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Russia seeks firm foothold in strategic Syria

26 september 2015, 12:39
0
Russian President Vladimir Putin. ©AFP
Russian President Vladimir Putin. ©AFP

Russia has shocked the West by boosting its military presence in Syria as President Vladimir Putin seeks to not just defeat Islamic State radicals but also to gain a firm foothold in the strategic Middle Eastern country, AFP reports.

Putin has seized the initiative more than four years into a civil war that has killed more than 240,000 people and led to the emergence of IS, amid the collective failure of the international community to stop the violence.

At the end of June, Putin proposed the creation of a broad military coalition that would partly rely on the Syrian army to fight Islamic State.

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sought to sell the idea to his US and Saudi counterparts as well as various Syrian opposition groups, Russia's arms industry stepped up deliveries to the Damascus regime.

Russian warships sailed through Istanbul's Bosphorus Strait towards the Syrian port of Tartus where Russia has a naval facility.

In recent weeks, US satellites have recorded increased activity by Russian forces at an airport in the coastal region of Latakia, the ancestral heartland of President Bashar al-Assad.

Washington and NATO say that recent spottings of helicopters, bomber jets, ground attack aircraft, tanks and soldiers prove that Russia is building an airbase. 

If such buildup is officially verified -- and more importantly deployed -- this would be the Russia's first military engagement in a distant theatre of war since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.

The Russian army has not ventured outside the former Soviet Union since its breakup in 1991, although it fought a brief war with Georgia in 2008.

  'Time for action' 

In Moscow, a Russian diplomatic source summed up the high spirits in the Kremlin: "The time for buildup has simply passed. This is the time to put our proposals into practical use."

This is not the first time that Putin played for high stakes in this crisis. 

In late August 2013, after hundreds died in chemical attacks near Damascus, US President Barack Obama abandoned air strikes on installations of the Syrian regime, as the Russian president came up with a surprise proposal for Damascus to hand over its chemical weapons. 

Assad avoided air strikes and started to regain confidence.

Two years later, Moscow's efforts are still focused on the same objective: supporting the Syrian army and gaining a foothold in Syria, a country at the crossroads of the region's geopolitics.

"We began stepping up our activities when we realised that the coalition had failed and the West lacked any clear plan for the future," said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry.

If Russia is deploying troops in Syria, it must be intending to put them to use, said independent Russian military analyst Alexander Golts.

"It's like in a Chekhov play, if there's a gun hanging on the wall, that means it will fire," said Golts, saying that airstrikes were "possible."

  Sphere of influence 

One senior Syrian official called Russia's military involvement a "turning point."

"Russia wants to remind the US that its relations with Damascus date back more than 50 years and that this country is in its sphere of influence," the official said.

"That's also a message to the countries in the region that Russia intends to become a key player here once again," he said.

The official, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, believes Washington has not intervened directly in Syria because it does not see its national interests affected by the conflict there.

"For Russia, Syria does directly touch its interests because of its position on the Mediterranean and in the Middle East," he said.

Even limited air strikes by Russia could have significant results, said Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Deploying aircraft "means that everybody has to pay attention to Russia," he said.

"Even if you fly a few demonstrative sorties, that will give you leverage."

Russia's military engagement in the region can only be within limits. While it has the port of Tartus and apparently a base in Latakia, the US boasts military bases in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.


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