Russia in Syria Monitor, Dec. 12-19, 2017

Dear readers: Please be advised that this will be Russia Matters’ last Russia in Syria Monitor. Top news related to Russian involvement in Syria will be included in the weekly Russia in Review digest, while pertinent analysis will be featured in the Russia Analytical Report. Please subscribe to these mailings if you haven’t already.

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • French President Emmanuel Macron said that the “Astana process” promoted by Russia, Iran and Turkey isn’t inclusive and that the U.S., France and their allies have done most of the work to defeat Islamic State, while Russia and Syria fought largely against more moderate forces. (Bloomberg, 12.19.17)

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

  • A pair of U.S. jets intercepted two Russian fighter aircraft over Syria on Dec. 13, the Pentagon said, the kind of highly dangerous yet constant encounter that is occurring with more regularity despite agreements between the countries to avoid potentially deadly mistakes. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is questioning whether recent close encounters resulted from mistakes or from deliberate, “unwise” and “dangerous” actions by Russian pilots. (The Washington Post, 12.15.17, RFE/RL, 12.16.17)
  • While not directly issuing a threat, American officials are saying that they have the right to shoot down Russian aircraft attacking or even buzzing U.S.-sponsored groups in Syria. Meanwhile, Russia maintains that U.S. aircraft in Syrian airspace aren't there legally (unlike the Syrian government authorizing Russian forces in their territory), which presumably means that American planes can be destroyed legally. (The National Interest, 12.12.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • No significant developments.


  • Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor at the Naval War College, writes that the style and tone of Putin’s “mission accomplished” address at Hemeimeem Air Base earlier this month was meant to convey a message to the broader Middle East: “Where the United States had overreached (as in Iraq in 2003) or hesitated to act (as in Syria in 2013) Russia succeeded in undertaking a limited, defined mission—and seems to have succeeded at it, despite all the predictions that Russia was about to repeat its ill-fated Afghan experience. A judicious, focused use of power appears to have turned the tide, not only in saving Assad from falling but in restoring his control over most of Syria. Moscow can say, with some accuracy, that Russia honors its commitments, fulfills its promises and defends its friends.” (The National Interest, 12.13.17)
  • Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates and Eugene Rumer of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace write: “Moscow is now leading the diplomatic effort to settle the [Syria] conflict, with the U.S. barely involved. Russia might not be able to negotiate peace in Syria alone, but no longer can a deal be negotiated without its involvement. Russian diplomacy in the wider region has been equally impressive. Until recently, the U.S. was the main actor.” (Financial Times, 12.17.17)
  • Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, outlines some of the challenges facing Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria, where “through military intervention and diplomatic maneuvering,” he has made his country into “one of the major players in the conflict.” Assad’s fate is one key question: “Now he looks and behaves like a victor, and may be thinking that he does not need the Russians as much as he used to. The Kremlin, however, understands that restoring his control over all of Syria is impossible and even undesirable, since other groups, from the Sunni opposition to the Kurds, adamantly reject this outcome.” (Foreign Affairs, 12.13.17)
  • On Dec. 11 Putin made a surprise visit to Hemeimeem airbase in Syria, but when Assad tried to join a photo-op, a Russian officer grabbed him by the arm. The base might be on Syrian soil, but it is Russia's turf and Putin would lead the victory lap. Putin may have had a domestic audience in mind. Russians admire the president's assertive foreign policy. The Middle East has been a central stage for him. But the Syrian war has generated little enthusiasm at home. Most Russians would prefer to see it wrapped up. (Economist, 12.14.17)
  • As Russia redraws the map in Syria, Putin and Iran are left with one major disagreement: how best to deal with Syria's armed Kurds. (Haaretz/Reuters, 12.18.17)
  • Meir Javedanfar, an Israel-based expert on Iran, writes about the temporary alignment of Russian and Israeli interests amid the shifting sands of the Syrian civil war. (Foreign Affairs, 12.14.17)
  • Yuri Teper, a postdoctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes “that the ‘new Cold War’ paradigm that is often introduced as shorthand to describe the (presumed) emerging standoff between Russia and the United States in the Middle East is invalid and misleading. In contrast to the Cold War era, currently there is no clear and inescapable divide between the two camps. The secondary players enjoy much greater room for political maneuvering and therefore stronger bargaining positions relative to the two powers.” (Wilson Center, 12.12.17)

Other important news:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin phoned U.S. President Donald Trump on Dec. 17 to express gratitude for a tip-off from the CIA about an alleged terror plot in St. Petersburg. A day later Putin’s spokesman said the information "helped save many lives" and should serve as an "exemplary" model of productive U.S.-Russian cooperation. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to improve relations with Moscow and that counterterrorism efforts in Syria and elsewhere could serve as a cornerstone of better ties. (RFE/RL, 12.18.17)
    • Seven suspected members of Islamic State were arrested on Dec. 15 for preparing a suicide bombing in St. Petersburg planned for the weekend, the FSB press service announced. Security officials said that the sleeper cell was being directed by IS from abroad using the encrypted Telegram messenger app. A Russian court has fined Telegram for not providing the FSB with online conversations of two suspects linked to last April’s deadly St. Petersburg metro bombing. (The Moscow Times, 12.15.17, 12.13.17)
  • The eighth round of Syrian peace talks brokered by the U.N. fizzled to a close Dec. 14 without progress toward a deal to end seven ruinous years of war, and with the chief mediator saying that the Syrian government was not ''really looking to find a way to have a dialogue.'' U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura has urged Russia to convince the Syrian government to reach a peace deal. (New York Times, 12.14.17, RFE/RL, 12.14.17)
  • Putin on Dec. 13 submitted a draft treaty to the State Duma that could expand Russia’s naval presence in Syria until 2092. (The Moscow Times, 12.13.17)
  • Russia will be the only country to take part in rebuilding Syrian energy facilities, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Dec. 18, after holding talks in Syria with Assad. (Reuters, 12.18.17)
  • The U.N. Security Council approved the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and conflict lines in Syria for another year on Dec. 19, with Russia urging a gradual end to the program that has helped millions of people in rebel-held areas. (AP, 12.19.17)
  • “The United States is turning a blind eye to information provided by Russia about Syrian fighters traveling to Iraq,” Putin said on Dec. 14 at his annual press conference. “There is no [U.S.] reaction… Why? Because they [in the U.S.] are thinking that they [fighters] could be used to fight al-Assad. This is the simplest thing. But at the same time, the most dangerous thing, including for those who are doing this.” (Reuters, 12.14.17)
  • A Russian military contractor in Syria taken hostage by Islamic State, has died, according to the man’s family. Grigory Tsurkan died of wounds he sustained in captivity, a representative of the Wagner private military group reportedly told his mother. A second hostage, Roman Zabolotny, was executed by militants, the Wagner representative said. (The Moscow Times, 12.18.17)
  • Assad has called U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters "traitors," according to an online statement from his office on Dec. 18. He spoke during a meeting with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin at Hemeimeem air base, the center of Russia's military campaign in support of government forces. (RFE/RL, 12.18.17)
  • Putin said at his annual press conference on Dec. 14 that he supports efforts to repatriate children born to Russian parents who have joined the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. (AP, 12.14.17)
  • Sophisticated weapons the U.S. military secretly provided to Syrian rebels quickly fell into the hands of Islamic State, according to a study released by Conflict Armament Research on Dec. 14. (USA Today, 12.14.17,, 12.14.17, Wired, 12.12.17)
  • Russia is holding a Norwegian man on suspicion of spying after he allegedly received classified documents from a Russian man who is also under arrest, an official said on Dec. 19. Some reports suggested Frode Berg’s arrest could be linked to what they said was his opposition to the construction of a 200-meter fence along a small part of Norway's short border with Russia, which Norway built in 2016 after thousands of asylum seekers, many of them from Syria, crossed over from Russia. (RFE/RL, 12.19.17)