Russia in Syria Monitor, Dec. 21, 2016-Jan. 3, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Turkey's military says Russian aircraft have carried out three air strikes over the past 24 hours targeting Islamic State militants in northern Syria, in what appears to be the first Russian support for Turkish forces in the area. The military said in a statement on Dec. 30 the air strikes killed 12 IS fighters in the Syrian town of Al-Bab, where Turkish forces launched an operation in August to push back IS from the border region. (RFE/RL, 12.30.16)
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russian aircraft had flown 18,800 sorties in Syria since the start of the Kremlin's operation there last year, destroying 725 training camps, 405 sites where weapons were being made and killing 35,000 fighters. (Reuters, 12.23.16)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

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

  • Russian state media is reporting that the Kremlin has said nearly all communication channels between the U.S. and Russia are frozen. “Almost every level of dialogue with the United States is frozen. We don’t communicate with one another, or we do so minimally,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said. (Independent, 12.21.16)
  • A serious military confrontation between Russia and a NATO member state or a severe crisis in North Korea are among top international concerns for 2017 cited in a new survey of experts conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations. Its ninth annual Preventive Priorities Survey identified seven top potential flashpoints for the United States in the year ahead. (CFR, December 2016)
  • The United States said it has no plans to provide portable rocket launchers to Syrian rebels, dismissing Moscow’s warnings that such weapons might fall into the hands of Islamic militants. (RFE/RL, 12.28.16)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • No significant developments.


  • New York Times editorial: “Issues that have derailed past peace plans remain unresolved. The biggest one is whether Russia will insist that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad remain in power in a country where he controls only about one-third of the territory and is hated by the majority Sunni population for killing so many of their kin. Russia now owns that problem.” (New York Times, 12.31.16)

Other important news:

  • In a statement published on Jan. 2 Syrian rebels said they had suspended talks over peace negotiations scheduled for later this month, accusing pro-government forces of breaking a cease-fire intended to stem bloodshed ahead of the meeting. Brokered by Russia and Turkey, the truce was to be followed by talks between mainstream rebel factions and government representatives in the Kazakh capital of Astana. The cease-fire took effect in Syria on Dec. 30 and does not cover those deemed to be terrorist groups, including the al-Qaeda associated Nusra Front and ISIS. “We hope [the cease-fire] will be implemented fully and respected by all parties," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in an earlier statement. "Any effort that stops the violence, saves lives and creates the conditions for renewed and productive political negotiations would be welcome." (RFE/RL, 12.29.16, AP, 01.02.17, The Moscow Times, 01.02.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Dec. 23 that it’s necessary to establish a cease-fire across all of Syria that will then be followed by peace talks. Putin said now that Syrian government forces have taken full control of Aleppo, “the next stage should be a cease-fire on the entire territory of Syria and the launch of talks on a political settlement.” Putin also said the evacuation of Aleppo would not have been possible without the help of Russia, Iran and Turkey or the good will of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. At least 34,000 people, including more than 4,000 rebel fighters, were evacuated from eastern Aleppo in a week-long operation. (Reuters, 12.23.16, AP, 12.23.16, RFE/RL, 12.23.16)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rohani, spoke by telephone on Dec. 24 and described the Syrian government’s capture of the Syrian city of Aleppo as a “milestone” in the conflict. Putin spoke by telephone on Dec. 23 with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the two agreed that the capture of Aleppo “has opened the door” for a political process by encouraging “many who earlier hampered a political settlement in Syria to join the process.” (RFE/RL, 12.24.16)
  • Syria would be divided into informal zones of regional power influence and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would remain president for at least a few years under an outlined deal between Russia, Turkey and Iran, sources say. Assad's powers would be cut under a deal among the three nations, according to several sources. Russia and Turkey would allow him to stay until the next presidential election, when he would quit in favor of a less polarizing candidate from the Alawite branch of Islam. (Reuters, 12.28.16)
  • The U.N. General Assembly has voted to establish an investigative body that will assist in documenting and prosecuting the most serious violations of international law in Syria, including possible war crimes and crimes against humanity. The 193-member world body adopted a resolution Dec. 21 by a vote of 105 to 15 with 52 abstentions over strenuous objections from Syria and Russia. (AP, 12.21.16)
  • The Russian Foreign Ministry has stated that the United States has “completely lost its grip on reality” in response to sanctions that Washington has imposed on Syrian officials and a Russian bank for their roles in the conflict in Syria. The United States on Dec. 23 added nine board members of a previously blacklisted Moscow bank called Tempbank to the list of Specially Designated Nationals allegedly providing financial services to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government. (RFE/RL, 12.24.16)
  • The Russian Embassy in the Syrian capital of Damascus has been shelled twice, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Dec. 28. (RFE/RL, 12.28.16)
  • A widely reported suspect in the New Year’s Eve shooting at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub is pleading innocence. Iakhe Mashrapov confirmed he was the citizen of Kyrgyzstan whose passport was published online on Jan. 3, but was not in Turkey at the time of the terrorist attack. The shooting rampage took the lives of 39 people, 26 of whom were foreign nationals, including one Russian woman. The Islamic State terrorist organization later claimed responsibility for the attack. A spokesman for Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service told RFE/RL on Jan. 3 that Mashrapov is now in Kyrgyzstan and has been questioned by both the Kyrgyz and Turkish authorities. (RFE/RL, 01.03.17, The Moscow Times, 01.03.17, TASS, 01.02.17)
  • Russia's security agencies say they have arrested seven people suspected of preparing New Year's terror attacks in Moscow on orders from the Islamic State in Syria. Russia's main domestic security agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), said on Dec. 29 that its agents arrested the suspects in the North Caucasus region of Dagestan. (RFE/RL, 12.30.16)
  • Russian authorities said on Dec. 30 that one police officer and two suspected militants have been killed in a shoot-out in Dagestan in Russia’s volatile North Caucasus region. A security service official in Dagestan then said on Jan. 1 that two militants had been killed during a special operation by security services as the militants hid in a house in the village of Yaman-Su in the Novolaksky district. (RFE/RL, 12.30.16, RFE/RL, 01.01.17)
  • Russian student Varvara Karaulova has been jailed for 4 1/2 years after being found guilty of attempting to join the Islamic State. (The Moscow Times, 12.22.16)
  • Khurshed Haydarov, a truck driver from Uzbekistan who held up traffic on a U.S. freeway for hours during the holiday weekend in an armed standoff with police, has pleaded not guilty to charges of making a terrorist threat. (RFE/RL, 12.29.16)