By ISW Syria Team and Syria Direct
Friday, December 2, 2016
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
by Kathleen Weinberger
Russian President Vladimir Putin has kept international attention riveted on Russian operations in Syria while escalating military deployments and political operations across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Putin’s global strategy relies on creating the impression that a U.S. challenge to Russian expansion would be met with a conventional military or even nuclear Russian response. Putin aims to present the incoming administration with the false dichotomy of partnering with Russia and allowing Putin to operate with impunity or going to war.
Putin has not changed his approach following the U.S. election despite the conciliatory tone struck by President-elect Donald Trump. He has instead continued to make forward military deployments and used increasingly aggressive rhetoric. Russia announced a massive new deployment of some of their most advanced anti-aircraft systems to Syria the day after the president-elect expressed his hope for a "strong and enduring relationship with Russia" during a phone call with the Russian president. Putin has continued to act to ensure that the incoming administration must negotiate any U.S.-Russia reset on Russian terms. The Russian president intends to cement Russian military presence in strategically significant areas and compel the incoming administration to accept Russian faits accomplis at the expense of U.S. interests. Putin will be able to diminish U.S. influence globally even before Trump takes office if the outgoing and incoming administrations do not resist him.
Putin has used Russian military operations in Syria as cover to deploy highly capable air force, anti-aircraft and naval units into the Middle East. He is already using these capabilities to limit U.S. freedom of operations in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia has continued to build its network of anti-air missile systems, and deployed an additional seven advanced S-300 units along the Syrian coast on November 15, 2016. Putin has also deployed advanced naval capabilities. Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, deployed to Syria with much fanfare. The ship itself brings no meaningful additions to Russia’s military capabilities in the theater and primarily functions as a propaganda tool. Highly-capable vessels that do enhance Russia’s ability to challenge U.S. and NATO forces in the Mediterranean accompany it, however. The Pyotr Velikiy and Admiral Grigorovich, as well as three submarines, provide Russian forces off the Syrian coast with advanced offensive cruise missile capabilities, naval air defense systems and anti-ship missiles. All of these systems in combination allow Russia to establish an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) zone over much of the eastern Mediterranean and Syria. These systems constrain the operations of US forces. American aircraft can either operate according to Putin’s desires or risk a military confrontation with Russia.
Constraining American activities is the primary purpose for most of these deployments. ISIS, al Qaeda, and affiliated opposition groups have no air or sea forces and extremely limited anti-aircraft capabilities. Putin is fighting on behalf of the Assad regime and with the Iranians, so their aircraft are allies rather than threats to Russian troops. These advanced anti-aircraft and anti-ship systems can only be directed against American forces or those of America’s NATO allies or Israel. The Kremlin itself stated that these systems are meant to play a “deterrent role”.
Putin has also increased the intensity and tempo of military deployments in the Baltic region, heightening Russia’s military posture and signaling his intention to continue challenging the U.S. and its NATO allies in Europe. Moscow announced on November 21, 2016 that it would permanently deploy Iskander-M tactical ballistic missiles to the European enclave of Kaliningrad along with additional S-400 anti-air missile systems. Russian forces in Kaliningrad will also receive the Bastion-P anti-ship missile system, which was recently shown to have land attack capabilities. These deployments follow the June 2016 overhaul of the Baltic Sea Fleet leadership, as well as efforts to provide the fleet with advanced surface vessels.
Putin is using the symbolic value of these deployments to achieve much larger strategic gains than the marginal increases in tactical capability most of them constitute. The permanent deployment of the Iskander system, which can launch missiles carrying either a conventional or nuclear payload, demonstrates Russia’s ability to conduct a tactical or operational nuclear strike in Europe without using its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and without requiring manned bombers to penetrate NATO air defenses. The renewed armament of the Baltic Sea Fleet similarly signal Russia’s intention to intimidate the Baltic States and Poland even as NATO reinforces them with multinational battalions. Putin hopes to intimidate or coerce the U.S. into ceding influence in Eastern Europe, allowing him to expand Russian military and political influence.
Putin is watching how the U.S. and its allies react to deployments in the Middle East and Europe in order to gauge his ability to increase the Russian military presence in Asia. Russia has been engaged in a high-profile buildup on the Kuril Islands, the subject of a territorial dispute between Japan and Russia. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced in May that it will build new military infrastructure there, including a new Pacific naval base, and recently deployed Bal and Bastion-P anti-ship systems. The buildup of Russia’s Far East is likely to follow familiar playbook. Russia already operates S-400s on the Kamchatka Peninsula and Tor-M2U short-range air defense systems on the Kuril Islands. Russian forces were in the coastal province of Primorsky Krai were equipped with Iskander-M tactical missile systems in July 2016 and undertook drills on November 19, 2016. Anti-air systems may be used to secure the airspace in Russia’s Far East, while the Iskander systems signal the threat of nuclear escalation. The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the creation of a new ground forces division in the Far East, including additional deployments to the Kuril islands, as well as heavy bomber patrols in the Pacific. Putin will become more aggressive in his militarization of the Pacific if his approach in other theaters goes unchallenged.
Putin has coupled these deployments with nuclear rhetoric and signaling in order to coerce the West to acquiesce to or even partner with Russia. Russian officials and media cast the current situation as a re-emergence of the Cold War, highlighting Russia’s capabilities and of its willingness to use nuclear weapons. Russia recently codified its withdrawal from the Plutonium Accords, a bilateral agreement with the U.S. to destroy weapons-grade plutonium used to build nuclear weapons. Russian media has launched a propaganda campaign to further the narrative of escalating nuclear tensions, including claims of nation-wide drills in case of a nuclear attack. It has also highly publicized recent Russia’s new ICBM, the Sarmat (NATO designation: Satan 2), and tests of the error-prone Bulava, a sub-launch ballistic missile (SLBM). Putin aims to propagate the narrative of Russian capability and readiness to engage in nuclear war to artificially raise the stakes of U.S. resistance to Russian military expansion.
In addition to exerting military pressure, Putin has worked to undermine U.S. influence and support by forming partnerships with foreign governments and political parties. Putin aims to split the solidarity of U.S. allies while empowering countries that oppose U.S. interests in an effort to reduce support for U.S. operations globally.
Putin seeks to constrain U.S. operations in the Middle East further by courting Egypt as a military partner and providing advanced weapons to Iran. Russia undertook its first military exercises with Egypt, involving elite Russia airborne units along with Egyptian paratroopers, in mid-October. Putin likely seeks to establish a base on Egyptian territory to further strengthen Russia’s military presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cairo may well refuse to allow Russia to base on its territory, as this would risk it losing significant military aid from the U.S., but Putin has already convinced President Abdel Fattah el Sisi to support Russian initiatives in the UN Security Council.
Putin has also continued to provide arms and advanced capabilities to Iran, including S-300 air defense systems, with the intention of strengthening a regional power that opposes U.S. interests in the Middle East. These systems have serious implications for Iran’s missile development program and may hamper future nuclear deterrence measures. Russia and Iran recently announced a $10 billion arms deal, which would supply Iran with Russian tanks, planes and helicopters while increasing military ties between the two countries. Russia’s ongoing intervention and empowerment of Iran strengthens the Moscow-Tehran axis and could significantly constrain America’s ability to fight against al Qaeda and the Islamic State throughout the Middle East.
Putin aims to reduce U.S. and NATO influence in Europe by continuing to support anti-European Union and pro-Russian political parties in European governments. Three key elections have positioned pro-Russian parties to disrupt the stability of NATO member and partner states. Estonia’s Prime Minister lost a no-confidence vote on November 9, 2016. The pro-Russian party in Estonia is a consolidated minority but is unlikely to gain a controlling majority in the upcoming elections. The Prime Minister’s fall, however, weakens the pro-Western majority and creates significant instability in a country that will soon host one of NATO’s new multinational battalions. The pro-European Prime Minister of Bulgaria stepped down after a pro-Russian candidate won the office of the president on November 13, 2016. Bulgaria is a NATO member state that has generally attempted to avoid ‘provoking’ Russia by limiting its NATO activity. A pro-Russian party would cause Bulgaria to further reduce its participation as a NATO member and weaken the alliance. Moldova elected a pro-Russian president whose party aims to prevent Moldova from further integrating with the EU and NATO, also on November 13, 2016. Russia is supporting these parties and others in Europe in order to reduce these countries’ cooperation with the U.S. and potentially create resistance to future NATO activity.
Putin has expanded Russia’s military capabilities and political power globally by pairing the deployment of Russian military forces with aggressive rhetoric to preclude a U.S. response. If Putin continues to bolster Russian forces, equipment and influence in strategic theaters, he will be able to face the new U.S. administration from a defensive position rather than having to undertake actions that President Trump could portray as aggressive. Putin aims to leverage these positions to force the U.S. and its partners to form a pragmatic partnership with Russia at the expense of key U.S. national interests rather than risk a military confrontation.
The U.S. does not have to choose between cooperating with Russia at the expense of U.S. interests and full-scale war, however, nor do Russian military capabilities outmatch America’s. Putin’s success depends on overselling Russian capabilities and will to engage militarily with the U.S. even though Russia is neither able to win nor interested in fighting a full-scale war.
Recent Russian military actions in Ukraine and Syria have revealed significant capability gaps and overreliance on elite units. Russia’s ongoing economic crisis will further exacerbate these problems while offering the U.S. and its allies key leverage points for engagement. The U.S. maintains significant military and diplomatic signaling capabilities, as well as conventional military superiority, with which to confront Russian actions.
Putin has been most successful in his campaigns when fighting inferior military forces and when he has been able to use elite units in combination with the element of surprise. The successful annexation of Crimea was not an example of overwhelming force, but rather of Russia’s Special Operations Forces securing decisive positions before Ukrainian or international forces could respond militarily or politically. Russian elite units, including Spetsnaz and Airborne Troops (VDV), are effective, but they are limited in quantity and cannot be counted on to deliver military victory in all situations.
The ongoing stalemate between Russian proxy forces and the Ukrainian military in the Donbas region provides an example of Putin’s more likely modus operandi. Russia’s military escalation against Ukraine in August 2016 demonstrated that Putin would rather use the threat of force to strengthen Russia’s position at the negotiating table rather than escalate to a large-scale war of attrition when swift military victory is unattainable. Forward-deployed “tripwire” U.S. and allied forces capable of preventing Russian elite units from attaining rapid decisive victories would remove a critical method from Putin’s playbook.
The most recent example of a prolonged campaign, the Russian intervention in Syria, has demonstrated both the improvements and the limitations of new Russian military technology, command-and-control, and coordination of airpower operations. Putin has used the intervention to display enhanced Russian capabilities, such as long range Kalibr land attack cruise missiles and improved coordination of air and ground force operations with the Syrian regime. Russian military forces have primarily relied on old hardware and tactics with limited success, however, outside of select demonstrations of advanced capabilities. Russian airstrikes in northern Syria still mainly employ unguided gravity bombs, rather than precision munitions. The deployment of the Admiral Kuznetsov showcased the aircraft carrier’s ongoing technological problems and the limitations of ongoing efforts to modernize the vessel. The crash of one of the new carrier-based MiG-29K fighters demonstrated the Russian Navy’s outstanding issues with sustaining air operations. The majority of Russia’s conventional forces have not been as thoroughly equipped or modernized as its forces in Syria. Reductions to planned budget outlays have already disrupted procurement plans and could further delay the already-protracted efforts to modernize the Russian military.
Putin’s establishment of A2/AD zones across Europe and the Middle East make U.S. engagement with Russian forces more difficult and expensive, but far from impossible. The S-300 and S-400 air defense systems are mobile, have been deployed in numbers so as to create redundancies in Russia’s air defense network, and are supported by a number of short-range air defense systems to cover close engagements. U.S. forces are nevertheless capable of penetrating the exclusion zones created by these systems. A successful defeat of a Russian air defense unit would require first jamming and partially disabling the system, followed by a ‘hard kill’ strike from a stealth aircraft once the system has been damaged. The deployment and use of these U.S. capabilities would be expensive and time-consuming. It would require extensive planning and sufficient political will to oversee these and follow-on operations. It is well within the capacity of the American military to accomplish these tasks, however. Putin is counting on the deterrent capabilities of Russia’s air defense systems to preclude U.S. action and trusting that Washington will acquiesce to his policies rather than undertake these complicated strikes.
Russia’s failing economy will further aggravate ongoing problems with Russia’s military at large and impair Putin’s ability to present Russian conventional forces as a credible military threat. Putin began large-scale military reforms after the 2008 Russo-Georgia War. These reforms have proceeded haltingly, however, for both institutional and financial reasons. The Russian Armed Forces continue to face serious personnel deficits and organizational problems. They are unlikely to complete the long-promised transition to an all-volunteer professional military any time soon, especially as reductions to the defense budget continue to hamper their ability to provide contract soldiers with adequate monetary incentives.
Budget restrictions also mean that Putin will have to prioritize what portions of the military are expanded and modernized, if any. Russia has already postponed or altered plans for new hardware outlined in the 2011-2020 State Armament Program. Defense spending has been made a priority in the 2017 federal budget, but it is a larger share of a smaller pie, as spending has been reduced across all sectors. Putin’s increased pressure on EU countries and the U.S. to lift sanctions reflects the effect that sustained economic pressure can have on preventing Russian military expansion.
Putin’s reliance on inflammatory nuclear rhetoric in light of these conventional shortcomings is not surprising, nor is it a new strategy. Modernizing and displaying its nuclear arsenal provides Russia with a relatively cheap method by which to heighten its military posture against the U.S. and its allies. Russian officials have kept statements on potential changes to Russian nuclear doctrine purposefully vague while conducting high-profile tests of strategic nuclear forces and deployments of nuclear-capable tactical systems in order to deter conventional action that would overcome Russia’s inferior forces. The U.S. maintains its own nuclear capability and has decades of nuclear doctrine specifically created to deter Russian (Soviet) nuclear attacks. Russia’s nuclear posturing is undesirable and disappointing, especially in the wake of START II and other post-Cold War nuclear arms reduction efforts. It is neither novel nor beyond U.S. capability to address through its own deterrence efforts, however.
Putin’s current behavior is in part a litmus test to see how the incoming administration uses, or does not use, these capabilities when faced with challenges to America’s standing on the global stage.
Putin is first and foremost testing U.S. resolve to maintain the NATO alliance. NATO has stood for decades as a powerful reminder that the U.S. has the military strength and political will to project power in the face of aggression. The security guarantee provided by NATO has been instrumental in providing the stability required to build a Europe that is whole, economically prosperous and politically free. The U.S. has been able to count on multiple stable allies to support overseas operations, economic development and international order as a result. Putin aims to disrupt NATO not only to give himself greater freedom of action in Europe, but also to disrupt it as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.
If Putin manages to destabilize Europe by undermining the credibility of NATO, it will have serious symbolic and material consequences for the U.S. military. The U.S. has been able to allocate military resources to other theaters due to the deterrence value of NATO’s collective security guarantee under Article V. U.S. forces would have to be deployed to Europe in large numbers to combat a Russian attack on a NATO ally if the deterrent power of Article V were perceived to be no longer credible. The U.S. would be confronted with abandoning its allies and forfeiting its global leadership role, or else redirecting military resources from addressing threats in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere.
Other world powers will take note of how the new administration responds to Putin when considering their own capacity for disrupting U.S. operations and influence. China has built significant A2/AD zones through island building and the deployment of anti-air and anti-ship capabilities. Chinese forces could use these systems to deter a U.S. response if China decided to threaten U.S. allies in the Pacific. Iran is also investing in A2/AD capabilities with Russia’s help. Iran is undoubtedly watching Russia’s example of how these systems can be used to preclude U.S. action in Syria and the Mediterranean. It is likely that China and Iran will be more aggressive in challenging the U.S. if the new administration allows Putin to use similar deployments to force policy concessions. Putin’s provocations must be addressed in order to ensure that the U.S. maintains its influence and leadership role as other countries consider challenging it.
Putin is aware of Russia’s limitations and of U.S. capabilities to respond. He is also aware that he is coming from a position of relative weakness and must outmaneuver, rather than outmatch, U.S. forces. The new U.S. administration must prevent Putin from capitalizing on his strategy and using it as a blueprint by which Russia and other countries may further undermine U.S. alliances and operations. If the U.S. utilizes its position of strength, rather than shrinking from the threat of provocation, it will be able to deter conflict without ceding further ground or compromising its interests.
Commitment to the protection of U.S. allies in Europe is the lynchpin of deterring Russia’s global expansion. Cooperation with NATO allies to preposition troops and train local forces, among other forms of enhanced military assistance, is imperative to signal that the U.S. maintains the will and capability to defend its allies and interests. Taking early but sufficient measures now will reduce the need to pay a much higher cost in political capital and military force later.
This effort is not a unilateral American undertaking. The United Kingdom, Germany and Canada will lead multinational battalions in the Baltic States. Latvia and Lithuania, two Baltic States that have been criticized for not spending the requisite 2% of GDP on defense, are taking active measure to ensure that they are doing their part to support these efforts. Both countries have pledged to reach this spending threshold by 2018 and are bolstering independent self-defense measures. Estonia, which already meets the 2% requirement, also maintains a 25,000-strong Defense League. As NATO allies demonstrate their commitment to the alliance, Putin is gauging his next moves based on how the U.S. reacts. The U.S. gains nothing by retreating from this commitment, and would lose its credibility as a global leader capable of defending its interests and allies.
The U.S. and its allies have an opportunity to deter Putin from further expansion in the Middle East and Asia through creative and unified signaling. There is a wide range of tools in this box. NATO has recently shifted operations to focus on the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Turkey has again called on the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone over Northern Syria. U.S. forces continue military exercises with Japan, a key ally. Flexing U.S. military strength reminds Putin of U.S. capabilities and will while increasing readiness in the case of an outbreak of conflict.
The U.S. also has non-military options at its disposal. Economic sanctions against Russia provide a real incentive for Putin to restrain military action in order to secure his position and help the Russian economy recover. The existing sanctions and additional restrictions will help reinforce the U.S. commitment to maintaining its global position rather than allowing Russia to act with impunity. These sanctions can be paired with greater economic incentives to encourage Russian compliance with American demands. Premature easing of sanctions without a change in Russian behavior would signal lack of U.S. resolve and remove economic pressure as a credible tool of foreign policy. Removing the sanctions without gaining real concessions on important issues such as Ukraine and Syria would only reinforce Putin’s propensity to take what he wants without regard for America’s power or interests.
The U.S. must respond to Russia’s behavior globally. Putin views the areas along Russia’s periphery as a single theater of operations. These regions, in addition to Russia’s domestic economic sphere, must be treated as a series of interconnected points of leverage that affect Putin’s ability to undermine U.S. national security interests. The U.S. must maintain and enhance military and political support for its allies in order to protect its interests in areas of strategic importance and preserve its freedom to operate to ensure its national security. This task will be critical for America’s global leadership role in the years to come.
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 Analysts have noted that the Russian government has so far shielded the defense sector from the most austere cuts to the national budget. Reductions in defense spending have primarily been limited to planned procurements. The Russian lower house of parliament approved a budget for 2017-2019 on November 18th. The Russian government has again made defense spending a priority while cutting welfare spending. The approved budget will draw heavily on the National Wealth Fund and deplete the Reserve Fund by the end of 2017, however. The available resource pool will shrink as Russia’s economic situation continues to deteriorate. Kathleen H. Hicks, Heather A. Conley, Lisa Sawyer Samp, Jeffrey Rathke, Anthony Bell and John O’Grady, “Evaluating Future U.S. Army Force Posture in Europe: Phase II Report,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 29, 2016. Available: https://www.csis.org/analysis/evaluating-future-us-army-force-posture-europe-phase-ii-report; “Russia approves 3-yr federal budget in first reading,” RT, November 18, 2016. Available: https://www.rt.com/business/367394-russia-budget-state-duma/ ; Thomas Nilsen, “Russia empties reserve fund, makes priority to defense sector,” Barents Observer, November 21, 2106. Available: http://thebarentsobserver.com/en/security/2016/11/russia-empties-reserve-fund-makes-priority-defense-sector
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 Chris Harmer, “The Strategic Impact of the S-300 in Iran,” Critical Threats Project: August 2016. Available: http://www.irantracker.org/sites/default/files/imce-images/Harmer_Strategic_Impact_S-300_Iran.pdf
 Chapter Five: Russia and Eurasia. The Military Balance: 2016. Vol. 116(1).
 See footnote 28. Keir Giles, Military Service in Russia: No New Model Army. Conflict Studies Research Center: 2007; Rod Thornton, “Military Modernization and the Russian Ground Forces,” SSI Monograph: June 2011. Available: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub1071.pdf
 Lockie, November 2016.
 Olga Oliker. “Russia’s Nuclear Doctrine,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 5, 2016. Available: https://www.csis.org/analysis/russia%E2%80%99s-nuclear-doctrine
 James R. Holmes. “Defeating China’s Fortress Fleet and A2/AD Strategy: Lessons for the United States and her Allies.” The Diplomat, June 20, 2016. Available: http://thediplomat.com/2016/06/defeating-chinas-fortress-fleet-and-a2ad-strategy-lessons-for-the-united-states-and-her-allies/
 Julian E. Barnes and Anton Troianovski. “NATO Allies Preparing to Put Four Battalions at Eastern Border With Russia,” The Wall Stret Journal, April 29, 2016. Available: http://www.wsj.com/articles/nato-allies-preparing-to-put-four-battalions-at-eastern-border-with-russia-1461943315
 “Saeima passes Latvia’s 2017 budget,” The Baltic Times, November 24, 2016. Available: http://www.baltictimes.com/saeima_passes_latvia_s_2017_budget/ ; Richard Martyn-Hemphill, “Lithuania’s New Prime Minister Pledges to Increase Military Spending,” The New York Times, November 22, 2016. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/world/europe/lithuania-saulius-skvernelis.html?_r=0
 Michael Birnbaum. “Fearing closer Trump ties with Putin, Latvia prepares for the worst,” Washington Post, November 18, 2016. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/fearing-closer-trump-ties-with-putin-latvia-prepares-for-the-worst/2016/11/18/f22b3376-ab54-11e6-8f19-21a1c65d2043_story.html?utm_term=.999664e153d9
 “NATO ends counter-piracy mission as focus shifts to Mediterranean,” Reuters, November 23, 2016. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-defence-idUSKBN13I22D; “NATO Operation Sea Guardian kicks off in the Mediterranean,” NATO Press Release, November 9, 2016. Available: http://www.mc.nato.int/PressReleases/Pages/NATO-Operation-Sea-Guardian-Kicks-off-in-the-Mediterranean.aspx
 “Turkey calls on US, allies to reconsider Syria no-fly zone,” Fox News, November 21, 2016. Available: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2016/11/21/turkey-calls-on-us-allies-to-reconsider-syria-no-fly-zone.html
 Delano Scott, “US, Japan forces work together during Keen Sword,” U.S. Air Force news, November 15, 2016. Available: http://www.af.mil/News/ArticleDisplay/tabid/223/Article/1004609/us-japan-forces-work-together-during-keen-sword.aspx
 Robert D. Kaplan. “What Can the Next Administration Do About Russia?” Wall Street Journal, October 16, 2016. Available: http://www.wsj.com/articles/what-can-the-next-president-do-about-russia-1476653291
By Michael Momayezi, Emily Anagnostos, and the ISW Iraq Team
The Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) passed a law on November 26 that solidifies the Popular Mobilization, the majority of which are Shi’a militias with a history of sectarian violence, as a permanent security institution in Iraq. The Popular Mobilization Act, passed primarily through the efforts of Shi’a and Kurdish parties, grants qualified Popular Mobilization Units the same rights and financial benefits as members of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). Sunni political leaders and parties, however, rejected the law as a serious blow against national reconciliation efforts and called for its reversal. The law’s current language does not address the structure of this new security institution or clarify which Popular Mobilization units, which includes several Sunni units, would be inducted into it. As it stands, the CoR will need to pass successive laws or amendments regarding the Popular Mobilization’s structure, raising a concern that the Shi’a parties’ dominance in the CoR will sway the structure to favor Shi’a militias. The law could benefit Sunnis if it legitimizes the use of local Sunni militias and tribal forces as security forces in majority Sunni provinces, thereby acting as an alternative to the National Guard Law, a key piece of legislation which Sunnis sought as reconciliation efforts but Shi’a parties blocked. National Alliance chairman Ammar al-Hakim and Sadrist Trend leader Muqtada al-Sadr both called for the form of the Popular Mobilization to be non-partisan and inclusive, but sectarian Iranian proxy militias, who already dominate both the PMUs’ leadership and the CoR, are positioned to benefit from the law the most. A legitimized Popular Mobilization will result in a sectarian security force funded by the Iraqi government but responsive to Iranian advisers, which will further alienate Sunnis from the Iraqi Government.
By Emily Anagnostos, Jessica Lewis McFate, Jennifer Cafarella, and Alexandra Gutowski
Iraq could face another Sunni insurgency after ISIS loses control of Mosul. The U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve has not resolved the political conditions that originally caused Sunni Arabs to mobilize in a non-violent protest movement in 2012-2013. Sunni Arabs in Iraq who are liberated from ISIS’s control will not necessarily be reconciled to the Iraqi Government. The success of anti-ISIS operations in 2016 will open space for other Sunni anti-government actors and armed groups to resurge in ISIS’s absence. Sunni Arabs are displaced in large numbers, which will grow as the Coalition seizes and secures Mosul. Iranian-backed Shi’a militias will exacerbate grievances as they move to clear Sunni-majority villages in northern Iraq and near , a historic stronghold of Sunni insurgents and al Qaeda in Iraq west of Mosul. Shi’a militias have alienated local Sunni Arab populations in other cities cleared of ISIS by conducting killings, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of violence against the local population. A permissive environment is emerging for a Sunni insurgency in the vacuum of control left by ISIS, into which other actors, including al Qaeda, could emerge in 2017.
Sunni Insurgent Groups and ISIS Before Mosul Fell
Iraq stood on the brink of a Sunni insurgency in late 2013 before ISIS began to seize terrain because former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki the of the previous U.S.-led Coalition to reconcile and reintegrate Sunni Arabs into Iraqi politics in 2008. Maliki launched a highly sectarian policy to Sunni politicians and consolidate control over the Iraqi military the day U.S. forces withdrew. His political actions ignited a year-long Sunni anti-government protest movement that in January 2013 after the near of Rafi al-Issawi, the moderate Sunni Finance Minister, in December 2012.
Sunni infighting crippled the Sunni political base in 2013, making it unable to channel or mitigate growing Sunni discontent away from an insurgency. Maliki’s maneuverings compounded these internal fractures, leading to the erosion of the Sunni political alliance, Iraqiyya, throughout 2012. Iraqiyya further split over how to handle Maliki’s administration: Issawi led a of Maliki’s cabinet in January 2013 in solidarity with protests but several Sunni leaders broke rank and returned in March in favor of negotiation. The Sunni political alliance was effectively dead before the June 2013 provincial elections in Ninewa and Anbar Provinces, leaving the protest without an effective channel to a political resolution.
Clashes between the government and protesters kindled the growing insurgency and ultimately created the opening for ISIS’s capture of Fallujah in January 2014. Violent government escalations against the protest movement, such as the April 2013 massacre at the sit-in protest camp, galvanized the movement. The arrest of Sunni males in Baghdad after ISIS attacked the and Taji Base prisons in July 2013 heightened grievances.
Multiple anti-government organizations competed to champion the Sunni cause, harness their discontent, and facilitate a full insurgency. Chief among these competitors was ISIS, rebranded from al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Sunni Arabs had rejected ISIS’s predecessor, AQI, and joined the Iraqi Government to defeat it in the Sahwa, or Awakening, from 2006 to 2008. ISIS in parallel with the anti-government protest movement and conducted a Vehicle-Borne IED (VBIED) wave campaign in 2012-2013 targeting Shi’a civilians to spark a sectarian civil war that would break the Iraqi state.
ISIS’s were present within the protest camps in Ramadi starting in October 2013. AQI’s resurgence and its presence in previously off-limits camps demonstrates that Iraq’s Sunni Arab population became willing to tolerate ISIS’s presence in their midst despite the earlier expulsion of AQI, indicating the virulence of their anti-government sentiment. ISIS’s presence in the camps suggests that ISIS cooperated on some level with other anti-government insurgent organizations that had been present in the protest camps.
Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), a neo-Baathist insurgent group, the 2013 protest movement directly in order to stoke its own insurgency. JRTN the anti-government protest movement with revolutionary rhetoric and traditional Baathist branding. ISIS likely relied on its support to infiltrate the protest camps. Other legacy revolutionary groups, such as the 1920 Brigades, another neo-Ba’athist group, and Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Sunni insurgent group, re-emerged as well prior to December 2013. Saddam-era Iraqi Army officers made up the core of JRTN and the 1920 Brigade’s manpower and lent military know-how and leadership to the groups. This experience with military organization and knowledge of the terrain made each neo-Baathist group a formidable rival to ISIS.
Maliki’s order for the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) to clear the sit-in protest camp in December spurred the development of an organized Sunni rebellion. The large scale on December 30-31, 2013 between protesters and the ISF in Ramadi signaled the start of an insurgency. The (GMCIR) formed in January 2014 as an umbrella to absorb recently-formed local military councils in majority Sunni areas including Anbar, Fallujah, Mosul, Salah al-Din, Kirkuk, Baghdad, and Diyala. The GMCIR formed as ISIS seized control of on January 3, but it reflected the degree of preparation by JRTN over the preceding year to cultivate a Sunni insurgency. Another umbrella organization, the Council of Revolutionaries of the Tribes of Anbar (CRTA), also formed in January 2014 in response to the clearing of the Ramadi protest camp.
JRTN supported ISIS’s rise because ISIS could further the anti-government cause. JRTN and GMCIR leader Izzat al-Douri, a top Saddam-era deputy, on July 17, 2014, following ISIS’s first northern offensive, that ISIS “helped the revolutionaries achieve their goals and were semi-[parallel] with them in facing the Iranian Safavid project in Iraq.” These leaders, nonetheless, remained wary of ISIS’s adherence to their brand of an anti-government but pan-Iraqi insurgency: CRTA leader, Sheikh Ali Hatem, warned jihadists from taking of the revolution in his formation statement on January 3, 2014.
The cooperation between ISIS and JRTN over the insurgency came to end likely by the fall of 2014 at which point ISIS began to brutally marginalize and suppress JRTN. JRTN ceased to support ISIS’s means of carrying out the insurgent: JRTN criticized ISIS openly in August 2014 after ISIS targeted Yazidis in Sinjar while the GMCIR, in which JRTN played a role, criticized ISIS for taking the “revolution to a different path” and continuing north, rather than the government in Baghdad. In turn, ISIS began to consider JRTN a , especially as JRTN frequently tried to impose its own governance in overlapping territory. In response, ISIS began to systematically retired Iraqi Army officers, JRTN’s primarily recruitment pool, in Mosul in September 2014, a sign that it had begun to eliminate organized military resistance as a solution to the dispute. ISIS's military dominance forced JRTN to go to ground.
Increasing Sunni Unrest in Late 2016
Contemporary U.S.-led Coalition operations to degrade and disrupt ISIS in 2016 may unlock the Sunni insurgency that began as the GMCIR, CRTA, and other smaller groups. This outcome will transpire if conditions are not set to help Sunni Arabs in Iraq to address their original and mounting grievances. The Coalition has attempted to pursue Sunni reconciliation politically in Baghdad, including through a National Guard Law to provide Sunni communities with a local security structure. These lines of effort largely because of efforts by Iranian proxies and pro-Iranian political groups.
The U.S. and Iraqi Governments are unlikely to be able to address the grievances in 2016, as the Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi government faces continued from sectarian political and militia leaders to maintain the Shi’a-dominated status quo. These leaders could further Sunni distrust in the government. The Iraqi parliament passed the controversial Popular Mobilization Act on November 26, which institutionalizes the Popular Mobilization Units, the bulk of which are Shi’a militias, as part of the ISF. Sunni political leaders boycotted the vote, warning that the law hurt national reconciliation efforts. The law, the language of which remains open-ended, could support local Sunni security forces by ensuring that they are equally integrated into the new structure. However, Shi’a parties already rebuffed conditions by Sunni parties to increase the number of Sunni units, suggesting that Shi’a militias, including those charged with sectarian violence, will dominate the future structure of the Popular Mobilization. Meanwhile, former PM Maliki is carving a path to return to the , which would further alienate Sunni Arabs in Iraq from the central government. His intermediate efforts have already resulted in changes that are marginalizing Sunnis, including his of the dismissal of Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25. This dismissal highlighted the division among Sunni parties in the government, undermining potential Sunni political unity.
Sunni political infighting has also emerged on the provincial level ahead of provincial elections. These elections are scheduled for April 2017, but the financial crisis could result in its with the 2018 parliamentary elections. The Anbar Provincial Government has made repeated to its governor over allegations of corruption and mishandling the return of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Anbar Provincial Court also issued on October 16 an for Ahmed Abu Risha, who in 2007 succeeded his brother, who was assassinated by AQI, as the leader of the Sunni Awakening, or Sahwa, movement in Anbar that helped the U.S. defeat AQI. The legacy Sahwa elements subsequently resisted ISIS’s first attempt to retake Ramadi in January 2014. A similar dynamic is re-emerging in Salah al-Din Province: the Sunni Jubur tribe dominates local politics, but the tribe is divided on policy, including its with Shi’a militias, which constitute a large portion of the security force in Salah al-Din, and the return of IDPs. The divide has resulted in the governorship between the rival branches of the Jubur tribe. This continuous jostling over governance and security arrangements can lend to instability in the province. This divide also appears in federal politics; recently, one Jubur parliamentary member called for the dismissal of Salim al-Juburi, the parliamentary speaker. In Ninewa Province, Sunni Arabs are during anti-ISIS operations, then prevented from returning to villages that Kurdish forces have secured. Sunni Arabs could also be shut out of the post-ISIS administration of Ninewa Province if Shi’a and Kurdish parties dominate security. The failure to create secure, stable and effective local governance could drive Sunni populations to seek alternative ways to protect themselves and redress their grievances, opening avenues for insurgent groups to infiltrate.
Sunnis also remain at odds with each other and these intra-Sunni confrontations are already creating opportunities for Sunni insurgents. Unidentified tribal leaders in Ramadi have reportedly allowed the return of known ISIS militants into the city, only months after its recapture by the ISF in January 2016. Suicide attacks in Fallujah in November 2016 suggest that ISIS has already its networks in the city, which was cleared in June, or found residents that remain tolerant to its ideology. Meanwhile, Sunni tribes have carried out violent reprisals on other Sunni civilians who lived in recaptured ISIS-held towns, accusing those civilians off collaborating with ISIS. These divides within Sunni communities will prevent local, national, and political Sunni unity, and will require the same scale of neighborhood-by-neighborhood Sunni reconciliation efforts that U.S. forces carried out in 2007.
JRTN and AQI After ISIS in 2017
JRTN’s rhetorical resurgence has already begun. JRTN is seeking to demonstrate that it is the best champion for Sunnis in Iraq over the alternatives of ISIS and the Iraqi Government. JRTN is setting conditions to take immediate advantage of ISIS’s loss in Mosul in order to reclaim the city and its networks. The group issued a statement on October 17, the day Coalition forces launched operations against ISIS in Mosul, claiming to have attacked ISIS in Mosul and calling for additional resistance against ISIS. ISIS has been systematically or killing civilians and retired Iraqi Army officers who refuse to act as human shields, an indication both that to ISIS is mounting and that ISIS is attempting to decapitate it. Meanwhile, JRTN has continued to criticize ISIS’s methods, including issuing a statement against an ISIS attack at the Prophet’s Mosque in Saudi Arabia in early July, in order to show itself as kinder, more reasonable champion for Iraqi Sunnis.
JRTN and its allies are tapping into Sunni disillusionment with the Shi’a-dominated government in order to demonstrate that they are the best alternative for Sunnis. JRTN’s statements on October 15 and 17 rejected any Shi’a militia presence in the city and criticized Iranian presence in Iraq, indicating that JRTN is positioning itself to inherit ISIS’s mantle of Sunni resistance against the government. The GMCIR, on behalf of all armed groups including JRTN, issued a similar statement on October 16 criticizing the Iranian occupation of Ninewa as a way to carry out a “demographic change in Iraq and the region.” The 1920s Brigade warned on November 3 against the presence of Shi’a militias in Mosul during anti-ISIS operations. These statements underscore that JRTN and other insurgent groups are playing on concerns that the Iraqi Government will not be able to protect Sunnis from the Shi’a militias or ISIS.
JRTN’s resurgence will have other indicators. JRTN’s attack is a targeted assassination from a moving vehicle. Recent of drive-by shootings targeting ISIS militants in Mosul likely indicate that JRTN is already on the rebound. Sunni insurgents, particularly JRTN, also have run extensive IED in the past. Indicators of JRTN resurgence will therefore likely include assassinations of Iraqi security officials, particularly Popular Mobilization elements in charge of securing refugee camps and recaptured areas; IEDs along major roads targeting ISF access to key terrain in northern and western Iraq; and recruitment within the ISF. JRTN will likely recruit more successfully than ISIS among Iraq’s Sunni Arabs in 2016-2017 because ISIS re-invigorated the blood feud and also lost its control over Sunni Arab populations. ISIS will attempt to limit JRTN’s opportunities to resurge by eliminating current JRTN members and possible recruitment pools from among civilians and former ISF officials. ISIS has already executed hundreds of former police and army officers before withdrawing from cities south of Mosul. These efforts will likely lead to increased violence inside Sunni majority areas and places where Sunni IDPs are aggregating, including Kirkuk and Tikrit.
Al Qaeda in Syria is also positioning to unify disparate Sunni Arab factions in Iraq and gain popular support in the wake of ISIS. AQ seeks to perform the role of the silent vanguard of Sunni insurgencies, and it will enter Iraq with a low signature to evade the Coalition. AQ may even partner with JRTN the way ISIS did before and just after ISIS broke from al Qaeda to build a network of Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq to which AQ can preach. Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Sunnis globally to resist the “Safavid-Crusader” occupation of Iraq in a speech released on August 25, 2016, in which he called for Iraqi Sunnis to resume a “long guerrilla warfare” in the face of territorial losses and urged AQ in Syria to support this rebuilding process in Iraq, indicating al Qaeda’s intent to reinvigorate and reconstitute a Sunni insurgency against Baghdad. Zawahiri’s call for cross-border relations also suggests that AQ will renew efforts to maintain a unified, single organization across Iraq and Syria, as it tried to do before it split from ISIS in 2014.
AQ will likely seek to build its networks on top of pre-existing cells along the Euphrates River Valley in Anbar Province and in Ninewa Province, including in Mosul. AQ will attempt to coopt remnant elements of ISIS that escaped among the flows of IDPs. Attacks in IDP camps, especially in the Euphrates River Valley and Diyala Province, could signal that AQ or JRTN has infiltrated the camps and is seeking recruits. AQ will conduct outreach among ungoverned Sunni Arab populations, by providing religious classes, infrastructure, and utilities if possible. AQ will portray itself as a local Sunni resistance rather than use the AQ brand, which is a liability that AQ leader Aymen al-Zawahiri has already demonstrated he is willing to avoid. AQ’s resurgence in Iraq will therefore be difficult to track and distinguish from active and vocal Sunni mobilization. The establishment of new organized groups of Sunni resistance fighters is a likely indicator that an AQ resurgence is underway. AQ will target IDP camps as well as civilians in ungoverned portions of major cities. The Euphrates River Valley could be AQ’s main line of effort because AQ likely has latent networks there that connect to AQ leadership in Syria.
Preventing another Sunni insurgency, particularly one that can be coopted by JRTN and AQ, is a necessary task for the anti-ISIS Coalition. Both JRTN and AQ seek an outcome in Iraq that is antithetical to US interests. Anti-ISIS operations that do not explicitly block AQ and JRTN will instead enable them. The Coalition can prevent another Sunni insurgency if it takes preventative measures that are both military and political. These measures need to include three lines of effort within its current mission: the ISF, IDPs, and Iraqi Government. The Coalition must prepare the ISF in counterinsurgency (COIN) measures, against both the post-Mosul version of ISIS, and resurgent insurgent groups such as JRTN and AQ. Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky, commander of Combined Joint Force-Land Component, stated on October 24 that the ISF will start a new training cycle on COIN to combat an insurgent-like ISIS. These efforts will also need to inure the ISF and tribal militias against AQ and JRTN’s influence. The Coalition will also need to ensure that the IDP camps around Mosul are secured with proper security forces and not with Shi’a militias or compromised ISF units, which could inflame sectarian tensions and lend weight to insurgent ideology. Lastly, the Coalition cannot ensure the defeat of ISIS or any insurgent group without resolving the political conditions that allow it to take root. The Coalition must reinvigorate national reconciliation efforts that have fallen to the wayside. ISIS found initial support from Iraq’s Sunnis because it offered an alternative to the government which many Sunnis saw as oppressive. JRTN and AQ will try to do the same. The Coalition needs to ensure that its lines of effort reconcile Sunnis with the government to the point that Sunnis will use political rather than insurgent means to address grievances.
The U.S. will need to decide if and how it remains involved in Iraq after Mosul’s recapture, which will likely occur after President-elect Donald Trump takes office in January 2017. The Iraqi Government may set conditions for the U.S.’s withdrawal in Iraq after Mosul, but the U.S. and Coalition should not pursue an immediate drawdown of military forces themselves. Doing so could result in similar conditions that developed in 2012 and 2013 after the U.S. withdrew completely in 2011. Instead, the U.S. should continue efforts to train and advise the ISF in order to help prevent the reconstitution of insurgent groups and maintain Iraq’s sovereignty. The U.S. and its international partners should also ensure involvement in resettling IDPs and mediating the reconstruction of cities and their local governing structures. Successful resettlement and reconstruction efforts that earn the population’s trust in the Iraqi Government can prevent Salafi Jihadi groups from finding openings to resurge. The U.S. should also help address the underlying issues that fueled the Sunni insurgency and remain active in shaping Iraqi’s political reconciliation efforts and encouraging inclusive governance. The U.S. should have the expectation that it will remain involved in some capacity in Iraq in order to ensure that anti-ISIS gains stick and that it has resolved the conditions that allowed insurgent groups to arise in 2013.
 Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, was active along the Euphrates River Valley southeast of Raqqa City before ISIS seized the area in late 2014. Al Qaeda likely retains latent influence with tribes along the Euphrates River Valley that it can use to resurge if ISIS is defeated. These tribes straddle the Iraqi-Syrian border, which can provide al Qaeda with cross-border access to networks in western Iraq.