ISW's Overwatch Podcast Series
Overwatch, a podcast series from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), goes beyond the news headlines to give listeners analysis and commentary on issues related to U.S. national security and American foreign policy. The episodes feature discussions with experts and practitioners to explore what challenges and opportunities lie ahead for the U.S. Episodes are released on a biweekly basis.
Crisis Brief is a special edition of ISW's Overwatch podcast series intended to provide timely updates on unfolding crises with implications for U.S. national security.
- Crisis Brief series on the escalating protests in Iraq
- Crisis Brief series on Turkey's Syria Incursion
Episode 44: Kremlin Intensifies War in Donbas to Undermine Ukrainian Government in Elections
The recent local elections in Ukraine were an important political battleground in Putin’s contest to restore Kremlin-friendly rule and annex territory in that country, the objective behind his 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The Kremlin’s costly military operations failed to achieve their desired political outcome, resulting instead in a protracted war between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian proxies occupying eastern Ukraine and sophisticated political and information warfare aimed at shaping Kyiv’s government. The Kremlin recently sought to manipulate local elections in Ukraine to legitimize Russian proxies in Donbas, the territory they occupy in eastern Ukraine, and include its electorate within Ukraine itself. On this episode of Overwatch, ISW Russia Team member George Barros discusses the outcome of Ukraine’s recent elections; the Kremlin’s techniques to attempt to influence Ukrainian elections; and the integration of military, political, and information operations in Russia’s hybrid war against its neighbor.
Episode 43: Kremlin Exploits Crisis to Secure Greater Russian Control of Belarus
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a longstanding objective to integrate Belarus into Russian-controlled structures. The Kremlin is undermining the Belarusian president's attempts to calm protests while simultaneously using the protest movement to justify Russian involvement in Belarusian affairs. This interference may enable Putin to deploy more Russian forces on NATO's eastern flank and advance Putin’s campaign to reassert Russian control over former Soviet states. On this episode of Overwatch, Mason Clark and George Barros discuss the trajectory of the crisis and what the Kremlin seeks to gain from it.
Episode 42: Vicious Cycles in the Middle East and Africa Continue to Threaten US National Security Despite Efforts to Withdraw
The US is routinely confronted with crises that worsen and expand in scope over time. Modern technology and global interconnectedness have made these self-reinforcing crises increasingly common and intractable. In this episode of Overwatch, Emily Estelle discusses this phenomenon and the danger it presents to US national security.
Episode 41: Iraq's "October Revolution" Protests Resume as a Tense Country Looks On
Mass anti-government protests erupted in Iraq in October 2019. The protests led to the resignation of the government in what became known as the "October Revolution," but not before crackdowns by Iraqi Security Forces and Iran-backed proxies killed over 600 people. On this episode of Overwatch, Katherine Lawlor talks about the origins of the protest movement, what has changed in Iraq over the last year, and what’s next for the protest movement as a whole.
Episode 40: Putin's Offset: The Power of Perception
Russian President Vladimir Putin plays a weak hand well. Putin's center of gravity is increasingly his ability to shape others’ perception and create the image of a powerful Russia based on limited real power. He has several clear strengths, but also very real limitations. Nonetheless, he continues to achieve goals that should be beyond his capabilities. Nataliya Bugayova recently published a detailed report on how Putin has used a series of offsetting approaches to achieve his goals and how Putin has evolved these approaches since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. She joined Overwatch to talk about her report and its findings.
Episode 39: US Presence in Syria Remains a Critical Component in the Fight against ISIS
The United States retains a small but highly effective force in Syria. This force has a clear mission: defeat ISIS and prevent the resurgence of extremist groups in eastern Syria. However, poor communication and muddled media coverage has contributed to a lack of clarity regarding the role and mission of US forces. In this episode of Overwatch, Jennifer Cafarella and Eva Kahan cut through the confusion to provide a clear assessment of the purpose, status, and likely future of US forces in Syria.
Episode 38: General Jack Keane (US Army, Retired) Reflects on the 9/11 Attacks and the Ongoing War on Terror
ISW Board Chairman General Jack Keane (US Army, Retired) is a foreign policy and national security expert who was in the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. He went on to provide oversight and support for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On this episode of Overwatch, General Keane (Ret.) recounts his experiences on the day of the attack and gives his perspectives on the ensuing 19 years of war.
Episode 37: Local Unrest Threatens to Undermine Primary US Partner Force in Northeast Syria
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the local US partner force in northeast Syria, is facing intense pressure from ISIS, the Syrian Regime, and Turkey. The SDF’s already-fraught relations with local Arab tribes have deteriorated significantly, especially in Deir ez-Zour Province. These issues came to a head in August when the assassination of several tribal sheikhs triggered a tribal backlash against the SDF. In this episode of Overwatch, Eva Kahan, John Dunford, and Jason Zhou discuss the escalating situation in Deir ez-Zour and what it means for US national security.
Episode 36: Russia Threatens to Turn Belarus Unrest into Major International Crisis
Belarus has been in a state of civil unrest for several weeks. As popular protests came to pose a genuine threat to President Lukashenko's regime, Russia became involved to protect its interests in the country. Since then, the situation in Belarus has become exponentially more complicated, evolving from a relatively straightforward domestic dispute between a strongman president and his disgruntled citizens into an international debacle that involves Russia, Poland, Lithuania, NATO, and the EU. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW’s Mason Clark and George Barros draw on their daily coverage of Belarus to unpack what the situation there means for US national security.
Episode 35: Trump Says US Forces Are Leaving Iraq Soon, Undermining Visiting Iraqi Prime Minister
Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was in Washington this week for high-level bilateral meetings known as the US-Iraqi Strategic Dialogue. Kadhimi has been hard-charging toward reforms in Iraq that would combat Iranian influence and prevent the country from collapse, but these efforts will be undermined by Trump's call to leave Iraq soon. In this episode of Overwatch, Nicholas Heras and Katherine Lawlor discuss Kadhimi’s position, the future of Iraq, and whether he remains a viable US partner.
Episode 34: ISIS Escalates Violence in Turkish-held Parts of Northwest Syria
Claimed ISIS attacks in Turkish and opposition-controlled northwest Syria have spiked in the past two months. The United States scaled down its forces in Syria and Iraq after the defeat of the Islamic State’s contiguous territorial caliphate in 2019. US policy-makers have since focused on empowering local forces who fought in the anti-ISIS coalition, including NATO ally Turkey. However, Turkey’s commitment to this fight remains uncertain. In this episode of Overwatch, Eva Kahan, ISW’s Evans-Hanson fellow, discusses these issues and what they mean for US national security.
Episode 33: The Kremlin and Kyiv Agree to New Ceasefire in Ukraine
Russia is offering rare support for a new ceasefire in Ukraine’s eastern region of Donbas by not blaming Ukraine for recent ceasefire violations, despite derailing several similar ceasefires in the past. The ceasefire began on July 27 and represents an important new development in the now six-year-old conflict between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed proxy forces in eastern Ukraine. In this episode of Overwatch, Mason Clark and George Barros explain the significance of the ceasefire and what Ukraine and Russia hope to achieve from it.
Episode 32: Al Qaeda Infighting in Syria Tests Loyalty of Foreign Fighters
Al Qaeda-linked groups Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Hurras al Din clashed in late June and early July and remain at odds as defections prompted by the former’s increasingly pro-Turkish posture continue. Al Qaeda is backing fighters from a diverse set of groups and HTS has likely secured Turkish support, making the persistence of a Salafi-jihadist haven in Syria very likely. In this episode of Overwatch, Nicholas Heras and Isabel Ivanescu discuss the causes and implications of the recent infighting.
Episode 31: Brawl between Islamic State and Al Qaeda in Africa May Strengthen Salafi-Jihadi Movement
The Islamic State and Al Qaeda are locked in a struggle for ideological supremacy in Africa. While this fight may seem appealing to the US, it presents some dangerous pitfalls that threaten US national security and the well-being of millions of Africans. In this episode of Overwatch, Emily Estelle, the research manager of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, explains how a fight between two US adversaries could catalyze greater challenges in the future.
Episode 30: Putin Rigs Constitutional Amendment to Extend His Presidency beyond 2024
Russian President Vladimir Putin recently enacted a constitutional amendment that will allow him to run for president again in 2024 and potentially remain in power until 2036. This amendment is a critical accomplishment for Putin, as term limits threatened to force him from office in 2024, but it came with a steep price in terms of legitimacy. In this episode of Overwatch, Nataliya Bugayova, Mason Clark, and George Barros discuss the nuanced steps Putin took to secure this constitutional change and what the next 16 years of his leadership could mean for the Russian people and US national security.
Episode 29: US Launches New Round of Sanctions Targeting Syrian Regime
The Syrian Civil War is well into its ninth year and shows little sign of ending. The US recently deployed a new wave of sanctions targeting the Syrian Regime. Meanwhile, Russia, Turkey, and Iran are actively interfering with the UN peace process by running their own competing negotiations. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW Middle East Program Manager Nicholas Heras and Syria Research Assistant John Dunford discuss these efforts and the complex webs through which they interact.
Episode 28: Pandemic Presents New Challenges and Opportunities for US National Security
The global health crisis caused by COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of American society and government. The pandemic has forced changes to individual lifestyles as well as the highest levels of policymaking. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW National Security Fellow Jennifer Cafarella discusses the challenges, threats, and opportunities that COVID-19 presents to US national security.
Episode 27: US Ally Egypt Threatens Military Move into Libya against NATO Member Turkey
Egypt is preparing a military intervention to prevent Turkish-backed forces from advancing into eastern Libya. The intervention raises the risk of direct conflict with Turkey, which could spread throughout the region. Meanwhile, Russia is positioned to benefit from rising tensions between Turkey and fellow NATO members. In this episode of Overwatch, Emily Estelle, Research Manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute, discusses these issues and others.
Episode 26: Future of US Troop Presence and Iraqi Security Uncertain as Strategic Dialogue Begins
The future of the roughly 5,000 US military personnel in Iraq is a key topic in a strategic dialogue that recently began between US and Iraqi negotiators. Iraqi opinion is split between those who oppose the continued US presence and those who believe it remains essential to Iraqi security. In the background, Iran and its Iraq-based political and militant proxies are pushing for the complete withdrawal of US forces. In this episode of Overwatch, Katherine Lawlor, Brandon Wallace, and Jason Zhou discuss the present state of affairs in Iraq and the implications of a possible US force withdrawal.
Episode 25: The Role of the Military in Civilian Unrest: Lessons from Iraq
The Hill recently published an op-ed by Institute for the Study of War Senior Fellow Lieutenant General Jim Dubik (US Army, Retired). Dubik is one of America's preeminent experts on military ethics. His latest op-ed draws on his experience with the US counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq and uses the lessons he learned in that conflict to critique the US government's response to recent protests inside the US. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW Editor Jacob Taylor speaks to Lt. Gen. Dubik about the purpose of his op-ed and his suggested improvements to the government's decision-making process.
Episode 24: Assad’s Economic Desperation Causes Cracks in Syrian Regime
The Syrian regime’s desperate financial situation has led President Bashar al-Assad to persecute his own cousin as a pretense to seize his financial assets. The cousin in question, Rami Makhlouf, has been a key supporter of the regime for years and is one of Syria’s richest men. His downfall demonstrates the regime’s dire need to obtain resources as it fights to keep control over territory in western Syria. In this episode of Overwatch, Nick Heras, John Dunford, and Michael Land discuss the implications of Assad’s fight with Makhlouf and consider the role that Russia and Iran may play in a reshaped Syrian regime.
Episode 23: Kremlin Uses COVID-19 Misinformation to Bolster Image, Undermine Adversaries, and Seek Sanctions Relief
Kremlin-affiliated networks are falsely accusing the United States of engineering the coronavirus responsible for the ongoing pandemic. This narrative is one of several interlocking disinformation efforts by the Kremlin that exploit COVID-19. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW’s Russia team unpacks how the Kremlin's complex information operations support its long-standing objectives in Syria, in Ukraine, and globally.
Episode 22: Iraq’s New Prime Minister Prepares for Strategic Talks with US
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi has strengthened his position and achieved a handful of successes in the first few weeks of his tenure. However, Kadhimi will face enormous challenges as Iraq’s new head of state, particularly in balancing Iraq’s tumultuous and often contradictory relationship with the US and Iran. In this episode of Overwatch, Middle East Program Manager Nicholas Heras and Research Assistant Katherine Lawlor discuss the first steps of Kadhimi’s administration and the pressures he will face as he renegotiates the role of the United States in Iraq.
Episode 21: Iran Remains Committed to Syria Despite Ongoing Pandemic and Economic Collapse
Iran views Syria as an integral component of its military power in the Middle East. Despite converging public health and economic crises severely straining Iran’s resources, the country is sustaining, and possibly increasing, its military investment in Syria. In this episode of Overwatch, Middle East Program Manager Nicholas Heras, Syria Research Assistant John Dunford, and CTP Iran Analyst Kyra Rauschenbach discuss the nature of Iran’s attachment to Syria and what it may mean in the future.
Episode 20: Kremlin Suffers Setbacks in the Balkans
Russia, the US, the EU, and NATO all consider the Balkans to be a region of significant strategic value. Despite the Kremlin’s best efforts to the contrary, the region is currently swinging toward the West, with North Macedonia recently joining NATO and several other Balkan states making progress toward EU membership. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW Russia Team Lead Nataliya Bugayova and Research Assistant George Barros discuss the past, present, and future of this historically volatile region.
Episode 19: Pandemic Enables Spread of Salafi Jihadism in Africa
Years of poor governance and economic insecurity have allowed Salafi Jihadist groups to metastasize in several parts of Africa. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW Middle East Security Program Manager Nicholas Heras and CTP Research Manager Emily Estelle discuss the opportunities that the COVID-19 crisis presents for these groups to expand the reach of their terrorist activities.
Episode 18: Pressures and Opportunities Arise for Putin as Oil and COVID Crises Converge
The Kremlin is using the COVID pandemic to advance a range of goals. Russia is leveraging UN calls for limited relaxations of certain economic sanctions to paint the US as anti-humanitarian. Meanwhile, Kremlin internal security is using quarantines to justify the testing of new tech-based authoritarian controls. In this podcast, Nataliya Bugayova, George Barros, and Mason Clark discuss these developments and more.
Episode 17: Walk Away from the Taliban, Not Afghanistan
General David H. Petraeus (US Army, Retired) and Vance Serchuk speak with ISW Founder and President Dr. Kimberly Kagan on the dangers of the US deal with the Taliban. They assess what the United States must do in Afghanistan to secure its national interests and prevent another 9/11. The US strategy in Afghanistan has been costly and unsatisfying - but also reasonably successful in preventing another terrorist attack on the homeland. The United States has made a peace deal with the Taliban in order to extricate its forces from Afghanistan, but it will soon lose the means to compel the Taliban to fulfill its part of the bargain. Should the United States pull its military out of Afghanistan anyway? Will the Taliban prevent international terrorists from returning? If so, can the United States counter terrorists in Afghanistan from afar?
General David Petraeus has served as Director of the CIA, Commander of Coalition Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Commander of the US Central Command. He is now Chairman of the KKR Global Institute and a partner at KKR. He also serves on the Board of Directors at the Institute for the Study of War.
Vance Serchuk is the Executive Director of the KKR Global Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as the Foreign Policy Adviser to Senator Joseph Lieberman.
Episode 16: Ukraine Considers Talks with Putin's Proxies
Russian President Vladimir Putin is taking advantage of converging crises, including COVID-19, to surreptitiously advance his campaign in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials agreed on March 11 to the Kremlin’s demands to consider direct discussions with the Kremlin-controlled proxies in Donbas. This agreement, if finalized, could launch an irreversible process of legitimizing Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW Russia Team Lead Nataliya Bugayova and Russia Research Assistants George Barros and Mason Clark discuss this recent development and contextualize it in the Kremlin’s campaign to regain dominant influence in Ukraine.
Episode 15: Russia and Turkey Fail to Implement Ceasefire Deal in Idlib
The December offensive launched by Russian-backed Syrian Regime forces in Greater Idlib Province produced an unprecedented humanitarian disaster. Turkey responded to the offensive with major military deployments to Idlib and a series of escalations against pro-regime forces. In this episode of Overwatch, Middle East Security Program Manager Nicholas Heras and Syria Research Assistant John Dunford discuss the Turkish campaign, the current ceasefire deal, and what to expect next.
Episode 14: Russia's Viral Disinformation in Ukraine
Likely Russian actors launched a disinformation campaign against Ukraine exploiting COVID-19 fears related to the Ukrainian government’s evacuation of its citizens from Wuhan, China. The campaign’s tactics, timing, and nature point toward Kremlin involvement. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW’s Russia Team Lead Nataliya Bugayova and Russia Research Assistant George Barros discuss this information operation, the Kremlin’s disinformation techniques, and larger implications for Ukraine.
Episode 13: Governing After ISIS: What's Next for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), America’s local partner in northeastern Syria, was instrumental in the fight against ISIS and is working to fill the vacuum it left behind. In this episode of Overwatch, ISW’s Research Director Jennifer Cafarella, new Middle East Portfolio Manager Nicholas Heras, and Syria Research Assistant John Dunford discuss the structure and behavior of the SDF, the group’s relationship with the US military, the unique challenges it faces in governing, and its efforts to prevent the resurgence of ISIS within local populations.
Episode 12: Iran's Reserve of Last Resort: Uncovering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Order of Battle
Qassem Soleimani’s death and the prospect of further US-Iranian military escalation raise the question of Iran’s military capacity. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Ground Forces are Tehran’s reserve of last resort for both internal and external security challenges. The Iranian regime goes to great lengths to obfuscate the IRGC’s military strength and organization of its ground forces. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) recently published the groundbreaking report Iran’s Reserve of Last Resort: Uncovering the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Ground Forces Order of Battle. In this episode of Overwatch, AEI Resident Scholar and CTP Director Fred Kagan and CTP Iran Team Lead Nicholas Carl discuss their recent report and the crucial role that the IRGC plays in the regime’s survival and Iranian efforts to project power and export their revolution abroad.
Episode 11: Putin Begins New Phase in Campaign to Retain Power
Vladimir Putin's current term as Russia's President expires in 2024. Over the past two weeks, Putin reshuffled Russia's government, proposed a set of major changes to the Russian constitution, and pledged significant social spending. ISW's Russia Team Lead Nataliya Bugayova describes how this reshuffling fits into Putin's campaign to retain power and the subsequent vulnerabilities Putin will face as he manages this transition.
Episode 10: Insights on Iraqi Fragility from the Ground (January 24, 2020)
Last month, ISW Director of Tradecraft and Innovation, Colonel (Ret.) Ketti Davison, traveled to Iraq with a team of experts organized by the UNHCR. She got a first-hand look at some of the security and humanitarian conditions on the ground in IDP and refugee camps and met with government officials during her trip to central and northern Iraq. On this episode, Ketti shares her key takeaways from this trip and discusses the broader political dynamics that are currently shaking Iraq, a country that remains vital to U.S. national security interests.
Episode 9: The Kremlin's Expanding Media Conglomerate
The Kremlin is trying to pull countries around the world into its information space. Kremlin-linked media outlets signed more than 50 cooperation agreements with counterparts around the world in the last five years. Russia uses its information space to expand its influence, mask the Kremlin's aggression, and spread disinformation that undermines the U.S. and the West. In this episode, ISW's Russia Team Lead Nataliya Bugayova and Russia researcher George Barros discuss their recent publication on the Kremlin's effort to expand Russia's global media presence.
Episode 8: Russia's Year in Review (December 21, 2019)
Russian President Vladimir Putin is about to enter his third decade in power. As we enter 2020, how Putin sees his own position on the global map reveals a lot about what the United States can expect from Russian policy in the future. ISW’s Russia Team Lead Nataliya Bugayova and Research Assistant Mason Clark discuss where Putin has made progress in advancing his goals and where he has faced setbacks during this episode’s 2019 year in review assessment.
Episode 7: Can the U.S. Pull Back from the Middle East Without Risking Its Security? (December 6, 2019)
The U.S. national security community's growing focus on China and Russia is raising questions about the future of America's role in the Middle East region. Can the U.S. pull back from the broader Middle East and expect other actors to contain the threats building in the region? ISW Director of Innovation and Tradecraft Colonel (ret.) Ketti Davison tackles this question and how America should think about its strategy.
Episode 6: Russia's Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria (November 21, 2019)
On this episode, ISW Research Director Jennifer Cafarella discusses her new report “Russia's Dead-End Diplomacy in Syria in a Q&A exchange with Maseh Zarif. Jennifer describes Russia's attempt to exploit the current diplomatic process in Syria to enhance its own credibility and influence in the region and beyond. She outlines what the United States should do to defend its interests and deal with the primary obstacle to peace in Syria – Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
Episode 5: General (Ret.) David Petraeus Decodes Dynamics in the Middle East (October 31, 2019)
Evolving conflicts and unrest are reshaping the Middle East rapidly. The U.S. will continue to have key national interests at stake in this region even as challenges outside it demand greater American attention. ISW Board Member General (Ret.) David H. Petraeus joined Maseh Zarif to share his views on a range of issues, including the state of ISIS post-Baghdadi, Iran’s regional campaigns, U.S. policy in the region, and the challenge of balancing among national security requirements globally.
Episode 4: Are U.S. Partnerships Around the World in Jeopardy? (October 14, 2019)
Maseh Zarif and ISW Director of Innovation and Tradecraft Colonel Ketti Davison (U.S. Army, Retired) discuss regional destabilization in the Middle East in the wake of the crises in Iraq and Syria. They further address how the U.S. withdrawal from Northeastern Syria will have grave consequences for the future of U.S. security operations and partnerships.
Episode 3: Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Nagata Explains the Consequences of a U.S. Withdrawal from Syria (October 13, 2019)
American forces in Northern Syria have begun a "deliberate withdrawal" as Turkish-backed forces continue to deepen their invasion of areas held by the U.S. partner force, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Lieutenant General Michael Nagata (U.S. Army, retired), discusses the immediate and long-term implications of this retreat from Syria. LTG Nagata retired as the Director of Strategy at the National Counterterrorism (NCTC) after a long career in special operations.
Episode 2: Russia's Campaign in Africa (September 27, 2019)
Maseh Zarif talks with his ISW colleagues Nataliya Bugayova and Darina Regio about what Russia is up to in Africa. They discuss Russia’s coordinated campaign to gain economic and political influence, and its attempt to create opportunities for expanding its military presence on the continent. Nataliya and Darina also put this campaign in the context of U.S. interests, identifying why the United States should be concerned and what to look for in the coming months. For background, read "The Kremlin's Campaign in Africa."
Episode 1: ISIS's Second Comeback (September 10, 2019)
ISW's Research Director Jennifer Cafarella discusses her report (written with Brandon Wallace and Jason Zhou) "ISIS's Second Comeback: Assessing the Next Insurgency." Interviewed by ISW's Director of External Relations Maseh Zarif, Jennifer discusses her insights into what the group did in Iraq and Syria to survive the U.S.-led campaign and what it is preparing to do in the future. She also describes the current U.S. role on the ground, potential scenarios in the months ahead, and how the broader fight against jihadists fits into the National Defense Strategy (NDS) framework.