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Explainer: What in the name of Putin is Russia up to in Syria?

The Russian President doesn’t want to get bogged down in an un-winnable civil war.


shutterstock_83279605 It's approaching a crucial point where Russia must get out or risk losing its apparent gains. Source: Shutterstock/ID1974

RUSSIA’S ACTIONS AND intentions in Syria have been debated ever since Moscow’s jets began bombing targets inside the country at the end of last month.

From the beginning of their campaign, the US has accused Russia of bombing areas and positions not controlled by Islamic State militants.

It wasn’t just US officials though, journalists reporting from inside the civil war ravaged country said that Russia’s early mission objectives did not appear to be smashing the Islamic State.

Instead, it seemed to be more about destroying the various factions fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

It led to accusations from all quarters that President Putin had stolen a march on his western counterparts. The US and President Obama most especially. 

Source: Channel 4 News/YouTube

But this is Russia’s first military engagement outside the Soviet Union since the Cold War. It makes sense that Vladamir Putin’s goals were about more than just killing IS militants. What were they though?

As Russian bombing continued alongside US air-strikes on IS targets, the two militaries began at least co-ordinating manoeuvres so they wouldn’t get in each other’s way.

Putin wanted this to go further and dismissively castigated the US for not sharing their intelligence on IS positions with Russia.

Russian state television has began heavily trumpeting successes against IS recently and Putin has been using these claims to criticise Washington further.

PastedImage-9862 Source: AFP

Russia and the West do undoubtedly share a common goal in destroying Islamic State, rising fundamentalism is not in either’s interest, but Putin is likely surmising that achieving that result is only advantageous if they have a role in what happens next.

In that sense, hitching your cart with Assad seems the safest bet.

Putin certainly realises that some 30 Russian combat jets won’t be able to change the course of the war and allow Assad’s forces to win.

His apparent goals are more modest: to show all players that they will not be able to unseat Assad by force; to help cement the Syrian government’s grip on the territory it controls; and to foster political talks that could allow Moscow to protect its interests in the region.

Russia’s other main interest may be a little less measurable and is now approaching a crucial point.

Into their third week of their bombing campaign, Putin has already raised his nation’s global profile and proven its capability to project military power far from its borders.

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A projection of power was surely a big part of their agenda but this can only work if a superpower can hit hard and get out without getting bogged down in an insurgency.

Only this week, Obama has committed to keeping US troops in Afghanistan until 2017. That will make it nearly 16 years since the US first entered the country, hardly a projection of power.

Now, there is increasing evidence that Putin could already be on the lookout for an exit strategy to prevent his gains from turning into a liability.

Protracted Russian military action without any visible gains by the Syrian army would quickly erode the propaganda effect Putin has achieved with his bombing blitz.

The main challenge for Moscow is a peg on which to claim victory and get out.

A notable Syrian army battle victory or at least a modest sign of progress in negotiations on settling the conflict could provide a good excuse.

It’s just a matter of if Assad’s Syrian army can provide it, Russian air support or not.

With reporting from Associated Press

Read: Assad’s army starts ground campaign backed by Russian air strikes >

Read: Russia denies accidentally landing missiles in Iran instead of Syria >

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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