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Russian soldiers in Syria to stay

Russian soldiers in Syria to stay
Four years after they intervened in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Russian military forces are digging in for a long stay -- cementing a presence that will have implications across the Middle East.Photo: AFP

TARTUS: Looking out over a park planted at Russia’s naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, 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. 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 Tartus, a sprawling complex on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean, Russian warships and submarines were on full display. 

But reporters were also 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 Assad at the end of September 2015, at the height of a civil war that saw jihadists and other rebels take control of large parts of the country. 

Russia’s intervention marked a turnaround and pro-regime forces have since retaken 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 are also believed to have operated in Syria, with reports of them serving on the front line alongside pro-regime troops. 

The conflict has been a crucial training ground for Russian forces abroad and testing opportunity for arms like Moscow’s Kalibr missiles and modernised Tu-22M long-range bombers. 

Some 3,000 Russian service personnel are now deployed in Syria, at facilities like Tartus and the Hmeimim airbase near Assad’s home town of Latakia. 

– ‘Good tactics but no strategy’ –

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 Assad is in power, Russian defence analyst Alexei Malashenko says. 

The bases are not the only payoff from Russia’s gamble in backing Assad. 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 Assad and Putin side-by-side. 

In the countryside west of Damascus, reporters were shown a Syrian army battalion wearing fresh uniforms and bullet-proof vests being trained by Russian advisers.

In second city Aleppo — where Assad’s forces retook full control in 2016 after years of heavy fighting — Russia has provided high-voltage cables and pipes that have brought electricity and running water back to some devastated neighbourhoods. 

Reconstruction efforts have so far been modest, with the international community wary of financing Assad. But the UN estimates the costs of Syria‘s post-war reconstruction at $400 billion and Moscow is well-positioned to play a prominent role in rebuilding the country. 

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

The northwestern province of Idlib on the border with Turkey remains outside government 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 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’s going to happen next.”

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