ISW Daily Update March 31, 2017

 These are the major events from March 31, 2017 in the theaters and from the trans-national groups that ISW monitors: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, and ISIS.

SYRIA: The Trump administration has begun to make initial public policy decisions on the Syrian Civil War. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN and the White House Spokesperson stated that the U.S. will no longer prioritize the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. Secretary of State meanwhile discussed the creation of “stabilization zones” in Syria with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu during a visit to Turkey. The U.S. has nonetheless expanded its support for Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) operations against ISIS in ar-Raqqah over the past month.

IRAQ:  Former PM Nouri al-Maliki attempted to undermine PM Abadi’s chances in upcoming elections. Pro-Maliki Council of Representatives (COR) members criticized PM Abadi’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia on March 31. The criticism serves as a direct challenge to a significant political and economic win for PM Abadi ahead of his possible run for reelection in 2018. Maliki additionally seeks to reinforce his Iranian ties and to prevent the emergence of a coherent Sunni political bloc in the COR due to strong backing by Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia was a reported sponsor for at the Ankara Conference on March 8-10 which sought to back a unified Sunni party for upcoming elections.

AFG: U.S. concern over Russian actions in Afghanistan continues to increase. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated Russian links with Taliban militants, including tangible support to the group, “gives us concern.” Secretary Mattis is the third senior U.S. military official to raise concern over Russian in Afghanistan this week, following the comments of CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel and NATO Supreme Allied Commander for Europe General Curtis Scaparrotti. Afghanistan is another front on which Russia is challenging the U.S. indirectly without incurring a high cost itself. It is unclear whether the U.S. intends to shift its policy in Afghanistan in light of such concerns. 


RUS/UKR: Russia took another step towards the incorporation of South Ossetia into the Russian State, which may set a precedent for future territorial acquisitions. The Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and the South Ossetian Minister of Defense Lieutenant General Ibrahim Gasseyev signed two agreements formalizing the partial integration of the South Ossetian Army into the Armed Forces of Russia. Integration efforts will likely continue on a step-by-step basis until the South Ossetian government is fully integrated into the Russian federal structure and the population is granted Russian citizenship. The South Ossetia example is a model for territorial incorporation, and the process may be repeated in other territories along Russia’s borders.