Russia in Syria Monitor, Dec. 5-12, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • President Vladimir Putin declared “victory” in Syria and ordered Russian troops to execute a partial withdrawal from the country during a surprise Dec. 11 visit to a Russian airbase, where he was greeted by Syrian President Bashar Assad. If Islamic State “raise their heads again,” the Russian president said, “we will strike them with a force that they have never previously seen.” Putin said Russia will keep enough forces in Syria to maintain its airbase and a naval port at Tartus and told the Russian troops: “Here in Syria, far away from our borders, you helped the Syrian people to preserve their state and fend off attacks by terrorists.” He also said that conditions have been created in Syria “for a political resolution under the auspices of the United Nations.” It was Putin’s first trip to Syria, where Russia began its air campaign in 2015. (The Moscow Times, 12.11.17, Bloomberg, 12.11.17, AP, 12.11.17)
  • Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Dec. 11 that elements of Moscow’s military contingent to Syria had already begun returning to Russia, the RIA news agency reported.  Gen. Sergei Surovikin, the Russian commander in Syria, said the military will pull out 23 warplanes, two helicopter gunships, special forces units, military police and field engineers. The remaining forces will be sufficient to “successfully fulfill the tasks” to stabilize the situation in Syria, he said, but did not specify how many troops and weapons would remain. (Reuters, 12.11.17, AP, 12.11.17)
  • The decision to withdraw Russia’s troops from Syria was not agreed upon in advance with allies, Russian presidential aide Yuri Ushakov said Dec. 11. (TASS, 12.11.17)
  • Russia’s long-range Tupolev-22M3 bombers have flown back home from an airdrome in North Ossetia to their permanent base in the Kaluga Region after completing a mission in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry said Dec. 12. (TASS, 12.12.17)
  • Surovikin has told Putin that 32,000 militants have been killed in Syria over the past seven months. (TASS, 12.11.17)
  • Russian servicemen have provided medical help to 57,000 Syrians during the military operation there, Shoigu told Putin during the Russian leader’s visit to the Hmeymim air base. (TASS, 12.11.17)
  • Russian Col.-Gen. Sergei Rudskoi said on Dec. 7 that Russian special forces have fought alongside Kurdish-led forces that have routed IS east of the Euphrates River and re-established control over Syria’s border with Iraq. (AP, 12.07.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The Pentagon expressed skepticism about the statements on the withdrawal of troops and equipment from Syria. Army Col. Rob Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, said Russian statements “do not often correspond” with actual troop reductions. He said the withdrawal comments will have no impact on the U.S. and coalition fight against Islamic State extremists. (AP, 12.11.17)

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

  • A Russian Aerospace Forces fighter jet drove a U.S. Air Force F-22 fifth-generation fighter aircraft away from Su-25SM attack planes in an incident in Syria’s airspace, the Russian Defense Ministry’s press office said. (TASS, 12.12.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • No significant developments.


  • Paul Pillar, fellow at Georgetown University and the Brookings Institution: “As for Bashar Assad’s Russian and Iranian friends, the dominant American perspective is the zero-sum assumption that any presence or influence of either Iran or Russia is ipso facto bad and contrary to U.S. interests. This perspective makes no effort to sort out the respects in which Russian or Iranian actions conflict with U.S. interests, parallel U.S. interests, or are irrelevant to those interests.” (The National Interest, 12.11.17)
  • The Syrian conflict is likely to drag on and could reignite into full-scale civil war as long as Assad remains in power, despite efforts by Russia to paint the conflict as winding down, according to White House officials. Declarations of victory by Assad’s backers are premature, three White House officials said in a briefing for reporters Dec. 4. It’s only the Geneva talks that can lead to a sustainable settlement, they said. (Bloomberg, 12.07.17)
  • Andrew S. Weiss, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “In Syria, rather than negotiating a Russian-American alliance to fight Islamic State, Trump’s team soon had to face up to the reality that Russian and Iranian military intervention had already transformed the war in favor of the Syrian regime, decimating U.S.-backed rebels in the process.” (Wall Street Journal, 12.08.17)

Other important news:

  • Assad should be allowed to run for re-election, Russia’s top envoy for Syria said, dismissing Western efforts to condition reconstruction aid on the departure of a leader blamed for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of his citizens. “I don’t see why he shouldn’t or wouldn’t run for another presidential term,” Alexander Lavrentiev, appointed by the Kremlin to steer the Syria peace process, told Bloomberg. “This is entirely up to him.” (Bloomberg, 12.12.17)
  • The United States and France called on Russia on Dec. 6 to deliver Assad’s delegation to Syria peace talks in Geneva after discussions on ending the six-year war resumed with no sign of the government attending. The eighth round of negotiations began last week and after a few days with little apparent progress, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura said the government delegation, led by Bashar al-Ja’afari, was returning to Damascus to “consult and refresh.” “With respect to the Syrian regime and Bashar al-Assad’s role in the peace discussions in Geneva … we have said to the Russians it is important that the Syrian regime be at the table and be part of these negotiations and part of the discussion… We have left it to the Russians to deliver them to the table,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at NATO headquarters. (Reuters, 12.06.17,, 12.06.17)
  • Putin said on Dec. 11 that he had discussed the possibility of convening a Syrian National Dialogue Congress in early 2018 with Assad earlier in the day. (TASS, 12.11.17)
  • There are four times more U.S. troops in Syria than any earlier official figure had acknowledged. (The National Interest, 12.11.17)
  • Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami plans to visit Russia soon to hold talks with his Russian counterpart. (Reuters, 12.08.17)
  • After visiting Syria Putin traveled to Egypt and Turkey, where he celebrated Moscow’s deepening ties with those key regional powers. (AP, 12.11.17)
  • Russia and Turkey agree that a U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is destabilizing the situation in the Middle East, Putin said Dec. 11 while visiting Turkey. Putin said the U.S. move “doesn’t help the Mideast settlement and, just the other way round, destabilizes the already difficult situation in the region.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Dec. 8 that the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the United States runs counter to common sense. (Reuters, 12.11.17, AP, 12.11.17, Reuters, 12.08.17)
  • Russia will offer Turkey partial financing for Ankara’s purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems, the Interfax news agency reported Dec. 12, citing a Russian presidential aide. (Reuters, 12.12.17)     
  • Putin met on Dec. 11 with his Egyptian counterpart Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo for talks on the two countries' expanding ties and regional issues. Following the meeting, Putin said Russia was ready in principle to resume direct passenger flights to Egypt and an agreement is expected to be signed in the near future; Russia suspended air links two years ago after terrorists blew up a passenger jet. Both leaders had said in a telephone conversation a week earlier that they are satisfied with the progress in eliminating militants in Syria.  (RFE/RL, 12.11.17, Bloomberg, 12.12.17, TASS, 12.04.17)
    • Russian Transport Minister Maxim Sokolov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying flights between Moscow and Cairo could be restored in February. (AP, 12.11.17)
  • Russia says it has temporarily shut its embassy in Yemen and evacuated all of its diplomats. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said the decision to close the embassy, in the rebel-held capital, Sanaa, was related to the security situation in the country, without elaborating. (AP, 12.12.17)
  • The AP obtained a copy of a 47-page contract between Evro Polis—a Russian company reportedly acting as a front for the private military contractor known as Wagner—and Syria’s state-owned General Petroleum Corp., which said the Russian company would receive 25 percent of the proceeds from oil and gas production at fields its contractors capture and secure from Islamic State militants. While the five-year contract could not be authenticated, Fontanka reported the same deal in June. (AP, 12.12.17)