Russia in Syria Monitor, Feb. 7-14, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The Syrian army continued its offensive on the city of Palmyra with the support of the Russian air task force, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported on Feb. 13. (TASS, 02.13.17)
  • A battalion of Russian military police has been sent to Syria from the Republic of Ingushetia, a Russian region in the North Caucasus. (Reuters, 02.13.17)
  • Russia intervened to halt a clash between Syrian government forces and Turkey-backed Syrian rebels in northern Syria, sources on both sides said on Feb. 10, the first confrontation between them as both sides fight Islamic State in the area. (Reuters, 02.10.17)
  • Turkey and Russia have pledged to boost cooperation in Syria after the deaths of three Turkish soldiers by Russian friendly fire. A Russian warplane struck Turkish positions near the town of al-Bab in northern Syria the morning of Feb. 9, killing three men and injuring 11 more. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin called Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan shortly after the event to apologize for the “tragic accident” and to express his condolences. The strike was launched based on coordinates provided by the Turkish military to Russia, Peskov said. However, the Turkish military insisted the troops had been at the building for 10 days and that Russia had been advised of their position on Feb. 8. (The Moscow Times, 02.10.17, Reuters, 02.10.17, BBC, 02.10.17)
  • The Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier’s deployment to the Mediterranean Sea off the shores of Syria has cost Russia more than $125 million, according to Russia’s RBC news agency. (Russia Matters, 02.08.17)
  • Russia has just sent Syria the largest shipment of missiles between the two countries to date. This is the latest delivery between the two allies that could further change the stakes in the Middle East, U.S. officials told Fox News on Feb. 8. The SS-21 missile, which comes in different types, has a range of roughly 100 miles. (Fox News, 02.08.17)
  • Russia released drone footage Feb. 13 showing new destruction in Syria’s historic town of Palmyra, which was recently recaptured by the Islamic State group, and warned that the militants could be planning the further demolition of antiquities. (AP, 02.13.17)
  • Russian military officials have vociferously denied that their airstrikes have killed civilians in Syria. But a new analysis by the Atlantic Council that draws on satellite images, security camera videos, social media and even footage from the Kremlin-backed Russian television network has challenged Moscow's claims that its airstrikes on behalf of the Syrian military were an exercise in prudent restraint. (New York Times, 02.13.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  •  “I say it’s better to get along with Russia than not, and if Russia helps us in the fight against ISIS—which is a major fight—and the Islamic terrorism all over the world, that’s a good thing,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in an interview with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly. “Will I get along with him? I have no idea.” (The Moscow Times , 02.06.17)
  • An adviser to U.S. national security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Foreign Policy that U.S. President Donald Trump’s top advisers, notably White House strategist Steve Bannon and Trump’s then national security advisor Michael Flynn, see Russia as a potential partner. It’s “not that they’re Russia lovers. They have a view that in the scheme of things, Russia is not the real problem. We need to rethink how we work with Russia, and in the end Russia can actually be—at times—a partner to deal with real problems like China and radical Islam,” the official said. (Foreign Policy, 02.08.17)
  • Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that U.S-Russian cooperation in stepping up the fight against Islamic State militants would have positive repercussions. He also said that U.S. President Donald Trump prioritizing the fight against jihadists led by Islamic State was promising, although it was too early to expect any practical steps. He also said his family did not "own" the country they have run for 46 years, saying he would step aside if the Syrian people choose another leader in an election. In separate comments made on Feb. 10, Assad said the United States is welcome to join the battle against “terrorists” in Syria—as long as it is in cooperation with his government and respects the country’s sovereignty. (Reuters, 02.07.17, Reuters, 02.08.17, AP, 02.10.17)

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:


  • Prominent Syrian dissident Louay Hussein said on Feb. 10 he believed the country's war was effectively over, as foreign governments have cut support to rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Hussein said Russian-backed diplomacy had "launched a new path" towards ending the conflict. "The armed conflict for the state is over," said Hussein. (Reuters, 02.10.17)
  • The U.S.-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in Syria is in jeopardy as Turkey threatens an offensive against the U.S.’s primary partner force on the ground, the Syrian Democratic Forces. (Institute for the Study of War, 02.13.17)
  • Russia experts Eugene Rumer, Richard Sokolsky, Paul Stronski and Andrew S. Weiss wrote: “Improved personal ties between President Donald Trump and President Vladimir Putin may be useful, but they are not enough. The Trump administration needs to temper expectations about breakthroughs or grand bargains with Moscow. Instead, the focus should be on managing a volatile relationship with an increasingly emboldened and unpredictable Russian leadership.” (Carnegie Endowment–Chicago Council on Global Affairs Task Force on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, 02.09.17)

Other important news:

  • The Syrian civil war’s January toll—some 2,000 dead, about a third of them civilians, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group—is the lowest it has been in four years. (AP, 02.09.17)
  • Human Rights Watch accused the Syrian government on Feb. 13 of conducting at least eight chemical attacks using chlorine gas on opposition-controlled residential areas during the final months in the battle for Aleppo. (AP, 02.13.17)
  • German authorities have arrested a Russian national accused of undergoing military training in Syria with the Islamic State group. Federal prosecutors said the 19-year-old man, identified only as Suleym K. in keeping with German privacy rules, was arrested in the Cologne area on Feb. 7. He is accused of membership in a terrorist organization. (AP, 02.08.17)
  • The Moscow Regional Military Court on Feb. 14 found Mohamad Mezhidov, Elmar Ashayev and Aslan Baisultanov guilty of having links with the extremist group Islamic State (IS) in Syria and plotting a terrorist attack in Moscow. The three were sentenced to prison terms ranging from three to 14 years. (RFE/RL, 02.14.17)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may meet in Germany this week to discuss Syria. Lavrov also intends discussing Ukraine and other international issues during this first contact with the new U.S. Secretary of State (Reuters, 02.13.17, TASS, 02.12.17)
  • In their first meeting, the European Union's foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke "at length" about terrorism, Russia, the Iran nuclear deal and Ukraine, the EU said in a statement. (Reuters, 02.09.17)
  • The Trump administration is exploring ways to break Russia's military and diplomatic alliance with Iran in a bid to both end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against Islamic State, said senior administration, European and Arab officials involved in the policy discussions. "If there's a wedge to be driven between Russia and Iran, we're willing to explore that," a senior U.S. administration official said. The Kremlin said on Feb. 6 it did not agree with U.S. President Donald Trump's assessment of Iran as "the number one terrorist state" and wanted to deepen what it described as already good ties with Tehran. However, Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington, was quoted by RIA Novosti on Feb. 10 as saying that Russia does not have substantial differences with the United States over the Iran nuclear deal. (Wall Street Journal, 02.05.17, Reuters, 02.06.17, Reuters, 02.10.17)
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned Feb. 13 after revelations that he had discussed sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. prior to Trump taking office. The White House said in a statement late Feb. 13 that Keith Kellogg, the chief of staff at the National Security Council, would serve as interim national security adviser. Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command, became the front-runner late Feb. 13 to replace Flynn as the White House national security adviser. Flynn insisted until late last week that in a conversation on Dec. 29 with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, he did not discuss sanctions imposed that day by the Obama administration. Flynn conceded that he did, administration officials said, after transcripts of his phone calls show as much. Trump had become increasingly concerned about the continued fallout over Flynn's behavior, according to people familiar with his thinking, and told aides that the media storm around Flynn would damage the president's image on national security issues. (AP, 02.14.17, Wall Street Journal, 02.14.17, New York Times, 02.14.17)