Russia in Syria Monitor, July 18-25, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russia's Defense Ministry said July 22 that its officials had signed a deal with moderate Syrian rebels at peace talks in Cairo on how a safe zone near Damascus will function. The agreements for the East Ghouta de-escalation zone in Syria were signed after talks between the Russian military and Syrian opposition in Cairo. Russia’s Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi told a news conference July 24 that Russia set up two checkpoints and four monitoring posts in that zone. Russia also plans to establish a new "de-escalation zone" in the Syrian province of Idlib. (AP, 07.24.17, RFE/RL, 07.22.17, Reuters, 07.24.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Cooperation with Russia is becoming a central part of the Trump administration's counter-Islamic State strategy in Syria, with U.S. military planners counting on Moscow to try to prevent Syrian government forces and their allies on the ground from interfering in coalition-backed operations against the militants. According to lines being drawn on a map of the conflict, the U.S. and its proxies would concede Assad's control of most of central and southern Syria to just west of the Euphrates River, with a few agreed deviations, said U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified discussions. In exchange, once Raqqa, the Islamic State's de facto capital, is retaken, U.S.-backed forces would move downriver to control the militant-populated villages alongside it, to the Iraqi border. An east-west "de-confliction" line is being observed south of Raqqa, where U.S. warplanes and advisers are supporting an offensive by American-trained and equipped local proxy forces. (The Washington Post, 07.25.17)
  • Russia and Iran both threaten U.S. interests as they pursue long-term roles in Syria, CIA Director Mike Pompeo said. (Bloomberg, 07.21.17)

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes: “Now Trump faces the difficult task of preventing Mr. Putin from weaning Turkey away from its allies in NATO, as Russia expands its influence in the Middle East. That will not be achieved by escalating the conflict in Syria and backing Saudi Arabia against Qatar. Rather, the United States must quickly end the intra-Sunni spat by backing away from taking sides and returning to its traditional role of an impartial broker among its allies.” (New York Times, 07.17.17)


  • The Institute for Study of War writes: “The Russian military is reshaping its air campaign in Syria in order to compel the U.S. into partnering with Russia, which cannot destroy jihadists, roll back Iran or set conditions for a desirable settlement to the war.” (Institute for Study of War, 07.22.17)

Other important news:

  • President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after a meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of the July 7 meeting in Germany with Putin. The decision will not affect a separate Pentagon-led effort to work with U.S.-backed Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State. (The Washington Post, 07.19.17)
    • President Trump lashed out at The Washington Post in a string of tweets July 24, saying the newspaper had “fabricated the facts” about his decision to end a covert program aiding Syrian rebels fighting the Assad government. “The Amazon Washington Post fabricated the facts on my ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad,” Trump wrote in one tweet. (AP, 07.25.17)
    • A top U.S. general confirmed on July 21 that the CIA is shutting down its program to equip and train rebels fighting against Assad's army, but denied it is doing so to please Russia. It was a "tough, tough decision" but "absolutely not a sop to the Russians," Gen. Tony Thomas, head of U.S. special operations in Syria, said at a national security forum in Aspen, Colo. (RFE/RL, 07.22.17)
  • The U.S. won't insist on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's immediate ouster as it seeks a political settlement of the country's six-year civil war, U.S. President Donald Trump's counterterrorism adviser said July 20, marking a significant change from Trump's predecessor Barack Obama, who insisted Assad must go as part of any political settlement in Syria. (RFE/RL, 07.21.17)
  • Syrian rebels and activists are warning that an al-Qaida-linked jihadi group is on the verge of snuffing out what remains of the country’s uprising in northwestern Syria, after the extremists seized control of the opposition-held regional capital, Idlib, last weekend. (AP, 07.25.17)
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says he believes that the leader of the extremist Islamic State group, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is still alive. (RFE/RL, 07.21.17)
  • Three Iraqi intelligence and investigative officials have told The Associated Press that 26 foreigners have been arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The sources say some of those arrested were from Chechnya, and the women were from Russia, Iran, Syria, France, Belgium and Germany. They say four German women have been arrested so far—including one each of Moroccan, Algerian, Chechen and German descent. (AP, 07.22.17)
  • Furat Media, the Russian-language branch of Islamic State's propaganda apparatus, has released three high-quality videos since the start of July. The man who runs IS's Russian-language media is a 34-year-old ethnic Karachai from Russia, Islam Atabiev, aka Abu Jihad, who was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department in October 2015. (VOA, 07.20.17)
  • Two suspects in an investigation into a deadly St. Petersburg metro attack say they were held and tortured in a “secret prison” run by Russia’s Federal Security Service, the Republic news outlet reports. (The Moscow Times, 07.24.17)
  • Turkey has made progress in plans to procure an S-400 missile defense system from Russia and documents have been signed, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said July 25. (Reuters, 07.25.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin met on July 25 with Iraqi vice president and former prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, in the town of Strelna near St. Petersburg. Putin said during the talks that Moscow and Baghdad "have a great deal yet to do" to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation. Maliki thanked Russia for assisting Iraq in the fight against terrorism and Moscow's efforts "to accelerate shipments of the arms Iraq and Russia agreed on earlier." The two also discussed supplies of Russian T-90 battle tanks, according to a Russian military official present at the meeting. (RFE/RL, 07.25.17, Reuters, 07.25.17)