Multiple ISIS attacks in southern and eastern Syria as well as a possible assassination in Idlib Province demonstrate the group’s continued reach across Syria as it reconstitutes across both Syria and Iraq. The attacks occurred in late May and marked the culmination of ISIS’s 2020 Ramadan campaign. A possible US drone struck a reported ISIS commander in the Turkish-occupied Afrin area of Aleppo Province, indicating the group may retain a presence in that area.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi seeks to balance a variety of opposing forces in Iraq. After a week of executive orders and appointments generally viewed as favorable to the United States, Kadhimi called the Iranian-dominated Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) heroes who are essential to the anti-ISIS fight in a visit to PMF headquarters. Kadhimi needs to maintain his ties with the PMF and Iran’s proxies in Iraq to prevent militia-led civil unrest and ultimately state collapse. However, Kadhimi also made a point of showcasing his leverage over the PMF by bringing with him the leaders of militias that defected from the PMF in April. Those defections threatened to fracture the PMF and offended the organization’s leadership which remains under Iranian, rather than Iraqi, government control. Iran continues to work to demonstrate its influence over Iraqi affairs in other areas; the Iranian ambassador told Iranian media that Kadhimi asked for financial aid from Iran and said that Iraq remains “dependent” on Iran for financial support despite US pressure to sever those ties.
The ceasefire in Greater Idlib remains tenuous. Recent force disposition indicates that the Syrian Regime is preparing for a renewed offensive in Southern Idlib Province should the ceasefire break down, but both the timing and likelihood of the offensive’s success remain uncertain and conditions dependent. A renewed regime offensive will require Russian support to sustainably seize territory from anti-Assad forces. However, Russian support will likely be contingent on a new negotiated agreement between Russia and Turkey, and the COVID-19 pandemic will likely delay such negotiations. The Syrian regime may attempt an offensive without Russian support despite the likelihood that it will be unsuccessful. Any regime offensive, whether Russian-backed or unilateral, will exacerbate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Greater Idlib.
New Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi jumpstarted his term by conducting a series of executive-level actions favorable to Iraq’s restive population and the United States, but potentially harmful to Iranian interests in Iraq. Kadhimi appointed powerful generals with US ties to head the US-trained Counterterrorism Service and Iranian-infiltrated Ministry of Interior, indicating a willingness to push back against corruption and Iranian influence in Iraq’s security sector. Kadhimi also issued orders likely designed to win over Iraq’s popular protest movement, which appeared divided over how to respond to the new government. Each of these moves challenges Iran’s influence in Iraq and may draw backlash from Iran’s political and militia allies in the country despite previous Iranian support for Kadhimi’s government. Kadhimi’s shift could benefit the United States, which Kadhimi is likely to court for financial support to mitigate Iraq’s ongoing budget crisis.
The COVID-19 crisis has impeded some of the Kremlin’s efforts but has not changed its objectives, one of which is expanding Russia’s power projection capabilities internationally. Russia’s military footprint and basing opportunities are expanding but remain limited. Putin is thus using coalitions and partnerships to amplify Russia’s security space - as ISW will analyze in its upcoming major report on Putin’s geopolitical thinking.
Key Takeaway: The situation in southern Syria will continue to destabilize as insurgent activity increases and the Assad regime remains unwilling to commit the resources necessary to avert growing unrest. Security in southern Syria’s strategic and restive Daraa Province collapsed rapidly as pro-regime forces deployed to the south to conduct a security operation against anti-Assad actors targeting pro-regime positions. However, a Russian delegation intervened to negotiate with local Daraa leaders, thus circumventing the pro-regime operation. The outcome of the negotiations is unclear, but civilians will likely continue protesting against increased regime presence in the area.
Key Takeaway: Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s government formation process further splintered Iraq’s already fractious political scene. Disagreements over cabinet appointments created new fractures within political blocs, calling into question whether individual members of parliament will vote along their usual party lines. Despite worsening political acrimony, Kadhimi maintains broad Sunni and Kurdish support in Parliament and will likely be able to satisfy enough Shi’a blocs to ascend to the office of prime minister with a partial cabinet. Because of their shared interest in Kadhimi's success, Iran and the US confined their competition to other lines of effort ahead of the June US-Iraq strategic dialogue, thereby creating enough space for Iraq’s political elites to negotiate government formation. One day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Iraq to bring armed groups under state control, the US-funded outlet al-Hurra published a story indicating that recently formed militias in Iraq are under the direct control of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.
Key Takeaway: The government of Iraq remains beset by competing domestic and international forces, a political conflict that threatens to further destabilize the Iraqi state. Iraq’s highest Shi’a religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani likely worked with caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mehdi to remove key militias loyal to Sistani from the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF). The order places these militias under the direct command of the Office of the Prime Minister, a move which will be viewed by Iraqis as a vote of no confidence by Sistani in the remaining Iran-backed PMF factions and leadership. Simultaneously, Iraq’s Shi’a political blocs, led by the Iran-backed Conquest Alliance, are frustrating Prime Minister-designate Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s attempts to form a cabinet, calling into question whether Kadhimi will be able to overcome the partisan and ethno-sectarian deadlock to form a government. Additionally, Iran-backed parties are taking steps to weaken opposing ethno-sectarian groups by claiming some cabinet positions for Shi’a blocs rather than for their usual Kurdish occupants.
Syria Situation Report April 15-28, 2020
The Kremlin continues to exploit COVID-19 to advance its key campaigns. The Kremlin is trying to exploit two peace processes in the United Nations and Ukraine to lift sanctions on Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is also making lasting changes to Russia’s security services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, unbinding police authority and empowering the Ministry of Defense both diplomatically and as an increasingly normalized domestic actor. The Kremlin has not lost sight of its key objectives during the COVID-19 pandemic and will continue its malign actions.