ISW Daily Update March 21, 2017

These are the major events from March 21, 2017 in the theaters and from the trans-national groups that ISW monitors: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, and ISIS.

SYRIA: Al-Qaeda launched large-scale offensive operations against the regime after consolidating in northern Syria. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham - the successor of Syrian Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham - and Ahrar al-Sham launched a major operation against pro-regime forces in Northern Hama Province alongside several other opposition groups. ISW previously assessed that Al-Qaeda would launch operations against Hama City in order to destabilize the regime and achieve symbolic resonance among Salafi-Jihadists due to the 1982 Hama Massacre. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is also leading an offensive against the regime in Damascus.

AFG: Former warlords are jockeying for increased influence within the National Unity Government. Balkh Provincial Governor and Jamiat-i Islami Chief Executive Atta Mohammad Noor stated he may step down as governor to participate in the presidential elections during a speech on 21 MAR, following his remarks on 08 MAR that supporting Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Abdullah Abdullah in the 2014 presidential elections was a mistake. Atta will continue to politically advance his goal of acquiring a position in the NUG in order to supplant CEO Abdullah Abdullah's influence in the National Unity Government. 

IRAQ: Shi’a politicians continue to react harshly towards Sunni political leaders’ involvement in the March 8 Ankara conference aimed at consolidating Sunni blocs’ positions. Shi’a politicians denounced a senior Sunni leader over an unconfirmed audio clip purportedly showing him claiming that Gulf States support a higher council for Iraqi Sunni leaders. Hardline Shi’a politicians from Iraqi Shi’a militias, Mowatin Bloc, and the Dawa Party use the Ankara conference as pretext for denouncing Sunni politicians as Baathist and Gulf-state sympathizers to intentionally undermine national reconciliation efforts and keep the Sunni political leadership divided. 

EGY: Russian-Egyptian energy cooperation continues to increase.  Russian oil company Rosneft signed a deal to supply 10 liquefied natural gas (LNG) cargoes to Egypt in 2017. The first delivery is expected in May 2017. Rosneft bought a 30 percent stake, with the option of acquiring another five, in Egypt’s largest natural gas field in DEC 2016. There is already a pattern of cooperation between Russia and Egypt in the energy sector.  Egypt signed an agreement with Russian Gazprom in MAR 2015 to import 35 shipments of liquefied natural gas (LNG) over five years. Russia is also slated to build Egypt’s first nuclear power plant IVO Dabaa in northwestern Egypt. 

RUS/UKRThe Kremlin is engaged in a multi-faceted campaign to retain influence over states along its western border, including Belarus, which has taken steps to distance itself from Moscow in recent months. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko instead accused the West of interference in Belarusian society, blaming western security services for funding fifth columns resulting in domestic protests. Thousands of Belarusians have protested a new “parasite tax” on citizens who work less than 183 days a year, and Belarusian police have arrested over 150 people since the protests began on 01 MAR. President Lukashenko will continue to blame both Russia and the West for negative domestic conditions to maintain his grip on power.  

Meanwhile Ukraine is beginning to experience the economic effects of its ongoing blockade of separatist-occupied Donbas. Ukraine’s National Bank adjusted its forecast for Ukraine’s annual GDP growth in 2017 from 2.8% to 1.9% due to the financial consequences of the Ukrainian blockade. Ukraine will likely expedite anti-corruption reforms in an effort to encourage foreign direct investment and assistance from international financial institutions.