ISW Daily Update March 22, 2017

These are the major events from March 22, 2017 in the theaters and from the trans-national groups that ISW monitors: Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Russia, Ukraine, and ISIS.

SYRIA: The U.S. accelerated its campaign to isolate and seize Ar-Raqqa City with the assistance of the Syrian Kurdish YPG. The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) launched an operation to seize the Tabqah Dam west of Ar-Raqqa City with extensive support from the U.S. including airstrikes, artillery fire, attack helicopters, and embedded advisors. The U.S. also transferred at least 500 SDF fighters to the southern bank of the Euphrates River via helicopter to cut the Aleppo - Ar-Raqqa Highway. The operation - which will likely provoke a negative response from Turkey - began on the same day as a two-day ministerial conference of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Washington D.C.

IRAQ:  Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called for the "decimation" of ISIS rather than its containment during the first day of the Coalition summit in Washington, D.C. PM Abadi also met with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir on the sidelines of the summit, a follow up after the two recently met in Baghdad on February 25 in the first visit by a senior Saudi official to visit Iraq since 1991. The second meeting underscores continued efforts to reintegrate Iraq back into the fold of the Arab and Gulf States and away from Iran. Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari meanwhile met with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to discuss continued NATO efforts to train and maintain the Iraqi Security Forces. The meetings demonstrate Abadi’s effort to urge regional and international partners to do more to accelerate the defeat of ISIS and ensure its lasting defeat.  

AFG: Afghan officials seek additional military support from the U.S. but are hedging against further Taliban advances by endorsing Russian outreach to the Taliban in parallel. Acting Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani welcomed additional U.S. forces to address “military shortfalls” in areas of training, ground and air capabilities, reconnaissance and intelligence support. The Commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan called for the deployment of “a few thousand” additional troops during congressional testimony on 09 FEB. Rabbani and Afghan National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar recently stated their approval of Russian contact with Taliban militants, indicating the Afghan government is preparing for Russian-brokered peace talks as well as a spring fighting season during which additional support from the U.S. would be vital to prevent Taliban militants from seizing additional terrain.  

RUS/UKR: Russian and Ukrainian economic relations continued to degrade, increasing the economic cost of the ongoing conflict for both countries. Russian state-owned bank Sberbank announced that it would consider leaving Ukraine following protests outside of Sberbank facilities and sanctions by the Ukrainian government. Ukrainian government and civil action against Sberbank escalated following Russian recognition of legal documents issued from the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. Sberbank’s withdrawal will increase economic pressure on Ukrainians in the short term.

EGY: Austerity measures threaten the stability of the Egyptian government in the short term despite being important for the long-term stability of the country. The Egyptian cabinet approved and referred to parliament a 100% increase in the price of the Cairo Metro ticket proposal. The government has attempted to raise prices several times in the last few years; however, strong opposition from parliament members have stalled the government’s moves. Parliament members have always feared a public backlash, as 3-4 million Egyptians use the metro every day. Additionally, the Egyptian government will likely raise prices of electricity and reduce fuel subsidies in the summer of 2017 in order to decrease its budget deficit as mandated by the IMF. These austerity measures could amplify social unrest and boost the freedom of action of the Muslim Brotherhood.

ISIS:  Initial remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the start of the Global Anti-ISIS Coalition Ministerial meeting in Washington D.C. indicate that the U.S. administration intends to transition to post-conflict stability operations after the recapture of ISIS strongholds Mosul and Raqqa. Tillerson's comments indicate the administration underestimates the military requirements to seize remaining ISIS-held urban terrain beyond Mosul and Raqqa, as well as the security requirements to defeat renewed Sunni insurgency after ISIS.  Meanwhile ISIS likely carried out its first successful attack in the U.K. on the one year anniversary of the Brussels attacks. An unidentified man rammed a car into a crowd of pedestrians and crashed into the Palace of Westminster front gate, a method resembling previous vehicular attacks by ISIS fighters in Berlin and Nice. The attack method and timing as well as the overnight arrest of eight people by Scotland Yard following the attack, indicate the attack was directed by ISIS and not a lone wolf attack.