Russia in Syria Monitor, April 4-11, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Ex-chief of the Russian Air Defense Forces Staff Igor Maltsev told that Russian air defense systems could detect cruise missiles only at the range of 24-26 kilometers if these missiles are flying at the altitude of 50-60 meters over moderately rugged terrain. Therefore, defending Shayrat, the air base targeted by U.S. cruise missiles last week, would have required deployment of four to five S-400 batteries in the area. (Russia Matters. 04.07.17)
  • The United States has concluded that Russia knew ahead of time that Syria would launch a chemical weapons attack last week, a senior U.S. official says. The official offered circumstantial elements to back up his claim, but no concrete proof. The senior official said April 10 that a drone operated by Russians was flying over a hospital as victims of the attack were rushing to get treatment. Hours after the drone left, a Russian-made fighter jet bombed the hospital in what American officials believe was an attempt to cover up the usage of chemical weapons. (AP, 04.11.17)
  • The Russian Defense Ministry said on April 11 that two of its soldiers had been killed in a mortar attack in Syria and a third was fighting for his life, the RIA news agency reported. (Reuters, 04.11.17)
  • Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich may be nearing two U.S. Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean, but so far interactions at sea have been strictly professional in the wake of the April 7 American airstrikes on a Syrian airfield. The Grigorovich will remain in the Mediterranean until summer. (, 04.10.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russia's failure to strip the Syrian government of its chemical weapons stockpile contributed to the death of Syrian civilians attacked with sarin gas, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has alleged. “I hope that Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer in to some level of responsibility.” (The Moscow Times, 04.10.17)
  • Ilan Berman, senior vice president at the American Foreign Policy Council, wrote: “Russia’s involvement [in Syria] has paid concrete strategic dividends, making it possible for Russia to reinforce its historic naval base at Tartus, establish a new air base in Latakia and forward deploy an expanded naval force in the eastern Mediterranean, among other gains. But it has also made Moscow the target of Islamist ire.” (Foreign Affairs, 04.05.17)

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

  • Russia last week suspended a deal that set up a hotline that allowed Russian and U.S.-led coalition air forces to avoid conflict as they conducted separate operations in the crowded airspace over Syria. 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. The Russian general staff has also put the United States on notice, saying another missile strike would be "unacceptable." (The Washington Post, 04.11.17)
  • “The Trump administration has proved that it will viciously fight the legitimate government of Syria—in blatant violation of the norms of international law, without the approval of the U.N., violating [the United States’] own procedures establishing the need to notify Congress about any military operation that isn’t tied to an attack on the U.S., and on the verge of a conflict with Russia,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote. (The Moscow Times, 04.07.17)
  • The United States is prepared to again take action against the Syrian government if it continues to use chemical weapons and barrel bombs, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said on April 10. (AP, 04.10.17)
  • Colin H. Kahl, an associate professor of security studies, wrote: “The broader the administration’s goals in Syria, the more prone it will be to pressure to escalate there. … If the United States goes down this road, the prospects of a military confrontation with Moscow are real. … The Syrian dictator … may attempt to test Trump again, hoping to prove the president is a ‘paper tiger.’ And Trump, having invested his personal credibility in standing firm, may find himself psychologically or politically compelled to respond, despite the very real risks that it could result in a direct military clash with Russia..” (The Washington Post, 04.09.17)
  • Richard Sokolsky and Aaron Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote: “Putin has no desire to tangle with the United States in Syria, but much of his reaction will be shaped by what the administration intends to do next. … If Washington's action is designed to restrain Assad's use of chemical weapons, the Russians—who clearly knew about the attack in advance as their personnel were at the base from which it was purportedly launched—may be embarrassed but willing over time to cooperate in helping to end their use. But if the strike is designed to set the stage for further U.S. pressure on Syria and indirectly on Russia, Putin will like push back against the U.S. challenge in Syria. And that might set the stage for a U.S.-Russian proxy struggle in Syria, where Moscow has many advantages on the ground.” (CNN, 04.07.17)
  • Navy Admiral Michelle Howard, who heads NATO's Allied Joint Force Command in Naples and commands U.S. naval forces in Europe and Africa, said Russia had clearly stepped up its naval actions in recent years, although the size of its navy was smaller now than during the Cold War era. "We're seeing activity that we didn't even see when it was the Soviet Union. It's precedential activity," Howard told Reuters in an interview late on April 8 during a missile defense conference. (Reuters, 04.09.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Russia must abandon its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime if it wants an “important role” in discussions about Syria’s future, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said, setting up a clash with Russian leaders just before he meets them in Moscow. Russia must choose whether it will side with the United States on Syria or continue to be aligned with Assad, Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, he said. (Bloomberg, 04.11.17, RFE/RL, 04.11.17) 
  • 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. (The Washington Post, 04.10.17)
  • The Group of Seven industrialized nations on April 11 urged Russia to pressure the Syrian government to end the six-year civil war, but rejected a British call to impose new sanctions on Moscow over its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano, who hosted the G-7 gathering, said “there is no consensus for further new sanctions.” “We must have a dialogue with Russia,” he said. “We must not push Russia into a corner.” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said Russia, and Assad ally Iran, must be involved in any peace process to end Syria’s six-year civil war. “Not everyone may like it, but without Moscow and without Tehran there will be no solution for Syria,” he said. (AP, 04.11.17)
  • Iraq's influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to "take a historic heroic decision" and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed. Sadr, who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and the southern cities, is the first Iraqi Shiite political leader to urge Assad to step down. (Reuters, 04.09.17)


  • Gen. Kevin Ryan, director of the Defense and Intelligence Projects at the Belfer Center: “It's dangerous to make projections before the smoke has cleared from U.S. strikes on Shayrat airbase in Syria. But it is safe to say that in the face of Syrian government atrocities and the possibility of complicity of the Russian military, President Trump has changed his policies about Syria, Assad and probably Russia. Russia doesn't want chemical weapons floating in Syria even more than the U.S., because those weapons in the hands of terrorists could end up in a Moscow subway. But Russia's complicity in the chemical attack, whether through omission or commission, has done more to roll back President Trump's friendly attitude toward Putin than Congress could; a hard thing to achieve. Putin had a real chance to leverage Trump's fondness into concrete geopolitical gains. But he apparently has other goals.” (Interview with Russia Matters, 04.10.17)
  • Director of the Carnegie Moscow Center Dmitri Trenin wrote: “The risk of a confrontation has increased since Friday [April 7], but, paradoxically, greater American involvement in Syria may also bring about closer U.S.-Russian cooperation there, leading eventually to a political settlement and an end to the bloody six-year civil war.” (Financial Times, 04.10.17)
  • Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for the New York Times, wrote: “As a private citizen and candidate, Mr. Donald Trump spent years arguing that Syria’s civil war was not America’s problem, that Russia should be a friend and that China was an ‘enemy’ whose leaders should not be invited to dinner. As president, Mr. Trump, in the space of just days, involved America more directly in the Syrian morass than ever before, opened a new acrimonious rift with Russia and invited China’s leader for a largely convivial, let’s-get-along dinner at his Florida estate.” (New York Times, 04.08.17)
  • Harvard professor Stephen Walt wrote: “In his column discussing the dilemmas President Donald Trump faces in Syria. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is calling—yet again!—for the United States to wage another war in the Greater Middle East. It has done so five times since 1990: in Iraq (twice), in Afghanistan (still underway), in Libya, in Somalia and we’ve intervened on a smaller scale in Syria and Yemen. With the exception of the first Iraq War in 1991, none of these interventions has ended well. Or as former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen put it last year, ‘We’re zero for a lot.’” (Foreign Policy, 04.07.17)
  • As the U.S. weighs additional steps against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad following its cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base last week, it can no longer count on the Sunni Muslim monarchies of the Gulf to take the lead in organizing and supporting the Syrian rebels. "The Gulf states know they are bogged down in Yemen. They have no power or capability to do something meaningful in Syria," said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor in defense studies at King's College London and a former adviser to Qatar's armed forces. (Wall Street Journal, 04.10.17)
  • Thomas Erdbrink, Tehran Bureau Chief for the New York Times, writes: “Iranian political analysts say there has been no sign that Iran is prepared to take one key step on Syria: granting Russia's air force full access to Iranian air bases. Such a move would greatly increase Russia's firepower and maneuvering space in Syria, and it would pose a new challenge for United States aircraft in the region.” (New York Times, 04.10.17)
  • King Abdullah II of Jordan said: “From the Russian point of view, they play what I describe as a three-dimensional chess game. To them, Crimea is important, Syria is important, Ukraine and we see them in Libya. The Americans and Europeans must deal with the Russians on all these issues simultaneously. …  For the Russians, I think the most important thing is Crimea. If you come to an understanding on Crimea, I think you will see much more flexibility on Syria, and I think Ukraine then becomes the least problematic.” (The Washington Post, 04.06.17)
  • King Abdullah II of Jordan also said: “A Russian-American dialogue will help. Otherwise, the Americans and Russians will fight it out in Syria and Libya. If you keep this tension going, the next problem will be in Moldova. … Russians are going to continue to shake the tree, unless we come to a meeting of minds.” (The Washington Post, 04.06.17)

Other important news:

  • The United States fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Syria on the morning of April 6 in response to what it believes was a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 100 people. Just hours after the missiles hit the Shayrat air base southeast of the city of Homs, Syrian warplanes struck opposition targets in the north and south of the country, including one near the town of Khan Sheikhoun, where a chemical weapons attack on April 4 triggered the U.S. missile strike. Pictures released by Russian media seemed to show minimal damage, and Moscow said only 23 of the 59 missiles had hit the base, destroying six planes. But a regional diplomat close to Moscow privately said the attacks damaged far more equipment than the Syrian government and Russia were admitting. Shayrat, located centrally in Syria, was a “nerve center” for attacks, according to a former military officer based there, who has since defected. “It will make it more difficult for them to do their attacks, even if it doesn’t show,” he argued. (NBC, 04.07.17. AP, 04.08.17, Financial Times, 04.11.17)
    • U.S. President Donald Trump cast the United States assault on a Syrian air base as vital to deter future use of poison gas and called on other nations to join in seeking “to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.” Asked on April 5 if the gas attack crossed a “red line,” Trump said it “crossed a lot of lines for me. That crosses many, many lines, beyond red lines.” UNICEF said on April 6 that 546 people were injured in the gas attack, “among them many children.” (New York Times, 04.06.17, Reuters, 04.06.17, Bloomberg, 04.05.17, AP, 04.07.17)
    • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaking just after the strikes were announced, said Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to deliver on a 2013 deal it helped broker to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. (AP, 04.07.17, AP, 04.04.17, AP, 04.05.17)
    • The U.S. military gave Russian forces advanced notice of its strikes on a Syrian airbase and did not hit sections of the base where the Russians were believed to be present, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said on April 6. (TASS, 04.07.17, Reuters, 04.06.17)
    • The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin believes the U.S. strike is an “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law.” (AP, 04.06.17)
    • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 7 that he hoped U.S. missile strikes on Syria would not irreparably damage relations between Moscow and Washington. (Reuters, 04.07.17)
    • Some voices in Moscow are questioning whether rogue elements in the Syrian regime could have been responsible for the latest chemical attack, which would put Russia in a very awkward position as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s main backer. (Bloomberg, 04.07.17)
  • Following the release of a dossier compiled by the National Security Council, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters repeatedly on April 11 that there was “no consensus in the intelligence community” that Russia was involved in the Syrian chemical weapons attack. The document asserts that the Syrian and Russian governments have sought to create confusion regarding the assault through disinformation and “false narratives.” One passage says Moscow's response to the April 4 incident "follows a familiar pattern of Russia's response to egregious actions; it spins out multiple, conflicting accounts in order to create confusion and sow doubt within the international community." The dossier also derided a "drumbeat of nonsensical claims" from Syria and its allies, a clear reference to Russia, and points for the first time to a potential motive for the chemical weapons attack: “We assess that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to an opposition offensive in northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure.” (Global News, 04.11.17, New York Times, 04.11.17, Bloomberg, 04.11.17, Politico, 04.11.17)
  • British Prime Minister Theresa May and U.S. President Donald Trump agreed to try to persuade Russia to break ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a phone conservation on April 10, May's office said. (RFE/RL, 04.11.17)
  • “I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said. “But the question of how that ends, and the transition itself could be very important, in our view, to the durability, the stability inside of a unified Syria.” On April 9, both Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, cast doubts on Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy as Syria’s leader. (The Washington Post, 04.10.17, New York Times, 04.11.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on April 11 that Russia had information that the United States was planning to launch new missile strikes on Syria, and that there were plans to fake chemicals weapons attacks there. “We’ve seen all this before,” Putin said at a press conference in the Kremlin with Italian President Sergio Mattarella, describing the chemical attack as “a provocation.” Putin said the Syrian events remind of the run-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which Russia opposed and which Putin said led to the collapse of the country and a surge in terrorism. Putin will meet with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Moscow. Two unnamed sources close to Russia’s Foreign Ministry told RBC that a meeting would likely take place on the afternoon of April 12, despite previous speculation that the two men may miss the chance to speak face to face. (Bloomberg, 04.11.17, The Moscow Times, 04.11.17, Reuters, 04.11.17)
  • In remarks made before the U.S. strikes on Syria last week, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not unconditional. Peskov told The Associated Press in an interview that “unconditional support is not possible in this current world,” but added that “it is not correct to say that Moscow can convince Mr. Assad to do whatever is wanted in Moscow. This is totally wrong.” (AP, 04.06.17)
  • The top Russian and Iranian generals have condemned the U.S. missile strike against a Syrian military base and vowed to continue their fight against "terrorists," which they generally call opponents of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The chief of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, and his Iranian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, spoke by phone on April 8, Iranian state news agency IRNA reported. The joint command center that coordinates Russian and Iranian forces—as well as other militias fighting for the Assad regime—issued a statement on April 9 saying the United States had crossed its own "red line" by bombing the Syrian government air base. (The Washington Post, 04.11.17, RFE/RL, 04.09.17)
  • A memo by Britain's ambassador to Washington, Sir Kim Darroch, pointed to a tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka declaring she was "heartbroken and outraged by the images coming out of Syria following the atrocious chemical attack.” Sources familiar with the diplomatic cable said that Ivanka's concern was a "significant influence in the Oval Office." Ministers were informed that it meant the administration's reaction had been "stronger than expected." (The Times, 04.09.17)
  • Americans narrowly support missile strikes ordered by U.S. President Donald Trump last week in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in Syria, even as most oppose additional military efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll. By 51% to 40%, more support than oppose the missile strikes launched early on April 7 on the Shayrat air base in Syria, with opinions dividing sharply along partisan lines. Nearly 6 in 10 say they are concerned about the missile strike worsening relations with Russia, which has firmly supported the Assad regime and bolstered its military in battles with rebel groups. (The Washington Post, 04.10.17)
  • The man Russian police believe was the suicide bomber who killed 14 people in a blast on the St. Petersburg metro last week developed an interest in Islam and soon after traveled to Turkey, two people who know him told Reuters. Alleged St. Petersburg suicide bomber Akbarzhon Dzhalilov was deported from Turkey in December 2016, the Turkish newspaper Yeni Akit reported. As many as 53 people injured in the April 3 terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg metro still remain hospitalized. (Reuters, 04.09.17, CrimeRussia, 04.11.17, TASS, 04.11.17)
  • Two extremist attacks in Europe during the past week have connections to former Soviet Central Asian republics, drawing new attention to the poverty and repressive governments that observers suggest make the region’s people ripe for Islamic extremist recruiting. The man who allegedly drove a truck into a crowd in downtown Stockholm, killing four, is an Uzbekistan native said to have Islamist sympathies.  On April 9, Norwegian authorities said a 17-year-old Russian with Islamist sympathies had been arrested on suspicion of placing a bomb at a subway station in Oslo. (AP, 04.09.17)
  • Russia’s Federal Security Service said that 16 terror attacks involving citizens of CIS states were prevented in 2016. (TASS, 04.11.17)
  • Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev told FBI agents in 2011 that four mysterious men—young, and wearing suits—had come looking for him but never returned and he never knew why, according to an FBI interview report that was made public April 10. (The Boston Globe, 04.10.17)