ISW Daily Update March 29, 2017

These are the major events from March 29, 2017 in the theaters and from the trans-national groups that ISW monitors: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, and ISIS.

SYRIA: Turkey is posturing to gain American support to consolidate its safe zone in northern Syria. Turkey announced the "successful" end of Operations Euphrates Shield in northern Aleppo Province. The announcement comes ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson who emphasized the need for the U.S. and its allies to form "interim zones of stability" in Syria during the Anti-ISIS Summit on 22 - 23 MAR. The consolidation of the Turkish safe zone in northern Aleppo risks further empowering Salafi Jihadi groups such as Ahrar al Sham in northern Syria.

IRAQ: Continued mutual outreach between Saudi Arabia and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi signals intent to bolster PM Abadi’s position, supporting U.S. interests in Iraq and countering those of Iran. Abadi met with Saudi King Salman bin Abdul Aziz on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Amman, Jordan. The historic meeting marks significant progress in recent efforts to renew Iraq-Saudi relations. PM Abadi’s agenda at the summit has focused on ensuring economic and financial agreements, as it did during the anti-ISIS Coalition summit in D.C. last week. Saudi Arabia and the Arab states could use economic deals to reinforce an amenable partner in Abadi.

AFG: The Afghan government’s plan to expand the ANSF’s Special Operations Command signals a lack of confidence in the ANSF’s conventional forces. The Afghan Defense Ministry announced plans to increase the size of the elite Afghan Special Operations command to the level of an unspecified army corps. Anonymous sources claimed the special operations command will simply double from 17,000 troops to 34,000. NATO expects this expansion to take several years. The ANSF rely heavily on special operations units due to a lack of confidence in the conventional military. Afghan Special Operations units represent only five percent of the ANSF’s total 300,000 forces, yet conduct 70% of its operations and are essential to preserving government control of provincial capitals.  Taliban militants may take advantage of the readiness gaps of the ANSF’s special operations forces by launching simultaneous offensives against separate provincial capitals.

EGY: Improving relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia signal an opportunity for the U.S. to reinforce its interests in the region through its strong partnership with Saudi Arabia. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi met with Saudi King Salman on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Jordan. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that Egypt and Saudi Arabia agree on all regional issues, when their interests in Syria and Libya in fact diverge. Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov on the sidelines of the Arab League Summit. Egypt reportedly voiced caution with regard to Iranian intervention in Arab states and its support of terrorism, and President Sisi called on Arab states to take a firm stance against foreign intervention in their domestic affairs. Russian leaders continue to insist bilateral relations between the Egypt and Russia are strengthening, though the Russian government announced continued delays to resuming flights to Egypt. It is possible Russia's attempts to bring Egypt into its orbit are faltering amidst active outreach and concessions from Saudi Arabia.

RUS/UKR: Pro-Russia agents attempted to undermine Ukrainian-Polish relations in order to isolate Ukraine from west. Unidentified provocateurs fired an anti-tank rocket at Poland’s Consulate-General headquarters in western Ukraine. Poland and Ukraine both suggested the involvement of a "third party," and noted that Russia would be the main benefactor from such an incident. This provocation is the most recent attempt to undermine Polish-Ukrainian relations after the vandalization of Polish monuments and grave sites in Ukraine in JAN 2017, which Poland and Ukraine blamed on Russia. Russia has a strategic interest in undermining Ukraine’s regional strategic partnerships. Russia will likely continue subverting Ukraine’s partnerships through clandestine means in an effort to strain Kyiv’s relationship with regional allies.

ISIS:  ISIS lost Deir Hafr, Syria to pro-regime forces, bringing the regime closer to ISIS-held Raqqa and U.S. forces attempting to isolate the city. Deir Hafr previously functioned as an ISIS headquarters and command and control center, although ISIS likely relocated these capabilities prior to the regime advance. Separately, ISIS attacked a checkpoint in southern Baghdad using a tanker SVBIED, inflicting heavy casualties and demonstrating its resilient attack capabilities.