Russia in Syria Monitor, June 28 - July 11, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters on July 11 that it had "confirmed information" that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed. Russia's Defense Ministry said in June that it might have killed Baghdadi when one of its air strikes hit a gathering of IS commanders on the outskirts of Raqqa. But Washington said it could not corroborate the death and Western and Iraqi officials have been skeptical. Reuters could not independently verify Baghdadi's death. (Reuters, 07.11.17)
  • Russian strategic bombers fired advanced cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria on July 5 from a distance of 1,000 kilometers in a show of force Moscow said demolished three ammunition depots and a command post. The Russian Defense Ministry said the attack was carried out by Tupolev-95MS strategic bombers that had taken off from a base on Russian soil and refueled mid-air before firing at targets on the border between the Hama and Homs provinces. (Reuters, 07.05.17)
  • The Kremlin is bringing a new weapon to the fight against the Islamic State militant group in Syria, using market-based incentives tied to oil and mining rights to reward private security contractors who secure territory from the militants, Russian news outlets have reported. So far, only two Russian companies are known to have received contracts under the new policy, according to the reports: Evro Polis, which is set to receive profits from oil and gas wells it seizes from the Islamic State using contract soldiers, and Stroytransgas, which signed a phosphate mining deal for a site that was under militant control at the time. (New York Times, 07.05.17)
  • A Defense Intelligence Agency report released June 28 portrays Russia’s intervention in Syria since 2015 as largely successful at "changing the entire dynamic of the conflict, bolstering [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's] regime and ensuring that no resolution to the conflict is possible without Moscow's agreement." As Russia continues to modernize and encounter military success, "within the next decade, an even more confident and capable Russia could emerge," the agency's director said in the report's preface. (RFE/RL, 06.29.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The first attempt by the Trump administration to cooperate with Russia on an international crisis got underway on July 9, with the implementation of a cease-fire in southwestern Syria that appeared to be widely holding 24 hours later. The agreement was the first publicized achievement of last week’s meeting between presidents Trump and Putin. Both countries’ officials are calling it a “de-escalation,” reflecting the modest expectations for success after several previous failed attempts. The cease-fire, negotiated by the United States, Russia and Jordan, applies to a strategic area near Syria’s border with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights—an area viewed with increased concern by both Israel and Jordan over advances made by Iranian-backed militias fighting alongside the Syrian government, including Hezbollah. The agreement followed weeks of secretive talks in Amman and signals U.S. acquiescence to a broader Russian plan to end the violence by creating a series of de-escalation zones around the country. Representatives of Syria’s warring parties gathered in Geneva on July 10 for their seventh round of peace talks. (The Washington Post, 07.09.17, New York Times, 07.10.17, AP, 07.09.17)
    • Trump has called for expanded cooperation with Russia over Syria as the cease-fire came into effect, tweeting: “We negotiated a ceasefire in parts of Syria which will save lives. Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!” (AP, 07.09.17)
  • The Trump administration renewed an offer to cooperate with Russia in the Syrian conflict, including on military matters, earlier this month. In a statement July 5, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. is open to establishing no-fly zones in Syria in coordination with Russia as well as jointly setting up a truce-monitoring and humanitarian-aid-delivery mechanism. He also said the deal was spurred by rapid progress made in the effort to defeat Islamic State, or ISIS, which is making the need to find a lasting political settlement for Syria more urgent. “The United States and Russia certainly have unresolved differences … but we have the potential to appropriately coordinate in Syria in order to produce stability and serve our mutual security interests,” he said. The offer went beyond the Obama administration’s previous proposal, suggesting that cooperation in establishing no-fly zones was possible. Tillerson noted that the U.S. and Russia are having success in avoiding accidents between American and Russian planes flying over an extremely complex conflict zone. Minor incidents, he said, had been dealt with “quickly and peacefully.” (Financial Times, 07.07.17, AP, 07.06.17, The Washington Post, 07.05.17)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres during a private State Department meeting last week that the fate of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad now lies in the hands of Russia, and that the Trump administration’s priority is limited to defeating the Islamic State, according to three diplomatic sources familiar with the exchange. (Foreign Policy, 07.03.17)
    • U.S. officials, including Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy for the coalition to fight the Islamic State, have been quietly meeting with Russian counterparts for weeks to lay the groundwork for cooperation. (Bloomberg, 07.06.17)

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

  • Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis claimed on June 28 that the Syrian government backed down after the White House said President Assad’s forces were preparing for another possible chemical attack. “They didn’t do it,” Mattis said. (The Washington Post, 06.28.17)
    • Syria’s government and its ally Russia accused Washington on June 29 of concocting a “provocation” in Syria, which would then be blamed on Assad’s government as alleged use of chemical weapons to justify an attack. (AP, 06.29.17)
    • Russia will respond "in proportion" if the United States takes military action to prevent what it says could be a chemical attack by Syrian government forces, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said June 28. (Reuters, 06.28.17)
    • U.S. assertions that the Syrian government may be planning a chemical weapons attack complicate peace talks on Syria, RIA news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov as saying June 28. (Reuters, 06.28.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • No significant developments.


  • David Ignatius, a veteran foreign correspondent-turned-columnist, takes a close look at the process that established the recent “arc of deconfliction” between U.S.- and Russian-backed forces in Syria because it shows how different Russia’s public and private actions have been and possibly offers a model for wider U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria. The U.S.-Russian agreement reached in the past several weeks keeps the combatants on both sides of the dividing line focused on fighting the Islamic State, rather than sparring with each other. While Russian-American cooperation on Syria faces huge obstacles right now, Ignatius writes, working with Russia may be the only way to reduce the level of violence and to create a foundation for a calmer, more decentralized Syria. (The Washington Post, 07.04.17)
  • From an editorial titled “Putin is Not America’s Friend”: “The Russians want to help their client Bashar Assad win back all of Syria while retaining their military bases. If they are now talking about a larger cease-fire, it’s only because they think that can serve Mr. Assad’s purposes. The Trump Administration doesn’t seem to know what it wants in Syria after Islamic State is ousted from Raqqa, and we hope Mr. Tillerson isn’t saying the U.S. shares the same post-ISIS goals as Russia. As for the right or wrong ‘approach’ to Syria, the Pentagon believes Russia knew in advance about Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons this year. The U.S. fired cruise missiles in response and has since shot down an Assad airplane bombing U.S. allies on the ground, which drew a threat of Russian reprisal if the U.S. did it again. Somehow ‘approach’ doesn’t capture this moral and military difference.” (Wall Street Journal, 07.09.17)

Other important news:

  • Talks in Kazakhstan brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran involving the Syrian government and opposition groups ended July 5 without agreement on establishing four de-escalation zones in Syria including in the country’s south. The talks resume in Iran on August 1. (Bloomberg, 07.06.17)
  • An international inquiry aims to report by October on who was to blame for a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria in April, the head of the probe said on July 6. (Reuters, 07.06.17)
  • Russia says that an international chemical weapons watchdog’s investigation into a chemical attack in Syria has been tainted by political bias. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that the report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was based on “dubious data” from the Syrian opposition and driven by “political orders” to blame the Syrian government. The ministry emphasized the OPCW’s failure to take samples from the site of the attack. (AP, 06.30.17)
  • The United Nations envoy for Syria says violence is down in the war-torn country despite repeated clashes recently between U.S., Syrian and Iranian-backed forces there. (RFE/RL, 06.28.17)