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Russia is signaling an increase of its military operations in Syria. That is perhaps because Syria's neighbor Turkey shot down a Russian warplane flying near Turkey's border. In his State of the Nation speech yesterday, President Putin warned the Russian people that the fight in Syria could be a long one. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Moscow.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: In late September when Russia began its bombing campaign in Syria, it went in to support the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in what officials said would be a short-term operation. Since then, things have gotten messier, with a Russian bomber shot down by Turkey. President Putin reminded Russians that it took nearly a decade to crush terrorists who staged attacks in Russia in the 1990s. He put the fight in Syria in the same terms. Here are his words through an interpreter.
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VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Terrorists in Syria pose a special threat. Many people there are from Russia, and if they win there in Syria, sooner or later, they will come to Russia as well and will continue with their terrorist activities here.
FLINTOFF: The Russian leader may be preparing people for a much longer fight in Syria. One element that will complicate the mission is Russia's now openly confrontational relationship with Turkey. When Turkey shot down Russia's warplane, the bomber was striking groups that Turkey supports in the north of Syria - the ethnic Turkmen who oppose President Assad.
AKIN UNVER: Because from the Russian point of view, that Turkmen area was a military threat against Russian airbase in Latakia.
FLINTOFF: This is Akin Unver, an expert at Kadir Has University in Istanbul.
UNVER: So that's when Russia started to attack along with Assad's forces on that key strategic point. And Turkey basically really disliked this because that was the only hurdle that prevented the Kurds from accessing the Mediterranean.
FLINTOFF: Unver is talking about Kurdish forces who'd like to capture that Turkmen area in order to control a strip of Northern Syria along the Turkish border. Because Turkey has a problem with Kurdish separatists on its own territory, Unver says the last thing it wants is a mini-state in Syria controlled by Kurds right next door. So, he says, one Russian strategy that would eliminate some of Assad's enemies and deal a retaliatory blow to Turkey would be to help the Kurds gain control of that region.
Russian officials promised quick success because they were working with troops on the ground, government troops loyal to Assad. But it might not be working, says Steven Pifer, an expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution.
STEVEN PIFER: The Russians have tried it with support for the Syrian Armed Forces. I'm not sure that's meeting thus far with a lot of success.
FLINTOFF: Despite heavy Russian bombing coordinated with the Syrian army, Assad's forces have had a hard time recapturing the ground they lost to rebels over the past year. If Russia steps up the tempo of its bombing campaign, it also increases the risk of civilian casualties. Various monitoring groups have accused Russia of killing more than 400 civilians since the bombing began. Pifer notes that the United States and other members of the Western coalition bombing Syria have restricted their targets to avoid hurting civilians.
PIFER: The relatively small number of air attacks that you've seen by the West over the last months has been really driven by the limit of targets that you could easily hit without doing a lot of collateral damage.
FLINTOFF: Pifer says that if Moscow decides it needs a bigger operation, possibly with Russian boots on the ground, it could find itself - in his words - in an unhappy quagmire. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
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