Russia in Syria Monitor, Nov. 14-21, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russia plans to conclude its military intervention in Syria by the end of the year, leaving behind only enough forces to maintain an airfield and naval base, RBC newspaper reported, citing three unnamed officials in the Foreign and Defense ministries and close to the Kremlin. President Vladimir Putin told his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, during a surprise meeting in Sochi this week that “as far as our joint work in fighting terrorism on the territory of Syria is concerned, this military operation is indeed wrapping up.” (Bloomberg, 11.21.17, Guardian, 11.21.17, Financial Times, 11.21.17)
  • Russian military bases will remain in Syria after the anti-terrorist operation is over, but the contingent of ground and aerospace forces will be reduced, first deputy chairman of the senate’s Security and Defense Committee, Franz Klintsevich, told Interfax. (Interfax, 11.21.17)
  • “The active phase of the military operation in Syria is coming to an end,” chief of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov told his Turkish and Iranian counterparts in Sochi on Nov. 21, according to a Defense Ministry statement. The chiefs of the General Staff of Russia, Turkey and Iran have agreed on measures to increase the level of coordination in the Idlib de-escalation zone and developed specific steps to complete the elimination of the remaining units of the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra. (Bloomberg, 11.21.17, TASS, 11.21.17)
  • Six long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers hit IS targets in Syria on Nov. 17. Six Tu-22 bombers also struck IS targets near the town of Albu Kamal in Syria’s Deir al-Zor province on Nov 15. (TASS, 11.17.17, Reuters, 11.15.17)
  • A Syrian war-monitoring group has raised the death toll from airstrikes on a market in the northern, rebel-held town of Atareb to 61. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it couldn't determine whether Russia or the Syrian government was behind the attack while the opposition Syrian National Coalition accused Russia. Syrian government shelling and airstrikes had killed nearly two dozen civilians in three days of fighting in the suburbs of Damascus. (AP, 11.14.17, AP, 11.16.17)
  • Yuri Ebel, another Russian from the Wagner military contractor, has been killed in Syria, a provincial Russian news site reported Nov. 15. (The Moscow Times, 11.15.17)

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:

  • Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert S. Ford writes: "Because Assad's government is deeply corrupt, the United States should … rule out providing the regime with aid for reconstruction. There is, however, one way in which the United States can still do good: easing the suffering of the millions of Syrian refugees outside the country." (Foreign Affairs, November/December 2017)
  • Paul R. Pillar, a CIA veteran and senior fellow at Georgetown University: “To match Russian influence—or indeed for any enhancement of U.S. influence, regardless of whether one is keeping score vis-à-vis Russia—one should learn from Russia’s diplomacy in a region such as the Middle East.” (The National Interest, 11.13.17)


  • “Assad's ally Russia now dominates the negotiating process, meaning there is little pressure on him to accept real elections—or any election before his term ends in 2021. A political solution under his terms would be to incorporate opposition members into a national unity government under his leadership.” (AP, 11.21.17)
  • Leon Hadar, a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a consulting firm: “[T]he preoccupation with the alleged Russian threat makes it impossible to cooperate with Moscow in dealing with common interests in the Middle East and elsewhere, which was President Trump’s goal in reaching out to Moscow, hoping to work out a deal to end the civil war in Syria and reduce the costs of American intervention in the Middle East.” (The National Interest, 11.20.17)

Other important news:

  • As the Kremlin mounts a diplomatic push to resolve the war in Syria, Putin spoke by phone with U.S. President Donald Trump and other world leaders on Nov. 21 on the heels of a nearly three-hour meeting with Assad. In his conversation with Trump, "Putin stressed readiness to facilitate a durable political settlement process in Syria on the basis of the U.N. Security Council's Resolution 2254 in the spirit of agreements reached in the Astana format and provisions of the Joint Statement” endorsed by the two presidents Nov. 11, the Kremlin press service said. Following the conversation between Putin and Trump, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov discussed Syria in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Putin also spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian leader Hassan Rouhani will meet Putin in Sochi on Nov. 22 to discuss a political resolution in Syria. The Kremlin said Putin also held talks with the emir of Qatar on Nov. 20. (Bloomberg, 11.21.17, TASS, 11.21.17, 11.21.17, 11.21.17, Al-Arabiya, 11.21.17, Reuters, 11.21.17)
  • Assad was asked to come to Russia to get him to agree to potential peace initiatives drafted by Russia, Iran and Turkey as Russia prepares to scale down its military presence in the country’s civil war, the Kremlin said Nov. 21. “The most important question, of course, is what will happen after the defeat of the terrorists in terms of a peaceful political settlement,” the Russian president told his Syrian counterpart. Expressing thanks for Russia’s role, Assad told Putin the time is right for negotiations, “especially after we attained victory” over the Syrian government’s opponents. Putin then presented Assad to the military commanders who led Russia’s effort. Assad has only ventured outside his war-ravaged nation twice since the conflict began—both times to Russia. The meeting with Putin in Sochi lasted some three hours. (AP, 11.20.17, Bloomberg, 11.21.17)
  • On Nov. 20, Riad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister who defected and headed the main Western-backed opposition group for the past two years, resigned without giving any explanation. Hijab’s High Negotiations Committee earlier this month refused to attend a planned Russian-organized peace conference between Assad and opposition groups in Sochi, saying it was usurping the role of long-stalled negotiations in Geneva led by the United Nations. Russia has now revived the proposal for the Sochi meeting, which is expected to take place soon. Russia said on Nov. 21 that the resignation of “radically minded” opposition figures such as Hijab would help unite Assad’s disparate opponents around a more “realistic” platform. (Bloomberg, 11.21.17, Reuters, 11.21.17)
  • The reconciled version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the House agreed to on Nov. 14, extended existing limitations on security cooperation with Russian forces (section 1231). (Lawfare, 11.15.17)
  • After blocking U.N. Security Council action against Syria, Russia has proposed changing the rules for inspectors at the world's chemical weapons body in The Hague, a move Western diplomats and experts said would undermine its work. Russia on Nov. 16 vetoed a U.S.-sponsored Security Council resolution that would have extended the international probe into chemical weapons use in Syria. Hours later, the council rejected a Russian-sponsored resolution. Russia then used its veto power Nov. 17 to block a stopgap measure that would have temporarily preserved the panel investigating who is using chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict. (Reuters, 11.21.17, Voice of America, 11.16.17, New York Times, 11.17.17)
  • More than 90 people have returned to Russia from Iraq and Syria in the past four months, most of them children. The returnees include residents of Chechnya, Dagestan, the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Region and the Tver region, as well as Kazakh and Uzbek nationals. (TASS, 11.21.17)
  • The Kremlin is downplaying the Russian Defense Ministry's blunder in backing its allegations of the U.S. colluding with the Islamic State in Syria with a screenshot from a video game. The ministry had said Nov. 14 that the United States is providing de-facto cover for Islamic State units in Syria and only pretending to fight terrorism in the Middle East. The ministry said the U.S. had tried to hinder Russian strikes on Islamic State militants around Albu Kamal. (AP, 11.15.17, Reuters, 11.14.17)
  • Islamic State has been gathering strength in Afghanistan, with a force that has grown to 10,000 men, Russia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya has said at a plenary meeting of the U.N. General Assembly on the Afghanistan situation. (Interfax, 11.21.17)