Ezgi Yazici

The Russo-Turkish relationship has become a defining driver of conflict in a vast region from North Africa to Central Asia. Turkey and Russia’s shared objective to make the current international system more multipolar leads them to cooperate in many areas, but differences in desired outcomes have led to more frequent confrontations in Syria and the Caucasus. Both states’ ability to compartmentalize their cooperative and competitive activities will likely determine the degree of instability caused by their assertive foreign policies. The United States and its allies must find the right avenues of cooperation with Turkey to counter Russian influence and limit the risk of rapid cross-theater escalation between the Kremlin and Ankara.

Iranian Proxies Increase Attacks on US Forces to Catalyze a US Withdrawal from Iraq

July 9, 2021 - Katherine Lawlor

Iran’s Iraqi proxies have likely become more willing to kill Americans and may soon do so to catalyze the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq and Syria. These proxies are advancing an Iran-directed campaign that has increased in frequency, accuracy, and lethality since January 2021. This campaign is expanding to include not just Iraq but also Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria. Proxies have also begun using more lethal munitions and drones that can bypass US defenses. Attacks will continue until US forces withdraw from Iraq and Syria or reestablish deterrence with both Iran and its proxy network.

Russia in Review: June 23 – July 6, 2021

July 8, 2021 - Mason Clark

NATO is currently conducting its largest ever Black Sea naval exercises to strengthen maritime collective defense and resist Russian efforts to limit international access to the Black Sea. Sea Breeze 2021 is the largest iteration yet of NATO’s annual Sea Breeze exercises, held in the Black Sea since 1997 to strengthen interoperability between NATO and partner navies. The United States and Ukraine are cohosting the ongoing Sea Breeze 2021 exercise, which runs from June 28 to July 10, in the Black Sea. NATO explicitly intends Sea Breeze 2021 to “demonstrate presence and assure allies of [NATO’s] maritime commitment to collective defense.” The exercises involve 32 states, 5,000 personnel, 32 ships, and 40 aircraft. Participating warships and personnel will practice multiple types of operations, including amphibious warfare, maritime interdiction, air defense, and anti-submarine warfare.

Belarus Warning Update: Russia Expands Unit Integration with Belarusian and Serbian Militaries in June Slavic Brotherhood Exercises

June 25, 2021 - George Barros

Key Takeaway: The joint Russian-Belarusian-Serbian military exercise Slavic Brotherhood 2021 advanced Russian efforts to gain control over the Belarusian military and cultivate partner forces that the Kremlin can use in future Russian deployments. Russia and Belarus operated integrated combat units at the company level for the first time, building on previous exercises fielding combined battalions. The Kremlin practiced integrating non-Belarusian troops into Russian-controlled companies and platoons for the first time—a dangerous development that will expand Russian control over the militaries of sovereign states, enhance Russian force generation capabilities, and help the Kremlin obfuscate its military activity by framing Russian activities as multilateral. The Kremlin will develop these capabilities further in future exercises, including the upcoming annual capstone strategic readiness exercise, Zapad 2021, in September.

Iraq 2021-2022: A Forecast

June 18, 2021 - Katherine Lawlor

The United States cannot stabilize—or safely deprioritize—the Middle East without first stabilizing Iraq. Regional powers treat Iraq as a battleground to carry out proxy conflicts that harm US interests and exacerbate instability through the region. Stability begets stability; strengthening the Iraqi state such that foreign proxy wars cannot easily take place within its borders would reduce tensions in the region. A more resilient Iraqi state will be better protected from future foreign interference like internationally sponsored militia activities, political influence, and jihadism. A stable and sovereign Iraq could provide a physical and political buffer between its heavyweight neighbors: Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and between Iran and its projects in Syria and Lebanon. That buffer could help enable a desired pivot in US policy and security focus away from the Middle East and toward pressing concerns elsewhere in the world.

ISIS Ramadan 2021 Campaign Review

May 26, 2021 - Eva Kahan

ISIS escalated attacks during Ramadan 2021 despite sustained counterterrorism pressure. ISIS maintains its ability to recruit, conduct attacks, exploit gaps, and in some areas replace weakened governance systems. Local and international security forces are unlikely to fully defeat ISIS in its “core terrain” in Iraq and Syria in the short term due to competing priorities among counter-ISIS actors and decreasing international interest.

ISIS and Iranian-backed Militias Compete to Control Baghdad Region

May 6, 2021 - Eva Kahan

Key Takeaway: Iranian-backed militias are increasingly supplanting other Iraqi security forces and asserting control over Baghdad and surrounding areas, creating opportunities for ISIS to infiltrate Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias are also exerting control over populations and transit routes around Baghdad in hopes to eject US forces and set conditions to maintain a long-term demographic majority. Militia activity causes other Iraqi security forces to divide their attention between countering militias and countering ISIS, reducing the effectiveness of both efforts. ISIS is exploiting this gap to build durable support zones through the Baghdad Belts from which it can stage spectacular attacks. The Iraqi Security Forces must develop better local security strategies to more effectively counter both militia and ISIS campaigns in Baghdad and the Baghdad Belts.

Syria Situation Report March 22 - April 19, 2021

April 23, 2021 - Press ISW

Key Takeaway: ISIS faces pressure along multiple fronts as it begins its annual Ramadan surge of attacks in Syria. Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) mounted counter-ISIS operations targeting leadership cells in Idlib, likely in order to both depress ISIS’s attack capability and performatively distance HTS from other “hardline” Salafi-jihadi organizations. The British Royal Air Force and the Russian military similarly conducted precision operations, possibly intended to target high-value ISIS leadership, in eastern Syria. The US-partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), meanwhile, secured camps and detention centers housing former ISIS affiliates in order to prevent ISIS from staging a prison break during the coming month. ISIS’s Ramadan campaign will likely continue to feature large-scale but disparate attacks on oil and gas facilities in the Central Syrian Desert and attacks targeting civil society leaders, exploiting existing Arab-Kurdish divisions, in SDF-held northeast Syria.

Testimony: 10 Years of War: Examining the Ongoing Conflict in Syria

April 16, 2021 - Press ISW

 

Prepared testimony of: Ms. Jennifer Cafarella, National Security Fellow, Institute for the Study of War

For the hearing: “10 Years of War: Examining the Ongoing Conflict in Syria” April 15, 2021

Russia in Review: Russia Opens Permanent Training Center in Belarus and Sets Conditions for Permanent Military Basing

April 8, 2021 - George Barros

Key Takeaway: Joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in March 2021 demonstrated several new Russian capabilities that could support a permanent Russian force presence in Belarus. Russia’s efforts to cement control of Belarusian forces and permanently deploy forces to Belarus increase Russia’s capacity to threaten NATO’s eastern flank. Russia and Belarus announced plans to open three permanent combined combat training centers in Russia and Belarus. The Kremlin is likely increasing Belarus’ military readiness and integration with Russian forces, augmenting the Kremlin’s capability to mobilize more units for longer durations and increasing Russia’s total force projection capability against NATO. Russian military pilots may begin operating out of Belarusian airbases in 2021. The Kremlin additionally used March 2021 exercises to prepare for Russia’s upcoming annual capstone strategic readiness exercise, Zapad 2021, in September, during which Russian units will likely deploy to Belarus on a significantly larger scale than ever before.

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