Russia in Syria Monitor, Jan. 17-24, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The Pentagon on Jan. 23 denied that it had coordinated air strikes with Russia in Syria, after Russia's defense ministry said the United States had provided coordinates for Islamic State militants. The Russian defense ministry said the Russian military had received coordinates of Islamic State targets near the Syrian town of al-Bab from the "American side" of the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group on Jan. 22. "As a result of this joint operation, a number of ammunition depots … as well as an area where militants had gathered with equipment, were destroyed,” the Russian defense ministry was quoted as saying by TASS news agency. "The Department of Defense is not coordinating air strikes with the Russian military in Syria," Eric Pahon, a Pentagon spokesman, said. Russian's military also said it carried out joint strikes on Islamic State near al-Bab in the Aleppo province on Jan. 21 with the Turkish air force, in which three Russian warplanes and four Turkish aircraft knocked out 22 targets. (Reuters, 01.23.17, Wall Street Journal, 01.23.17)
  • Six Tupolev-22M3 bombers have dealt strikes against arms and ammunition depots of the Islamic State in Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Jan. 24. (TASS, 01.24.17)
  • Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of Russia's North Caucasus region of Chechnya, has confirmed that men from Chechnya are serving in Syria in a Russian military police battalion. (RFE/RL, 01.24.17)
  • Russia may simultaneously station as many as 11 warships at the Tartus naval maintenance base in Syria, according to the relevant Russian-Syrian agreement posted on the official legal information web portal on Jan. 20. The Russian-Syrian agreement will stay in effect for 49 years and will be automatically prolonged for subsequent 25-year periods, unless either party notifies the other in writing through diplomatic channels no less than one year before the expiry of a regular period about its intention to terminate it, the document says. The deal more than doubles the space for warships in Russia's only Mediterranean port and secures rights to an air base that may already be adding a second runway. (TASS, 01.20.17, New York Times, 01.20.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Airwars, a London-based monitoring group, estimates that Russian airstrikes cause civilian deaths in Syria at a rate eight times that of United States-led coalition missions. (New York Times, 01.23.17)

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry wrote: “I also remain convinced that the formula we pursued to end the agonizing conflict in Syria was, and remains, the only one with a realistic chance to end the war—using diplomacy to align key countries behind establishing a nationwide cease-fire, providing humanitarian access, marginalizing terrorists and promoting Syrian-led talks on creating a constitution and democratic government.” (New York Times, 01.19.17)


  • Nikolas Gvosdev, a scholar of U.S.-Russia relations, wrote: “A year ago, I was hearing confident predictions about how Western sanctions, low energy prices and military quagmires (aided by assistance to Syrian rebels and the Ukrainian military) would force the Russian government to change course, especially in Ukraine and Syria. Today, [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position than at any time since the start of the war in 2011 (and will still be in office after Barack Obama leaves), the Russians show no signs of leaving Crimea or abandoning the Donbas, and the Saudis negotiated an end to the oil price war while the European and Japanese sanctions regimes on Russia appear to be on their last legs. It is true that a plan never survives first contact with the enemy, but this also suggests that some of the analytical assumptions about Russia were flawed.” (The National Interest, 01.17.17)
  • The U.S. is now “marginal to the war” in Syria and this will “not prevent the Turks and the Russians coming to and implementing an agreement,” said Faysal Itani, an analyst with the Atlantic Council in Washington. (Bloomberg, 01.23.17)
  • Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, wrote: “President Vladimir V. Putin's tactics have led to jihadist violence at home and the export of thousands of terrorists to Syria, where they make up one of the largest cohorts of foreign extremists, alongside Tunisians and Saudis. Russian citizens have also been a major presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and around the world.” (New York Times, 01.23.17)

Other important news:

  • Russian-led talks on Syria ended with agreement Jan. 24 to bolster a cease-fire even as apparent disputes with Iran, a staunch supporter of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, threaten to hold up efforts to end the six-year civil war. Russia, Turkey and Iran will set up “a trilateral mechanism to observe and ensure full compliance with the cease-fire, prevent any provocations and determine all modalities” of the truce established last month, the countries said in a joint statement at the end of two days of negotiations in the Kazakh capital, Astana. While the U.S. was left out of the latest peace effort, the American ambassador to Kazakhstan attended the talks as an observer. Russia had invited aides to new U.S. President Donald Trump. Despite the supposed cease-fire agreement, new clashes were reported in the village of Wadi Barada, a besieged rebel-held area where most of the drinking water for Damascus comes from. (Bloomberg, 01.24.17, New York Times, 01.24.17)
  • Russia has given Syrian rebels a draft version of a new constitution for Syria drawn up by Moscow to speed up political negotiations to end the conflict, Russia's envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Jan. 24. The rebels, however, told AFP they had refused to discuss the draft constitution with Moscow. (AFP, 01.24.17)
  • A foreign policy statement posted on the White House website on Jan. 20, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump was sworn in, says that defeating Islamic State "and other radical Islamic terror groups" will be the highest priority of an "America first" foreign policy centered on "peace through strength." The statement said that the United States will "pursue aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary" to achieve that goal. The White House also said Jan. 23 that Trump is open to cooperating with Russia on combating the Islamic State extremist group, if Russia shares U.S. interests in doing so, but didn't outline plans or a process for establishing joint military ventures or strikes. (RFE/RL, 01.20.17, Wall Street Journal, 01.23.17)
  • Jordan's King Abdullah will visit Moscow on Jan. 25 and discuss steps to combat terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said on Jan. 24. (Reuters, 01.24.17)
  • The Syrian army and its allies captured the villages of Sora, Moran, Surja al-Saghira and Surja al-Kabira, located about 16km (10 miles) southwest of the town of al-Bab and roughly the same distance east of Aleppo. Syrian rebels supported by Turkish jets, armor and special forces are attempting to capture al-Bab from Islamic State after reaching its northern outskirts a month ago. In the meantime, militants from the Islamic State have destroyed part of the Roman amphitheater in Palmyra. The amphitheater was the venue of a concert by the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theater and a performance by Russian cellist Sergei Roldugin after Russian-backed government forces retook the ancient city from ISIS in March 2016. (The Moscow Times, 01.20.17, Reuters, 01.22.17)