23/12/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

What Is Russia's Endgame In Syria?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad (L) during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on October 20, 2015. Syria's embattled President Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit to Moscow on October 20 for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, his first foreign trip since the conflict erupted in 2011. AFP PHOTO / RIA NOVOSTI / KREMLIN POOL / ALEXEY DRUZHININ (Photo credit should read ALEXEY DRUZHININ/AFP/Getty Images)

The more than four years of conflict in Syria have seen many twists and turns as well as shocks and surprises. The entry of Hezbollah in 2013, the sudden rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Russia's involvement in 2015 have in many ways altered the dynamics of the conflict and caused major shockwaves within the US-led camp. With a multitude of actors, state and non-state, involved in the conflict it is extremely difficult if not impossible to predict what a post-war Syria would look like. In fact, Syria today is anyone's game and its auction has commenced.

While analysing the prospects of a stable post-war Syria, it is of particularly grave importance to consider the role of Russia. No possible roadmap for Syria would be possible without Russia's involvement. Russia's engagement in Syria can be divided into roughly two phases-- (a) Playing the role of a mediator (2011-2015) and (b) Engaging in direct overt action (2015 onwards). Moscow, since the beginning of the conflict, has been critical of the US position regarding Bashar al-Assad and has opposed almost every US-backed initiative in Syria. For Russia, Syria is its strongest Middle Eastern ally and losing is just not feasible.

Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean, Tartus, is in Syria and Assad's removal would also mean a Russian exit from there.

While harshly criticising the actions of the US, Russia has found itself militarily entrenched in the Syrian conflict since September 2015 and has also supported the controversial role played by the Islamic Republic of Iran. If the US-led camp is involved in Syria in order to protect its strategic interests, so is Russia. When two US-backed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions were vetoed by Russia in 2011 and 2012 respectively, they gave the reason that it included the option of a military involvement. While the US has been arming Syrian opposition groups, especially the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Russia on the other hand has been flooding the Syrian government with a steady supply of arms.

Vladimir Putin's decision to engage militarily in Syria further complicated the ongoing conflict. It also makes clear Putin's desire to secure Russia's interests in Syria and his dream of returning his country to its glorious past. Strategically, Syria is extremely important for Russia in the region. Russia's only naval base in the Mediterranean, Tartus, is in Syria and Assad's removal would also mean a Russian exit from there. Thus, military action would help secure this vital base. So far the military operations have only been limited to airstrikes and Russia has conducted its operations from the Latakia air base in Syria. If Assad was to remain in power, it would be possible to establish Latakia as a fully functional Russian air base.

Russia justified its entry into the Syrian conflict by stating that the Syrian government had asked for Russian help in combating ISIL. Russia regards Assad's government as the "legitimate" governing authority in Syria and Putin had clearly stated that Russia would only be targeting ISIL positions in Syria. This justification turned out to a complete farce when reports, especially by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), began to emerge that Russia was targeting opposition bases, including the secular FSA and there was a high civilian casualty rate in the Russian airstrikes. The latest report by SOHR claims that Russian airstrikes killed 34 citizens in Aleppo and Raqqa.Al Jazeera reported in November that around 400 civilians had perished in the Russian air campaign.

Putin had clearly stated that Russia would only be targeting ISIL positions in Syria. This justification turned out to a complete farce ...

This brings into question the legitimacy of the Russian airstrikes. Russia has also decided not to go soft in its military campaign. The array of Russian weaponry in display is stunning. From S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to the use of Sukhoi Su-24 and Su-35 fighter jets, Tupalov Tu-95 and Tu-160 strategic bombers, Mi attack helicopters and a variety of cruise missiles which have been launched from Russian destroyers positioned in the Mediterranean, Russia is not there just to simply dislodge ISIL. Its motives are strategic and it is also sending a message that Russia is here to stay for the long run. This means, most likely, that Assad will also stay.

The Syrian civil war started in 2011 as a movement to get rid of Bashar al-Assad's iron grip of power. The Assad family has been ruling Syria for more than four decades and it is known for committing genocides against its own people like the Hama massacre by Hafez al-Assad-led Ba'ath Party and the violence in Homs in 2012 by the Syrian Army. The democracy wave that spread throughout the Middle East signalled the end of many dictatorships in the region and it was in this hope of removing Assad's grip on power that the Syrian people started protesting. If Assad remains in power it will be against the spirit of the Arab Spring and would erase the hopes of the Syrian people to establish a fair and functioning democracy.

Russia is undoubtedly an important actor in Syria and any settlement is impossible without it. The involvement of Iran is also crucial and this was seen in the Vienna Peace Talks in October when Iran was officially invited for the first time to be a part of the discussions in Syria. This does not mean that Russia and Iran should go unchecked in Syria. While a proper solution should be reached with Russian involvement and its military operations against ISIL should continue, it is also important that Russia scales down its aerial bombardment campaign, especially against opposition groups.

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