2:30 EDT: The Kremlin will likely employ Russian S-400 advanced air defense systems in Belarus as ISW forecasted. The commander of Belarus’ Air Force and Air Defense Forces announced on January 14, 2020, that the Belarusian Defense Ministry (MoD) is conducting pre-contract work to equip Belarus’ anti-aircraft missile divisions that currently operate the S-300 system with S-400 and Pantsir-S systems. ISW first warned of this threat in August 2020, after the MoD reportedly signed a contract for cooperation on air defense systems with the holding company for the manufacturers of the Russian S-300, S-400, and S-500 air defense systems.
Key Takeaway: Salafi-jihadist organizations in Syria are growing more ambitious. Both ISIS and Hurras al-Din have recently carried out attacks in Turkish-controlled areas in which they had not previously been active. While these attacks were fairly ineffective, they demonstrate intent and capacity to expand operations. Meanwhile, ISIS carried out two ambushes of regime forces in Deir ez-Zour Province that resulted in dozens of casualties. ISIS and Hurras al-Din are well postured to exploit security gaps in both Turkish- and regime-controlled areas and will likely do so in the coming year.
An independent Russian media outlet published documents allegedly detailing Kremlin plans to cement control over Belarus through constitutional changes and a Kremlin-amenable political party in Belarus. Independent Russian news outlet “The Insider” published several documents allegedly from internal Kremlin discussions on December 25 outlining Kremlin plans to maximize Russian influence over the Belarusian government through shaping constitutional amendments and restructuring. Among the documents are a framework for gaining political and social influence in Belarus, a speech by Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) General Vladimir Chernov seemingly to Kremlin officials on an unknown occasion outlining the role of Kremlin-amenable Belarusian politicians in constitutional reform, a list of Belarusian “assets,” and the foundational document for a new Kremlin-run political party in Belarus.
5:00 ET: Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya failed to marshal large protester turnout for her so-called “People’s Tribunal” on December 20. Tikhanouskaya called for the protest to be the opposition’s largest turnout when she announced it on November 13. No more than a few thousand protesters marched as part of the “People’s Tribunal” protest in the 20th consecutive week of protests, far short of the tens and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in some previous rallies.
The stabilization of the Iraqi state remains strategically important to the US and worthy of a concerted policy effort. Iraq’s endemic fragility creates space for foreign actors to play out their proxy battles, exacerbating Iraqi and regional instability in a mutually reinforcing cycle.
7:45 pm EDT: Russian President Vladimir Putin has used the ongoing crisis in Belarus to increase his sway over self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who has long stonewalled Moscow’s persistent efforts to integrate Belarus into Russia. A sustained protest movement following Lukashenko’s overt manipulation of Belarus’ August 2020 presidential election has seriously degraded Lukashenko’s ability to resist Russian pressure to integrate Belarus into Russia – a key Kremlin campaign ISW’s Russia Team has analyzed extensively in over 70 published assessments in 2020.
Key Takeaway: The Turkish military and its proxy forces are likely preparing an offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to capture Ayn Issa. Turkey likely capitalized on the Russian withdrawal from Ayn Issa to increase its bombardment of SDF positions ahead of an intended ground assault. Escalations have continued despite the redeployment of Russian forces to Ayn Issa. Turkey appears to want to avoid direct confrontation with Russia and will likely attempt to attack SDF positions and take control of the city without firing upon nearby Russian forces. The capture of Ayn Issa would grant Turkey control of a portion of the M4 highway, interrupting SDF ground lines of communication from the areas it governs in western Syria to those in eastern Syria.
People's Warfare against COVID-19: Testing China’s Military Medical and Defense Mobilization CapabilitiesDecember 14, 2020 - Press ISW
The Chinese state and military’s coordinated nationwide response to the COVID-19 pandemic tested their national defense mobilization and civil-military fusion strategies. These are the capabilities China would use to move from peacetime to wartime in response to potential future crises and conflicts, including with the United States and its allies.
Key Takeaway: Pro-Western Moldovan politician Maia Sandu won the Moldovan presidential election by defeating pro-Kremlin incumbent President Igor Dodon on November 15, 2020. Sandu’s election limits the Kremlin’s opportunity to expand its influence toward the eastern Balkans and presents the United States with an opportunity to reverse the Kremlin’s recent gains. However, the Kremlin will likely exploit its control in the Moldovan Parliament to contest Sandu’s electoral mandate. The United States and its allies should support Sandu’s efforts to expand, strengthen, and intensify cooperation agreements with Western countries as well as Sandu’s stated objective to end Russia’s military presence in the breakaway region of Transnistria to limit a dangerous Kremlin position in the eastern Balkans and on Ukraine’s western border.
Key Takeaway: ISIS is reconstituting and expanding attack zones in northern and central Syria. ISIS militants may have carried out three explosive attacks in Turkish-controlled Aleppo Province and separately attacked a pro-regime outpost and oil facility in central Syria. The increasing severity and geographic area of ISIS attacks likely indicates the organization is successfully expanding its freedom of action in Syria. Continued releases of ISIS militants and family members by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) will likely provide ISIS with veteran fighters and enable it to further expand its operations.