Russia in Syria Monitor, Oct. 3-10, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russia’s air force destroyed an Islamic State unit including mercenaries from CIS countries, Tunisia and Egypt south of the Syrian city of Deir el-Zour, Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Oct. 7. On Oct. 9 Konashenkov said the Russian air force killed about 120 IS fighters from Tajikistan, Iraq and the North Caucasus, including influential IS field commanders from the North Caucasus, as well as a detachment of 60 foreign mercenaries. He also said on Oct. 10 that Russian drones had spotted an IS stronghold near the eastern town of Mayadeen and Su-34 bombers targeted it with a series of strikes, killing over 70 militants and destroying seven tanks and other armored vehicles and other weapons. According to Konashekov, Russia’s air force in Syria has conducted 182 strikes against Islamic State terrorists who had crossed into Syria’s Deir el-Zour province from western Iraq. Russia’s air force also carries out up to 150 strikes per day on forces joining Islamic State militants near Mayadeen, he said. Last week, the Russian Defense Ministry also said its submarines fired 10 cruise missiles at Islamic State positions outside of Mayadeen. (Interfax, 10.07.17, TASS, 10.10.17, TASS, 10.10.17, AP, 10.10.17, AP, 10.06.17, AP, 10.05.17)
  • Syrian government forces supported by Russian combat aircraft have reduced the territory under Islamic State control from 90% to 10% in two years, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said. (TASS, 10.09.17)
  • Military jets believed to be Russian killed at least 60 civilians trying to flee heavy fighting in Syria’s oil rich Deir el-Zour province as they sought to cross the Euphrates River, opposition activists, former residents and a war monitor said late on Oct. 4. (Reuters, 10.04.17)
  • A Russian fighter-bomber skidded off the runway in Syria, killing its crew on Oct. 10. (The Moscow Times, 10.10.17)
  • Information about two Russian fighters captured in Syria suggests that the same proxy forces that fight the Kremlin's wars abroad may also harass members of the Russian political opposition at home. Grigory Tsurkanu had gone to fight in Syria with the private military company Wagner. The other captured Russian, Roman Zabolotny, who has allegedly been killed by IS, belonged to a pro-Kremlin Cossack paramilitary group that has also fought in eastern Ukraine. Zabalotny was photographed during a "blockade" of supporters of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in April. Zabolotny and Tsurkanu are feared to have been executed. (The Washington Post, 10.05.17, The Moscow Times, 10.05.17, Daily Mail, 10.09.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Idlib-based jamaat Ajnad al-Kavkaz announced on Oct. 1 that they were suspending military operations “until other groups determine their strategy in the Syrian jihad.” (From Chechnya to Syria, 10.05.17)

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

  • No significant developments.

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • No significant developments.


  • Ash Carter, former U.S. Defense Secretary and current director of Harvard’s Belfer Center, writes: “Russia’s real ambitions were to keep [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad in power, secure its Mediterranean port at Tartus, refine its military capabilities and demonstrate its weaponry for the global arms market … what Russia asked for, time and time again, was military cooperation with [the U.S. in Syria]. This was a Russian obsession.” (Belfer Center, October 2017) 
  • Dmitry Adamsky, associate professor at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the IDC Herzliya, Israel, writes: “Israeli strategists do not question the likelihood of a war with Hezbollah. But they wonder how Russia, which is a comrade-in-arms with Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, would respond to such a conflict. If aggressive fighting between Israel and Hezbollah runs against Russia’s interests, Moscow will be well positioned to restrict the freedom of action of both sides and to help settle the conflict. The Kremlin would probably exploit such a war to improve its position and influence in the wider Middle East. Russia will be more involved in the next Arab-Israeli war than ever before. ” (Foreign Affairs, 10.06.17)
  • Anna Borshchevskaya, the Ira Weiner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, writes: “Although Riyadh is coming around to Moscow’s position on Syria and Russia’s growing regional influence more broadly, the Saudis’ concerns about Iran’s growing influence are unlikely to decrease.” (Foreign Affairs, 10.10.17)

Other important news:

  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke over the phone Oct. 9 to discuss Syria, the settlement in Ukraine and the situation on the Korean peninsula. (TASS, 10.09.17)
  • Russia accused the United States on Oct. 10 of pretending to fight Islamic State and of deliberately reducing its air strikes in Iraq to allow the group’s militants to stream into Syria to slow the Russian-backed advance of the Syrian army. (Reuters, 10.10.17)
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Oct. 8 Turkey was implementing a deal with Russia and Iran to reduce violence in Syria’s Idlib province in cooperation with Free Syrian Army rebel fighters. (Reuters, 10.08.17)
  • An inquiry by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found sarin gas was used in a March 30 attack in Syria on the opposition-held town of Latamneh, just days before the banned nerve agent killed dozens in a separate attack that prompted the United States to launch missiles on a Syrian air base. (Reuters, 10.04.17) 
  • The trade turnover between Russia and Syria soared 42% year-on-year in the first seven months of 2017 to $192.8 million, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said Oct. 10. He also said that Russia and Syria will launch a direct shipping line. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem will meet in Sochi Oct. 11. (TASS, 10.10.17, TASS, 10.07.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Oct. 4 that ties with U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration were not without problems, but he hoped that the mutual interests of both countries in fighting terrorism would help improve the relationship. Russian and U.S. security agencies and intelligence chiefs are still in contact with each other, primarily those involving the CIA, Russian Federal Security Service Director Alexander Bortnikov said. Bortrnikov said he maintains contacts with CIA Director Mike Pompeo who reportedly visited Moscow and held talks with Russian intelligence officials in May. (Interfax, 10.06.17, Newsweek, 08.25.17, TASS, 10.05.17, Reuters, 10.04.17)