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Why Russia is in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shake hands in Moscow's Kremlin on Dec. 19, 2006. (AP photo/RIA Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press service, File)
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In recent days, there's been a steady stream of reports detailing an escalation of Russian military activity in Syria.

An investigation by Reuters, citing Lebanese sources, suggested that Russian troops had begun participating in operations in support of forces of the Syrian regime, a longtime Moscow ally. U.S. officials indicated that two Russian tank landing ships, aircraft and naval infantry forces had reached Syria this week.

This expanded military presence may signal Moscow's intent to play a more direct role in the Syrian endgame -- or at the very least help the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad preserve what limited control it has over the war-ravaged country.

But, as The Washington Post noted earlier, the move may not present a significant policy shift.

"Russia has never made a secret of its military-technological cooperation with Syria. Russian military specialists help Syrians master Russian hardware," a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman told journalists on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was a bit more direct. "We have always been frank regarding the presence of our military experts in Syria who help the Syrian army in training and learning how to use the equipment," he told a press conference in Moscow. "And if further steps are needed we will stand ready to fully undertake those steps."

The following day, Lavrov went even further, arguing that supporting the Syrian regime was essential if the world wanted to defeat the jihadists of the Islamic State.

"You cannot defeat Islamic State with air strikes only," Lavrov said on Friday. "It’s necessary to cooperate with ground troops and the Syrian army is the most efficient and powerful ground force to fight the IS."

Some speculate that Russia's actions are not a reflection of a genuine strategy, but rather, more crudely, are the tactics of an authoritarian regime holding desperately onto its remaining levers of power.

"It is the confrontation between Russia and the West that drags Russia into the Middle East," Nikolay Kozhanov, a fellow at London's Chatham House think tank, told NBC News.

This has been the case for quite some time. Ever since the days of Catherine the Great, political elites in Moscow have coveted their own dominion -- or at least, a sphere of influence -- in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

The Cold War brought more focus to Soviet ambitions. The United States, the Western superpower, had close allies throughout the region -- Israel, of course, but also authoritarian or military regimes in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran (until the 1979 revolution).

Syria and quasi-socialist Egypt gravitated to Moscow's orbit. Between 1955 to 1960, the Soviet Union gave Syria more than $200 million in military aid. Some Western and Israeli observers believe the Soviets played a key role in instigating the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which Israel won in six blistering days (with the U.S.S.R. nowhere to be seen).

The Syrian-Soviet alliance, though, tightened in 1971 with the rise to power of Bashar's father, Hafez al-Assad, a military officer who spent years in the Soviet Union learning to fly the MiG fighter jets that soon became the mainstay of Syria's air force.

His Baathist regime was built loosely on the model of a Soviet single-party state, supported by an all-pervasive network of intelligence agencies. Many of Syria's elites were educated in top Soviet schools in Moscow.

The Assad regime let the Soviet Union set up a repair and resupply center in the port of Tartous, a facility which is now Moscow's last outpost on the Mediterranean. Considerable Soviet military aid went to supporting the Syrian forces that intervened in fractious Lebanon in the mid-1970s and only finally withdrew in 2005.

Even in the past decade, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia accounted for the bulk of Syrian weapons purchases. In 2011, on the eve of the Syrian uprising, Russia had some $4 billion worth of outstanding weapons contracts with Damascus. An estimated 100,000 Russian citizens were still living in the country. Between 2009 and 2013, Russian companies invested some $20 billion in Syria.

"Since 2000, [President Vladimir] Putin has sought to restore Russia as a Great Power, shaping its policy as an anti-American zero-sum game in order to position the country as a counterweight to the West in the Middle East," wrote Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst at the Washington Institute, in 2013. "Syria is Russia's most important foothold in the region and a key to Putin's calculus."

But this footprint is a tiny dot compared to the influence and assets the United States and NATO have already in place in the region.

"It is not even a contest between David and Goliath, but between an elephant and a pug," wrote Russian military analyst Alexander Korolkov earlier this year. "Russia’s permanent naval task force in the Mediterranean, announced in March last year, will consist of 5-6 ships — a tenth of the size of the Soviet Union’s 5th Squadron, which was still inferior to its opponent."

It's unclear how much difference even the new escalation may make.

“There has always been a Russian presence in the Middle East,” the Atlantic Council's John E. Herbst told The Post. “It’s not surprising that they are reasserting themselves in Syria.”

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