Russia in Syria Monitor, March 14-21, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Syrian Kurdish YPG forces say Russia is helping to establish a military base in northern Syria that will be used to train the militia’s fighters, but Russian officials have said that there are no plans to open new bases in Syria and that a branch of its Hmeimim-based Center for Reconciliation had been located in the area in question. The Russian Defense Ministry said it has dispatched units to the Kurdish enclave of Afrin, in Syria's northwest, to monitor a cease-fire between the Kurdish forces and rival Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces. It said the servicemen embedded with the YPG, also known as the People’s Protection Units, were not there to establish a base. (Reuters, 03.20.17, AP, 03.20.17, BBC, 03.20.17)
  • Russia is building up the Tartus naval base to handle its largest nuclear-powered ships. Under the 49-year agreement inked late last year by Russia and Syria, “the maximum number of … Russian warships allowed at the Russian naval facility at one time is 11, including nuclear-powered warships, providing that nuclear and ecological security rules are observed,” according to RT. The specification allowing nuclear-powered warships means that Russia wants to be able to base large surface ships in Syria, namely Kirov-class nuclear-powered battle cruisers, as well as nuclear submarines. (The National Interest, 03.18.17)
  • Russian sappers began demining the historical part and residential quarters of Syria’s Palmyra, Colonel Valery Ovdiyenko, commander of the mine-clearance detachment of the Russian Armed Forces’ International Mine Action Center, told reporters. (TASS, 03.18.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Turkey has not imposed restrictions on imports of Russian agricultural products and grain, but removed Russia from the list of countries allowed to import products free of duties. (TASS, 03.20.17)

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

  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry says the Israeli ambassador to Moscow was summoned to explain an exchange of fire last week between Israeli jets and Syrian government forces. Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov says Russia “expressed concern” over the exchange in which Syria fired missiles at Israeli warplanes that were on a mission to destroy a weapons convoy destined for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militant group. According to Israel’s Channel 2, the Israeli strike hit close to Russian troops. (AP, 03.20.17, The Guardian, 03.20.17)
    • Russia and other world powers must move to limit Iran's growing military strength in Syria because it poses a regional threat, the director-general of Israel's Intelligence Ministry told Reuters in an interview. (Reuters, 03.21.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College writes: “The president may want to consider using a ‘Team B’ approach, and reach outside the existing bureaucracy for a second opinion. … The president wants to explore new options on Syria. The Russians have signaled an interest in talking. The deal might not be consummated—but there is no reason not to make the effort.” (The National Interest, 03.15.17


  • Prof. Gvosdev also writes: “In the absence of new, clear directives from the current occupant of the White House as to what he wants to achieve in Syria and the Middle East, the U.S. government runs on autopilot, so that the perspectives and instructions of the previous administration remain operative.” (The National Interest, 03.15.17

Other important news:

  • Syrian government forces on March 20 regained control of parts of Damascus that were attacked and captured by rebels and militants the previous day, with the two-day fighting leaving dozens dead on both sides, the military and an activist group have said. (AP, 03.20.17)
  • Russian aircraft delivered 20.6 tons of U.N. humanitarian aid to Syria’s Deir ez-Zor area using parachute platforms, the Russian Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in Syria said on March 17. (RBTH, 03.17.17)
  • Russia's ambassador to Syria, Alexander Kinshchak, said one of the Russian Embassy's buildings in Damascus had been damaged in clashes between government and opposition forces, Russian news agency RIA reported March 20. (Reuters, 03.20.17)
  • More than 800 health workers have died in "acts of war crimes" in Syria since 2011, according to a report in The Lancet medical journal. (RFE/RL, 03.15.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbayev, discussed the Syria crisis by phone, the Kremlin said on March 18, after peace talks in Kazakhstan closed without any substantive negotiations. (Reuters, 03.18.17)
  • Forces controlled by Libya’s eastern-based military commander Khalifa Haftar said they had retaken two of the country’s major oil ports that had been seized by a rival group about two weeks ago, triggering clashes that curbed oil production in the holder of Africa’s largest crude reserves. Russia urged restraint after Haftar, whom it supports, regained control of the facilities. Libya's opposition government in the east, which opposes the U.N.-backed leadership in Tripoli, has requested military aid from Russia and received promises of support, a key official said. (Bloomberg, 03.14.17, Bloomberg, 03.16.17, RFE/RL, 03.15.17)
  • Several European diplomats said they were unhappy that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had not offered to hold a NATO meeting in Washington later this week, given that 26 alliance foreign ministers and Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg would be there for a meeting of the coalition against the Islamic State militant group. The diplomats’ comments came after a Reuters report that Tillerson plans to skip a NATO meeting scheduled for April 5-6 in order to meet with China’s president and then travel to Russia. (Reuters, 03.21.17, Reuters, 03.20.17)
  • A passport belonging to the well-known Islamic State fighter Abu Umar Grozny has been found in Mosul, according to a photo shared on Twitter on March 16. The passport shows that Abu Umar is Magomed Usmanovich Diresov from Grozny’s Oktyabrsky District, born in 1987. (From Chechnya to Syria, 03.17.17)
  • A suspect in the deadly 2002 hostage-taking attack on a Moscow theater has been sentenced to 19 years in prison. The Moscow Regional Military Court pronounced the sentence on March 21 after convicting Khasan Zakayev of assisting Chechen militants in the attack on the so-called Dubrovka theater during a performance of the musical Nord-Ost. (RFE/RL, 03.21.17)