Russia in Syria Monitor, Aug. 15-22, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russia on Aug. 21 hailed "a dramatic shift" in the Syria conflict, saying that the Syrian army, with Moscow's help, was on its way to pushing militants out of central Syria. Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said the province of Aleppo had been entirely "liberated." Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said last week Syria’s government forces supported by Russia’s air task force have liberated twice as much territory over the past two months as the area under Damascus’ control in 2015. (AP, 08.18.17, RFE/RL, 08.13.17, TASS, 08.15.17, Reuters, 08.21.17)
  • Russian General Staff’s Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Aug. 21 that Syrian troops were advancing from three directions to encircle Deir el-Zour and break the militant siege there, the largest city in which they still have a major presence. The Syrian government now controls around half the city and a nearby air base. Russia has boosted its air campaign in Syria to help Syrian government forces drive Islamic State militants from Deir el-Zour. (AP, 08.21.17, RFE/RL, 08.22.17)
  • During the last few days, assault units of the Syrian government forces, supported by Russia’s air task forces, have established full control over a number of opposite hills in the vicinity of Hisayah and es-Savannet. (TASS, 08.21.17)
  • This month alone, Russian Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said Russian warplanes had flown 990 missions, destroying 40 armored vehicles, more than 100 trucks and killing about 800 militants. Those casualties include over 200 militants killed in a recent raid on an IS convoy heading toward Deir el-Zour. (RFE/RL, 08.22.17)
  • Thirty-two men from Russia’s private military company Wagner were killed in action in Syria in 2016 and another 50-60 were killed in the first half of 2017, according to an Aug. 21 report by Russia’s Fontanka news portal, which claims to have acquired Wagner’s internal company documents. According to Fontanka, Wagner owners and the Russian Defense Ministry stopped coordinating combat operations in Syria in 2017 and the Defense Ministry’s helicopters no longer airlift Wagner’s wounded fighters. The Assad government took over supplying and financing Wagner’s operations in Syria in 2017. As a result, newly-arrived operators were offered to arm themselves with North-Korean made assault rifles and machine guns made in the 1940s. (Russia Matters, 08.21.17)
  • Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian Armed Forces' General Staff, has thanked Syrian troops for their success in the fight against international terrorist groups during a visit to Russia's Hmeimim airbase in Syria. (Interfax, 08.22.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said on Aug. 20 his country had foiled Western designs to topple him, but his army had not yet won the fight to end Syria's six-year-old insurgency.  He said the assistance extended by stalwart allies Russia, Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah movement had enabled the army to make battlefield gains and reduce the burden of war. (Reuters, 08.20.17)
  • Bouthaina Shaaban, an advisor to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, has said the war is nearly over as foreign states cut backing for rebels, and vowed the government would confront any "illegitimate" forces, whether Turkish or American. (Reuters, 08.18.17)
  • Iraqi Ambassador to Russia Haidar Hadi has said his country would like to participate in the Astana and Geneva talks on Syria. (Interfax, 08.22.17)

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Former Under Secretary of Defense Dov S. Zakheim writes: “There is indeed much that they [the U.S. and Russia] could do together [in Syria], if only Washington were as clear about its objectives as Moscow. The United States has been ramping up its anti-ISIS operations in Syria. It has given no indication of how far it will go in that regard. It must do so, and at the same time accelerate whatever efforts it may already have undertaken to ensure deconfliction with Russian forces in the air and on the ground. Should a deconfliction agreement be achieved, the next step could be joint patrols of safe zones, to enable refugees to return safely.” (The National Interest, September-October 2017)
  • Angela Stent, director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University, writes: “The war in Syria, with its catastrophic human toll, is the most pressing issue. Beyond the current cease-fire, Washington and Moscow must continue to deconflict air operations and to provide humanitarian relief. The fact that bilateral military ties have resumed is a hopeful sign.” (The National Interest, September-October 2017)


  • Robert Legvold, professor emeritus of political science at Columbia University, writes: “Trump and his people, and Putin and his, say the same thing: the two countries are in a deep hole and need to stop digging. … The two greatest nuclear powers in the world cannot have this kind of a relationship. We have to stabilize it and we have to start finding a way back.” (The National Interest, September-October 2017)
  • Eric Edelman, a counselor at CSBA and the Hertog distinguished practitioner in residence at SAIS, writes: “Resolving the problems of Syria and Ukraine—the two biggest bones of contention between the United States and Russia before the blatant effort to interfere in the U.S. election—would have been a daunting challenge for any president … For a president whose son apparently sought damaging kompromat on his opponent during the election campaign, it is simply beyond reach.” (The National Interest, September-October 2017)

Other important news:

  • Two North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the country's chemical weapons program were intercepted in the past six months, according to a confidential United Nations report on North Korea sanctions violations. (Reuters, 08.21.17)
  • A promise by Syria in 2013 to surrender its chemical weapons averted U.S. air strikes. Many diplomats and weapons inspectors now believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime appeared to cooperate, but secretly maintained or developed a new chemical weapons capability. (Reuters, 08.17.17)
  • The United Nations hopes for a "serious negotiation" between Damascus and a still-to-be-formed unified Syrian opposition in October or November. (Reuters, 08.17.17)
  • Russian, Turkish and Iranian experts are planning consultations on a de-escalation area in Syria's Idlib in the coming days, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. (Interfax, 08.22.17)
  • Russia is cooperating with Saudi Arabia to form a single Syrian opposition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry. (TASS, 08.21.17) 
  • The international meeting in Astana on the settlement in Syria may take place in mid-September, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said. (TASS, 08.22.17) 
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will travel to Russia on Aug. 23 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mossad Director Yossi Cohen will join him. (RFE/RL, 08.19.17, TASS, 08.21.17)
  • The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces says the U.S. military will remain in northern Syria for decades, predicting enduring ties with the Kurdish-dominated region. (Reuters, 08.17.17)
  • Russia does not believe that U.S. President Donald Trump's new strategy on Afghanistan will lead to any significant positive changes in the country. Trump on Aug. 21 committed the United States to an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan. (Reuters, 08.21.17)
  • A knife-wielding man went on a stabbing rampage Aug. 19 in a Siberian city, wounding seven people before police shot and killed him. The Islamic State’s Aamaq news agency claimed the attacker was “an Islamic State soldier.” An IS-affiliated media outlet then published a video reportedly featuring the man sitting next to an axe and an IS flag and wearing a balaclava. He speaks in heavily accented Russian and Arabic to describe the benefits of using “primitive weapons.” (The Moscow Times, 08.22.17, AP, 08.19.17)
  • Citizens of a CIS country recruited by an international terrorist organization have been detained in Kyrgyzstan. (Interfax, 08.22.17)
  • Kazakh authorities say they have detained eight Syrian nationals allegedly caught using doctored Bulgarian passports when entering and leaving Kazakhstan. (RFE/RL, 08.22.17)
  • Russia will hold joint war games later this year with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan in response to regional threats. (AP, 08.18.17)