All signs point to indefinite Russian occupation of Syria

AFP and Caravanserai


A Russian Orthodox priest blesses a Russian army general at the Russian military base of Khmeimim, Syria, on September 26, 2019. 'Every necessary comfort' has been provided Russian soldiers in Syria, including bakeries serving Russian pastries, wooden saunas known as banyas and even onion-domed Orthodox chapels filled with icons. [Maxime Popov/AFP]

TARTUS, Syria -- 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.


Russian soldiers play basketball during their time off in the Syrian Mediterranean port city of Tartus on September 26, 2019. 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. [Maxime Popov/AFP]


Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (2nd left) and senior officials of the Russian Defence Ministry and Russian military General Staff last November to discuss long-term plans. [Kremlin]

At the base in Tartus, a sprawling complex on 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, wooden saunas known as banyas and even onion-domed Orthodox chapels filled with icons.

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

Moscow launched its campaign in support of al-Assad at the end of September 2015, at the height of a civil war that saw Islamist militants 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 -- including the notorious Wagner Group -- 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.

About 3,000 Russian service personnel are now deployed in Syria, at facilities like Tartus and the Khmeimim air base.

Russia's support has seen controversy on the international stage.

The United States on September 26 announced new sanctions targeting a Russian smuggling operation in Syria after confirmation of another chemical weapons attack by al-Assad's forces.

The al-Assad regime used chlorine on May 19 in Latakia Province during its offensive to take back the last major rebel stronghold in nearby Idlib, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

That was one of the many confirmed uses of chemical weapons by the Russia-backed regime, including one last year that killed 80 people in Douma.

To protect its Syrian ally, Moscow has also continued to veto United Nations (UN) resolutions on the conflict.

Russia and China on September 19 vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backed by 12 of the 15 member states. It called for a ceasefire in Idlib Province.

Germany, Belgium and Kuwait had led the push for the resolution, noting that half a million Syrians have been displaced in Idlib since government forces opened an offensive in May.

They warned that the conflict could become the century's worst humanitarian crisis if the fighting persisted and urged Russia not to veto what they said was a "purely humanitarian" measure.

'No strategy'

Meanwhile, 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.

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.

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.

Still, challenges remain, and nothing is certain in Syria.

The 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 al-Assad, Russian defence analyst Alexei Malashenko says, Russia may have left itself vulnerable.

"Russia has no other way out. It has good tactics but no strategy," he says. "Nobody knows what's going to happen next."

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Russians will be severely punished for crimes against the Syrian people