Russia in Syria Monitor, July 11-18, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • A Syrian Kurdish militia says it will hand over the bodies of nine enemy fighters to Turkey following clashes with Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the handover was arranged by Russia. The Russian military maintains a handful of posts in Kurdish territory in northern Syria. (AP, 07.18.17)
  • Russia’s Rosoboronexport state arms seller will provide foreign delegations taking part in the MAKS airshow, which runs from July 18 to July 23, with data on the performance of Russian combat aircraft in the counterterrorist operation in Syria, the company’s press office said. (TASS, 07.18.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump has said he will not roll back sanctions on Russia unless Moscow agrees to negotiated peace deals between warring parties in Ukraine and Syria. "I would never take the sanctions off until something is worked out to our satisfaction and everybody's satisfaction in Syria and Ukraine," Trump told reporters on July 12 aboard Air Force One. "I've made great deals. That's what I do. Why would I take sanctions off without getting anything?" he asked, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin did not raise the issue of sanctions in their recent meeting in Germany. (RFE/RL, 07.14.17)
  • Mortar shells hit the Syrian capital of Damascus, with one of the projectiles hitting the Russian Embassy and one falling nearby, causing some material damage, the state-run SANA news agency said on July 16. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for the shelling. Rebels fighting the government of Moscow-backed President Bashar al-Assad have previously struck the Russian Embassy. (RFE/RL, 07.17.17)

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Sam Heller, a Beirut-based writer/analyst and a fellow at The Century Foundation writes: In partnering with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), “the United States has won its way into a strategic dead end. It needs to look for an exit. In particular, it should seriously investigate possible coordination with Russia. Kurdish officials told me that Russia is already attempting to lean on the YPG to allow more of the regime back into a northwestern Kurdish enclave outside the United States’ protective umbrella. In the northeast, Russia may be able to help bring the regime and the YPG to a mutually dissatisfying but useful compromise, for which Russia could serve as guarantor.” (Foreign Affairs, 07.18.17)
  • Columnist Josh Rogin writes: “If humanitarian assistance is cut off, the largely Sunni population in northern Iraq could feel abandoned and turn back to the extremists… That, of course, is what happened about a decade ago… The Trump administration doesn't seem to have learned that lesson. For example, the United States doesn't have a well-developed plan to help rebuild the cities in Iraq and Syria damaged during the fight… In Syria, the current strategy is to partner with Russia to establish deconfliction zones and temporary cease-fires that Trump often praises. But partnering with Russia in Syria without a better plan to help liberated areas prosper could lead to disaster.” (The Washington Post, 07.17.17)


  • Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes: “Over the past two months, even as American-trained forces were driving Islamic State insurgents out of the major Iraqi city of Mosul, the war next door in Syria was taking a dangerous but little-remarked turn—one far more favorable for Russia’s ambitions to regain a position of broad influence in the Middle East.” (New York Times, 07.17.17)
  • A new report from the Institute for the Study of War says: “Putin is establishing a long-term military presence in the Mediterranean Sea in part to contest the United States’ ability to operate freely and hold NATO’s southern flank at risk. Russia’s military has deployed approximately 15 naval vessels as part of a permanent Mediterranean Task Force (MTF) as of July 5, 2017. Russia secured long-term naval basing for the MTF in Tartous, Syria in January 2017 after signing a bilateral agreement with the Bashar al Assad regime that extends the previous lease on the Russian Naval Facility for the next 49 years. … Russia’s growing naval capabilities, partnerships, and future basing expansion could threaten major global maritime trade chokepoints, including the Suez Canal, the Strait of Hormuz, and the Bab al Mandab Strait, in the long term.” (Institute for the Study of War, 07.13.17)
  • Journalists Assad Hanna and Jacob Wirtschafter report, respectively, from Istanbul and Cairo: “Syrian President Bashar Assad is coming under increasing pressure from pro-Russian factions in his ruling circle to dump pro-Iranian Hezbollah, as a U.S.-Russia accord to establish a de-escalation zone in southern Syria gets underway this week. It’s a different kind of proxy war playing out in Syria: Instead of Sunni versus Shiite, or the U.S. versus Russia, it’s Russia versus Iran. ‘There is a pro-Moscow faction that wants Syria to be secular and includes officers who trained in Russia,’ said Ayman Abdel Nour, publisher of the largest anti-Assad Syrian news portal and leader of the country’s exiled Christian community based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. ‘Those who support Iran are people bought by the Iranians or [who] reached their positions of power with Iranian help.’” (The Washington Times, 07.17.17)
  • Three professors from Marine- and Navy-affiliated universities write: “The strategic logic of cyber has now shifted from restraint to one of disruption and constant harassment designed to signal capability and the threat of escalation. Russian hackers targeted U.S. institutions, most likely hoping to gain leverage before entering complex negotiations around sanctions, Ukraine and Syria.” (The Washington Post, 07.13.17)
  • Zev Chafets, a journalist, author of 14 books and formerly a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin argues that Benjamin Netanyahu could be the perfect broker for a U.S.-Russian deal in Syria and/or the Greater Middle East: “Of course, the prime minister is not a disinterested party. He has his own agenda. … This agenda is not identical to American or Russian policy, but does not conflict with the basic interests of the two powers.” (Bloomberg, 07.17.17)

Other important news:

  • President Donald Trump signaled on July 13 that he is working with Russia to establish a second regional ceasefire in Syria, nearly a week after the U.S., Russia and Jordan brokered a first ceasefire in the country’s southwest. Trump said the next ceasefire agreement would cover a "very rough part of Syria," but offered no additional details on the potential agreement. "And if we get that and a few more, all of the sudden you are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria. And that would be a wonderful thing," Trump added. The Kremlin said on July 18 that it is not going to disclose details of the discussions for the time being. (CNN, 07.13.17, Sputnik, 07.18.17)
    • Russia has said it is willing to deploy monitors to prevent any violations of the ceasefire by Syrian government forces, a senior U.S. official said on July 13, adding that the United States was "very encouraged" by the progress since the ceasefire took effect. (Reuters, 07.13.17)
    • Trump said July 12 that the cease-fire deal brokered with the Russians in Syria is an example of the success he has achieved with Putin so far: "One thing we did is we had a cease-fire in a major part of Syria where there was tremendous bedlam and tremendous killing… The cease-fire has held for four days… That's because President Putin and President Trump made the deal." (RFE/RL , 07.12.17)
  • U.N.-led Syria talks have a chance of making progress because demands for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad have receded, Russia's ambassador in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, told reporters on July 15, a day after the conclusion of a seventh round of talks. The U.N.’s envoy to Syria said there were no major breakthroughs but that “incremental progress” was made. An eighth round of talks is planned for early September and the envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said he has asked Assad’s envoys “to be ready to address the political process’’ in the next session. (Reuters, 07.15.17, VOA, 07.15.17)
  • Russia's mostly Muslim republic of Chechnya is becoming a major player in rebuilding war-ravaged Syria. And ordinary Chechens are likely to foot the bill, with many of them being forced to make contributions or face the possibility of exile or death, human rights activists say. A murky charitable foundation run by the family of Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is restoring Aleppo's landmark mosque. The gesture is aimed at helping the Kremlin cement its footprint in Syria and to solidify Kadyrov's standing in the Muslim world. (AP, 07.18.17)
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on July 14 that the United States cannot prove that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. Earlier in the week, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had "confirmed information" that Baghdadi was killed. And Russia's army said last month that it was seeking to verify that it had killed the IS chief in a May air strike in Syria. But U.S. and Iraqi officials have been skeptical. "If we knew, we would tell you. Right now, I can't confirm or deny it," Mattis said. "Our approach is we assume that he's alive until it is proven otherwise, and right now I can't prove it otherwise." (RFE/RL, 07.15.17)
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on July 16 that Israel opposes the cease-fire agreement in southern Syria that the United States and Russia reached because it perpetuates the Iranian presence in the country. A senior Israeli official who asked not to be named due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter said Israel is aware of Iranian intensions to substantially expand its presence in Syria, in part by dispatching extensive military forces, including the establishment of an airbase for Iranian aircraft and a naval base for Iran's navy. Both the U.S. and Russia said the following day that they understand Israel’s concerns about a future Iranian presence in Syria, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying that Russia and the United States would do all they could to address Israeli concerns about the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria, the RIA news agency reported. (Haaretz, 07.16.17, Jerusalem Post, 07.18.17)
  • On July 12 and July 13, deputy assistant to U.S. President Donald Trump Sebastian Gorka suggested that two confiscated Russian diplomatic compounds in the U.S. could be restored "if we can see acts of good faith" from Russia on the conflict in Syria. Frants Klintsevich, head of the Russian Federation Council's Defense and Security Committee, told TASS that it was illogical to link the compound issue to Syria. "If we adopted such an approach, then there would be no U.S. diplomatic property left in Russia," Klintsevich said. (RFE/RL, 07.14.17, 07.14.17)