Russia in Syria Monitor, Oct. 11-18, 2016

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Russian and Syrian forces will halt their offensive in the eastern districts of Aleppo for eight hours on Oct. 20 to allow civilians and rebels to leave the embattled city, the Russian Defense Ministry announced on Monday. Speaking at a briefing in Moscow, Lt. Gen. Sergei F. Rudskoi, a senior Russian military official, said that Russian and Syrian forces would halt fighting from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Oct. 20. Such ''humanitarian pauses'' will be regular, he said, and will give temporary relief to the divided city. Late on Monday afternoon, Russia's envoy to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, said Russia's offer was ''unilateral'' and that a longer cessation of hostilities – even one for 48 hours – was only possible when Russia's principal demand is met: the separation of the Nusra fighters from the other rebel groups. (New York Times, 10.17.16)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow had the means to protect its assets in Syria if the U.S. decided to carpet bomb the government's military air fields. “This is a very dangerous game given that Russia, being in Syria at the invitation of the legitimate government of this country and having two bases there, has got air defense systems there to protect its assets," Lavrov said. (RFE/RL, 10.09.16)
  • Just days after the Russian government authorized an indefinite combat mission in Syria, the State Duma is considering another military maneuver: changing the law on military service to offer short-term contracts to Russians eager to fight in specific wars. It is a move that experts say is aimed at formalizing the status of unrecognized Russian mercenary forces fighting abroad. (The Moscow Times, 10.17.16)
  • Senior commanders in the Sunni Palestinian Quds Brigade, known as the Liwa al Quds or the Syrian Arab Army Fedayeen, have been photographed receiving medals from Russian military officers for battlefield action.  (Long War Journal, 10.14.16)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The National Security Council’s meeting on Friday chaired by President Barack Obama considered options such as shipping arms to U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria, and increasing the quantity and quality of weapons supplied to opposition fighters in Aleppo and elsewhere, but these options were deferred until later, officials said. U.S. military action to stop Syrian and Russian bombing of civilians was even further down the list of possibilities. (The Washington Post, 10.17.16) 
  • American intelligence experts have informed the White House that the Kremlin's goal appears to be to help the Assad government take Aleppo during the waning months of the Obama administration so that Russia can re-enter talks on Syria's future in an even stronger position. Much of the Russian and Syrian bombing has been directed at hospitals, water treatment plants and other civilian infrastructure in what American officials assert is part of a heavy-handed military campaign to force the surrender of eastern Aleppo and other rebel-held areas. (New York Times, 10.12.16)
  • European Union foreign ministers on Monday pledged swift action to broaden sanctions against the Assad regime in Syria and called on Russia to live up to its responsibilities and end the bombing of Aleppo immediately. EU foreign ministers slammed Russia's use of a veto to block a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an end to the bombing of Aleppo and urged Russia "to demonstrate through policies and actions all efforts" its willingness to stop the attacks. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said no EU country has raised the idea of imposing sanctions on Russia, despite its support for President Bashar al-Assad in his offensive on Aleppo. (AP, 10.17.16, Wall Street Journal, 10.17.16)
  • The U.S. and some EU nations have raised the prospect of punitive measures against Russia if the bombing continues. The U.S. and the U.K. have been most vocal in their support for exploring sanctions. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will broach the subject later this week at a summit of EU leaders, raising the possibility of sanctions aimed at Russia’s aircraft industry and defense ministry. While Merkel’s spokesman on Monday signaled that sanctions could be considered, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed skepticism about their effectiveness. In Europe, the French and Italian governments have sounded the most cautious with France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault warning against a “cycle of sanctions for sanctions’ sake.” His Italian counterpart Paolo Gentiloni said on Monday in Luxembourg that sanctions related to Syria were “unrealistic and not viable.” (Bloomberg, 10.17.16)

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

  • Russia’s completion this month of an integrated air defense system in Syria has made an Obama administration decision to strike Syrian government installations from the air even less likely than it has been for years, and has created a substantial obstacle to the Syrian safe zones. While there is some disagreement among military experts as to the capability of the Russian systems, particularly the newly deployed S-300, “the reality is, we’re very concerned anytime those are emplaced,” a U.S. Defense official said. “We’re not sure if any of our aircraft can defeat the S-300,” he said. With the installation of a comprehensive, potent Russian air defense system, many U.S. military officials see use of U.S. air power as risking a great power game of chicken, and possible war, according to senior administration officials. (The Washington Post, 10.17.16)
  • Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin said that tensions with the United States are probably the worst since the 1973 Mideast war. (AP, 10.15.16)
  • Former Soviet leader and Nobel laureate Mikhail Gorbachev has warned that the world has reached a "dangerous point" as tensions between Russia and the United States have soared over the Syria conflict. (RFE/RL, 10.11.16)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Addressing a Goldman Sachs event in 2013, in one of the speeches that WikiLeaks published on Saturday, Hillary Clinton said as secretary of state she had advocated secretly arming the Syrian opposition and moving forcefully to counter the Russians, who at that point were supporting President Bashar al-Assad but had not yet fully entered the conflict. (New York Times, 10.16.16)


  • Robert Kaplan of the Center for a New American Security wrote: Vladimir “Putin sees this as one fluid Eurasian theater, if the U.S. were to put pressure on Putin in Syria, say, he could easily respond in the Baltic states. Such a reaction would be designed to split the Western alliance.” (Wall Street Journal, 10.16.16)
  • Neil Macfarquhar of The New York Times wrote “Once the agreement with Washington fell apart, Mr. Putin went all out to win Aleppo for Mr. Assad, no matter the price on the ground, to help Damascus gain control over some swaths of western Syria that would then force the opposition into an agreement.” (New York Times, 10.14.16)

Other important news:

  • Talks between the United States, Russia, and regional players on how to end the Syrian conflict ended in the Swiss city of Lausanne on Oct. 15 after more than four hours with no concrete action to stop the violence. (RFE/RL, 10.15.16)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has canceled a planned visit to France on Oct. 19 amid a row over the war in Syria, after French President François Hollande reportedly sought to limit their meeting to a discussion of the five-year-old conflict. (RFE/RL, 10.11.16)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out at the West over Syria on Oct. 12, saying the U.S. and Europe were unfairly placing blame for the breakdown of a cease-fire on Moscow. Putin said a September airstrike on a humanitarian convoy in Aleppo—an attack that U.S. officials blamed on Syria and Russia—had been carried out by extremist groups. "It was a terrorist organization. And we know that the Americans know about that, but they prefer to take a different position, they prefer to make sweeping accusations against Russia," he said at an investor conference in Moscow. (Wall Street Journal, 10.12.16)
  • Russian President Vladimir Putin has criticized the U.S. government's attitude toward counterterrorism cooperation with Russia. Russia sends “our American partners information, and frequently there's no reaction,” Putin said. He blamed the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon on the U.S.'s decision to ignore Russia's warnings about one of the bombers. (The Moscow Times, 10.13.16)
  • French President François Hollande has delivered his toughest critique yet of the Obama administration's foreign policy, saying the decision not to retaliate against the Syrian government in 2013 for using chemical weapons encouraged Russia's military expansion into Ukraine and Syria. (Wall Street Journal, 10.12.16)
  • Russia's Defense Ministry blamed the U.S. for the breakdown of talks on Syria. Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov also said there was “no military solution” in Syria and called for Washington to “give up political ambitions and sit down at the negotiating table.” (The Moscow Times, 10.11.16)
  • Russia has accused British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson of “Russophobic hysteria” after he attacked the Kremlin for carrying out "war crimes" in Syria. (The Moscow Times, 10.12.16)
  • “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together, as an example,” Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said at the second presidential debate Oct. 9. “Iran now and Russia are now against us. So she [Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton] wants to fight. She wants to fight for rebels. There’s only one problem. You don’t even know who the rebels are. So what’s the purpose?” Trump said. “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS. And Iran is killing ISIS. And those three have now lined up because of our weak foreign policy,” he said. (New York Times, 10.10.16)
  • “Every day that goes by, we see the results of the regime by Assad in partnership with the Iranians on the ground, the Russians in the air, bombarding places, in particular Aleppo. Russia hasn’t paid any attention to ISIS. They’re interested in keeping Assad in power,” Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said at the Oct. 9 debate. She also said: “I think wherever we can cooperate with Russia, that’s fine. And I did as secretary of state. … So I would go to the negotiating table with more leverage than we have now. But I do support the effort to investigate for crimes, war crimes committed by the Syrians and the Russians, and try to hold them accountable.” (New York Times, 10.10.16)
  • "We trust Russia and its policy. The Russian policy is based on the morals, and not only on the interests. We know that they support us in order to eliminate terrorism and not because they want to ask something in exchange. So far they have not asked us for anything. These factors pushed me and the Syrian government to ask Russia for help," Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview with Russia’s Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. (TASS, 10.14.16)
  • Almost three-quarters of Russians believe that criticism of the Kremlin's military strategy in Aleppo is an attempt to weaken the country, a survey by state-run pollster VTSIOM reported Tuesday. (The Moscow Times, 10.18.16)
  • Egypt says it will host Russian troops this month for joint military exercises at the coastal city of El-Alamein. The training exercises, called “Guardians of Friendship,” will take place between Oct. 15 and 26 and include “elite units” as well as vehicles from both sides. (AP, 10.12.16)

News items for this digest curated by Simon Saradzhyan, director of the Russia Matters Project.