Iran-aligned actors continue to resist Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s campaign to steadily implement his core promises to the Iraqi people. Kadhimi demonstrated tangible success in holding security forces accountable for unlawful violence against protesters by arresting members of the Iran-aligned Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and removing the group’s commander. Kadhimi fulfilled another central promise by setting a date for early elections in June 2021, drawing backlash from entrenched political elites who fear losing their power base through free and fair elections. Kadhimi still faces an uphill battle to hold these elections; Iraq’s parliament must pass a new elections law, draw electoral districts, and approve new rules for the Supreme Federal Court before the elections can be held.
The COVID-19 outbreak in regime-held Syria is likely spreading at a significant rate and increasing internal economic and social pressures on the Assad regime. A regime official estimated there are over 112,000 cases in Greater Damascus alone. The regime is likely incapable of preventing the spread. The outbreaks in regime areas will likely spread to anti-Assad controlled areas in the northwest and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-held areas in the northeast, further threatening stability in those regions.
Iran’s Iraqi proxy militias are accelerating their campaign to constrain Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to reign in militias and reclaim Iraqi sovereignty.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s efforts to preserve Iraqi sovereignty by shifting its regional relationships away from Iranian domination have been met with a mix of successes and setbacks. The hospitalization of the King of Saudi Arabia forced Kadhimi to cancel his symbolically important first planned foreign visit to Saudi Arabia on July 20. Iran capitalized on the cancellation, dispatching its foreign minister in a pre-planned visit to Baghdad and then hosting Kadhimi in Tehran for meetings with Iran’s Supreme Leader as Kadhimi’s de facto first foreign trip. The United States continued to pressure Gulf countries to increase their energy cooperation with Iraq even as Prime Minister Kadhimi faced domestic and foreign resistance from neighboring Iran. Demonstrators are holding Kadhimi responsible for Iraq’s insufficient electricity supply, diluting his popular support. Continued criminal activity by Iran-backed groups, including the kidnapping of a German activist in Baghdad and repeated threats toward Iraqi allies, will also damage Kadhimi’s ability to secure buy-in from regional and global partners.
Russia and Turkey briefly escalated against one another following an attack on a Russo-Turkish joint patrol in Idlib. A suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIED) struck a Russo-Turkish joint patrol along the M4 Highway, causing several injuries on July 14. Russia appears to have held Turkey accountable for failing to prevent the attack and conducted airstrikes targeting the Turkish and opposition-controlled city of al-Bab in northern Aleppo on July 15. Turkey was likely responsible for a suicide drone attack that struck Kurdish-led Asayish Internal Security Forces and Russian Military Police (MPs) in northern Hasakah Province the following day. Russia and Turkey did not kinetically escalate further, but future attacks on joint patrols may prompt a larger Russian escalation against Turkish forces and allies.
Russia and Aligned Former Opposition Fighters Leverage Growing Anti-Assad Sentiment to Expand Control in Southern SyriaJuly 23, 2020 - Press ISW
Russia and a group of reconciled former opposition fighters under its patronage are taking advantage of growing anti-Assad and anti-Iran sentiment to forcibly expand their influence in southern Syria independent of the regime in Damascus. A prominent Russian-backed former opposition commander announced the formation of a new “army” that plans to centralize forces across much of the province under his control. A newly established Russian-backed political body will likely parallel this new force. The creation of this new army and political body will likely increase Russian influence and could threaten the ability of the Assad regime and Iran to impose their will in this key region bordering US allies Israel and Jordan.
Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s political maneuverability is increasingly constrained by resistance from Iran’s militia proxies and from protesters demanding better government services. Kadhimi directed elite forces to retake border crossings, advancing his campaign to reclaim Iraq’s border crossings from Iranian-backed militias with limited success. These security operations have not resulted in arrests or the permanent ousting of any militia groups to date but do signal to the United States that Kadhimi is taking the most aggressive actions he can without triggering violent retaliation from Iran’s proxy militias. Meanwhile, mass demonstrations broke out across the Shi’a-majority south to protest a lack of electricity service provisions after a months-long, COVID-19-induced downturn. Kadhimi continues to pursue new energy partnerships with Iraq’s neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia, but will be unable to provide the immediate jump in electricity supplies needed to quell the protests.
ISW produced this report for congressional staffers in early July. This content reflects ISW's pursuit of its mission to inform senior policymakers about the issues that fall within our portfolio.
Kata’ib Hezbollah (KH), a key Iranian proxy militia and US-designated terrorist group, is retaliating against Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi for launching a coordinated campaign to retake segments of the Iraqi state from entrenched political and militia corruption. KH, more than any other militia, is sending a series of violent messages to Kadhimi to force him to abandon his campaign. Masked gunmen, likely KH members, assassinated a prominent Iraqi analyst and ally to both the Kadhimi government and the US-led Coalition. The brazen assassination is the latest in a series of steps by KH against Kadhimi, including storming the Green Zone to compel the release of detained KH militants on June 26 and likely conducting the latest spate of rocket attacks on US facilities in Baghdad. The United States deployed a counter-rocket artillery and mortar (C-RAM) system to defend the US Embassy in Baghdad against rocket attacks, but KH interpreted the deployment of the system as a provocation and extension of Kadhimi’s campaign.
Recent infighting among opposition groups in Greater Idlib may complicate the possibility of cooperation against Assad in the future. Al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) clashed with the Stand Firm Operations Room, a Hurras al-Din (HaD)-led organization of al Qaeda affiliates for several days. While the two parties agreed to a ceasefire on June 26, sporadic fighting and inflammatory actions have continued and the situation may again escalate, threatening the ability of opposition forces to hold out against future regime advances and jeopardizing the internal stability of greater Idlib.