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What is Russia doing in Syria now?

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a ceremony to unveil a commemorative plaque, dedicated to Russian former ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov, who was assassinated in 2016, in Moscow, Russia December 19, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

Steffan de Mistura, the UN envoy to Syria, met Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow yesterday, while the latest round of Syria peace talks are under way in the Kazakh capital Astana. Russia's parliament also ratified a deal to expand the country's naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus. All this raises new questions about what Russia wants in Syria.

Earlier this month, Russia ordered a partial withdrawal of armed forces from Syria, with President Vladimir Putin saying that, along with the Syrian army, Russia had "defeated" the "most lethal group of international terrorists", referring to the Islamic State group.

"They are trying to stay in Syria," says Mathieu Boulegue, Russia expert at Chatham House in London. "They are withdrawing the heavy fighting element but they certainly are keeping [...] a heavy military presence in the region."

Keeping the US out

Moscow has had the Tartus base since 1971, and now it's the only base Russia has outside the former Soviet Union.

Keeping this base is key in Russia’s competition with the US for power in the Middle East, Boulege suggests. "You have the unequivocal and primary goal of the Russian military intervention: to counter US military intervention." And with a strengthened Tartus base, "Russia will keep access for its forces in the region.

The Iranian factor

It’s worth noting that Iran is another country with a big presence in Syria and a delegation in Astana. Moscow and Tehran have backed the same side in the Syrian Civil War, supporting President Bashar al-Assad's government.

That's while, along with Turkey, Russia and Iran have brokered eight rounds of peace talks in Astana, including this one.

But Yossi Mekelberg, Middle East expert at Regent's University London, argues that "until they got the upper hand militarily, Russia was important for Iran and vice versa. But, essentially, they are rivals, and Russia would like to see a decrease in Iranian influence."