Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko Mobilizes Military to Western Border as Local Protest Organization Emerges

August 22, 2020 - Press ISW

2:30 pm EDT: Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko fully mobilized the Belarusian military and continued to emphasize his false claims of a NATO military threat on August 22. Lukashenko traveled to the Western region of Grodno, bordering Lithuania and Poland, on August 21 and 22. Grodno has previously been a protest hotspot and was the site of the only major defection (now suppressed) by regional officials to date in Belarus on August 18. Lukashenko claimed during a meeting with military officers in Grodno that the West continues to attempt a “color revolution” against Belarus but that Belarusian authorities remain in place and are “strongly resisting.” Lukashenko falsely claimed NATO is mobilizing troops in Poland and Lithuania to add an “external factor” as this color revolution falters. NATO is not mobilizing protests and protests remain strong. Lukashenko additionally continued his efforts to reorient the Belarusian crisis as a struggle between NATO and Russia, stating NATO wants to use Belarus as a “springboard” to destroy Russia later.

Belarus Warning Update: Moscow Sets Conditions for Kinetic Intervention in Belarus Through New Information Operation

August 21, 2020 - Press ISW

7:30 pm EDT: The Kremlin has assumed direct control of Belarusian media to conduct an information campaign for its own ends as the key component of its hybrid operation in Belarus. Lukashenko stated on August 21 he “invited” Russian media professionals to work at Belarusian state media. Lukashenko’s statement confirms ISW’s August 20 assessment that the Kremlin began an information operation in Belarus and took control of Belarusian state news agencies on August 19. The Kremlin, Lukashenko, Belarusian authorities, and Belarusian state media organizations’ rhetoric are converging. Belarusian state entities are acting as components of this Kremlin information operation and must be studied as such. This information operation is likely a component of a larger Russian hybrid operation currently underway.

Iraq Situation Report: August 12-18, 2020

August 21, 2020 - Press ISW

Iran and its proxy network in Iraq escalated a kinetic campaign to build political pressure and attempt to force Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to limit his support for the US force presence ahead of the next stage of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue. Likely Iranian proxy militants conducted five rocket attacks and five confirmed IED attacks on US facilities and supporting personnel in Iraq between August 12 and August 18. This pressure campaign culminated in an August 16 meeting in Baghdad between Kadhimi and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Quds Force Commander Esmail Ghaani to discuss the Strategic Dialogue. Ghaani likely met with Kadhimi to punctuate attacks by Iran’s proxies and reiterate Iran’s demands for the expulsion of US troops. Kadhimi is unlikely to encourage the rapid withdrawal of US training and support; Iran’s proxies will likely retaliate for Kadhimi’s failure to quickly comply with the regime’s demands by applying continued political pressure from Iran-aligned Iraqi political factions.

New Iraqi Prime Minister Pushes Ambitious Agenda amid Grave Threats and Possibility of US Troop Withdrawal

August 21, 2020 - Press ISW

Iraq’s new prime minister is taking assertive but risky actions against corrupt political and militia interests in the Iraqi state. His bold policies create new opportunities for the United States to help Iraq make essential reforms amidst increasingly dire political and economic conditions. However, the United States must accept the limitations that the Iraqi system will impose upon Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s freedom of action. Kadhimi’s early efforts to reform Iraq’s security, economy, and government have achieved mixed but worthwhile results. Without improved security and stalwart international support, Kadhimi’s government is likely to be whittled away by harassment and targeted violence. With US and international support, Kadhimi may be able to generate enough momentum to stabilize Iraq and improve the US-Iraqi relationship beyond his time in office.

Belarus Warning Update: Lukashenko’s Kremlin-Backed Media Campaign

August 20, 2020 - Press ISW

7:00 PM EDT: The Kremlin very likely deployed Russian media professionals to run a new information operation in Belarus with the objective of regaining control over the information space in Belarus. Lukashenko’s counteroffensive against protesters has an informational component. Kremlin security and media professionals likely began helping Lukashenko implement a new information operation on August 19. The information operation’s likely objective is to regain control over the Belarusian information space in order to erode sympathy for the anti-Lukashenko opposition and characterize it as pro-Western. The information operation, if successful, will degrade the opposition movement and decrease the likelihood of opposition protesters successfully consolidating and reemerging. It will also continue the process of turning an intra-Belarus issue into a Russia versus NATO problem, an aim the Kremlin has been pursuing for some time.

Anti-ISIS Coalition Begins Losing Tribal Support in Syria

August 20, 2020 - Press ISW

Major tribal leaders in eastern Syria may break away from the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which would severely jeopardize the anti-ISIS mission by fracturing the US partner force in Syria. Leaders of the largest Arab tribal confederation in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zour Province have demanded that the SDF yield administrative control of that province to local tribal leadership before September 11, 2020. Tribal animosity toward the SDF has been building since mid-2019 due to the combined pressures of overlapping ISIS and pro-regime insurgencies as well as the SDF’s weak and under-resourced governance. The continued presence of SDF and coalition forces in Deir ez-Zour could become untenable if the SDF fails to find a compromise with increasingly fractured tribal elements.

Syria Situation Report: August 5-18, 2020

August 20, 2020 - Press ISW

The US partner force in northeast Syria is facing major challenges to its efforts to stabilize formerly ISIS-held areas of Deir e-Zor Province. The largest tribal confederation in Deir e-Zor issued the US-led Anti-ISIS Coalition a one-month ultimatum, which expires on September 11, to give tribes the authority to govern Deir e-Zor in the wake of an assassination of a high profile tribal elder in early August. Both the Syrian Regime and ISIS are seeking to exploit tribal grievances with the SDF to expand their presence in Deir e-Zor. The regime is encouraging the formation of tribal forces that will threaten the security of US personnel operating in the area.

Belarus Warning Update: Kremlin Enables Lukashenko to Resume Crackdown in Belarus as Protest Movement Pauses

August 20, 2020 - Press ISW

11:00 am EDT: Russia’s intervention in Belarus likely deterred protesters on August 19. The threat of a Russian intervention to support Lukashenko, which ISW reported on August 19 and forecasted on August 14, likely deterred protesters on August 19 and 20. Belarusian security forces additionally deployed in force on August 19 for the first time since August 13 following instructions from Lukashenko to “crush” the protests. Belarusian security forces deployed around key buildings in Minsk and cleared opposition protests in several cities around Belarus – with protesters quickly withdrawing without a fight.

Belarus Warning Update: Kremlin Begins Security Forces Support for Lukashenko Following Regional Security Service Defection

August 19, 2020 - Press ISW

11:00 am EDT: A Kremlin security force intervention into Belarus on behalf of President Alexander Lukashenko is reportedly underway following the defection of Belarusian Interior Ministry elements in Grodno, which is near the Polish and Lithuanian borders. German newspaper Bild reported on August 19 that the Kremlin began using Russian Air Force and Ministry of Internal Affairs trucks to send Russian National Guardsmen to Belarus. Lukashenko had apparently lacked a clear strategy to deal with protests and was losing control over the situation as of August 18. Lukashenko’s spokesperson Natalya Eismont confirmed on Russia’s Channel 1 state television that Lukashenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin began consultations to coordinate actions under the Union State and the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) frameworks on August 19. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said "there is foreign interference in Belarusian internal affairs" on Channel 1 on August 19. "Foreign interference" is a legal ground for a military assistance according to CSTO agreements. Kremlin media outlet RT claimed the Kremlin denied seeing a need to send assistance to Belarus on August 19.

Belarus Warning Update: Belarusian Opposition Reaches out to Kremlin

August 18, 2020 - Press ISW

1:00 pm EDT: Russian President Vladimir Putin warned European leaders to stay out of the Belarus crisis on August 18 to consolidate Russian management of the situation. French President Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel discussed Belarus with Putin in separate calls the morning of August 18. Putin warned both leaders that Russia would not accept any “external attempts” to interfere in Belarus or pressure Lukashenko. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov additionally called German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and reiterated similar talking points. The Kremlin will attempt to dominate likely negotiations over a potential transition government in Belarus and block any European involvement.