MOSCOW Aleppo's return to full Syrian government control could give Russia an opportunity to scale back or suspend its air strikes, but Moscow is keeping its options open, experts close to the Kremlin and the defence ministry told Reuters.
Russia's aim, which it believes it is close to achieving, is to decisively alter the balance of power so that the Syrian government, the Kremlin's closest Middle East ally, holds a strong set of cards if and when it negotiates with its enemies.
The past two weeks have seen one of the biggest advances of the five year civil war by Syrian government forces, backed since the autumn by Moscow's military intervention.
Intensive Russian air strikes have crushed rebel positions, allowing the army and allied Lebanese and Iranian fighters to come close to encircling Aleppo - Syria's largest city before the war - half of which has been in rebel hands for years.
"If Aleppo is taken, then we can seriously ask the question about the time frame of this (Russian) operation," Elena Suponina, a senior Middle East analyst at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, which advises the Kremlin, told Reuters.
"It will be a turning point after which we can undertake at least a preliminary review. The fate of Aleppo will decide the fate of Syria to a large degree, the fate of the Geneva talks, and the time frame of the Russian military campaign in Syria."
The United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other powers meet in Munich later on Thursday to try to revive talks around the conflict that foundered earlier this month.
The West has blamed the Russian-backed advance for torpedoing the negotiations, the first peace talks for two years, which collapsed last week before they had begun.
Washington wants an immediate ceasefire to allow talks to resume. One Western official says Moscow is willing to discuss a ceasefire, but only from March 1. That would allow more than two weeks to complete the encirclement of Aleppo.
One of Russia's main conditions for such a ceasefire, according to one Russian diplomat, is that the Syrian-Turkish border be sealed in such a way that militants and military supplies cannot cross it. Damascus says it aims for its forces to reach the border and secure it as part of the Aleppo advance.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, told reporters on Wednesday that the Syrian army was carrying out legitimate operations along the border to clear the area of militants.
She said Russian air strikes were creating a "wonderful" atmosphere for the Kremlin's counter-terrorism operation.
KREMLIN PAY OFF
Suponina said the success of the Syrian military in coming weeks could determine how much further Russia needs to intervene to support its ally: "The more the Syrian army manages to do, the better it is in Russia's view," she said.
The Kremlin launched its air strikes in Syria on Sept. 30 after Moscow became concerned that President Bashar al-Assad was just weeks away from falling. Its intervention, backed by military trainers and advisers, changed the course of the war, giving Assad's forces momentum.
Alexei Pushkov, the head of the lower house of the Russian parliament's foreign affairs committee, said in October that Russian air strikes would last "three to four months".
Russian diplomatic sources say Pushkov was expressing a personal opinion. Pushkov did not respond when asked this week how much longer he thought the operation would continue.
People familiar with Russian thinking say that once involved, Moscow quickly realised the Syrian army was in poor shape and that it would be unable to make the kind of gains quickly enough that Moscow was hoping its support would deliver.
It is only now, they say, more than four months later, that the Kremlin is beginning to feel its efforts are paying off.
"The Syrian army back then was on its last legs," said Ivan Konovalov, director of the Center for Strategic Trend Studies in Moscow. "Now, thanks to Russian involvement, the situation is very different."
Russian instructors had taught the Syrian army how to use new weapons, he said, and had helped them with tactics showing them how to ensure their artillery and infantry coordinated their actions with air power.
He said the immediate military aims were clear.
"The goal is to totally liberate Aleppo and then to seal the northern border with Turkey," said Konovalov. "The offensive should not be stopped - that would be tantamount to defeat."
Further out, he said Russia's expanded military presence, which now includes an air base as well as a naval facility, would be permanent under the terms of a deal signed with the Syrian government.
There are no visible signs that Russia is preparing to wind down air strikes. It bolstered its forces in Syria recently, dispatching its most advanced military jet - the Sukhoi-35S - to join its strike force of around 40 fast jets.
And even though Russia is weathering an economic crisis, diplomats and officials say the financial cost of the operation is tolerable.
The human cost has been higher. Although the official Russian military body count is just four, Islamic State claimed it blew up a Russian passenger plane over Egypt in October, killing all 224 people onboard, in revenge for Syria.
But Russia's military, which has relished the chance to show the world its capabilities, is unlikely to stop until it is confident it has altered the balance of power decisively.
It would be unthinkable, said Konovalov, for the Kremlin to call it a day before Aleppo was recaptured.
"What is the point of our military operations in Syria if our involvement is not validated by military victories?" he said.
(Editing by Peter Graff)
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