A good way of predicting Moscow’s next steps in the Syria conflict is to listen to what Russian political and military leaders say and prepare for the opposite. While other actors on this most bloody of stages have been characterised by their preference for short-term tactics, the Russians have long had a strategy for their involvement in the country.
Moscow’s strategy is born of its historic relationship with the Assad regime and its priorities for the future of a fast-changing Middle East. What is more, this is largely unchallenged and unaccountable.
Putin is aware that after five years of bloodshed in Syria what is and isn’t happening on the ground at a granular level is an unknown to all but the most ardent observers. Into this swirling fog of war the Russians have decided to paint their own narrative, realising that by controlling and sticking to consistent lines they can write the first draft of history while affecting the actions of others.
Last September the Syrian regime was on the back foot and there was increasing talk of a Turkish-sponsored “safe” zone in the north. Into this equation came the Russian air campaign that significantly changed the balance of power.
Russian military hardware was unleashed, with retreating Syrian opposition forces claiming that they could distinguish Russian from Syrian warplanes by the fact that Russian planes mainly attack at night and are both more accurate and intense.
Warnings from observers that Russian bombs were killing hundreds of civilians were flatly denied, with Moscow brazenly claiming that “not one” had died.
As quickly as they arrived, the Russians apparently left. In March, they declared victory and announced a withdrawal, as well as releasing press statements showing the medals that awaited their forces back home.
The importance the Russians give to narrative control and general PR was reflected in their embedded tours of airbases, but what happened in Palmyra would take things to an entirely new level.
The importance the Russians give to narrative control and general PR was reflected in their embedded tours of airbases, but what happened in Palmyra would take things to a new level.
Conscious that the liberation of the famous historical site from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL), would make global headlines in ways that other components of the conflict hadn’t, the Russians went into overdrive.
Journalists who covered the story of the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra performing in the Palmyra ruins where previously ISIL had executed prisoners told a story of hours of travel from Russia, more hours under heavy guard in Palmyra, for a performance that lasted only 15 minutes.
Resource and effort
The resources and effort dedicated to the performance show how far Moscow is willing to go to tell the story of its support to a beleaguered government in its fight against terrorism.
Yet with US diplomatic efforts to hold Russia to its words in Geneva stalling, this could soon change.
Following the much-publicised Palmyra concert came leaked footage showing what appeared to be a Russian forward operating facility being set up near the famous ruins.
The Pentagon confirmed that it was monitoring the facility while contradicting the story that the Russians had withdrawn, claiming its force numbers were fairly consistent with those before the announced departure.
A Russian Defence Ministry spokesman said that what was being reported in Palmyra wasn’t an airbase which would be “economically unviable”, but this measured argument was undermined when Russian Defence Minister Igor Konashenkov told the AP that it wasn’t even a base at all.
There is an understandable sensitivity about the status of Russian bases in Syria, with a historic focus on Russia’s only Mediterranean naval base in Tartus that was put into sharp perspective by Monday’s ISIL attacks on the town and the ones in Jableh that killed more than 120 people.
To date Russia has been able to call the shots because no other global power is willing to put as many chips on the table as them, or call their bluff. Yet simply saying that the Syrian war is won is different from winning it, and the one thing that has been consistent in this conflict has been its unpredictability.
Meanwhile, the Americans have shown that they are capable of their own surprises with the unannounced 11-hour trip to Kurdish-controlled northern Syria on Saturday by General Joseph Votel, the commander of US Central Command, leading to speculation that, with peace talks failing, Washington is looking to increase its other means of leverage.
A more immediate challenge for Russia over whether it is or isn’t building new military bases is whether it will support something tangible that it has already agreed to.
With a deadline of June 1 for the UN to lead airdrops of aid to besieged areas, something that surely is against regime interests, Moscow may be forced into revealing that its rhetoric is hiding a very different set of actions in the very near future.
James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.