Russia in Syria Monitor, Oct. 17-24, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The most recent satellite images of the Russian-operated Hmeimim air base in Syria, taken in mid-July, plus additional reporting show Moscow has deployed 10 types of military aircraft there, including advanced fighter jets: Su-24, Su-25, Su-27SM3, MiG-29SMT, Su-30SM, Su-34, Su-35S, A-50U, IL-20 "Coot" and An-24 "Coke” aircraft. (Business Insider, 10.21.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Israel called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his big-power ally Russia to curb Hezbollah, accusing the Lebanese guerrilla group on Oct. 23 of orchestrating shelling across the Golan Heights frontier in order to stoke Israeli-Syrian fighting. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told Israel last week that Moscow has agreed to expand a buffer zone along the Israeli-Syrian border, where Iranian and Hezbollah forces will not be allowed to enter. (Reuters, 10.23.17, The Jerusalem Post, 10.18.17)

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • A proposal to convene a congress of all Syria's ethnic groups is a joint initiative that is being promoted by Russia and others and is now being actively discussed, the Kremlin said Oct. 20. President Vladimir Putin said Oct. 19 that negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition promise to be very difficult, and that contacts with “our American partners” regarding peace talks in Astana have been overall more positive than negative. (Reuters, 10.20.17, Russia Matters, 10.19.17)


  • Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, writes that Islamic State’s defeat in Raqqa is “a devastating blow” that marks the end of its quasi-state status, but the group is likely to gain opportunities for a resurgence in the coming years, both as an insurgent force in the Middle East and as an inspiration for “lone-wolf terrorists and other sympathizers to strike the more distant West.” Moreover, the group may be able to exploit the divisions among the strange bedfellows that had been allied against it, including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States. (Lawfare, 10.19.17)
  • The destruction of Syria’s infrastructure means “potentially lucrative” construction contracts soon to be handed out by Damascus. Russia and Iran will likely get most of these. In September, the U.S. and 13 other countries called for a political process to remove Assad from power before they would aid in Syria’s reconstruction. Moscow, however, has already signed nearly $1 billion worth of infrastructure and other contracts with Damascus, which has promised Moscow priority in these matters. Assad supporters are also positioning themselves to benefit from the windfall, while Syria’s rebel regions will likely be denied reconstruction funds as punishment. “Aid groups are worried that the rush to rebuild the loyalist core of postwar Syria will only cement the same kinds of divisions and abuses that have been on display during the six-year conflict.” (Foreign Policy, 10.20.17)
  • Buoyed by Iran and Russia, Assad gains confidence to test Israel. (Haaretz, 10.24.17)

Other important news:

  • Russia on Oct. 24 blocked a U.N. Security Council resolution extending the mandate for a mission that investigates the use of chemical weapons in Syria. The mission is due to report by Oct. 26 on who was responsible for a deadly sarin bombing in a rebel-held village last April. Disagreement among U.N. member states, notably Russia and the U.S., threatens to jeopardize the international investigation into chemical attacks in Syria. Human Rights Watch has said that “recent events suggest Russia is trying to interfere in the investigation,” while a top Russian diplomat said the U.S. is seeking to distort Russia’s position and is indulging in lies and “crooked gambling.” (TASS, 10.24.17, Reuters, 10.24.17, New York Times, 10.20.17, HRW, 10.24.17, TASS, 10.20.17) 
  • A U.S.-based security research firm says Russia, and the former Soviet region more broadly, is the single largest source for foreign militants fighting in Syria and Iraq. The report, released on Oct. 24 by the Soufan Group, documented the shifting makeup of fighters who have joined the Islamic State in the region, or some of the smaller allied groups. (RFE/RL, 10.24.17)
  • Russia has accused the U.S.-led coalition of bombing the Syrian city of Raqqa "off the face of the Earth," in the same way the Allied powers bombed Germany's Dresden during World War II. A Moscow-based Middle Eastern policy analyst told Al Jazeera that Russia was growing increasingly angry over the role of the U.S. in fragmenting Syria. U.S.-backed militias in Syria took full control of Raqqa on Oct. 17 after a four month campaign. (Al Jazeera, 10.23.17, Reuters, 10.17.17)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov criticized the U.S. position on Syria on Oct. 23, raising questions about Washington’s stance on the country’s future governance and on Islamic State. "When we hear about the United States’ new line, which implies the creation of some local councils in sovereign Syria, of course, this fact cannot fail to raise eyebrows," he said. Lavrov also claimed that, in “numerous instances,” IS militants were able to leave “areas controlled by the U.S.-led coalition and were sent to put up additional resistance to the Syrian government army.” (TASS, 10.23.17)
  • In a thinly veiled dig at the U.S., Putin said Oct. 19 that “some of our counterparts” are doing everything they can to ensure there’s permanent chaos in the Middle East and some people still think this chaos can be managed. (Russia Matters, 10.19.17)
  • After losing major strongholds and key urban areas across Syria, including its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, IS now controls only 5 percent of the country's territory, according to Russia's defense minister. (AP, 10.24.17)
  • Putin said Oct. 19 that Russia will soon finish off the “terrorists” in Syria, but the root causes of radicalism need to be addressed, including lack of education. (Russia Matters, 10.19.17)
  • The widow of a Russian marine major killed in Syria has been in dispute with the Russian military, trying to get the financial support she believes she is entitled to as an officer’s widow. Her case shows how the Syrian war is exacting a greater toll on Russians whose lives are touched by it as the conflict changes from a swift anti-terrorist operation to a longer drawn-out engagement. (Reuters, 10.23.17)
  • Two weeks after Russia said it had critically injured Abu Mohamad al-Golani, leader of the Tahrir al-Sham militant group in Syria, an undated video was published on Oct. 18, purporting to show al-Golani apparently in good health. (Reuters, 10.18.17)