A Belarusian veterans group claims the Belarusian Armed Forces (BAF) are preparing to deploy two battalions of so-called “peacekeepers” to Syria in September 2021. BYPOL, an association of former Belarusian security service personnel and military veterans who sympathize with the protest movement against self-declared Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, claimed on January 30 that the BAF ordered Belarus’s two operational commands—roughly equivalent to Russian military districts—to construct units for peacekeeping and patrolling operations in Syria. BYPOL claims the first Belarusian deployment to Syria will consist of two approximately battalion-sized (300 personnel) units totaling around 600 personnel. The Kremlin likely instigated this order and will facilitate the deployment of Belarusian troops, which would support Russia’s military forces in Syria.
The Russian military identifies its deployment to Syria as the prototypical example of future war—an expeditionary deployment to support a coalition-based hybrid war. The Russian General Staff cites Syria as highlighting the need for Russia to develop a new military capability—deploying flexible expeditionary forces to carry out “limited actions” abroad. The Russian Armed Forces are applying lessons learned from their experience in Syria to shape their development into a flexible and effective expeditionary force.
Iran’s proxies in Iraq have joined an ongoing information and military campaign against Saudi Arabia that the al Houthi movement and Iran launched in late 2019. Iranian-backed Iraqi militias likely conducted a kamikaze drone attack into Saudi Arabia on January 23, 2021, for the second time in recent years. This attack could indicate a significant change in how the Iranian regime imposes pressure on its adversaries around the Persian Gulf. The potential expansion of Iraqi proxies’ ability and willingness to target foreign states in ostensibly deniable ways and in coordination with other components of the Axis of Resistance would pose a growing security challenge to the US and its regional partners.
Belarus Warning Update: Moscow and Minsk Hold Simultaneous Combat Readiness Exercises in Kaliningrad, Mainland Russia, and BelarusJanuary 28, 2021 - George Barros
Russian Western Military District (WMD) and Belarusian forces began simultaneous, large combat-readiness exercises in Kaliningrad, Belarus, and mainland western Russia on January 25, 2021. The Russian and Belarusian exercises are nominally separate and do not mention any joint activity; however, the exercises’ similarities in timing, geographic proximity, scale, and type of activity in resemblance to previous joint exercises indicate they are likely connected and complimentary.
2:30 EDT: The Kremlin will likely employ Russian S-400 advanced air defense systems in Belarus as ISW forecasted. The commander of Belarus’ Air Force and Air Defense Forces announced on January 14, 2021, that the Belarusian Defense Ministry (MoD) is conducting pre-contract work to equip Belarus’ anti-aircraft missile divisions that currently operate the S-300 system with S-400 and Pantsir-S systems. ISW first warned of this threat in August 2020, after the MoD reportedly signed a contract for cooperation on air defense systems with the holding company for the manufacturers of the Russian S-300, S-400, and S-500 air defense systems.
Key Takeaway: Salafi-jihadist organizations in Syria are growing more ambitious. Both ISIS and Hurras al-Din have recently carried out attacks in Turkish-controlled areas in which they had not previously been active. While these attacks were fairly ineffective, they demonstrate intent and capacity to expand operations. Meanwhile, ISIS carried out two ambushes of regime forces in Deir ez-Zour Province that resulted in dozens of casualties. ISIS and Hurras al-Din are well postured to exploit security gaps in both Turkish- and regime-controlled areas and will likely do so in the coming year.
An independent Russian media outlet published documents allegedly detailing Kremlin plans to cement control over Belarus through constitutional changes and a Kremlin-amenable political party in Belarus. Independent Russian news outlet “The Insider” published several documents allegedly from internal Kremlin discussions on December 25 outlining Kremlin plans to maximize Russian influence over the Belarusian government through shaping constitutional amendments and restructuring. Among the documents are a framework for gaining political and social influence in Belarus, a speech by Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) General Vladimir Chernov seemingly to Kremlin officials on an unknown occasion outlining the role of Kremlin-amenable Belarusian politicians in constitutional reform, a list of Belarusian “assets,” and the foundational document for a new Kremlin-run political party in Belarus.
5:00 ET: Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanouskaya failed to marshal large protester turnout for her so-called “People’s Tribunal” on December 20. Tikhanouskaya called for the protest to be the opposition’s largest turnout when she announced it on November 13. No more than a few thousand protesters marched as part of the “People’s Tribunal” protest in the 20th consecutive week of protests, far short of the tens and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in some previous rallies.
The stabilization of the Iraqi state remains strategically important to the US and worthy of a concerted policy effort. Iraq’s endemic fragility creates space for foreign actors to play out their proxy battles, exacerbating Iraqi and regional instability in a mutually reinforcing cycle.