Russia in Syria Monitor, Dec. 13-20, 2016

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russian special-operations forces—the same elite troops that carried out Moscow’s surprise annexation of Crimea in 2014—have played a pivotal part in the Syrian ground offensive to retake the city of Aleppo, a role shielded by secrecy about their operations there, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal. On Dec. 11, Russian state-run television ran a segment showing what appears to be one of Russia’s most elite military units fighting in Syria. In the video, some of the Russian Special Operations troops can be seen with red-dot weapon sights, thermal imaging devices, laser range finders and modern bolt-action sniper rifles. Elite Russian units in Syria take part in search and rescue operations, assassinations of key rebel figures and coordination of air strikes. Groups of heavily armed soldiers were shown coordinating sniper attacks, using robotic tanks and inspecting rebel corpses. (Wall Street Journal, 12.16.16, The Washington Post, 12.13.16, AP, 12.11.16)
  • Maj. Sanal Sachirov, commander of a Russian airborne battalion, has been killed in Syria, the news site Meduza reported Dec. 19. Sachirov’s funeral was held on Dec. 13 in the southern Russian village of Yashkul. News of the death of a Russian officer in Syria first appeared on social media networks on Dec. 12, but could not be confirmed. Sachirov served in the 56th Separate Airborne Brigade stationed in the town of Kamyshin in the Volgograd region. On Dec. 16, Meduza confirmed the death of another Russian serviceman Eduard Sokurov. He was posthumously awarded a medal for courage. Sokurov was reportedly killed in Syria on Oct. 1, 2015. (The Moscow Times, 12.19.16)
  • On Dec. 9, the Kremlin marked the Day of Heroes of the Fatherland with a lavish event. The guests included Dmitry Utkin, who uses the nom de guerre "Vagner" and is believed to be the head of an unregistered private military contracting agency called ChVK Vagner. At least 600 mercenaries are estimated to have fought with Vagner in Syria since 2014. Russia’s State Duma has passed a measure that will allow the Russian military to hire people for short-term contracts to fight abroad. In the past, such people had to serve two or more years; now, they will only have to commit to six to 12 months. (Eurasia Review, 12.16.16, RFE/RL, 12.16.16)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • After months of behind-the-scenes wrangling, the U.S. Congress has produced new bipartisan legislation on Syria that combines input from the House and Senate. The legislation, introduced this month by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) would sanction the Assad regime, Russia and Iran for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria while providing a framework for U.S. assistance to Syria going forward. (The Washington Post,12.18.16)
  • Four Syrian organizations have accused Russia of committing or being complicit in war crimes in Syria, saying Russian air strikes in the Aleppo area had killed 1,207 civilians, including 380 children. (RFE/RL, 12.16.16)

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

  • Political scientist Graham Allison and foreign policy analyst Dimitri K. Simes: “On their current trajectory, the United States and Russia face a serious risk of stumbling into a war neither side wants and which would be catastrophic for both.” (The National Interest, 12.18.16)
  • A report released by the Nuclear Threat Initiative recommends steps to reduce the likelihood of accident or miscalculation leading to a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia, which the report says is “now higher than any period since the end of the Cold War” in 1991. (AP, 12.14.16)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Russia Matters director Simon Saradzhyan and professor of government and public policy Monica Toft: “There are indeed important parallels between Bolshevik Russia, established almost 100 years ago, and the Islamic State today, but if the history of the former is any guide, then the rollback of IS should continue until the last piece of territory is wrested from this terrorist group. Otherwise, it will first regroup and then try to expand again, all while killing innocent people on lands it still controls.” (Russia Matters, 12.16.16)
  • Russia and Eurasia expert Thomas Graham of Yale University: “Reopen the channels of communication. This is not a reward to Russia. It is essential to avoiding misunderstandings that could lead to crises spinning out of control, and to gaining the insights we will need to elaborate and conduct policy successfully.” (The National Interest, 12.12.16)


  • Russia scholar Leon Aron: “Overall, according to Russia’s first deputy prosecutor general, Alexandr Buksman, in the first half of 2016, the number of ‘terrorist crimes’ in Russia rose by 73% from 2015. The increase, according to Buksman, was not merely a result of better policing but ‘a reflection of growing threats.’ By all indications, the Russian jihad continues to remain alive and dangerous.” (War on the Rocks, 12.19.16)
  • The starkly different outcomes of two pivotal battles in Syria—for Aleppo and Palmyra—showcase the priorities of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian sponsors: to fight moderate Sunni rebels rather than the Sunni extremists of Islamic State. But the rapid loss of Palmyra also highlighted another key feature of the conflict: the continuing vulnerability of Assad and his backers. (Wall Street Journal, 12.15.16)
  • Neither the U.S. nor European powers seem to have been aware that Russia and Turkey were negotiating a ceasefire and evacuation deal for Aleppo earlier this week. After the city’s capture this may be “the new normal in Syria”—one in which the West is more of a spectator than an active participant, while the countries that have been willing both to fight and to talk have stepped up as the real players. It will be interesting now to see how Russia and Turkey will reconcile their diverging interests in the country—a "Russian zone" and a "Turkish zone" perhaps? (Bloomberg View, 12.14.16)

Other important news:

  • Russia, Iran and Turkey are ready to act as guarantors to a future settlement between the Syrian government and the opposition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Dec. 20, when the three countries' foreign ministers met in Moscow and hundreds more residents left the Syrian opposition’s last foothold in eastern Aleppo. The United States was notably absent from the meeting. Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights head Rami Aburrahman said 17,000 civilians and 5,000 fighters have left; the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has overseen the evacuations, said 25,000 have left and the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s figure is 37,000. (AP, 12.20.16)
  • The U.N. Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution stipulating the deployment of international observers to the Syrian city of Aleppo in order to coordinate the evacuation of civilians from the war-torn eastern part of the city. (TASS, 12.19.16)
  • U.S. President Barack Obama called on Dec.16 for access to humanitarian aid and impartial international observers in the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo and said "this blood and these atrocities" are on the hands of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime. (Wall Street Journal, 12.16.16)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to step up the fight against terrorism after the assassination of Russia’s ambassador in the Turkish capital of Ankara, as he and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted the killing wouldn’t undermine the restoration of the two countries’ ties strained by the war in Syria. Ambassador Andrey Karlov was assassinated at an Ankara art exhibit on the evening of Dec. 19 by a lone Turkish gunman shouting “God is great!” and “don’t forget Aleppo, don’t forget Syria!” in what Russia called a terrorist attack. The gunman, who was described by Ankara’s mayor as a policeman, also wounded at least three others in the assault, which was captured on video, before he was killed by other officers in a shootout. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump called the brazen shooting of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey at a photo exhibit “a violation of all rules of civilized order.” He said a “radical Islamic terrorist” had assassinated the diplomat. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the attack and offered condolences to Moscow. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the killing a “barbaric act of terrorism.” The U.N. Security Council is condemning “in the strongest terms” the “terrorist attack” that assassinated Russia’s ambassador and is calling for the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors to be brought to justice. A team of 18 Russian investigators landed in Ankara to look into the shooting of the slain envoy. (Bloomberg, 12.20.16,  RFE/RL, 12.20.16, The Moscow Times, 12.20.16, RFE/RL, 12.20.16, AP, 12.20.16, New York Times, 12.20.16,  AP, 12.20.16, New York Times, 12.19.16)
  • The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a shootout with police in Russia’s Chechen republic, the online monitoring organization SITE Intelligence Group has reported. Gunmen opened fire on traffic police in the Chechen capital of Grozny on two separate occasions on the evening of Dec. 17 and during the afternoon on Dec. 18. Three police officers were killed in the incident, Chechen officials confirmed. The Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, had indicated on Dec. 18 that a total of 11 gunmen were killed. Earlier, authorities in Chechnya said they had determined that the alleged leader of the group had ties to IS. Law-enforcement officials said on Dec. 19 that Said-Ibragim Ismailov, who was among seven suspected militants killed in the violence, had been in online contact with what they called his commander in Syria. (The Moscow Times, 12.20.16, RFE/RL, 12.19.16)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed condolences to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauk over the tragedy at a Christmas market in Berlin, the Kremlin press service said on Dec. 20. At least 12 people were killed and about 50 injured on the night of Dec. 19 when a truck plowed into the market. (TASS, 12.20.16)
  • Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has offered to host fresh peace talks between the warring sides in the Syria conflict as part of a plan floated by Russian President Vladimir Putin. (RFE/RL, 12.19.16)