Russia in Syria Monitor, June 13-20, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russia said last week that it is verifying intelligence that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed near Raqqa, Syria, during a bombing raid conducted by Russian forces in May. Al-Baghdadi could be among some 30 Islamic State commanders killed in an attack on a meeting of the group in the early hours of May 28, the Russian Defense Ministry said. A spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition said: “We cannot confirm these reports at this time.” Also last week, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had killed two Islamic State field commanders, named as Abu Omar al-Beljiki and Abu Yassin al-Masri, in air strikes near the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zor. (Bloomberg, 06.16.17, AP, 06.16.17, Reuters, 06.17.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

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

  • A U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 on June 18 after the Soviet-era fighter-bomber dropped munitions near U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces fighters near the northern Syrian town of Tabqah. The Su-22 jet was shot down as an act of “collective self-defense of coalition-partnered forces” according to a U.S.-led coalition statement. (, 06.18.17, Bloomberg, 06.19.17)
    • Russia warned that it may treat U.S.-led coalition aircraft over Syria as targets following the shooting down of the Syrian government warplane. “Russia’s ground and air defenses will track any air targets, including the international coalition’s planes and drones, found to the West of the Euphrates river,” the Russian Defense Ministry said, adding that it is halting the so-called de-confliction coordination with the U.S. aimed at averting air incidents. The ministry said that the coalition had not used the de-conflicting hotline to warn the Russian side. (Bloomberg, 06.19.17, AP, 06.19.17)
    • Speaking at the BRICS foreign ministers summit in Beijing on June 19, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said countries involved in war in Syria should respect the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. (The Moscow Times, 06.19.17)
    • U.S.-led aircraft in Syria may face “destruction” if they threaten the lives of Russian pilots, Viktor Ozerov, the Russian defense committee’s chairman, said June 19, according to the Interfax news service. While Russia hopes it won’t have to take such action, “we won’t allow anyone to do what happened to the Syrian plane to our pilots,” he said. (Bloomberg, 06.19.17)
    • The U.S. military on June 20 said Russia was not carrying out any actions in Syria that "cause us concern." "Public statements aside, we have not seen the Russians do any actions that cause us concern. We continue to operate, making some adjustments for prudent measures," said Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis. (Reuters, 06.20.17)
    • The American-led military coalition in Syria said it has repositioned aircraft after Russia threatened to treat its warplanes as targets in response to the U.S. downing of a Syrian government jet. (Bloomberg, 06.19.17)
    • Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington June 19 that the U.S. and Russia continue to communicate and “we’ll work to restore that de-confliction channel in the next few hours.” The Syrian plane was shot down in self-defense after its pilot failed to heed warnings, Dunford told the National Press Club. (Bloomberg, 06.19.17)
    • White House press secretary Sean Spicer said: “This is something that we’re going to continue to work with—keep the lines of communication open. And ISIS represents a threat to all nations, and so we've got to do what we can to work with partners. And we're going to continue to keep an open mind of communication.” (The Washington Post, 06.19.17)
    • Australia said on June 20 it had suspended air strikes into Syria following the U.S. downing of a Syrian military jet and Russia's subsequent threat against U.S.-led coalition aircraft. "As a precautionary measure, Australian Defense Force (ADF) strike operations into Syria have temporarily ceased," Australia's Department of Defense said in a statement. (Reuters, 06.20.17)
    • British Prime Minister Theresa May called on Russia to continue the use of "de-confliction" measures over the skies of Syria to reduce the risk of misunderstandings in what is a crowded airspace. (Reuters, 06.19.17)
  • The U.S. military has moved mobile artillery-rocket launchers into southern Syria for the first time, as American troops in the area face increasing dangers from Iran-backed forces. Iran's best-known military commander, meanwhile, was photographed praying with allied fighters in Syria, a visit seen by some U.S. officials as a public taunt by Tehran. Worried that the situation may spiral out of control, top U.S. military commanders are pressing Moscow to step in. (Wall Street Journal, 06.15.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Nikolas Gvosdev, professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, wrote: “It is apparent that the early goals of the Trump administration to explore some sort of grand bargain with the Kremlin are now completely off the table. It may be that the divergence between Russian and American values and interests is too great to be bridged by any set of compromises. If that is the case, then the United States needs to think soberly about its next steps—and not stumble into a clash with Russia that it neither foresees nor desires over the skies of Syria.” (The National Interest, 06.20.17)


  • Eugene Rumer, director of Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, wrote: “The key milestone in Russia’s posture beyond its immediate neighborhood was its 2015 direct intervention in Syria. … the intervention has been a major success for the Kremlin  It has demonstrated the Russian military’s ability to project power beyond the country’s periphery and sustain a complicated operation over the long term. It has been decisive in changing the fortunes of Syria’s civil war and preventing the Assad government from collapsing.  It has reinserted Russia as a major military presence in the Middle East, where previously the United States had been the dominant military actor.  And it has sent a loud and clear message to the Middle East that Russia—unlike the United States—stands by its clients.”  (Carnegie Endowment, 06.14.17)
  • Nathan Hodge and Julian E. Barnes, the Wall Street Journal’s Moscow bureau chief and a reporter for the paper, wrote: “In conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, chief of Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov has pioneered new approaches to hybrid war by combining traditional military weaponry with powerful nonlethal tools such as cyberwarfare, fake news and elaborate deception.” (Wall Street Journal, 06.16.17)

Other important news:

  • The U.N. children’s agency warned June 16 that a critical funding shortfall is threatening aid to 9 million Syrian children, both in their country and among the refugees in neighboring states. (AP, 06.16.17)
  • An American F-15E fighter jet shot down an Iranian-made drone over southeast Syria on June 20, American officials said. (New York Times, 06.20.17)
  • Intensified airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have caused a "staggering" loss of civilian life around the Islamic State's Syrian stronghold of Raqqa, a United Nations investigator said June 14. (The Washington Post, 06.14.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin told a call-in show on June 15 that the Russian military has gained “priceless” experience in Syria. The experience allowed engineers to polish weapons designs and has given a “new quality” to the Russian military, he said. (AP, 06.15.17)
  • Moscow hopes the sides involved in Syria peace talks will meet in Kazakhstan's capital Astana on July 4-5, Russia's deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on June 17. (Reuters, 06.17.17)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson  has crafted a three-point framework for future U.S.-Russia relations that takes a narrow view of what can be achieved between the former Cold War adversaries, but seeks a constructive working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin on a limited set of issues. The first pillar of the framework, a U.S. official said, is to convey to Moscow that aggressive actions against the United States are a losing proposition that will be counterproductive for both sides. The second pillar is to engage Russia on issues that are of strategic interest to the United States, including the long-running civil war in Syria, North Korea's rapidly developing nuclear weapons program and cybersecurity and cyberespionage, a U.S. official said. The third pillar of Tillerson’s framework emphasizes the importance of "strategic stability" with Russia.  A key difference from the Obama-era strategy is that the Tillerson framework does not expressly commit to building up the "resilience" of Russian neighbors. (BuzzFeed, 06.19.17)
    • Russia is not considering any counter-demands regarding the normalization of U.S.-Russia relations in response to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s plan, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. (TASS, 06.20.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has voiced hope for normalizing Russia-U.S. ties. Speaking in a live call-in show June 15, Putin said Moscow and Washington could cooperate in efforts to prevent the proliferation of mass destruction weapons, including the North Korean nuclear and missile problem. He said the two countries could also cooperate in dealing with global poverty and efforts to prevent climate change. Putin also noted that Moscow hopes the U.S. could play a “constructive role” in helping settle the Ukrainian crisis. (AP, 06.15.17)
  • Climate change, trade and terrorism were high on the agenda June 19 at a Beijing meeting of foreign affairs officials from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, known collectively as the BRICS nations. Leaders of the five nations are to meet in the southeastern Chinese city of Xiamen in September. (AP, 06.19.17)