Russia will use Syria as a military training ground for years to come as part of President Vladimir Putin’s quest to cement his position at the head of a growing global power, according to new analysis published on Sunday.
Moscow's dominant reason for involving itself in Syria is to gather influence and prestige at the centre of one of the great geopolitical disputes between major powers, a new paper released by London-based think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) said.
Mr Putin first announced that Russia would send ground forces to Syria in 2015 in support of long-term ally Bashar Al Assad. He cited attempts to prevent the spread of extremism to Russia but the intervention has contributed to the sharpening tensions with the United States and its allies amid a struggle for influence in the country.
Both Russia and Iran are now seeking to parlay their military support for the regime into shaping the future of the country as Assad-backed forces close in on victory, according to a second Syria report published last week by the international affairs think-tank Chatham House.
“The Syrian state has become hostage to the regime’s external patrons, Iran and Russia,” the report said. “Russia is seeking to reshape Syrian state institutions to guarantee long-lasting loyalty to Moscow.”
The Russian military strategy of harnessing air power and small teams of special forces has proved effective in achieving Moscow’s aims without a serious loss of Russian lives that would have affected Mr Putin’s personal standing, said the author of the Rusi report Professor Rod Thornton, of King’s College London.
War in Syria has enabled the Russian military to gain valuable military experience and allowed Moscow to hold considerable diplomatic sway in the region, without falling out with regional power-brokers Saudi Arabia and Iran. The mission has also allowed its navy to take up position in the Eastern Mediterranean vacated by Nato as Washington turns to Asia.
Russia is upgrading its naval base at Tartus, on Syria’s western coast, to allow more of its ships to dock after securing a 49-year extension on its lease. “That agreement indicates that Moscow will seek to maintain, for an extended period into the future, its military commitment not only to Syria but also to the wider Eastern Mediterranean region,” wrote Prof Thornton in the Rusi Journal.
“Indeed, it is a commitment that will, as Putin himself has made clear, be ‘permanent’ in nature.
“And because there will doubtless be continued low-level conflict in the region, Syria will continue to provide a useful proving ground for Russian military equipment and a vital combat-training opportunity for military personnel.”