Russia in Syria Monitor, Feb. 14-21, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The Russian Defense Ministry said on Feb. 17 that long-range bombers had fired a series of cruise missiles at Islamic State targets around the Syrian city of Raqqa. (Reuters, 02.17.17)
  • Four Russian military advisors in Syria have been killed by a radio-controlled roadside bomb, the Russian Defense Ministry announced Feb. 20. The military advisors were killed in their car after leaving Tiyas Airport en route to the city of Homs. (The Moscow Times, 02.21.17)
  • An investigation commissioned by Médecins Sans Frontières bolsters the aid group’s claim that Russian and Syrian forces were responsible for the deadly bombing last year of a hospital it was supporting in northern Syria. (The Guardian , 02.17.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the United States will not agree to cooperate with Russia's military in Syria until Moscow recognizes that not all Syrian opposition groups are terrorists, European allies say. (RFE/RL, 02.18.17)
  • At a NATO meeting in Brussels on Feb. 16, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear that the United States isn’t ready to collaborate militarily with Russia against the Islamic State or other threats, a long-standing goal of the Kremlin’s, which new U.S. President Donald Trump says he wants, too. “Russia is going to have to prove itself first,” Mattis said. “The point about Russia is they have to live by international law just like we expect all mature nations on this planet to do,” Mattis said. “We’ll engage politically; we’re not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level,” Mattis said. “But our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward where Russia, living up to its commitments, will return to a partnership of sorts here with NATO.” (AP, 02.16.17, The Hill, 02.16.17, Bloomberg, 02.16.17)

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

  • U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, sat down with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. The meeting resulted in an agreement on enhancing communication to avoid “unintended incidents," the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Feb. 16. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Dunford and Gerasimov “determined the areas of joint work to improve security of military activities, reduce tensions and risk of incidents.” The United States later issued an almost identical statement. It was the first meeting between the nations' top military officers since the U.S. ceased military-to-military relations with Russia after the Crimea takeover three years ago. (AP, 02.16.17, The Hill, 02.16.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • No significant developments.


  • Anatol Lieven, professor of international politics at Georgetown University in Qatar: “In Syria, the United States and Western Europe have bungled the war. Here, too, Mr. Trump’s plans to cooperate with Russia would be a welcome change. Because of Russian, Iranian and now Turkish support, Mr. Assad’s Syrian state is not going to fall. If it is to be transformed in the future, negotiation with Russia and Iran will be necessary.” (New York Times, 02.14.17)
  • Former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union Jack F. Matlock, Jr.: “Terrorism is not an existential threat to the United Sates, but defense against terrorism is a shared interest with Russia. The security of both countries suffers when they are unable to make coordinated efforts to deal with a common threat … There is no fundamental reason for the United States and Russia to consider themselves enemies, and no compelling reason why differences in domestic political systems and habits should make them enemies.” (Russia Matters, 02.15.17)

Other important news:

  • Syrian government officials sat face-to-face with rebels for the second time in three weeks in the Kazakh capital of Astana on Feb. 16, as diplomats stepped up efforts to lay the groundwork for U.N.-brokered peace talks next week. A leader of the Russian delegation to the talks in Astana, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran, said an agreement has been reached to form a permanent contact group of the three nations to “preserve and strengthen” a cease-fire that has technically been in place since Dec. 30. The meeting is intended to pave the way for the revival of broader, U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva next week. (AP, 02.16.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is calling for a new level of cooperation with Western intelligence agencies in order to fight terrorism. “It’s in the general interest to establish a dialogue with the special services of the United States and other member countries of NATO,” Putin said Feb. 16 at a meeting of top Federal Security Service (FSB) officials, news agencies reported. (AP, 02.16.17)
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Feb. 18 said Europe's ties with Russia remained challenging, but it was important to work with Russia in the fight against Islamist terrorism. (Reuters, 02.18.17)
  • Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Seraj of the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli said on Feb. 19 he would like Russia to help overcome deadlock in the country, which is struggling with divisions among militias and an Islamist militant threat. (Reuters, 02.19.17)
  • A military court in Russia has sentenced Azerbaijani citizen Ramil Mirzamov to eight years in prison on charges of recruiting young people for the Islamic State in Syria. (RFE/RL, 02.20.17)