Russia in Syria Monitor, April 11-18, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • On April 15, British Royal Navy frigate HMS Sutherland escorted two Russian warships that were expected to sail through the English Channel overnight. The Type 23 frigate located the two Russian ships in the early hours of April 15 as they sailed through the North Sea towards the Dover Straits. The ships are on their way to Syria, in response to the April 7 cruise missile strike by the U.S. on a Syrian airfield. (Royal Navy News, 04.17.17, Yahoo, 04.17.17)
  • The death toll among Russian forces in Syria during a period of intense fighting to retake the city of Palmyra now stands at 21, according to evidence gathered by Reuters, after information emerged about the deaths of three military contractors. The Reuters tally over the period from Jan. 29 until the end of March is more than four times higher than the official toll given by the Russian Defense Ministry of five servicemen killed. (Reuters, 04.18.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump said last week he thinks it’s “unlikely” Russia had no advance knowledge of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack on civilians last week.  Trump also said he wouldn’t intervene militarily against Assad unless Assad resorts to using weapons of mass destruction again. Trump called Assad “an animal” and a “truly an evil person,” and said that it is now up to Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw his support of the Syrian regime. (The Washington Post, 04.12.17, The Washington Post, 04.12.17, AP, 04.13.17, Bloomberg, 04.12.17)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster said that Russia should be pressed to answer what it knew ahead of the chemical attack since it has positioned warplanes and air defense systems with associated troops in Syria since 2015. “I think what we should do is ask Russia, how it could be, if you have advisers at that airfield that you didn’t know that the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons,” McMaster said on Fox News. McMaster then said on April 16 it was time for tough talks with Russia over its support for Syria's government and its "subversive" actions in Europe. (Reuters, 04.16.17, The Washington Post , 04.10.17)
  • During U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow, he and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed to appoint special envoys to address some of the “irritants” to relations—which Lavrov pointedly said had developed primarily during U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. Tillerson said both nations would set up a "working group" to seek ways to ease tensions. The two ministers agreed there should be more communication between U.S. and Russian diplomats and militaries. (Bloomberg, 04.12.17, The Washington Post, 04.12.17)

Risk of accidental or intentional confrontation between Western and Russian forces in Syria:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said he is willing to restore the agreement by which U.S. and Russian forces communicate during operations in Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 12, provided the Americans accept certain conditions regarding the fight against ISIS. "We have also talked about the state of affairs and the direction of our airspace forces, as well as the coalition headed by the U.S.," Lavrov said after meeting with Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The suspension of that agreement does not mean Russian air defense will shoot down incoming missiles in the event of another U.S. strike, but it will not prevent Syria from defending itself, Viktor Ozerov, the head of the defense and security committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, told the Interfax news agency. U.S. State Department spokesman Mark C. Toner said on April 13 that it was his understanding that the U.S.-Russian deconfliction agreement “does remain intact.” “There was some question that it was going to be pulled down. That was a Russia claim, at least … So I can’t speak to how it may change. My understanding is that it does remain in effect,” he said. (Washington Examiner, 04.12.17. The Washington Post, 04.11.17, Russia Matters, 04.13.17)
  • Former U.S. Defense Secretary Bob Gates said: “There’s merit in getting Russia off balance politically, but being militarily unpredictable when Russian forces are directly involved is a very risky business.” (The Washington Post, 04.11.17)
  • Sebastien Roblin, a writer specializing in security and military history: Neither side has anything to gain from a U.S.-Russia shooting war over Syria, and it would be insane to deliberately start one. Thus, the primary concern should remain how to avoid triggering one by accident. This is not reassuring, given the intensity of Russian and U.S. operations in Syria and the frequency of accidents and near-misses so far by both sides’ aircraft. The move to formally reopen communications channels that nominally broke down last week is vital for mitigating those risks. (The National Interest, 04.17.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to punish Russian citizens who fight for terrorist groups abroad by stripping them of their passports. The fight against terrorism and Islamic State remains a priority for Russia, Putin said. There are about 20,000 foreign militants in Syria, of whom approximately 10,000 are citizens of former Soviet Union countries, and of these, less than a half come from Russia, he said. (The Moscow Times, 04.12.17, Bloomberg, 04.12.17)


  • Ishaan Tharoor, a foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post: In many respects, Iran and Russia aren't natural allies. There's much that divides them, not least hundreds of years of historical rivalry. Both countries are energy exporters vying for similar markets. Both governments harbor larger ambitions of geopolitical dominance in the Middle East. And, of course, there are always going to be limits to any alliance between the Islamic republic and a Russian leadership partially animated by a brand of Christian nationalism. But Russia and Iran need each other in Syria to buttress Assad. (The Washington Post, 04.11.17)
  • Can threatening war crimes charges persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to leave power? What about guaranteeing his safety in exile? These long-shot proposals are at the center of the Trump administration’s new effort to resolve Syria’s six-year civil war. Despite differences, Trump officials insist Russia’s involvement is critical to resolving the war, given the influence it gained in Syria after helping Assad retake Syria’s largest cities. The Trump administration seeks Russian support by guaranteeing Russian access to the Tartus naval base and Latakia air base in any post-Assad scenario. Yet it’s unclear how the U.S. could make such an assurance given the uncertainty of who would be running Syria at that point. (AP, 04.18.17)
  • Michael Kofman, an analyst at CNA Corporation and a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute: The story of Russian complicity in this [chemical weapons] attack also makes little sense, though in this world everything is possible. As noted above, Russia had nothing to gain and a great deal to lose from Syria’s use of chemical weapons. (War on the Rocks, 04.11.17)

Other important news:

  • During their talks on April 12, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov agreed that Syria should be "unified and stable" after the Islamic State is defeated. At the meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tillerson, the sides had a rather "substantive" discussion on the Syrian crisis. Lavrov also said they also agreed to an international investigation into the use of chemical weapons in what was effectively an ultimatum. Tillerson said before his visit to Russia that Moscow must calculate the costs of remaining an ally of Assad, the Iranians and Lebanon’s Shiite militia Hezbollah. (The Washington Post, 04.12.17, TASS, 04.13.17, The Washington Post, 04.12.17, The Moscow Times, 04.13.17)
  • Russia and the United States have a shared understanding that U.S. air strikes on Syria should not be repeated, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moualem in Moscow on April 13, Interfax news agency reported. He said this was "concluded" during U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s April 12 visit to Moscow. (Reuters, 04.13.17)
  • U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has warned that Russia could become an "island" if it doesn’t find a way to save face and side with the U.S. and its allies in opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (Bloomberg, 04.12.17)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 14 that a chemical weapons attack in Syria that provoked U.S. missile strikes on the Middle Eastern country may have been staged. (Bloomberg, 04.14.17)
  • Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov claimed that Russia has “absolute reliable information” that Syria’s jets struck chemical weapons controlled by terrorists. (Bloomberg, 04.12.17)
  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said an alleged poison gas attack blamed on his government last week in the Idlib province was "100% fabrication" used to justify a U.S. air strike, news agency AFP reported on April 13. (Reuters, 04.13.17)
  • Russia has vetoed a U.N. proposal urging the Syrian government to aid an investigation into a deadly gas attack in northern Syria. (The Moscow Times, 04.13.17)
  • China, which has since 2011 joined Russia to veto six U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria, abstained from a vote April 12 on a U.S.-led proposal criticizing last week’s chemical weapons attack. The move left Russia—Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chief ally—as the only veto-wielding council member to oppose the resolution. (Bloomberg, 04.12.17)
  • The international body on chemical weapons control is testing samples from a suspected nerve gas attack that killed at least 87 people in Syria last week and could produce a report on the matter within three weeks, the British delegation to the commission said April 13. (AP, 04.13.17)
  • Activists say that U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor late on April 17 have killed more than 20 civilians in an operation against fighters from the Islamic State militant group. (Newsweek, 04.18.17)
  • The Syrian government and rebels evacuated more than 7,000 people from four besieged towns on April 14 in the latest coordinated population transfer in Syria’s six-year-long civil war. However, the evacuation of more than 3,000 Syrians that was scheduled to take place on April 16 from four areas as part of a population transfer has been postponed, opposition activists said, a day after a deadly blast killed more than 120 people, many of them government supporters. (AP, 04.17.16, AP, 04.14.17)
  • Russia, Syria and Iran strongly warned the United States April 14 against launching new strikes on Syria and called for an international probe into last week’s chemical attack there. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who hosted his Iranian and Syrian counterparts at a trilateral meeting in Moscow, denounced the U.S. cruise missile attack on Syria as a “flagrant violation” of international law and warned that any further such action would entail “grave consequences not only for regional but global security.” (AP, 04.14.17)
  • A delegation from Russia's upper house of parliament, the Federal Council, have met in the Saudi capital of Riyadh with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud for talks about the war in Syria. Federation Council Deputy Speaker Ilyas Umakhanov said the Russian delegation, led by Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matviyenko, "differed in opinion" with Saudi Arabia's king about whether Assad should remain in power. (RFE/RL, 04.17.17)
  • Russia plans to hold talks with the U.S. and the United Nations next week in Geneva aimed at breathing new life into the Syrian peace process, state media reported, in what would mark the first such contacts since the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump took office. (Bloomberg, 04.17.17)
  • When U.S. lawmakers return from their recess next week, they will quickly begin moving several bills designed variously to sanction the Assad, Iranian and Russian governments, several lawmakers and congressional aides said. (The Washington Post, 04.17.17)
  • EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini will make her first official visit to Russia on April 24. Mogherini will meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to "discuss the most pressing foreign policy issues, in particular the conflict in Syria," an EU statement said. (RFE/RL, 04.12.17)
  • The man believed to have recruited and trained the St. Petersburg metro bomber has been arrested by Russian special forces. Agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) detained Abror Azimov on April 17 in the Odintsovo district of the Moscow region. The death toll in the blast rose to 15 last week. As many as 53 people injured in the April 3 terrorist attack still remain hospitalized. Azimov told a court on April 18 he was an unwitting accomplice in the attack. (Reuters, 04.18.17, The Moscow Times, 04.18.17, TASS, 04.11.17, RFE/RL, 04.12.17)
  • Relatives say the 18-year-old son of former police colonel Gulmurod Halimov who joined the extremist group Islamic State (IS) has been arrested. (RFE/RL, 04.18.17)
  • A citizen of Russia who has risen through the ranks of the Islamic State to become a field commander has been killed while fighting in the western part of the Iraqi city of Mosul, according to local law-enforcers. Iraqi police have identified the man by his nom de guerre—Abu Khadzhir ar-Rusi, according to RIA Novosti. (Russia Matters, 04.18.17)