The recent Iranian proxy drone attack on Erbil International Airport was likely a stand-alone event and likely does not indicate the immediate resumption of large-scale Iranian proxy attacks on US facilities in Iraq. Iranian proxy militants launched two drones targeting what Iran assessed to be an Israeli intelligence asset at Erbil International Airport in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 11, 2021, possibly triggering an Israeli retaliatory strike on a proxy convoy in Abu Kamal, Syria, on September 14. Iran may have approved this attack after US and Israeli political and military leaders met in recent weeks to discuss their strategies for addressing the threat Iran poses to US, Israeli, and regional security. The 20th anniversary of the 9/11 New York terrorist attacks may have influenced the timing of the attack. Iran will likely maintain its ban on large-scale attacks on US facilities in Iraq until after Iraq’s October 10 elections and possibly until the end of 2021 unless the Iran-Israel escalation cycle spills further into Iraq.
Russia and Belarus conducted a joint strategic exercise in September 2021 that provides essential insight into the evolving capabilities of the Russian and Belarusian militaries. The exercise advanced the Kremlin's ongoing campaign to cement its control of the Belarusian military.
Turkey is evaluating the changing security environment and the emerging Taliban government to strike a minimal-risk balance between Ankara’s ambitions and constraints. Turkey evacuated its troops from Afghanistan on August 27 after months-long negotiations with US and Taliban representatives to retain a security role in the country after NATO’s departure. However, Turkish officials are still signaling their intent to adopt a political and security role in Afghanistan and to become the Taliban’s primary interlocutor with the West.The Turkish government will likely remain committed to playing a stabilizing role in Afghanistan—primarily through non-military channels—to promote its international standing as an influential regional power.
The Kremlin deployed S-300 air defense systems to Belarus in late August 2021, advancing a longstanding Kremlin campaign to establish a permanent Russian military presence in Belarus postured against NATO’s eastern flank. This deployment increases Russian military capabilities to contest strategic airspace between the Baltic states and mainland Europe. The Kremlin seeks to degrade NATO's ability to defend the Baltics. Russian military personnel, as opposed to Belarusian personnel, will likely operate these S-300 systems. Elements of Russia’s 210th Air Defense Regiment arrived in Grodno, on the Belarusian border with Lithuania, on August 28. The Belarusian Ministry of Defense (MoD) stated this deployment supports the permanent joint Russian-Belarusian air defense and air combat training center in Grodno that Moscow and Minsk agreed to create in March 2021. The Belarusian MoD did not connect this deployment to preparations for Russia’s annual strategic exercise Zapad-2021, which will occur in Belarus and western Russia from September 10 to 16. ISW first warned about the threat of Russian air defense deployments to Belarus in August 2020.
Through wargaming, the PLA aspires to achieve an edge in military competition, seeking to “design” the dynamics of and develop capabilities for future warfare.
The Taliban’s swift seizure of Kabul has altered key regional states’ calculus toward Afghanistan. Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey are weighing how to take advantage of the United States’ hurried withdrawal while mitigating the new terrorist threats and refugee waves from Afghanistan that will likely follow. All four states will likely recognize the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan in the coming months. The Taliban’s victory also presents an opportunity for al Qaeda and other Salafi-jihadi groups to expand their havens in Afghanistan and intensify ongoing efforts to inspire terror attacks in the West capitalizing on the 20th anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
Kremlin messaging on Afghanistan since August 15 has balanced praise for the Taliban’s supposedly “peaceful” takeover of Kabul with cautious rhetoric about officially recognizing the Taliban, which is still formally designated as a terrorist organization in Russia. Zamir Kabulov, the Kremlin’s special representative for Afghanistan, stated on August 16 that the Kremlin “prepared the ground ahead of time” to work with “the new government of Afghanistan.” Kabulov said that Russia has retained its embassy in Kabul with security cooperation from the Taliban and praised the Taliban for taking over security in the capital “absolutely peacefully.”
The Russian National Guard (Rosgvardia) demonstrated new capabilities and readiness during its first-ever operational-strategic exercise from July 12 to 30. Rosgvardia conducted Zaslon-2021 as a nationwide exercise and readiness check of its full spectrum of capabilities, not a localized exercise as it originally claimed. Rosgvardia falsely announced in early July that Zaslon-2021, its first strategic exercise since its establishment in 2016, would occur only in the Central, Volga, and Southern federal districts and support preparations for the Russian military’s upcoming Zapad-2021 exercise. Zaslon-2021 instead occurred simultaneously in every Russian federal district except the North Caucasian. Rosgvardia conducted four large-scale exercises involving all Rosgvardia units in the announced Central, Volga, and Southern districts, supported by unannounced small-scale exercises across Russia. Twenty-three of Zaslon’s component exercises occurred in the announced districts, while 42 exercises occurred in other, unannounced districts across Russia.
Russia’s Southern Military District (SMD) announced on August 8 that it is conducting district-wide exercises practicing combined arms operations from August 9 to September 15. The commander of the SMD, General Alexander Dvornikov, said the exercises will contain tactical tasks between motorized rifle, tank, and artillery battalions of the SMD and attached specialized units. The attached specialized units include chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense (CBRN), engineering, electronic warfare, reconnaissance, logistics, medical, military police, army aviation, and transport aviation units. Warships from the Caspian Flotilla and the Black Sea Fleet, naval infantry, and at least 80 fixed and rotary wing aircraft are also participating. SMD Commander Dvornikov will directly oversee the exercises. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) did not state that these exercises were preplanned and did not discuss the exercises before August 8.
Iran likely ordered its Iraqi proxies to sustain low-level, harassing attacks on US forces in Iraq until after the October 2021 parliamentary elections and to return to more lethal attacks toward the end of 2021. Iran is recalibrating its campaign to expel US forces from Iraq following the results of the US-Iraq Strategic Dialogue, during which the United States announced a mostly symbolic withdrawal of all its combat forces from Iraq. Proxies may continue larger-scale attacks on US forces in Syria before October and may also expand their attacks to target US aircraft, bases, and allies throughout the Middle East.