Analysis |

Russian forces eye long-term presence in Syria

By AFP

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A Russian and Syrian soldier stand together near al-Latamnah in Syria's Hama province on September 25th in a photo taken on a guided tour by the Russian army. [Maxime Popov/AFP] 

Looking out over a park planted at Russia's naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartous, the base commander points to a row of trees.

"These plants will have time to grow," the Russian says, his eyes shielded from the Mediterranean sun by a desert camouflage cap.

Four years after they intervened in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Russian military forces are showing no signs of leaving the country.

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Members of Russian and Syrian forces stand guard near posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin at the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province on August 20th, 2018. [George Ourfalian/AFP]

Just the opposite, in fact.

On a recent Russian defence ministry tour of Syria, journalists from AFP and other media saw Moscow's forces digging in for a long stay -- cementing a presence that will have implications across the Middle East.

At the base in Tartous, a sprawling complex on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, Russian warships and submarines were on full display.

But reporters also were shown gymnasiums where off-duty soldiers lifted weights, bakeries serving Russian pastries, traditional wooden saunas known as banyas and even onion-domed Orthodox Christian chapels filled with icons.

"Every necessary comfort" is provided to the Russian soldiers, an officer says.

Moscow launched its campaign in support of the Syrian regime at the end of September 2015. Its intervention marked a turnaround for the regime, with pro-regime forces retaking much of the territory once outside government hands.

Officially, some 63,000 Russian servicemen have passed through Syria during the campaign, including soldiers, sailors and pilots who at the peak of a bombing campaign were carrying out more than 100 sorties per day.

Hundreds of private Russian military contractors also have operated in Syria, with reports of them serving on the front line alongside pro-regime troops.

Some 3,000 Russian service personnel are now deployed in Syria, at facilities like Tartous and the Hmeimim airbase in Latakia province.

Long-term Russian military presence

Moscow has signed 49-year leases on the two facilities, giving Russia its first long-term military presence in the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin -- on a mission to expand Moscow's global influence -- has said his forces will stay in Syria as long as necessary.

"Our military is there to ensure Russia's interests in an important region of the world," Putin said during one of his marathon televised phone-ins last year.

"With these bases, Russia has consolidated its position" in Syria as long as al-Assad is in power, Russian defence analyst Alexei Malashenko says.

The bases are not the only payoff for Russia. Alongside Turkey and Iran, it is now playing a crucial role in international talks on the country's future, while developing closer ties with both Ankara and Tehran.

Away from the bases, Moscow's presence is being felt across the country.

Russian military vehicles patrol along roads where posters show al-Assad and Putin side-by-side. And in the countryside west of Damascus, reporters were shown a Syrian army battalion being trained by Russian advisers.

Positioned to profit from reconstruction

In Aleppo, where Syrian regime forces retook full control in 2016 after years of heavy fighting, Russia has been engaged in some reconstruction work.

Reconstruction efforts have so far been modest, with the international community wary of financing al-Assad.

But the UN estimates the costs of Syria's post-war reconstruction at $400 billion, and Russia has positioned itself to play a prominent -- and profitable -- role.

Still, challenges remain and Malashenko warns that nothing is certain in Syria.

The north-western province of Idlib remains outside Syrian regime control, despite a bloody regime offensive.

And hopes for a long-term political solution are low, despite the UN's announcement this month of the creation of a new constitutional committee.

By so clearly backing al-Assad, Malashenko says, Russia may have left itself vulnerable.

"Russia has no other way out. It has good tactics but no strategy," he says. "It is one step ahead, but nobody knows what is going to happen next."

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