Russia in Syria Monitor, Jan. 10-17, 2017

Details of Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • Satellite images captured from the Mediterranean and analyzed by security sources show that Russia has moved more equipment—including a dozen Su-25 fighter planes—to the regime-controlled Syrian city of Latakia. (The Independent, 01.12.17)

Response to Russia’s military campaign in Syria:

  • No significant developments.

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

  • Russia’s Defense Ministry says that it has signed an agreement with the Turkish Army to ensure flight safety over embattled Syria. The ministry said on Jan. 12 that the memorandum lays the groundwork for coordination between the two countries’ air forces to “prevent accidents involving planes and drones” in Syrian air space. (RFE/RL, 01.12.17)

Strategies and actions recommended:

  • “We must also be clear-eyed about our relationship with Russia,” U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said. “Russia today poses a danger, but it is not unpredictable in advancing its own interests. It has invaded Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war. Our NATO allies are right to be alarmed at a resurgent Russia,” he said. Tillerson also said the U.S. and Russia are “not likely to ever be friends,” adding that U.S. and Russian value systems “are starkly different.” Tillerson urged an “open and frank dialogue” so that “we know how to chart our own course.” Tillerson also faulted a lack of U.S. leadership for Russia’s aggressiveness. He said it’s a “fair assumption” that Putin knew about Moscow’s meddling in America’s 2016 presidential election and that “there’s no respect for the rule of law in Russia today.” (AP, 01.10.17, Bloomberg, 01.10.17, AP, 01.10.17, Wall Street Journal, 01.11.17, Just Security, 01.11.17)
  • “We have to think about changing the [NATO] treaty to front face the 21st and 22nd centuries,” U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s advisor, Anthony Scaramucci, said, adding the focus should now be on finding common cause with Russia. “Let’s try to find a way to get along better [with Russia]. We need to focus less on combatting Communism and more on rejecting radical Islam,” he said. (Reuters, 01.17.17)

Analysis:

  • Mike Pompeo, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), said that Russia had reasserted itself by invading Ukraine and “threatening Europe.” In the opening statement of his Senate confirmation hearing on Jan. 12, the Congressman also said that Russia had done nothing to defeat Islamic State militants. The CIA under his leadership, he said, would provide ”accurate, timely, robust and clear-eyed analysis of Russian activities.” (RFE/RL, 01.12.17, CNN, 01.12.17, RFE/RL, 01.12.17)
  • Henri Barkey, director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: “Following the cease-fire deal reached among Turkey, Iran and Russia, Russian aircraft for the first time bombed Islamic State targets in al-Bab, the current target of Operation Euphrates Shield. As the United States and Turkey remain mired in disputes over the nature of the operation and its goals, the bombing runs signaled that there were benefits to working with Moscow. As a result, the Turks appear to have agreed to allow Assad to remain in power in Damascus.” (Foreign Policy, 01.17.17)
  • Dana E. Abizaid, director of Studies for the Open Society Foundations’ New Scholars Program: “As long as the [Central Asian] region’s regimes continue to ignore the plight of ordinary Central Asians, more will join the ranks of ISIS and commit terrorist acts abroad.” (The National Interest, 01.16.17)

Other important news:

  • Russia wants incoming U.S. President Donald Trump to send officials to planned Syria talks in Kazakhstan on Jan. 23 in what would be the first formal contact with the new administration, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. Lavrov voiced hope that Russian and U.S. experts could start discussions on fighting terrorism in Syria during that meeting. Lavrov told his annual press conference on Jan. 17 that Syria was one of the most promising areas for U.S.-Russian cooperation. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Jan. 15 urged the incoming Trump administration to accept an invitation from Russia to attend the talks. (Bloomberg, 01.17.17, AP, 01.17.17, AP, 01.15.17, Reuters, 01.17.17)
  • Representatives of some Syrian rebel groups said Jan. 16 that they will attend talks sponsored by Russia and Turkey scheduled next week in Kazakhstan, despite mounting violations of a cease-fire across war-ravaged Syria. (AP, 01.16.17)
  • The Syrian capital of Damascus was two to three weeks away from falling to terrorists when Russia intervened in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference on Jan. 17. (Reuters, 01.17.17)
  • Chechen and Russian security personnel have launched large sweep operations to round up suspected members of a group of fighters said to be planning large-scale terrorist attacks at the behest of the extremist group Islamic State (IS). However, details of how many men have been apprehended or killed, and what their precise intentions were, remain unclear. Since Jan. 10, at least four and possibly as many as 10 men have been killed and up to 100 apprehended in eight towns and villages southeast of the Chechen capital of Grozny. (RFE/RL, 01.17.17)
  • Turkish officials on Jan. 17 confirmed the arrest of a suspect accused of fatally shooting 39 people at a New Year’s Eve party in an Istanbul nightclub. Officials say that he is Uzbek national Abdulkadir Masharipov who is linked to the Islamic State (IS) militant group and had received training in Afghanistan. (Reuters, 01.17.17)
  • The Iraqi army on Jan. 17 released a video which features passports belonging to Islamic State fighters from Russia. The documents were discovered in the recently recaptured University of Mosul. Among the Russian passports that can be seen in the video, one belongs to Andrei Katsuk, who was reported missing in July 2013 after he left Krasnoyarsk for Turkey. (The Moscow Times, 01.17.17)
  • Outgoing CIA Director John Brennan said he spent the morning of Jan. 16 making farewell phone calls to about a dozen foreign counterparts, including Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), with whom he has had a relationship the past four years. While it has grown “very tense” of late, Brennan said the final call was reassuring. “What I told him this morning was, despite the unpleasantness that we’ve had and despite the differences in a number of the policies of our government, that I very much hope that the CIA and the Russian intelligence services can work together in the future,” Brennan said, particularly on counterterrorism. (Wall Street Journal, 01.16.17)
  • If other countries are unable or unwilling to fight the Islamic State (IS), the Russian Army is prepared to battle them alone, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his annual press conference on Jan. 17. Lavrov maintained that U.S. troops only began to fight IS after Russian troops arrived in the region. (The Moscow Times, 01.17.17)
  • “There are a lot of examples showing that the Americans and their allies sneakily wanted to use al-Nusra and the IS to weaken and finally overthrow the Assad regime,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed. (Foreign Policy, 01.17.17)
  • “I think certain possibilities for constructive cooperation with the United States will present themselves in such areas as counterterrorism efforts, information security and in a number of other spheres,” Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolai Patrushev said. (TASS, 01.15.17)
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