The United States cannot stabilize—or safely deprioritize—the Middle East without first stabilizing Iraq. Regional powers treat Iraq as a battleground to carry out proxy conﬂicts that harm US interests and exacerbate instability through the region. Stability begets stability; strengthening the Iraqi state such that foreign proxy wars cannot easily take place within its borders would reduce tensions in the region. A more resilient Iraqi state will be better protected from future foreign interference like internationally sponsored militia activities, political inﬂuence, and jihadism. A stable and sovereign Iraq could provide a physical and political buﬀer between its heavyweight neighbors: Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, and between Iran and its projects in Syria and Lebanon. That buﬀer could help enable a desired pivot in US policy and security focus away from the Middle East and toward pressing concerns elsewhere in the world.
ISIS escalated attacks during Ramadan 2021 despite sustained counterterrorism pressure. ISIS maintains its ability to recruit, conduct attacks, exploit gaps, and in some areas replace weakened governance systems. Local and international security forces are unlikely to fully defeat ISIS in its “core terrain” in Iraq and Syria in the short term due to competing priorities among counter-ISIS actors and decreasing international interest.
Key Takeaway: Iranian-backed militias are increasingly supplanting other Iraqi security forces and asserting control over Baghdad and surrounding areas, creating opportunities for ISIS to infiltrate Baghdad. Iranian-backed militias are also exerting control over populations and transit routes around Baghdad in hopes to eject US forces and set conditions to maintain a long-term demographic majority. Militia activity causes other Iraqi security forces to divide their attention between countering militias and countering ISIS, reducing the effectiveness of both efforts. ISIS is exploiting this gap to build durable support zones through the Baghdad Belts from which it can stage spectacular attacks. The Iraqi Security Forces must develop better local security strategies to more effectively counter both militia and ISIS campaigns in Baghdad and the Baghdad Belts.
Key Takeaway: ISIS faces pressure along multiple fronts as it begins its annual Ramadan surge of attacks in Syria. Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) mounted counter-ISIS operations targeting leadership cells in Idlib, likely in order to both depress ISIS’s attack capability and performatively distance HTS from other “hardline” Salafi-jihadi organizations. The British Royal Air Force and the Russian military similarly conducted precision operations, possibly intended to target high-value ISIS leadership, in eastern Syria. The US-partnered Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), meanwhile, secured camps and detention centers housing former ISIS affiliates in order to prevent ISIS from staging a prison break during the coming month. ISIS’s Ramadan campaign will likely continue to feature large-scale but disparate attacks on oil and gas facilities in the Central Syrian Desert and attacks targeting civil society leaders, exploiting existing Arab-Kurdish divisions, in SDF-held northeast Syria.
Prepared testimony of: Ms. Jennifer Cafarella, National Security Fellow, Institute for the Study of War
For the hearing: “10 Years of War: Examining the Ongoing Conflict in Syria” April 15, 2021
Russia in Review: Russia Opens Permanent Training Center in Belarus and Sets Conditions for Permanent Military BasingApril 8, 2021 - George Barros
Key Takeaway: Joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises in March 2021 demonstrated several new Russian capabilities that could support a permanent Russian force presence in Belarus. Russia’s efforts to cement control of Belarusian forces and permanently deploy forces to Belarus increase Russia’s capacity to threaten NATO’s eastern flank. Russia and Belarus announced plans to open three permanent combined combat training centers in Russia and Belarus. The Kremlin is likely increasing Belarus’ military readiness and integration with Russian forces, augmenting the Kremlin’s capability to mobilize more units for longer durations and increasing Russia’s total force projection capability against NATO. Russian military pilots may begin operating out of Belarusian airbases in 2021. The Kremlin additionally used March 2021 exercises to prepare for Russia’s upcoming annual capstone strategic readiness exercise, Zapad 2021, in September, during which Russian units will likely deploy to Belarus on a significantly larger scale than ever before.
Ongoing reports of increased Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and violations of the July 2020 ceasefire have drawn widespread attention and alarm but do not likely presage imminent Russian military action against Ukraine.
Key Takeaway: The United States and Russia are exerting pressure to limit Iran’s military and diplomatic leverage in Syria. The United States conducted several airstrikes targeting Iranian proxies in Albu Kamal, Deir ez-Zour Province, on February 25, 2021, in response to a series of proxy rocket attacks in Iraq in mid-February. Meanwhile, Russia began several new diplomatic initiatives on the behalf of the Assad regime that could diminish Iran’s potential economic and political leverage in Syria. Russia facilitated a deal to renew oil trade between the Assad regime and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), possibly reducing the Assad regime’s reliance on Iranian oil. Russia additionally brokered a prisoner exchange between Israel and Syria in which Israel also agreed to finance the purchase of Russia’s Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine for the Syrian government. Russia led trilateral talks with Turkey and Qatar that could be aimed at cutting Iran out of the peace process.
Russia in Review: Russian Offensive in Ukraine Unlikely, but Russian Disinformation Operation Pressures Kyiv To Make ConcessionsMarch 18, 2021 - Mason Clark
The Kremlin launched a disinformation campaign against Ukraine in early March that could support renewed Russian offensive conventional operations in 2021, but Russia is unlikely to launch offensive operations in the coming weeks. Russian proxies in eastern Ukraine deployed to full combat readiness on March 16. Despite that potential indicator of a possible operation, the Russian military is not postured to support an imminent offensive. The Kremlin’s disinformation campaign may be intended to pressure Ukraine into engaging in negotiations on unfavorable terms or to set conditions for a Russian escalation in late spring 2021 or both. ISW will continue to assess indicators of a potential Russian escalation and monitor the Kremlin’s ongoing disinformation campaign.
ISIS has established a stable territorial base in the mountainous regions of the Central Syrian Desert and has begun to overtake pro-Assad regime forces in the area. ISIS is waging a coordinated campaign to draw pro-regime forces into an untenable security posture in defense of energy and oil assets threatened by ISIS. Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers have attempted to contain ISIS’s insurgency but are unwilling to commit force at the scale necessary to succeed. ISIS is already using its territorial base to destabilize other parts of Syria. ISIS could attempt to seize new territory or financial assets in central Syria during its Ramadan campaign beginning in April 2021.