Russia in Syria Monitor, Feb. 28-March 7, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • A Russian general in charge of combat training at the headquarters of Russia’s Western Military District was seriously injured during the battle for Palmyra in Syria. Russian media report that Maj. Gen. Pyotr Milyukhin lost both legs and an eye after a mine explosion about one week ago and was taken to Moscow for treatment. (RBTH, 03.07.17)
  • Artem Gorbunov, a 24-year-old Russian soldier killed on March 2 during the storming of Palmyra, was buried March 6 in the city of Nizhny Novgorod, according to the Kommersant newspaper. To date, Moscow has officially acknowledged the deaths of 27 Russian soldiers in Syria. (The Moscow Times, 03.06.17)
  • Russian media allege a link between 23-year-old Ivan Slyshkin, who was killed in Syria in February, and the so-called Wagner (or Vagner) group, a private Russian military company believed to train and deploy fighters for various armed conflicts. The RBC news agency cited an anonymous source claiming that Slyshkin was training an elite unit of the Syrian armed forces called the ISIS Hunters. According to unconfirmed information from the Free News portal, the ISIS Hunters are fully funded and trained by Russian special forces. (RBTH, 03.07.17)
  • Syrian army units were clearing land mines and explosives left behind by Islamic State militants in the historic town of Palmyra last week after government troops and allied militiamen recaptured it from the extremists, a Syrian security official said. The Kremlin's spokesman said Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed by his defense minister that Syrian troops had gained control of Palmyra, with support from Russian warplanes. (AP, 03.02.17, AP, 03.03.17)
  • Russia will start modernizing its sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, before July. The ageing warship will undergo a massive refit that will modernize her problematic and unreliable propulsion system along with other upgrades. (National Interest, 03.04.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

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

  • The U.S. commander of coalition forces in Iraq and Syria said last week that a Russian air strike in northern Syria accidently struck U.S.-backed Syrian Arab forces who are part of the fight against Islamic State militants. Russia’s Defense Ministry said "neither Syrian nor Russian aviation delivered strikes against areas designated by the U.S. side" as locations of pro-U.S. opposition forces. (RFE/RL, 03.01.17)
  • The U.S. military’s top officer held a surprise meeting in Antalya with his Russian and Turkish counterparts on March 7, seeking to avoid conflict between forces allied with the three countries as they converge on the Syrian battlefield. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, and Turkey’s Gen. Hulusi Akar amid rising tensions in northern Syria, where Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters, U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces and Russian-allied Syrian troops are fighting their way toward the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa. Turkey views the Kurdish group that dominates the Syria Democratic Forces as terrorists. The U.S. has a few hundred special operations forces embedded with the SDF and wants the alliance to lead the march on Raqqa. The Pentagon said March 6 that U.S. forces have also taken up positions on the outskirts of Manbij to try to keep a lid on tensions. Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said a small number of U.S. troops have taken up positions just west of this northern city with the declared mission of deterring violence between Turkish, Russian and other forces that have converged there. (AP, 03.06.17, AP, 03.07.17, Wall Street Journal, 03.07.17)
    • Turkey, the United States and Russia must coordinate fully to clear Syria of terrorist groups and the three countries' chiefs of staff were working to prevent clashes between the different parties in the country, Turkey's prime minister has said. (Reuters, 03.07.17)
  • Syrian government forces have taken over positions from a U.S.-backed militia in the northern city of Manbij on part of a frontline with Turkish-backed rebel forces, in line with a deal brokered by Russia, the militia's spokesman said on March 6. The U.S.-allied militia said on March 2 it would hand back to Syrian government control villages on a front line where it has been fighting Turkish-backed rebels. That followed an agreement with Russia to pre-empt an attempt by Turkish-led forces to take the city. (Reuters, 03.06.17)
  • The Russian Defense Ministry said last week that the nation’s top military officer has spoken to his NATO counterpart for the first time in several years. The ministry said Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian armed forces, had a phone call March 3 with Czech Army Gen. Petr Pavel, the chairman of NATO’s Military Committee. The ministry said Gerasimov and Pavel discussed prevention of incidents, prospects for restoring military cooperation and acute security issues. Also last week British Vice Chief of the Defense Staff Gen. Gordon Messenger met Gen. Alexander Zhuravlev, the deputy chief of Russia's General Staff, and discussed how best to prevent accidents and other incidents involving the two countries' militaries. (AP, 03.03.17, Reuters, 02.28.17)
  • “The threat from Russia is that through opportunism and mistakes and a lack of clarity regarding our deterrence, we find ourselves sliding into an unwanted conflict which has existential implications,” said Sir Adrian Bradshaw, a British general and NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander. (Financial Times, 03.02.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Britain is not Russia’s enemy and should stop accusing Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes in Syria, a committee of Britain’s parliament members have said. Members of parliament from the foreign affairs committee said greater engagement was needed and criticized British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s Foreign Office for appearing “not to know what it wants.” (Financial Times, 03.01.17)
  • Ex-U.S. ambassador to Russia Jack Matlock has written: “Finding a way to improve relations with Russia is in the vital interest of the United States. Nuclear weapons constitute an existential threat to our nation, and indeed to humanity. We are on the brink of another nuclear arms race which would be not only dangerous in itself, but would make cooperation with Russia on many other important issues virtually impossible. Those who are trying to find a way to improve relations with Russia should be praised, not scapegoated.” (, March 2017)


  • No significant developments.

Other important news:

  • Russia is urging U.S. President Donald Trump to help it resolve conflicts in Syria and Libya, where the Kremlin is finding it tough going after seizing the initiative in a bid to act as a leading power in the region. “We would like to see an active U.S. role” in Syria, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said in an interview in Geneva. “The United States is one of the most important players here.” Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin also urged Trump to make good on his pledge to mount a joint fight against the Islamic State in Syria. “Enough talk about it,” Fomin said. (Bloomberg, 03.03.17, Bloomberg, 03.01.17)
  • There have been no substantial contacts between Russia and the new U.S. administration on the Syrian issue, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on March 3. "There have [sic] been no real progress in cooperation in combating terrorism, either, which causes regret," Peskov said, noting that this "is probably so because the work [is] only beginning." Russia is ready to continue fighting the Islamic State even without the U.S., Peskov said. (TASS, 03.04.17, TASS, 03.03.17)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence met with their U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley last week just before the United States decided to confront Russia and the Syrian regime at the U.N. Security Council about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. The move seems to run counter to the White House’s drive to warm relations with Moscow, but Trump decided, with Pence’s support, that it was important and necessary, officials said. (The Washington Post, 03.05.17)
  • U.S. lawmakers on March 2 unveiled a defense bill that provides $980 million to train and equip foreign forces to combat the Islamic State extremist group. (VOA, 03.02.17)
  • Syria peace talks in Geneva showed a first flicker of movement last week, as the opposition said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's negotiators had been pushed by his Russian allies to address for the first time opposition demands for a political transition. Six days of U.N.-led talks, the first in nearly 10 months, have focused almost entirely on how to arrange more substantive talks in later rounds. The next round of Syrian peace talks involving the armed opposition and Russia, Iran and Turkey are scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan on March 14, Russian news agencies reported on March 1, citing a source close to the talks. (Reuters, 03.01.17, Reuters, 03.01.17)
  • Russia is the Islamic State’s fifth largest source for suicide attackers, according to data from the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (the data did not include Iraq or Syria). Tajikistan ranked No. 1 on the list, while China and Uzbekistan were 9th and 10th, respectively. (RFE/RL, 03.07.17)
  •  A district of the Iraqi city of Mosul is being defended by a so-called Tajik battalion, which is part of the Islamic State terrorist organization’s forces and comprises 300 ethnic Tajiks, according to an Iraqi army officer interviewed by (Russia Matters, 03.07.17)
  • A 33-year-old Russian woman has been arrested in connection with the murder of Andrei Karlov, Moscow's ambassador to Turkey, Turkish media have reported. The woman, known only as Yekaterina, is accused of contacting Karlov's killer, former police cadet Mevlut Altyntash, before the assassination, an unnamed law enforcement source told the Hurriyet newspaper. (The Moscow Times, 03.06.16)