Key Takeaway: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) is struggling to manage a deteriorating security situation in opposition-held Idlib Province as provocative attacks by more extreme al Qaeda affiliates threaten the March 5, 2020, Idlib ceasefire. HTS aligned itself more closely with Turkey in May 2020 in a bid to preserve the ceasefire, angering hardline Salafi-jihadist groups. Newly formed and reactivated fighter cells linked to Hurras al-Din and other al Qaeda affiliates are attacking Turkish and Russian forces. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has assassinated hardliners and arrested senior Hurras al-Din members in a likely attempt to forestall further attacks. These HTS ‘security operations’ could lead to direct conflict between HTS and Hurras al-Din or other al Qaeda-linked groups, as occurred in July 2020. Russian and regime forces demonstrated their displeasure at the mounting attacks by carrying out rare strikes on al Qaeda affiliates in Idlib Province. Attacks on Russian forces could create the pretext for a renewed regime offensive on Idlib, while an HTS failure to contain hardliners may push Turkey to negotiate away a portion of the province.
Belarus Warning Update: Forced Integration with Russia—Not the Protest Movement—Is Lukashenko’s Biggest ThreatFebruary 19, 2021 - George Barros
2:00 pm EDT: The Kremlin’s ongoing campaign to increase Russian control over Belarus poses a larger risk to self-declared Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko than the diminishing Belarusian protest movement in 2021. Lukashenko presented a new strategy to end the crisis in Belarus on February 11-12; he announced plans for a referendum on a new constitution in 2022 and promised economic incentives to placate protesters. Lukashenko seeks to both balance against Kremlin pressure to integrate Belarus into Russian-dominated structures and defuse protester sentiment over the next several years. Lukashenko will likely avoid police crackdowns and instead seek to deescalate protests through the promise of minor concessions without fundamentally relinquishing his dictatorship. The Kremlin will likely intensify pressure against Lukashenko in 2021 to formalize Belarus’ integration into the Union State before Lukashenko can defuse the protests with his promised concessions.
Belarus Warning Update: Russia Fields New Motor Rifle Division in Kaliningrad and Conducts Joint Command Training with BelarusFebruary 8, 2021 - George Barros
5:00 EDT: The Kremlin is increasing its projection capabilities against both NATO and Belarus. The Kremlin announced in December 2020 its decision to field a new motorized rifle division in Kaliningrad. Baltic Fleet commander Admiral Aleksandr Nosatov announced on December 7, 2020, that the Kremlin decided to reinforce the Baltic Fleet’s 11th Army Corps with a motorized rifle division in response to an alleged NATO military buildup near Kaliningrad. Nosatov said this new division includes one motorized rifle regiment, one artillery regiment, and one separate tank regiment.
A Belarusian veterans group claims the Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF) are preparing to deploy two battalions of so-called “peacekeepers” to Syria in September 2021. BYPOL, an association of former Belarusian security service personnel and military veterans who sympathize with the protest movement against self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, claimed on January 30 that the BAF ordered Belarus’s two operational commands—roughly equivalent to Russian military districts—to construct units for peacekeeping and patrolling operations in Syria. BYPOL claims the first Belarusian deployment to Syria will consist of two approximately battalion-sized (300 personnel) units totaling around 600 personnel. The Kremlin likely instigated this order and will facilitate the deployment of Belarusian troops, which would support Russia’s military forces in Syria.
The Russian military identifies its deployment to Syria as the prototypical example of future war—an expeditionary deployment to support a coalition-based hybrid war. The Russian General Staff cites Syria as highlighting the need for Russia to develop a new military capability—deploying flexible expeditionary forces to carry out “limited actions” abroad. The Russian Armed Forces are applying lessons learned from their experience in Syria to shape their development into a flexible and effective expeditionary force.
Iran’s proxies in Iraq have joined an ongoing information and military campaign against Saudi Arabia that the al Houthi movement and Iran launched in late 2019. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias likely conducted a kamikaze drone attack into Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2021, for the second time in recent years. This attack could indicate a significant change in how the Iranian regime imposes pressure on its adversaries around the Persian Gulf. The potential expansion of Iraqi proxies’ ability and willingness to target foreign states in ostensibly deniable ways and in coordination with other components of the Axis of Resistance would pose a growing security challenge to the US and its regional partners.
Belarus Warning Update: Moscow and Minsk Hold Simultaneous Combat Readiness Exercises in Kaliningrad, Mainland Russia, and BelarusJanuary 28, 2021 - George Barros
Russian Western Military District (WMD) and Belarusian forces began simultaneous, large combat-readiness exercises in Kaliningrad, Belarus, and mainland western Russia on January 25, 2021. The Russian and Belarusian exercises are nominally separate and do not mention any joint activity; however, the exercises’ similarities in timing, geographic proximity, scale, and type of activity in resemblance to previous joint exercises indicate they are likely connected and complimentary.
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.