Russia in Syria Monitor, Sept. 19-26, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The Russian Defense Ministry said Lt. Gen. Valery Asapov was killed amid shelling near the city of Deir el-Zour. "The death of the Russian commander is the price, the bloody price for the two-faced American policy in Syria," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov said. The U.S. played no role in the death of the Russian general and does not assist Islamic State in Syria, the U.S. State Department said. (The Moscow Times, 09.26.17, RFE/RL, 09.25.17)
  • On Sept. 21, three Russian troops were wounded after militants encircled 29 Russian military officers deployed outside of Idlib. The Russian troops repelled the attack with the help of local tribes. At least one other Russian soldier died in an ambush in Syria the previous week. (The Moscow Times , 09.21.17, AP, 09.22.17)
  • The Russian Defense Ministry denied assertions from the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Russian air strikes had killed six civilians in Syria’s Idlib province, saying that in recent days it had only bombed Islamist militant fighters in the area. Russian and Syrian jets escalated strikes on rebel-held Idlib and Hama provinces several days after jihadist rebels struck government-held parts of northwestern Syria. (Reuters, 09.26.17, Reuters, 09.24.17)
  • U.S.-backed Syrian militias said Russian warplanes struck their positions in the Deir el-Zour province Sept. 25, near a major natural gas field recently seized from Islamic State. The Russian Defense Ministry denied these allegations. (Reuters, 09.25.17, Reuters, 09.25.17)
  • The Russian military has built a bridge across the Euphrates river near Deir el-Zour to move troops and vehicles to the other side to support a Syrian army offensive. (Reuters, 09.25.17) 
  • Russian Tu-95 strategic bombers have fired cruise missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria’s Deir el-Zour and Idlib provinces, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry on Sept. 26. (Reuters, 09.26.17)
  • The Black Sea Fleet’s Veliky Novgorod submarine fired 3M-14 Kalibr cruise missiles on the morning of Sept. 22, destroying jihadi targets in Syria, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry. (TASS, 09.22.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

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

  • Senior American and Russian military leaders met for an unprecedented, face-to-face session to ensure safety for all fighters in Syria, exchanging maps. Asked about the growing turbulence with the Russians, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said, “I am not worried, we continue to deal with the Russians in a collaborative way, we’ll sort this out.” Russia earlier issued an unusually blunt warning to the U.S. that it will retaliate against American-backed fighters in Syria, accusing them of firing on Syrian government troops in the battle for Deir el-Zour. (AP, 09.21.17, Bloomberg, 09.21.17)
  • Moscow has warned that it would retaliate if Russian special forces deployed alongside Syrian government troops come under fire, raising the specter of a direct confrontation on the ground between Russian forces and the pro-Syrian troops they back on one side, and U.S.-supported Kurdish-led forces on the other. U.S. special forces are also operating with the SDF, providing artillery and other support. (AP, 09.21.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • No significant developments.


  • Washington Post’s Beirut bureau chief Liz Sly writes: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s victory on the battlefield has been evident since Russia intervened in 2015, and probably well before that, after the rebels failed to capitalize on their early momentum. However, some remaining battles could spin Syria into unexpected directions, with the biggest uncertainty being the fate of the Kurdish-controlled northeast, where the U.S. military has deployed troops and built bases for fighting the Islamic State. (The Washington Post, 09.25.17)
  • Ben Hubbard, Middle East correspondent for The New York Times, writes: Although Syria's war is far from over, it looks as though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is here to stay. On the battlefield, no one remains who is willing and able to topple him. U.S. President Donald Trump has canceled the CIA program that provided the waning rebel forces with arms and support, and the Islamic State is being routed from its strongholds. (New York Times, 09.25.17)
  • Pavel K. Baev and Kemal Kirişci, senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, write: “While the controversial issue of the future of the Assad regime can be temporarily bracketed out (in the Russian-Turkish relations), the Kurdish issue is set to generate sharp tensions, and Ankara seeks to leverage Russia to demonstrate to Washington that tactical cooperation with YPG must not be transformed into a political commitment.” (Brookings Instituion, September 2017)
  • Hal Brands, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writes: “U.S.-Russia tensions are rooted primarily in the deep-seated clash between America’s desire to preserve and expand the liberal international order, and the desire of Russian policymakers to resist, revise and undermine that order. Putin himself has been explicitly telling us this in both his rhetoric and his policies, particularly the invasion of Georgia in 2008, the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the intervention in Syria in 2015 and the ongoing efforts to undermine NATO and the European Union and meddle in Western political processes.” (The Washington Post, 09.22.17)

Other important news:

  • A military victory in Syria's six-year civil war is "now within reach" for Syrian government forces following a series of battleground gains, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told the U.N. General Assembly. (RFE/RL, 09.23.17)
  • Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz is expected to visit Russia Oct. 4-7. In the first-ever Russia visit by a Saudi monarch, Salman is to reportedly discuss Syria, the Qatar blockade and oil production with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Reuters, 09.21.17, Wall Street Journal, 09.21.17)
  • U.S.-backed militias expect to push all Islamic State fighters out of Raqqa in less than a month, a Kurdish commander said Sept. 25. (Reuters, 09.25.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Sept. 25 to discuss the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian conflict. (Interfax, 09.26.17)
  • Russia and Turkey believe it is important to further coordinate efforts on Syria, where the establishment of four de-escalation zones opens the way for peace, the Kremlin reported following a phone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has earlier said his country is “achieving a result’’ by working with Russia in Syria. (TASS, 09.25.17, Bloomberg, 09.20.17)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev confirmed in a phone conversation that the Astana talks have contributed to the Syrian settlement. (TASS, 09.25.17)
  • Russia has quickly become the top funder of Kurdish oil and gas deals, with as much as $4 billion pledged in less than a year. Russia is the only major power that has not called on Iraq’s Kurds to cancel a referendum on independence next week. (Reuters, 09.20.17)