Iran Update, August 18, 2023

August 18, 2023 - ISW Press

Protests against the Syrian regime expanded across three southern Syrian provinces. This expansion is unsurprising given that it is a Friday—the first day of the weekend in Syria.

Iranian-backed political actors in Iraq are spreading disinformation framing the United States as dangerous and hostile. This disinformation is similar to the narrative that Iran, Russia, and the Syrian regime have amplified in eastern Syria since June 2023.

The Iranian regime is trying to deter and preempt protests ahead of the anniversary of Mahsa Amini’s death on September 16. These actions highlight the regime’s enduring commitment to repression.

The Iranian regime officially connected a recent terror attack in central Iran to the Afghan branch of the Islamic State. The attack will likely exacerbate mounting tensions between Iran and the Afghan Taliban.

The Ebrahim Raisi administration is continuing its diplomatic campaign to convince BRICS countries to admit Iran ahead of the 15th annual BRICS summit in South Africa on August 22-24. Iran faces significant diplomatic hurdles to joining BRICS, however.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 18, 2023

August 18, 2023 - ISW Press

The Washington Post reported on August 17 that the US intelligence community has assessed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach Melitopol in western Zaporizhia Oblast and will not achieve its principal objective of severing the Russian land bridge to Crimea. The unverified intelligence assessment reportedly states that effective Russian defensive operations and dense minefields have constrained Ukrainian advances and will continue to do so. Anonymous US officials reportedly stated that Ukrainian forces will advance to within several miles of Melitopol but not further. A Ukrainian advance to within a few miles of Melitopol would bring the critical road and rail connections on which Russia relies to supply its forces within range of Ukrainian artillery systems, severely compromising Russia’s ability to continue to use them for that purpose. It is unclear from published reports why US intelligence analysts have reportedly concluded that seizing Melitopol is the only way Ukraine can sever the Russian land bridge. ISW has, in fact, assessed that Ukraine has many options for severing critical Russian ground lines of communication along the northern Sea of Azov coast of which the seizure of Melitopol is only one. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken notably offered a diverging opinion from the alleged intelligence assessment on August 15, stating that the prospects for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to make significant “strategic gains” will remain unclear for at least a month or longer.

Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, August 16, 2023

August 18, 2023 - ISW Press

Iraq and Syria. ISIS is conducting offensive operations in the central Syrian desert that are likely undermining the cohesion of pro-regime forces and enabling ISIS to maintain its momentum. Poor cohesion and coordination among Syrian regime forces will very likely limit their effectiveness in a counteroffensive. The regime’s prioritization of expelling US forces from Syria over combating ISIS also will likely inhibit its ability to successfully roll back ISIS gains.

Niger. The Nigerien junta will likely expedite efforts to remove French forces from Niger due to France’s strong support for the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). The Nigerien junta may allow the United States to continue operating in Niger because the United States has been less antagonistic toward the junta.

China-Taiwan Weekly Update, August 18, 2023

August 18, 2023 - ISW Press

Republic of China (ROC) Vice President and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) presidential candidate Lai Ching-te gave an interview with Bloomberg in Taiwan on July 27, which Bloomberg released on August 14. The publication of Lai’s statements in a leading English-language magazine helps him project his message to a wider American audience compared to attacks from the CCP and KMT that aimed to undermine Lai’s legitimacy.

KMT presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih emphasized nuclear energy policy during a press conference to burnish his national security credentials. Hou focused on his energy policy to portray the KMT as a responsible party on national security without having to address his cross-strait policy.

Typhoon Doksuri made landfall in China on July 28. A CCP directive implement in November 2022 slowed the PRC’s emergency response to the typhoon, which drew criticism from CCP-affiliated media.

Iran Update, August 17, 2023

August 18, 2023 - ISW Press

Syrians demonstrated against worsening economic conditions and the Syrian regime’s mismanagement of the economy across the country. Syrian President Bashar al Assad removed fuel subsidies, raised salaries, and adjusted bus prices to counter the devaluation of the Syrian pound on August 15. The Syrian pound has devalued by over 80 percent since May 2023, which has exacerbated an economic crisis for Syrian civilians. The rising cost of living also has driven discontent in eastern Syria.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 17, 2023

August 17, 2023 - ISW Press

“Vostok” Battalion commander Alexander Khodakovsky suggested that Russia freeze the war in Ukraine along the current frontlines, reintroducing a narrative that had been largely dormant since Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s armed rebellion. Khodakovsky stated that Russia will not be able to topple Ukraine militarily in the near term and that Russian forces are unlikely to easily occupy additional Ukrainian cities, echoing comments Prigozhin had made in April 2023. Khodakovsky concluded that Russia will likely have to come to a “truce” and that Russia may enter a phase “of neither peace nor war” with Ukraine. Khodakovsky suggested that Ukraine would be sufficiently weakened in this state of frozen conflict and that Russia would be able to exert more influence over Ukraine in such a situation than it currently can during the ”Special Military Operation.” Prigozhin’s April 14 essay suggested that Russia freeze the war in Ukraine to set conditions for a future victory without negotiations. Russian sources have periodically claimed that a Kremlin faction is interested in freezing the war along the current frontlines for similar reasons as well as over concerns about domestic political stability and the economic fallout from the war. Discussion of this narrative has waned with Prigozhin’s relative silence following Wagner’s June 24 rebellion and the arrest of ardent ultranationalist Igor Girkin, who routinely called on the Kremlin to resist the faction that aims to freeze the war.

Iran Update, August 16, 2023

August 16, 2023 - ISW Press

Qatar-based Al Araby reported that IRGC Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani ordered Iranian-backed militias in Iraq to suspend attacks against US targets. He specifically called for an end to an IED campaign that an Iranian-backed militia has waged against Iraqi-operated convoys supporting the US military presence in Iraq.

Iranian oil exports to China have increased by over 60 percent in August 2023. This growing energy cooperation is part of a broader deepening of Sino-Iranian ties, especially regarding economic relations and infrastructure development.

Iranian state media blamed the Afghan branch of the Islamic State—named Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)--for a recent terror attack in central Iran. This reporting from Iranian state media is the most explicit connection it has drawn yet between the attack and ISKP.

Armed Forces General Staff spokesperson Brigadier General Abol Fazl Shekarchi described the purpose of a recent Iranian military exercise in the Persian Gulf, affirming CTP’s previous assessment of its intent.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 16, 2023

August 16, 2023 - ISW Press

Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 16 and advanced in western Zaporizhia Oblast and on the Donetsk-Zaporizhia Oblast border, including liberating the village of Urozhaine. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued offensive operations in the Bakhmut, Berdyansk (Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border area), and Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast) directions. Geolocated footage published on August 16 indicates that Ukrainian forces advanced northeast of Robotyne (10km south of Orikhiv) in western Zaporizhia Oblast and have likely made wider gains in the surrounding areas given weeks of consistent Ukrainian activity in the forested areas northeast of the settlement. Ukrainian officials reported that Ukrainian forces liberated Urozhaine (9km south of Velyka Novosilka) in the Zaporizhia-Donetsk Oblast border area, and the Ukrainian 35th Marine Brigade published footage of their personnel raising the Ukrainian flag in the center of the settlement. Ukrainian reporting on the liberation of Urozhaine is in line with previous statements by Ukrainian officials about the liberation of other settlements in the area and recent reports by Russian forces that Russian units in the area were withdrawing. Russian claims about Ukrainian assaults further south and east of the limits of the settlement further indicate that Ukrainian forces likely control the majority of the settlement.

Iran Update, August 15, 2023

August 15, 2023 - ISW Press

Key Takeaways
1. Iran and the Syrian regime shifted their state-run information operation from the false claim that US forces will imminently attack Syrian-regime controlled territory and are instead alleging that United States supported recent ISIS attacks. Axis of Resistance media, however, continue to falsely accuse the United States of preparing to attack Syrian-regime controlled territory.
2. IRGC Quds Force Commander Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani met with Shia Coordination Framework leadership in Baghdad on August 15. Ghaani’s stop in Baghdad was the latest in a series of meetings with members of Iran’s Axis of Resistance in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria.
3. Iranian state media signaled the regime’s frustration with the Taliban on the two-year anniversary of the group’s takeover of Afghanistan. This is a change from the conciliatory tone Iranian officials have recently adopted toward the Taliban.
4. Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi appointed Qom Provincial Governor Mohammad Taghi Shah Cheraghi as Interior Ministry Political Deputy and head of Iran’s Election Headquarters on August 15. Shah Cheraghi could play a role in formulating the regime’s responses to anticipated security threats in the coming months.

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, August 15, 2023

August 15, 2023 - ISW Press

Ukrainian forces conducted counteroffensive operations on at least three sectors of the front on August 15 and reportedly advanced in Luhansk Oblast and western Zaporizhia Oblast. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that Ukrainian forces continued counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut, Melitopol (western Zaporizhia Oblast), and Berdyansk (western Donetsk-eastern Zaporizhia Oblast) directions. Coordinates published by a Russian milblogger on August 15 indicate that Ukrainian forces have advanced south of Dibrova (7km southwest of Kreminna). Geolocated footage posted on August 14 indicates that Ukrainian forces advanced into Robotyne, and further Russian and Ukrainian reporting published on August 15 suggests that Ukrainian forces have committed additional counteroffensive brigades to the western Zaporizhia oblast area. Ukrainian Colonel Petro Chernyk stated that the Ukrainian counteroffensive is advancing slowly in southern Ukraine because Ukrainian forces must overcome a three-echeloned Russian defensive line. Chernyk stated that the Russian line of defense includes a first line of minefields stretching several kilometers wide; a second line with artillery, equipment, and personnel concentrations; and a third line of rear positions meant to preserve resources. Chernyk noted that Ukrainian counterbattery measures are especially important in order to prevent Russian artillery from targeting Ukrainian mine-clearing equipment. Chernyk’s statements are in line with ISW’s previous assessments that Russia’s doctrinally sound elastic defense is slowing Ukrainian forces’ advances in southern Ukraine.