Russia in Syria Monitor, May 2-9, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Israeli satellite imagery confirms redeployment of at least one Russian A-50 aerial early warning and control aircraft in Syria. The deployment, less than a month after a U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile strike on a key regime air base, significantly augments Russia’s ability to defend the entire airspace over Syria against aircraft or missile attack. (Defense News, 05.07.17)
  • A Russian military adviser, Lt. Col. Aleksey Buchelnikov, was killed by a sniper in Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry has said. (RFE/RL, 05.03.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

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

  • Russia’s Defense Ministry says its military chief of staff and the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff have confirmed their readiness to restore a communications channel aimed at preventing midair incidents between Russian and U.S. warplanes over Syria. Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Gen. Joseph Dunford also discussed setting up further conflict-avoidance measures in a May 6 telephone call. (AP, 05.06.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Ben Connable, Natasha Lander and Kimberly Jackson of RAND wrote in a new report: “The best way to reduce and, eventually, end insurgency and terrorism is to address root causes or, at least, to establish legitimate and capable governance.” (RAND Corporation, May 2017)


  • Neil Hauer, a senior intelligence analyst at the SecDev Group, wrote: “As Moscow’s footprint deepens, North Caucasian special forces have taken on increasingly important tasks across Syria, from guarding Syrian Kurdish units against Turkish incursions in Manbij to ensuring the success of negotiated rebel evacuations on the outskirts of Damascus. So far, the deployment of Chechen and Ingush forces has been very surgical, appearing only in areas and events Moscow considers critical to its aims in Syria.” (Foreign Policy, 05.04.17)
  • Nikolai Sokov, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, wrote: “In late 2015 and early 2016, Russia demonstrated in Syria that it had acquired long-range, precision-guided, conventional-strike capability, the use of which has implications far beyond military utility … Paradoxically, the greatest challenge to the interests of the United States and its allies is not the new Russian capability itself but rather Washington’s state of denial regarding its strategic implications.” (PONARS Policy Memo, May 2017)
  • David Ignatius, a foreign-affairs columnist for The Washington Post, wrote: “Asked to explain Putin’s new peace push, diplomats offered several explanations. The Russians were worried by Trump’s authorization of a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base after last month’s chemical weapons attack. And they were concerned, more broadly, about the deteriorating state of U.S.-Russian relations under a Trump administration they had hoped would bring an easing of tensions. Putin may have been uncomfortable, too, watching China’s Xi position himself as Trump’s key partner in Asia.” (The Washington Post, 05.03.17)

Other important news:

  • During their May 2 phone conversation, U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed the possibility of creating “safe zones” to relieve that country’s humanitarian crisis. A White House statement said the two leaders had discussed such zones ''to achieve lasting peace for humanitarian and many other reasons.'' (Bloomberg, 05.02.17, New York Times, 05.02.17, Bloomberg, 05.03.17)
  • Russia is seeking the endorsement of the U.N. Security Council as soon as May 9 for an accord it reached with Turkey and Iran to set up safe zones in Syria. But Western diplomats say they need more details of the plan before letting the Security Council give its backing.  Russia, Turkey and Iran signed the “Memorandum on the creation of de-escalation areas in the Syrian Arab Republic” at the talks in Astana on May 4, and it was supposed to come into force on May 6 and last for six months. The agreement calls for four buffer zones to be set up in the northwestern Idlib province, the Homs province in the west, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and southern Syria, which will be patrolled by Russian, Turkish and Iranian troops. The “de-escalation zones” will be closed to military aircraft, Russian official Alexander Lavrentiev, who signed the new agreement, said May 5. The cease-fire agreement excludes attacks on al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate—the group known formerly as Jabhat al-Nusra and now as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham—and the Islamic State. Maps of the delineated cease-fire areas are expected to be agreed to by June 4, along with plans to deliver humanitarian aid and ensure the safe return of civilians who fled. Fighting between Syrian rebel and government forces eased on May 6 as the Russian plan for safe zones took effect, although battles continued on important frontlines near Hama and Damascus, rebels and a war monitor said. (AP, 05.05.17, The Washington Post, 05.04.17, The Washington Post, 05.04.17, Reuters, 05.07.17, Bloomberg, 05.09.17)
  • After talks with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan on May 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he secured U.S. President Donald Trump’s backing for the proposal to establish safe zones in Syria. However, a U.S. official said the U.S. isn't a party to the deal on safe zones. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said May 4 that the U.S. has “concerns” about the Russian-backed accord, “including the involvement of Iran as a so-called guarantor,” and urged Russia to do more to rein in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on May 8 that the United States would closely examine proposed de-escalation zones aimed at easing Syria's civil war but warned "the devil's in the details" and that much needed to be worked out. (Reuters, 05.08.17, AP, 05.03.17, Wall Street Journal, 05.02.17, Wall Street Journal, 05.03.17, New York Times, 05.03.17, Bloomberg, 05.05.17, Bloomberg, 05.03.17)
  • Representatives of Syrian opposition groups walked out of the negotiations in Astana to oppose Iran's role in the agreement on safe zones. The Syrian rebels are skeptical about the Russian plan as they reject an Iranian role, would prefer any cease-fire to cover more of the country and that United Nations peacekeepers police it. They also insist on a ban on bombing raids; Russian President Vladimir Putin has said such a prohibition could apply only where there is no military activity. (Bloomberg, 05.05.17, The Moscow Times, 05.04.17)
  • Syria's foreign minister says there will be no international forces under U.N. supervision as part of a deal struck by Russia, Iran and Turkey last week on setting up four safe zones in Syria. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem says militants must be purged out of safe zones envisaged by an agreement signed by Russia, Turkey and Iran on four so-called "de-escalation" areas. He is also describing the role of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurds fighting the Islamic State group in Syria as "legitimate." (AP, 05.08.17)
  • U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura hailed on May 4 the plan for creating safe zones in Syria as a step in the right direction toward a real cessation of hostilities. The Astana talks were set up as a sort of alternative to the process favored by the United States and the United Nations in Geneva, but de Mistura said May 2 for the first time that he would attend the talks. (New York Times, 05.02.17, AP, 05.01.17, Reuters, 05.04.17)
  • Twenty-seven field commanders of opposition groups in Syria have agreed to accept the terms of the memorandum on de-escalation zones, Stanislav Gadzhimagomedov, a deputy head of the Russian Armed Forces' main operational department, said. (TASS, 05.05.17)
  • U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will host Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 10 for talks at the U.S. State Department on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, in the Russian envoy's first visit to Washington since 2013. The State Department said Tillerson and Lavrov in their meeting will attempt to "set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict in Syria," as well as discuss efforts to decrease violence and provide aid. Tillerson already spoke by phone on May 5 with Lavrov about efforts to reduce the violence in Syria. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov and Under Secretary of State Thomas Shannon managed to reach understanding on topical bilateral issues at the consultations held in New York on May 8. According to Ryabkov, the consultations enabled the sides to draw up the agenda of the upcoming meeting between Lavrov and Tillerson. “I assume that Syria will top the talks, which is why Mr. Shannon and I have done some work to ease the bilateral agenda for the ministers to some extent so that they get around to Syria and other international issues," Ryabkov said. (Wall Street Journal, 05.08.17, 05.09.17, Reuters, 05.06.17)
  • On Russia, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “there’s almost no trust” between the world’s greatest nuclear powers, but that the administration was trying to rebuild trust by looking at one issue at a time. First up is Syria, as Washington and Moscow see if they can get a cease-fire that can hold. (AP, 05.04.17)
  • Russia and Turkey can “change the destiny of the whole region” together, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. (Bloomberg, 05.03.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has used a speech at a military parade commemorating the Allied victory over Nazi Germany to press Western countries to fall in line with Moscow's approach to combating international terrorism. According to the Kremlin press service, Putin also sent a letter to new French president Emmanuel Macron on the shared threat of international terrorism. (RFE/RL, 05.09.17, The Moscow Times, 05.08.17)
  • The Islamic State released a new video purporting to show the execution of a captured Russian intelligence officer in Syria, the SITE monitoring group reported on May 9. The Russian Defense Ministry later denied the report, insisting all Russian servicemen in Syria are alive and accounted for. (The Moscow Times, 05.09.17)
  • Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra snipers are using Russian-made night vision equipment, Russian military experts have established, the Kommersant newspaper has reported. (The Moscow Times, 05.05.17)