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Russian airstrikes in Syria challenge US regional dominance

With its airstrikes in Syria, Moscow has made a dramatic show of force on the world stage. But experts say Moscow's military intervention is more about expanding Russian influence in the region than fighting 'IS.'

It was a shot heard around the world. For the first time since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Russia has conducted major military strikes outside of the former Soviet Union.

On Wednesday, Russian warplanes bombed targets in Syria near the city of Homs. Moscow has been building up its military presence in the country for weeks now, stationing warplanes, tanks and marines at an airbase near the city of Latakia.

At the United Nations on Monday, President Vladimir Putin called on for the formation of a broad international coalition to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against the "Islamic State" (IS).

"We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face," Putin said.

The Kremlin claims Wednesday's strikes targeted Islamic State militants. But according to US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Islamic State fighters are "probably" not present in the region north of Homs.

Meanwhile, the Western-backed opposition National Coalition said all 36 casualties were civilians, five of them children.

"This isn't about fighting the Islamic State, this is about helping bolster the Syrian government forces and making them more reliant on the Russians for their continued success," Jeffrey Mankoff, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told DW.

Russian goals in Middle East

According to Stephen Blank, Moscow is interested in establishing a stronger foothold in the Middle East. While Russia has leased a naval base at the Syrian port city of Tartus since the Soviet era, the Kremlin's recent buildup could lead to an expanded permanent presence in the region.

"They intend to have long-term bases in Syria," Blank, an expert on Russian foreign policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, told DW. "They're not just there to save Assad. They're there to stay as long as they can."

Russland Stealth-Kampfjet T-50

Experts say Russia's military buildup is aimed at establishing a stronger Middle East foothold.

During his speech at the UN on Monday, Putin criticized the emergence of "a single center of domination...in the world," a clear reference to the United States. Mankoff believes Russia is trying to challenge this order in the Middle East.

"Before this intervention, Russia was a player in the Middle East that obviously had influence in Syria, but had seen a lot of other places where it had lost its influence with the fall of Saddam Hussein and the fall of Gadhafi," Mankoff said.

"This is the most significant step in terms of Russia trying to insert itself as a broker in the Middle East," he continued. "They are basically trying to challenge the notion that the US is the key outside force in the region that's the shaper of the regional balance."

Competing coalitions in Syria

According to Blank, Russia is forming its own coalition in Middle East made up of the Assad regime, Iran and Iraq. Baghdad acknowledged on Wednesday that it's sharing intelligence with the Kremlin, but denied it's coordinating military operations.

"They also want to create this coalition of Shiites against ISIL," Blank said, using an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group. "So you end up with a situation where all the Shiite states are fighting ISIL in order to keep Bashar Assad in power and for the benefit of Iran."

"They decided that they needed to show they're a reliable coalition member, and therefore launched the airstrikes," Blank said.

For the past year, the United States has led a coalition made up primarily of Sunni states - Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – against Islamic State. Washington and Moscow have already held talks in order to order to avoid any military run ins.

According to Mankoff, some of the Russian warplanes stationed in Latakia are not for ground attack. They're air superiority fighters, "which would seem to indicate they're there for a kind of deterrence role in case the US or somebody else wanted to establish a no-fly zone or further attack Assad forces."

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