Iraq and Syria. ISIS is not defeated, and it will continue to plan attacks against Western targets

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Salafi-Jihadi Movement Weekly Update, March 16, 2023

Mar 17, 2023 – Press ISW

Iraq and Syria. ISIS is not defeated, and it will continue to plan attacks against Western targets while setting conditions for a resurgence in Iraq and Syria. The US Central Command (CENTCOM) commander highlighted the continued threat of ISIS efforts to break out prisoners from detention facilities in northeast Syria and sympathizers from internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. A US withdrawal—as suggested by a recent congressional resolution—would inadvertently improve ISIS’s fortunes in Iraq and Syria, where it would focus on freeing veteran cadres and building support in rural areas. A US withdrawal would likely force the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to deprioritize anti-ISIS efforts to counter Syrian regime and Turkish incursions into SDF-controlled areas.

Sahel: Ongoing infighting between al Qaeda and Islamic State–affiliated militants in the Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger tri-border area that has surged since the French withdrawal from Mali in 2022 will likely increase local support for both groups. Ethnic tensions have played into the clashes and worsened human rights abuses against civilians, forcing locals to support a side for protection. The al Qaeda–linked faction will likely remain the dominant group in the region but be unable to eliminate the Islamic State militants. The resulting stalemate will likely become a self-feeding conflict that will strengthen both sides in the coming months and years.

Afghanistan. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) is expanding its attack operations in northern Afghanistan. An ISKP suicide bomber killed a top Taliban leader in northern Afghanistan on March 11. Repeated Taliban security failures indicate the Taliban is unlikely to be successful in containing ISKP’s growth in northern Afghanistan.

Pakistan. The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) may launch a limited spring offensive on Pakistani security forces. The Hafiz Gul Bahadur TTP faction announced a spring offensive on March 12. Conflicting statements from TTP leadership on a spring offensive could be a result of the Afghan Taliban attempting to restrain the TTP after high-level talks between Pakistan and the Taliban. The TTP leadership’s apparent halt of its spring offensive could lead to fracturing in the organization if the Hafiz Gul Bahadar faction carries out its own offensive.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 16, 2023

Mar 16, 2023 – Press ISW

The Russian Federal State Security Service (FSB) appears to be trying to penetrate the Russian Defense Industrial Base (DIB) in a way that is reminiscent of the KGB’s involvement with the Soviet military establishment. Spokesperson for the Ukrainian Center for the Research of Trophy and Prospective Weapons and Military Equipment of the Ukrainian General Staff Andrii Rudyk remarked on March 16 that Ukrainian experts have found FSB markings on many Russian weapons components that Ukrainian forces have destroyed or captured on the battlefield. Rudyk noted that these markings appear not only on equipment such as T-90M tanks, but also on weapons’ microcircuits, and suggested that this means that the FSB conducted an equipment inspection of such weapons and components. Rudyk concluded that this means that the FSB does not trust Russian military leadership and is conducting inspections of Russian equipment accordingly. FSB markings on Russian equipment and weapons components, if confirmed, would have broader implications for the relationship between the FSB, the Russian DIB, and the broader Russian military apparatus. Either FSB Director Alexander Bortnikov has instructed the FSB to conduct these investigations at the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin, or Bortnikov has issued this directive independent of Putin. In either case the FSB appears to be directly inserting itself into the inner workings of the Russian DIB, likely penetrating equipment acquisition and inspection processes. The KGB (the FSB’s predecessor) notably penetrated the Red Army and Soviet defense industry in a similar fashion.



Iran Update, March 16, 2023

Mar 16, 2023 – Press ISW

Some Iranian leaders are likely concerned about their ability to convince the population that the national Iranian identity is inextricably interwoven with the regime’s religious ideology. President Ebrahim Raisi discussed “reviving the national Iranian-Islamic identity” during a meeting with the Board of Trustees of the Iranology Foundation on March 16. Raisi reiterated the need for more “explanation jihad,” stating that textbooks should familiarize students with this “noble and proud” identity. Raisi’s emphasis on “Iranian-Islamic” being a single identity underscores his efforts to frame Islam as an intrinsic part of what it means to be Iranian. Iranian officials have similarly emphasized the compatibility of Nowrouz—the Persian New Year—with Ramadan in recent days. These two holidays—the former of which has Zoroastrian origins and the latter of which is one of the most important holidays in Islam—will overlap in 2023. Several regime officials have argued in recent days that there is “no conflict” between these holidays and that Nowrouz and Ramadan festivities can take place simultaneously.



Iran Update, March 15, 2023

Mar 15, 2023 – Press ISW

Hardline officials are promoting conservative reforms, which will likely generate additional calls for political change in Iran. Hardline Islamic Coalition Party Secretary General Asadollah Badamchian called for constitutional reform within the bounds of the Islamic Republic during an interview with reformist news outlet Entekhab on March 15. Badamchian’s use of the term “constitutional reform” is the first CTP has seen from a hardline official. Badamchian did not specify which reforms he had in mind, but criticized some reformists’ calls for a “Westernized constitution.” Badamchian emphasized: “I say reforms as in reforms, not reformists. If anything is deficient, it requires corrections.” Several moderate figures within the Iranian political establishment have also called for liberalizing—as opposed to conservative reforms–in recent months. Examples of recent liberalizing reform proposals include reforming certain governmental bodies, such as the Assembly of Experts and the Guardian Council, to increase citizen participation in the political process.



Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 15, 2023

Mar 15, 2023 – Press ISW

The overall pace of Russian operations in Ukraine appears to have decreased compared to previous weeks. A spokesperson for the Ukrainian Joint Press Center of the Tavriisk Defense Forces, Colonel Oleksiy Dmytrashkivskyi, stated on March 15 that Russian offensive actions have decreased significantly over the last week and noted that daily Russian ground attacks have decreased from 90 to 100 attacks per day to 20 to 29 per day. Dmytrashkivskyi reported that Russian forces have somewhat lost offensive potential due to significant manpower and equipment losses. Dmytrashkivskyi’s statements are consistent with ISW’s general observation regarding the pace of Russian operations along the entire frontline in Ukraine. The Russian offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast is likely nearing culmination, if it has not already culminated, although Russia has committed most elements of at least three divisions to the Svatove-Kreminna line. Russian forces have made only minimal tactical gains along the entire Luhansk Oblast frontline over the last week, and Ukrainian forces have likely recently managed to conduct counterattacks and regain territory in Luhansk Oblast. ISW has been unable to confirm the commitment of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division (1st Guards Tank Army, Western Military District) to the offensive in Luhansk Oblast since certain unspecified elements reportedly deployed to Luhansk Oblast in January–the only large formation assessed to be operational but not yet engaged. It is unclear if the 2nd Motor Rifle Division has already deployed and has not been observed or if it is waiting to deploy to either Luhansk Oblast or other areas of the front. The commitment of two or three of the 2nd Motor Rifle Division’s constituent regiments, however, is unlikely to significantly delay or reverse the culmination of the Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast, especially considering that at least five Russian regiments have definitely been fully committed in this area, likely along with several others, but Russian forces have still been unable to make substantial gains.



Iran Update, March 14, 2023

Mar 14, 2023 – Press ISW

The Iranian government is prioritizing mandatory veiling amidst poor economic conditions, recent student poisonings, and heightened protest activity. President Ebrahim Raisi discussed protecting “the culture of chastity and hijab in society” during a speech commemorating Martyrs’ Day on March 14. Raisi reiterated that Iran’s external enemies are responsible for the recent student poisonings and claimed that Iran can overcome its problems by “relying on God.” The Parliamentary Cultural Committee separately published a report on chastity and hijab on March 14 emphasizing using an “indirect and intelligent approach” to enforce veiling as opposed to “physical confrontation.” The Cultural Committee added that it held meetings with the Law Enforcement Command (LEC) to “review and follow up” on this organization’s “problems.” The government’s “intelligent” approach involves–among other measures–placing responsibility for hijab enforcement on individuals such as shopkeepers as well as using facial recognition technology to identify unveiled women. This approach—despite government claims—is, in fact, confrontational. While security forces may not physically confront unveiled women, using facial recognition technology violates their privacy, and the penalties the regime has discussed levying can prompt confrontations of various sorts. Iranian authorities have additionally shut down many stores, pharmacies, and restaurants where the owners of these spaces neglected to enforce veiling among female customers in recent months. Recent reports by Bloomberg and NPR also suggest that a growing number of Iranian women in urban centers are defying the mandatory hijab law on a daily basis. If this trend continues, the regime may have to decide in the near future whether to confront this outwardly defiant segment of the population.



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Ukraine Conflict Updates

Aug 15, 2022

This page collects ISW and CTP’s updates on the conflict in Ukraine. In late February 2022, ISW began publishing daily synthetic products covering key events related to renewed Russian aggression against Ukraine.

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