Russian warplanes have been bombing terrorist targets in Syria near the city of Aleppo. Moscow, however, says that the target for the planes taking off from its aircraft carrier moored off the Syrian coast is not the city itself. The intervention was expected as a new US President takes over the reins in Washington within the space of a few months. Russia took the sudden decision to wade into the Syrian conflict in September 2015. Its participation changed the contours of the war. To many the enduring question is of why Russia entered the fray?
For Russia, its official agenda is quite straight forward. Moscow has tried and tested links to Syria. A number of Syrian military officers were trained by them and their military is heavily equipped by Russian weapons. Its participation rescued the depleted Syrian military from certain collapse due to the onslaught of well funded opposition forces.
In 2015, the Russian parliament had ratified the open ended agreement and gave approval to its government full power to move cargo and personnel to Syria and out of the Arab country. The Syrian authorities will not interrupt or inspect any cargo. Russia has since then brought significant amounts of weapons and troops into the battle zone.
Syrian soldiers and the country's officials have welcomed Russian visits to Damascus. The former recalled their robust cultural affinity with Russia. The Syrians expressed gratitude to the Russians and said the latter helped them when it was required most. Russian officials, from their part, frequently say that their intervention stopped Islamic State from taking over Damascus.
Moscow and the US
For Moscow, backing President Assad was a winning strategy. The middle-eastern country transformed Russia from one petty actor on the Syrian battleground to an important player which can dictate terms across this part of the world.
The United States, understandably, is not happy with such a development. It has warned Russia that the latter's adventures would end in another Afghanistan like situation where the superior Russian forces were dealt a humiliating defeat during the cold war. Things have changed, however. Arab allies of the US in the region have expressed-in private confines- their admiration of how Putin has played the game. They admired the way the Russians achieved their targets with only limited involvement.
Russia has a few assets in Syria. The most important of them is the Tartus port. This is their sole seaport in the Mediterranean. It also has an airbase at Khmeimim in the north-west. The Khmeimim is also Russia's sole airfield in this part of the globe.