Russia in Syria Monitor, May 9-16, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is planning a discussion with Defense Ministry senior officials and defense industry captains to update approaches to the Russian armed forces' re-equipment, taking into account the experience gained in Syria and the need to reinforce Russia's Arctic frontiers. Russian servicemen tested a wide range of advanced weapons in Syria, Deputy Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Mikhail Popov said. “During the operation, advanced and modernized military and special hardware was tested and the prospects of its further upgrade and improvement were defined," the deputy secretary said. (Interfax, 05.16.17, TASS, 05.14.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, wrote: “In this new world, the United States will need allies. Europe will be one, but Europe is tearing itself apart with a nihilistic abandon that almost matches our own. Its strategic power is limited. So is its ambition. Blowback from centuries of imperialism and war has made Europeans gun-shy. The United States will have to look elsewhere for a strategic partner. Ultimately we are likely to settle on Russia.” (The Boston Globe, 05.14.17)


  • No significant developments.

Other important news:

  • U.S. President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, in a White House meeting last week, according to current and former U.S. officials, who said Trump’s disclosures jeopardized a critical source of intelligence on the Islamic State. “We had a very, very good meeting with Mr. Lavrov, and I thought it was very good,” Trump said after the meeting. “What we want to do is we want to see the killing, the horrible killing in Syria stop as soon as possible and everybody’s working toward that end,” Trump said. During the meeting, "Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria, in particular, underscoring the need for Russia to rein in the Assad regime, Iran and Iranian proxies," the White House said in a statement. (Bloomberg, 05.09.17, AP, 05.10.17, Reuters, 05.10.17,, 05.10.17, The Washington Post, 05.15.17)
    • Trump did not reveal the specific intelligence-gathering method, but he described how the Islamic State was pursuing elements of a specific plot and how much harm such an attack could cause under varying circumstances. Most alarmingly, officials said, Trump revealed the city in the Islamic State’s territory where the U.S. intelligence partner detected the threat. “Russia could identify our sources or techniques,” the senior U.S. official said. (The Washington Post, 05.15.17)
    • Trump described measures the United States has taken or is contemplating to counter the threat, including military operations in Iraq and Syria, as well as other steps to tighten security, officials said. The intelligence involved information about an Islamic State plot to use laptop computers as possible weapons aboard commercial aircraft. (The Washington Post, 05.15.17, Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Trump defended wanting to share terrorism intelligence with Russian officials in a White House meeting last week, saying he has the “absolute right” to do so. “As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled W.H. meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” he said in a series of tweets on May 16. “Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS & terrorism.” But he did not precisely address reports from multiple news outlets that he had disclosed highly classified information to the Russian officials, possibly jeopardizing a relationship with an intelligence-sharing ally. (New York Times, 05.16.17, Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Trump’s national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, issued a statement denying that Trump had disclosed intelligence methods or sources.  McMaster told reporters on May 15 that The Washington Post’s account was “false.”  “I was in the room—it didn’t happen,” McMaster said. “At no time—at no time—were intelligence sources or methods discussed, and the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known.” (New York Times, 05.16.17)
    • Trump did not discuss "sources, methods or military operations" in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on May 15, after reports that Trump disclosed classified information. "During President Trump's meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov, a broad range of subjects were discussed among which were common efforts and threats regarding counter-terrorism. During that exchange the nature of specific threats were discussed, but they did not discuss sources, methods or military operations," Tillerson said in a statement. (Reuters, 05.15.17)
    • “This story is false,” said Dina Powell, deputy national security adviser for strategy. “The president only discussed the common threats that both countries faced.” (The Washington Post, 05.15.17)
    • The issue is scheduled to be the subject of a closed-door meeting on the afternoon of May 17 in Brussels between Elaine C. Duke, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security, and Dimitris Avramopoulos, the European Union’s commissioner for migration, home affairs and citizenship. (New York Times, 05.16.17, New York Times, 05.15.17)
    • “We have no way to know what was said, but protecting our nation’s secrets is paramount,” said Doug Andres, a spokesman for House Speaker Paul Ryan. “The speaker hopes for a full explanation of the facts from the administration.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • “The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order,” Republican Sen. Bob Corker, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters at the Capitol. “Obviously they’re in a downward spiral right now and they’ve got to figure out a way to come to grips with all that’s happening.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Sen. Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Armed Services panel, said sharing information without the permission of a foreign intelligence partner “violates a cardinal rule” of dealing with friendly agencies. (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • “We don’t want anything to do with this nonsense,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call. “It’s complete nonsense.” (Bloomberg, 05.15.17)
    • Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova denied on May 16 that Trump revealed classified information during an Oval Office meeting, but Trump suggested that intelligence details were shared for "humanitarian reasons." Zakharova posted a comment on Facebook that described the reports of Trump's disclosures as "yet another fake."  (The Washington Post, 05.16.17)
  • Russia's foreign minister Sergei Lavrov held talks with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, on May 10 discussing Syria, Ukraine and other matters that have sent U.S.-Russian relations plummeting to Cold War-era lows. A bare-bones description given by Tillerson’s spokesman suggested the official agenda included the new Russian plan for safe zones in Syria, the campaign against the Islamic State, weapons development in North Korea and the continued Russian activity in Ukraine. (New York Times, 05.10.17, Wall Street Journal, 05.10.17, RFE/RL, 05.10.17)
  • A new round of Syria talks began on May 16 in Geneva amid low expectations, the latest United Nations push to resolve the country's long-running conflict. The U.N. negotiations are focused on finding a political solution and will concentrate on four separate areas, or "baskets" of issues: governance, a new constitution, elections and combating "terrorism" in the war-ravaged country. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has called the Geneva process "null," telling a Belarusian TV network that it had become "merely a meeting for the media." (Al Jazeera, 05.16.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on May 15 about Moscow’s own involvement with the Syrian Kurdish forces, assuring Turkey his country was not planning to arm them. Putin lauded the Kurdish fighters as “one of the most efficient units” against Islamic State and said Russia has “working contacts” with them. Putin insisted that Moscow would not arm the Kurds because “they have other sources of obtaining the weapons.” (AP, 05.15.17)
  • The Syrian government on May 16 forcefully rejected accusations by the United States that the bodies of thousands of executed political prisoners had been disposed of in a crematory at a prison near Damascus, describing the allegations as “lies” used to justify American aggression. (New York Times, 05.16.17)
  • Syrian troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared to be on a collision course with U.S. and British special forces on May 14, after advancing to within 15 miles of their training base in the east of the country. The assault is being led by Iranian forces, which are commanding Syrian troops and a number of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters with the help of Russian jets in the skies. On May 13 Syrian regime forces recaptured an airbase from Islamic State. Hundreds of rebels and their families began leaving a northeastern neighborhood of Damascus and heading toward rebel-held areas in northern Syria on May 14, in another step that would eventually bring all parts of the capital under the control of Assad’s forces, state media and opposition activists said. (Telegraph, 05.15.17, DPA, 05.13.17, AP, 05.14.17)
  • Several civilians were killed in an airstrike on an Islamic State held village in northern Syria, activists reported on May 15. It was not immediately clear who is behind the airstrike southeast of the extremist group’s de facto capital of Raqqa, and various activists groups reported different casualty tolls. (AP, 05.15.17)
  • Guarantors of Syria ceasefire—Russia, Turkey and Iran—are actively working on implementing a memorandum on creating de-escalation zones in Syria, including on drawing up a map and establishing checkpoints, Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said on May 16. (TASS, 05.16.17)
  • Turkish intelligence has received information about possible attacks by Islamic State militants on Russian naval ships, which pass through the Bosporus. (TASS, 05.16.17)
  • More than 400 residents of the Volga Federal District are fighting as part of terrorist groups outside Russia, Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said at a visiting session on May 16. (Interfax, 05.16.17)