Russia in Syria Monitor, Oct. 18-25, 2016

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • The Russian military said on Oct. 25 that the weeklong halt of Russian and Syrian air strikes on the besieged city of Aleppo will continue and six humanitarian corridors will remain open even as the Syrian army has unleashed a new offensive on the rebel-held neighborhoods. Lt. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi of the military's General Staff said Tuesday that Russian and Syrian warplanes have stayed 10 kilometers (six miles) away from Aleppo for a week. He said that "the moratorium on Russian and Syrian air strikes on the city will be extended." "It has decreased a lot. There hasn't been a lot of bombardment," Ibrahim Abu al-Laith, a civil defense official in eastern Aleppo, said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air strikes had resumed since the lull in fighting ended on Oct. 23, and that clashes this week have been largely confined to the front lines. (AP, 10.25.16, Reuters, 10.25.16)
  • Syrian state media and opposition activists say government forces and their allies have captured a high point in the city of Aleppo, where fighting with rebel groups resumed over the weekend. The SANA news agency said on Oct. 24 that the government troops took the hilltop of Bazo on the southern edge of Aleppo, near military bases. (AP, 10.24.16)
  • Syrian opposition activists said on Oct. 25 air raids on the northwestern town of Khan Sheikhoun have killed at least five people. (AP, 10.24.16)
  • A flotilla of Russian warships led by Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier is expected to deploy off Syria in late October to bolster the military operations propping up President Bashar al-Assad. Britain has sent two warships to shadow the aircraft carrier and its task force as it heads from Russia toward Syria.  (New York Times, 10.21.16, RFE/RL, 10.20.16)
  • Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said on Oct. 20 that Russia has radar evidence that two Belgian F-16 fighter jets struck the Kurdish village of Hassajek near Syria's border with Turkey on Oct. 18. A Belgian Defense Ministry spokeswoman denied the country's air force was active in the area at the time. Belgium's Foreign Ministry has summoned the Russian ambassador to Brussels over the claim. In response, Russia has also summoned the Belgian ambassador. (RFE/RL, 10.21.16, AP, 10.21.16)
  • Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu claimed that Russia's military operation in Syria has revealed the shortcomings of Russian military equipment, but did not disclose details. (The Moscow Times, 10.21.16)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Despite strong rhetoric against Russia's air bombardment of Aleppo, EU leaders failed to agree on a tough joint statement sending a clear message to Moscow that it could face punitive measures. Italy's Prime Minister Matteo Renzi prevailed upon other European leaders at the EU summit in Brussels on Oct. 21 to exclude tough language favored by France, Germany, the United Kingdom that would have explicitly threatened sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations that support the Syrian regime. The final EU statement strongly condemns attacks on civilians by Russia and the Syrian regime, calls for a lasting cease-fire, and declares that the EU stands ready to consider "all available options if these atrocities continue." “It is difficult to imagine that this could involve further sanctions against Russia,” Renzi told reporters after the summit.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that EU leaders agreed to consider sanctions on Russia if the "intensity of the bombing as we've seen in the past days continues." In remarks made prior to the summit Merkel said sanctions against Russia over its actions in Syria should remain an option for the European Union while U.S. and some EU nations have raised the prospect of punitive measures against Russia if the bombing continues.  However, Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed skepticism about their effectiveness and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz said dialogue, not sanctions are needed. In remarks also made prior to the summit, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said no EU country had raised the idea of imposing sanctions on Russia. At a separate meeting that had also taken place before the summit, European Union foreign ministers called on Russia to end the bombing of Aleppo. (RFE/RL, 10.21.16,  Bloomberg, 10.22.16, AP, 10.18.16, Bloomberg, 10.17.16,  RBTH, 10.17.16, TASS, 10.17.16, Wall Street Journal, 10.17.16) 
  • The Obama administration secretly weighed plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units in Syria. The plan, neither approved nor rejected, was left in a state of ambiguity that U.S. officials said reflects growing administration skepticism about escalating a covert CIA program that has trained and armed thousands of Syrian fighters over the past three years. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and others fear that the new weaponry could end up killing Russian military personnel, triggering a confrontation with Moscow. One senior U.S. official said that it is time for a "ruthless" look at whether agency-supported fighters can still be considered moderate, and whether the program can accomplish anything beyond adding to the carnage in Syria.(The Washington Post, 10.23.16)
  • Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the top United Nations human rights official on Oct. 21 called the weekslong bombardment and siege of Aleppo “crimes of historic proportions” that had turned the ancient Syrian city into a “slaughterhouse.” (New York Times, 10.21.16)
  • Russian warships heading for Syria could be used to target civilians in the besieged city of Aleppo, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on Oct. 25, calling on Moscow to implement a lasting ceasefire. (The Telegraph, 10.25.16)
  • NATO has begun flying its airborne early warning surveillance planes in support of the international coalition against Islamic State. The AWACS system won’t be used directly to target Islamic State. Instead, its powerful radar will be used to track the movement of coalition, Russian and Syrian aircraft inside Syria, providing the coalition air command in Qatar real-time information that can be used to deconflict operations or track the movements of war planes. (Wall Street Journal, 10.25.16)
  • “We think that Russia is a large important country with a military that is second only to ours, and has to be a part of the solution on the world stage, rather than part of the problem. But their behavior has undermined international norms and international rules in ways that we have to call them out on," U.S. President Barack Obama said. (Reuters, 10.18.16)
  • "Syria will remain a hotbed of terrorism as long as the civil war aided and abetted by the Iranians and Russians continue. So I have said, look, we need to keep our eye on ISIS. That is why I want to have an intelligence surge that protects us here at home. Why we have to go after them from the air, on the ground, online. We have to make sure here at home we don't let terrorists buy weapons - if you are too dangerous to fly, you are too dangerous to buy a gun. And I am going to continue to push for a no-fly zone and safe havens within Syria,” U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said during the Oct. 19 presidential debates. (RFE/RL, 10.20.16)

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

  • "The Russians have seized the initiative," said a senior Obama administration official involved in Syria discussions. "You can't pretend you can go to war against Assad and not go to war against Russia." (The Washington Post, 10.23.16)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • Privately, some of Hillary Clinton’s longtime advisers are already thinking about what mix of sanctions, diplomatic isolation and international condemnation they might put together if they take office to deal with Mr. Vladimir Putin and the fragile economic state he runs, an update of the “containment” strategy that George F. Kennan formulated for President Harry S. Truman in 1947. (New York Times, 10.20.16)


  • Michael Kofman of the Kennan Institute has offered his take on Russia’s decision to dispatch its only aircraft carrier to the Syrian coast in a piece for The National Interest. “Russia seeks to intimate that it is one of the few countries able to project military power to distant shores and present the image of having some parity with the United States,” Kofman writes of the Admiral Kuznetsov’s ongoing voyage. However, given the Admiral Kuznetsov’s history of breakdowns, this carrier  may not be the best way to demonstrate the Russian Navy’s recent strides, Kofman warns. (The National Interest, 10.21.16)

Other important news:

  • The entire territory of Syria must be “liberated,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in remarks televised Saturday, dismissing demands for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure as “thoughtless.” “There are just two options: Assad sitting in Damascus or the Nusra sitting in Damascus,” Peskov said in a reference to the Nusra Front. “And Assad must sit in Damascus to ensure a political settlement.” “The territory of Syria must be liberated,” Peskov said. “It must be liberated and everything must be done to prevent the country’s breakup, which could have catastrophic consequences for the entire region.” (AP, 10.23.16)
  • In September eight officials from Russia's Foreign and Defense Ministries brought proposals to Syria discussing the possibility of Syrian Kurdistan being granted "special status within the framework of Syria" by the Syrian government. The delegation was tasked with finding a solution to the Kurdish issue in Syria by having the parties agree to the memorandum. The Syrian government's delegation did not accept the agreement. (Al Monitor, 10.24.16)
  • Russian UN representative Vitaly Churkin told journalists that a new draft resolution on Aleppo by the UN Security Council "doesn't coincide with Russia's approach."  The text of the new document, prepared by New Zealand, includes a point calling for the "complete halt to all attacks which can harm the civilian population or the city's infrastructure, including the recently carried out air attacks." (The Moscow Times, 10.25.16)
  • Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov is calling on U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to ensure that what he called terrorist groups are separated from so-called moderate opposition fighters in Syria. Lavrov made the call in an Oct. 24 telephone conversation with Kerry, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. In his turn Kerry expressed concern about the renewal of attacks on Aleppo by Syrian government forces and Russian warplanes after a pause in the fighting last week, State Department spokesman John Kirby said. (AP, 10.24.16, RFE/RL, 10.25.16)
  • Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says Western outrage over a Russian bombing campaign in Aleppo is hypocritical because Western governments are carrying out a similar operation in the Iraqi city of Mosul. Lavrov said Oct. 25 that "the American coalition in Mosul is calling on residents to leave exactly like we did in Aleppo." (AP, 10.25.16)
  • “We must not drive the terrorists from one country to another. We need to destroy them [where they are],” Army General Valery Gerasimov, head of the General Staff for Russia's Armed Forces, said when commenting on the battle for Mosul. (The Moscow Times, 10.19.16)
  • Speaker of the People's Council of Syria, the country's legislative authority, Hadiya Khalaf Abbas, told Sputnik she considered Crimea an integral part of Russia. (Sputnik, 10.19.16)
  • 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)
  • The Islamic State’s Russian-language social media accounts have claimed that the notorious “executioner” Anatoly Zemlyanka was killed in the Iraqi IS stronghold of Mosul about a month ago. (From Chechnya To Syria, 10.20.16)
  • Federal Security Service officials in Russia’s Karachayevo-Cherkesia said Oct. 20 that they had detained six individuals in the North Caucasus for alleged links to the Islamic State militant group. In Russia’s North Caucasian republic of Dagestan, six militants have been killed. Russian police have killed two people suspected of carrying explosives in a vehicle after a shoot-out in the city of Nizhny Novgorod. On Oct. 20, a military court in Russia’s city of Kazan started hearings into the case against nine men charged with terrorism-related offenses. (TASS, 10.16.16, RFE/RL, 10.20.16, RFE/RL, 10.20.16,  RFE/RL, 10.23.16, AP, 10.22.16).
  • A court in Kazakhstan's northwestern city of Aktobe on Oct. 25 found Nurlan Omirbekov guilty of fomenting terrorism and religious extremism, kidnapping, robbery, extortion and inciting hatred. Investigators say Omirbekov planned to join the Islamic State terrorist organization in Syria. (RFE/RL, 10.25.16)

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