Russia in Syria Monitor, March 21-28, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Reuters on March 28 that Russia could use Iranian military bases to launch air strikes against militants in Syria on a "case by case basis." (Reuters, 03.28.17)
  • Russia's force in Syria has suffered losses since late January more than three times higher than the official toll, according to evidence gathered by Reuters, a tally that shows the fight in Syria is tougher and more costly than the Kremlin has disclosed. Eighteen Russian citizens have been killed since Jan. 29—a period that coincided with intense fighting to recapture the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. The Russian defense ministry has publicly reported only five servicemen's deaths in Syria over the same period, and its officials' statements have not mentioned any large-scale Russian ground operations in the fight for Palmyra. (Reuters, 03.22.17)
  • Six Russians affiliated with the private military company known as the “Wagner Group” died in Syria this year, an investigation by the news website RBC has revealed. RBC, working with the open-source investigation collective Conflict Intelligence Team, analyzed Russian social media and found evidence that six men aged 22 to 51 died this year while fighting in various provinces across Syria, including in the second Palmyra offensive. The men, who were former members of the Russian military, allegedly ranked from private to lieutenant-colonel. (The Moscow Times, 03.22.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • A senior Turkish official says his country has warned Russia that Ankara will retaliate against any new cross-border attack on Turkish troops from Syrian Kurdish-held areas in Syria. (AP, 03.23.17)
  • Turkey-Russia tensions have resurfaced after a Turkish soldier was killed by sniper fire from a part of Syria held by the YPG, a Kurdish militia. Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said that Ankara summoned Russian charge d'affaires Sergei Panov following the incident because Moscow was in charge of monitoring a cease-fire in the border area where the incident occurred. (Financial Times, 03.23.17, RFE/RL, 03.24.17)

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

  • A senior Russian general on March 28 criticized the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants for allegedly targeting Syria's infrastructure—including a key dam—in territory held by the Sunni extremist group. Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi accused the coalition of trying to "completely destroy critical infrastructure in Syria and complicate post-war reconstruction as much as possible.” (AP, 03.28.17)
  • Communication channels between Russia and the United States on flight safety over Syrian airspace are working, Interfax news agency reported on March 24, citing Russia's Defense Ministry. The ministry said that its officials held a video conference with their U.S. counterparts on March 24 and discussed possible measures to develop their memorandum of understanding on flight safety over Syria approved in 2015. (Reuters, 03.24.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura urged in Geneva on March 24 for Russia, Iran and Turkey to conduct further Syrian cease-fire talks as soon as possible to prevent conditions in the war-ravaged country from worsening. De Mistura urged the co-sponsors of the Astana talks to recapture the momentum and "hopefully there will be an Astana meeting as soon as possible in order to control the situation which at the moment is worrisome." (RFE/RL, 03.25.17)


  • No significant developments.

Other important news:

  • Hundreds of Syrian fighters and an undisclosed number of U.S. Special Operations forces launched a large-scale heliborne assault on the Islamic State in Syria, the Pentagon said March 22. The operation began the night of March 21 and was focused around the area of the Tabqa Dam—a choke point on the Euphrates River that has been a key hub for the Islamic State and source of hydroelectric power for the region. U.S.-backed Syrian fighters reached the dam on March 24 and captured the strategically important Tabqa air base from Islamic State militants in north Syria on March 26 in the first major victory for the group. (AP, 03.24.17, The Washington Post, 03.22.17, AP, 03.27.17)
    • U.S.-backed forces in northern Syria paused military operations near the Tabqa Dam, held by the Islamic State group, on March 27 to allow engineers to fix any problems after conflicting reports about the dam’s stability. (AP, 03.27.17)
  • At least 16 people have been killed in air strikes on a prison in Syria's rebel-held Idlib Province on March 25, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says. Warplanes struck rebel-held parts of Syria on March 25, killing and wounding scores of people, amid clashes on multiple fronts between government forces and insurgent groups in some of the worst violence the country has witnessed in weeks, opposition activists said March 25. (RFE/RL, 03.25.17, AP, 03.25.17)
  • The Trump administration is seeking "interim zones of stability" in Iraq and Syria as Islamic State forces are expelled, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said March 22. The Turkish military, with some assistance from rebels, the United States and Russia, has pushed the Islamic State from a zone of several thousand square miles inside Syria along the Turkish border. It has declared this a "safe zone," and indicated that it may begin sending Syrian refugees back inside. (The Washington Post, 03.22.17)
  • Defeating the Islamic State is the top U.S. priority in the Middle East, but other countries will be expected to contribute more to stabilize Iraq and Syria once the militants are expelled, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the State Department at the start of a two-day strategy session of more than 60 countries and international organizations in the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State. The Americans need "a clear idea" of what they expect from Russia—which U.S. President Donald Trump has said could work together with the coalition on counterterrorism tasks—and how much pressure Moscow will put on Iran to end Syria's six-year civil war, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said at the meeting. (The Washington Post, 03.22.17)
  • British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson has postponed a conciliatory trip to Moscow in order to attend a rearranged meeting with NATO foreign ministers on March 31. Johnson was due to become the first British foreign secretary to visit Russia in five years, in an attempt to address differences on issues such as Syria and Ukraine. (Financial Times, 03.27.17)
  • Thousands of Daghestanis have been branded “suspected religious extremists” without their knowledge. The most likely explanation for the exponential increase in these numbers is alarm over the number of young men leaving Daghestan and other North Caucasus republics to join the fight in Syria. (RFE/RL, 03.27.17)
  • The U.N. Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution on March 24 condemning the destruction of cultural heritage sites in conflict zones, saying guilty parties could be prosecuted for war crimes. The resolution focused on Iraq and Syria, where Islamic State extremists have destroyed heritage sites, including in the ancient city of Palmyra. (RFE/RL, 03.25.17)
  • Syria has received 50,000 tons of Russian wheat as humanitarian aid in March, Syrian and Russian government sources said March 28. However, no Russian wheat from the commercial deals signed with state grain buyer Hoboob have arrived yet, the Syrian government source said. (Reuters, 03.28.17)
  • A Spanish National Court judge on March 27 ordered an investigation into the alleged role of nine Syrian intelligence and security officials in the disappearance and execution of a man in 2013, in what is the first criminal case accepted by a foreign court against President Bashar al-Assad's regime. (AP, 03.27.17)