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Middle East

What does Russia want from its campaign in Syria?

Russian airstrikes support the Syrian regime to advance on rebel-held Aleppo - which would have been impossible a year ago. As thousands flee towards the Turkish border, Emma Burrows looks at Russia's endgame in Syria.

Refugee camps along the Syria-Turkey border are full, aid workers say, as thousands of people have fled the area around Aleppo in northwestern Syria. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has blamed a Russian bombing campaign, backing a Syrian government ground offensive, for forcing people from their homes. She has said she is "appalled" by the suffering of Aleppo. For its part, the Kremlin has said there is no proof casualties have been caused by Russian airstrikes.

The Syrian government has made huge advances in recent days on Aleppo, which used to be the country's biggest city. It has largely been under control of rebel forces and if the government took full control of the city it would see the pendulum of power in Syria swing definitively towards Bashar Assad's regime.

Keir Giles from Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program says this latest push should come as no surprise because the Russian aim has "always been to bolster the Assad government." But Russia has insisted it is attacking terrorist positions.

At the same time the Syrian government started its Russia-backed offensive, UN peace talks, aimed at bringing an end to the years-long conflict have stalled before they really had the chance to get going.

Syrische Flüchtlinge an der türkisch-syrischen Grenze

Refugee camps on the Syria-Turkey borders are full, aid workers say

A defeat, therefore, for the rebels in Aleppo would lead to a loss of leverage when it comes to negotiating any agreement for the future of Syria with the international community.

Threat of terrorism

The reason Russia says it became involved militarily in the war in Syria is because of the threat of the spread of Islamist violence. Vladimir Putin has said there are thousands of people from Russia and the former Soviet Union who have travelled to Syria to fight on behalf of terrorist organizations such as "Islamic State" (IS).

Some of the key commanders for IS are believed to be from the region of Chechnya inside Russia. The Russian president has repeatedly said that these people could pose a threat to the country should they return.

Russia has a history of terror attacks being carried out, most notably by groups from the North Caucasus. In 2002, Islamist militants took hostages in a Moscow theater, resulting in more than 100 deaths, and in 2011, 37 people were killed after a bombing at Moscow's Domodedovo airport.

More recently, IS claimed responsibility for downing a Russian airliner over Egypt which has perhaps made the Russian government even more determined to destroy the group in Syria.

Bolstering its role on the world stage

Russia's intervention in Syria, however, goes beyond simply combating terrorism and instead, according to Giles, presents "the opportunity to exercise power projection and use the armed conflict as a training opportunity."

In the absence of a clear western policy in Syria, Russia has stepped into the vacuum left behind, bolstering its role on the world stage.

As pro-Russian leaders across the Middle East, such as the Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, have been killed or overthrown, Russia has lost key allies. Syria, therefore, presents Russia with an opportunity to stop western nations "fostering regime change in the Middle East."

"After the invasion of Iraq and the Arab Spring," Giles said, "Syria is seen as one of Russia's few remaining chances to intervene and prevent the collapse of a Middle Eastern government, with all the chaos and destabilization that entails."

Watch video 01:37

Merkel condemns Russian airstrikes in Syria

Nikolai Kozhanov at the Carnegie Moscow Center agrees, telling DW previously that Russia thinks "Assad must stay as a main player because maintaining the government is the only way to save Syria from disintegration."

A foothold in the Mediterranean

The Russian campaign in Syria - backed by advanced warplanes, missiles launched from ships thousands of miles away in the Caspian Sea and the deployment of Russia's advanced S-400 anti-aircraft weapons system - also sends the message to the world that the country is still a military force to be reckoned with.

In addition to newer bases, it also has a foothold in the small Mediterranean port of Tartus which has been there since Soviet times. Russia does not want to give these advantages up.

"By positioning fighter and bomber aircraft, ground units and advanced air defense systems in Syria," Keir Giles says, "Russia is practicing their use against not just Syrian but Western forces."

Consolidating Putin's support

Domestically, the military campaign is also accompanied by a relentless media campaign.

Previously fed a diet of news about Ukraine, Russia's state-run television channels abruptly changed gears when the country became involved in the war in Syria, broadcasting the images of the country's military might across TV screens.

At the same time as funding an expensive campaign in Syria, Russia is battling with serious economic problems at home. A fall in the price of oil has caused the value of the Russian currency, the ruble, to plunge by more than half.

It has caused a gaping hole to appear in the country's budget and for the living standards of many ordinary Russians to decline. Last year, the economy contracted by 3.7 percent and real wages have fallen by 10 percent since 2014.

The Kremlin, therefore, needs a way to shore up support and inspire patriotism among the people in order to distract from the realities of the economic crisis. In Syria, it appears to have found one. Surveys done last year by the independent pollster the Levada Center indicate that after the media campaign began, support for airstrikes in Syria shot up.

Karte russische Luftangriffe in Syrien

Forgetting Ukraine

However, what the Kremlin campaign in Syria has been most successful at, says Giles from Chatham House, is at creating a diversion.

Following its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and backing for pro-Russian separatists in the east of the country, Russia has been under western economic sanctions. The campaign in Syria is being used by the Kremlin to suggest that other world powers have to engage with Russia - which is party to the UN-backed Syria peace talks - if they want to achieve a lasting settlement in Syria.

This could have a huge impact on US and European leaders and back at home in Russia because, Giles says, "now that the focus of attention has moved on, the illegal annexation of Crimea has been almost completely forgotten, with the result that EU sanctions against Russia are looking more fragile than ever."

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