ISW Daily Update March 23, 2017

These are the major events from March 23, 2017 in the theaters and from the trans-national groups that ISW monitors: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, and ISIS.

SYRIA: The ongoing al-Qaeda-led offensive against Hama City will spoil international negotiations to end the Syrian war under current conditions. Al Qaeda and opposition forces seized an additional five towns and besieged a Christian-majority regime stronghold northwest of the city. The offensive on Hama overshadows a new round of diplomatic talks in Geneva between regime and opposition delegations, which are scheduled to begin “substantive discussions” on 24 MAR. Continued failure in Geneva will provide additional momentum for al Qaeda’s narrative that Syrians should abandon the negotiating table.

IRAQ:  Sunni Arab regional outreach to Iraq intensified during the anti-ISIS summit in Washington, DC. The Iraqi Foreign Minister met with the Saudi and Kuwaiti foreign ministers. Senior Iraqi officials also met with a Jordanian delegation to discuss trade issues while Egypt and Iraq made progress towards an oil agreement. Sunni Arab states’ renewed diplomatic and economic outreach to Iraq set conditions for the post-Mosul campaign and pre-election phase in Iraq. They likely seek to build ties and strengthen Shi’a partners like Abadi who are willing to act as a counterweight to growing Iranian influence.

AFG: Taliban militants seized a strategic district center in Helmand to set conditions to contest provincial capitals during the upcoming spring offensive. Taliban militants reportedly overran and seized Sangin’s District Center, Helmand Province as part of a coordinated assault. Taliban militants are in an improved position to launch coordinated ground offensives that threaten the security of Helmand Provincial capital Lashkar Gah City and also connect Taliban militants with Kandahar Province. The ANSF will likely launch counteroffensives to retake Sangin’s District Center. Taliban militants will use its positions in Sangin District to stage attacks during their spring offensive against Lashkar Gah City and project power into Kandahar Province. 

EGY: Egypt continued its outreach to U.S. officials in an effort to set terms for bilateral relations under the Trump administration. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland and other U.S. officials, according to the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s statement. Talks focused on advancing bilateral relations and the regional situation. U.S. President Donald Trump will host Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Washington on 03 APR. Egypt will continue to seek support from both the U.S. and Russia to address its economic and security concerns.

RUS/UKR: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko continued to crackdown on political entities Minsk perceives as threatening. Belarusian authorities detained 26 members from pro-Democratic activist groups who were allegedly planning to incite widespread civil unrest in Belarus. Lukashenko’s attacks on pro-Democratic entities in Belarus follow recent crackdowns on pro-Russian activists which Minsk also views as highly destabilizing elements. President Lukashenko will rely on a narrative which emphasizes external actors attempting to destabilize Belarus as the rationale for increased political suppression in face of public discontent.

ISIS:  ISIS has likely ordered its fighters in Europe to resume low-tech attacks. Belgian police prevented an alleged ISIS-linked man from attempting to drive his car into a group of pedestrians IVO Antwerp, Belgium. This occurred one day after an ISIS-affiliated individual drove his car into pedestrians IVO London, England, killing four. These attacks follow a six month lull in successful attacks by ISIS-linked fighters in Europe, except for an unsuccessful stabbing on 03 FEB. The uptick in recent attacks is likely a sign that ISIS has reactivated its networks in Europe by ordering and inspiring its fighters to launch attacks across the continent. It is possible this activation will spread to additional countries in Europe, especially as elections approach in Germany and France.