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World

Examining Russia's Military Capabilities In Syria

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

There are many questions in the West about Russia's intentions in Syria. Russia says its airstrikes are targeting the Islamic State and other rebel groups. NATO says Russia's targets mostly include moderate opponents of Bashar Assad's regime. Over the weekend, Russian warplanes twice entered Turkish airspace which is a NATO member, and NATO says that was no mistake. For more, we reached military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in Moscow. Welcome to the program.

PAVEL FELGENHAUER: Hello. Welcome to you.

MONTAGNE: What are Russia's goals in Syria as you see them?

FELGENHAUER: Well, the Russian goals are clear. We want to support the Assad regime and its forces. Russian president had said that these are the only forces that are really fighting ISIS. And Moscow officials again have been rather clear that they consider everyone who's opposed to Bashar Assad fair game for Russian airstrikes.

MONTAGNE: From what you're saying, President Vladimir Putin's endgame is pretty straightforward. It's to keep Assad in power.

FELGENHAUER: What's happening right now - these bombing campaigns. They're kind of pre-play right now to soften up the opposition, but then comes the ground offensive. That's the big thing. Well, the idea is that we will be in the skies and bombing, and the offensive will be performed by the Syrian official army and with the Iranians and with the Hezbollah to retake lost cities and push the opposition over the border into Turkey.

MONTAGNE: ISIS, the Islamic State, has proved a lot tougher and a lot more resilient than I think anybody ever expected. Is the belief there - on the part of Vladimir Putin and his government - is the belief that they can knock out ISIS and actually get out of Syria just like that when, in fact, President Bashar al-Assad right now only controls a small percentage of his own country?

FELGENHAUER: Well, this coming offensive is not against ISIS at all. It's against the Syrian North occupied by other opposition groups. So it won't be going in the direction immediately of the strongholds of ISIS. It's against the Syrian opposition. ISIS is going to be later on because ISIS right now is not opposing Assad very seriously.

MONTAGNE: So again, just to be clear, your analysis is right now it's about the opposition to Bashar al-Assad. Once it eliminates that opposition, then it's going to worry about ISIS. But is ISIS not a big worry? The Islamic State would be the much tougher opposition. Would not Russia get itself into a quagmire with the Islamic State?

FELGENHAUER: Well, we can get into problems already now. When we go for the opposition forces, there's, by different counts, from 100,000 to maybe 200,000 - or something in between - fighters and the Assad opposition fighters there in Syria. And these people have been fighting for over four years, and I'm not sure that the Russian regimental strong air unit will be enough to rout them. The Russian officials have said that the Russian air campaign will continue as long as the Syrian forces are advancing.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

FELGENHAUER: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Pavel Felgenhauer is a military analyst for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, speaking to us from Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.