Russia's air strikes in Syria: What's in it for Vladimir Putin?

(REUTERS) - After more than four years of devastating war in Syria and mounting losses for President Bashar al-Assad, Syria's ally Russia has finally joined the fray.  

Moscow's move to begin air strikes last week came with a formal request from Mr Assad himself. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a lot is at stake, says Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Aleksei Malashenko. "Don't forget that Syria and personally Bashar is a last pillar, I would say remnant, of the post-Soviet heritage. And to lose it forever, it was considered by Putin to make a big mistake."

Moscow has backed the capital Damascus ever since the conflict began in 2011, supplying the country with weapons, aid and shielding the country from UN sanctions. But as Mr Assad's control of Syria was reduced, Mr Malashenko says Mr Putin had to do what he could to keep Mr Assad propped up.

"They began this military operation in order to make Bashar more strong, to save him for a certain time," Mr Malashenko added. "For a year or half a year, then to create a coalition. And that will be period of transition. And everybody will be satisfied. And Russia, and Bashar and even the United States, the West."

The air strikes have not been without controversy.  Russia say it is targeting Islamic State, yet many strikes have hit other insurgent groups who oppose Assad.  

Mr Malashenko warns that any further Russian involvement could backfire. "It's useless, it's senseless. And it is very dangerous for Russian foreign politics. And even I can admit for authority, for popularity of Putin within Russian society."  

Russia's air strikes have reportedly been planned for months, giving new ammunition to a conflict that shows no sign of ending.