One of the most popular queries in search engines across the world currently is “Who is the King of Syria”. As ironic as this search query is, Syria’s reality is a grim one. Russia has moved a small contingent of its military force in Syria, adding a volatile new dimension to Syria’s now four-year civil war. And on Wednesday, Russia made its first official airstrikes in Syria. If Putin’s goal is to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then contributing Russian airstrikes and attack helicopters will help the embattled leader on the margins, but they won’t change the fundamental calculus of the war. For one thing, this is likely to exacerbate outrage against Assad across the region, among non-jihadists and jihadists alike, and boost the legitimacy of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra that are his greatest threat. For another, the Putin-Assad coalition, joined by Iran and Hezbollah, is dominated by Shias and other non-Sunnis, which will deepen the sectarian dynamics of the war. Given that Assad represents a sectarian minority in Syria, that’s not a winning formula. The embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not close to falling. Perhaps it sees this that the latest entrant to this royal rumble is Vladimir Putin. Putin and his bombing campaign has reportedly struck U.S. allies and aided the forces of Syria’s dictator, something that the Russian establishment denies. That undermined one cornerstone of the American war effort—support of so-called “moderate” rebels—while making a second stated goal of the Obama administration more difficult: the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In effect, Moscow’s airstrikes were a message to Washington.
The campaign marks the Kremlin’s first major intervention in a distant foreign conflict since it invaded Afghanistan during the Soviet Union’s dying days and comes two days after Putin met President Barack Obama in New York. Putin said the campaign, launched hours after Putin got unanimous approval by the upper house of the Russian Duma for limited airstrikes, would last for the duration of a Syrian ground offensive, state media reported, and not include Russian ground forces. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said it had approved the intervention as part of a joint effort to combat terrorism. Syrian Civil Defense, a network of emergency workers who rescue Syrians from attacks, counted at least 33 civilians killed in Russian air strikes in Talbiseh and Zaafaraneh, two districts near Homs, including three children and a member of their group, dubbed the White Helmets.
Assad is fighting a war on various fronts, including a myriad of non-ISIS rebel groups in the country. Some of those groups are jihadists (al-Qaeda’s local branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, for one), and some just want to fight Assad’s atrocities. Despite Moscow’s rhetoric, it is these groups that Russia is targeting, according to Western commentators. Suffice to say, by backing a myriad of rebel groups, the Western forces had played a pivotal role in creating an environment for the ensuing rise of ISIS and the subsequent chaos in Syria. The Arab nation has long balanced itself between its two sponsors, Iran, and Russia, often favouring the latter because it is more powerful and more important. That began to change in 2011 and 2012 when the Syrian civil war began. Assad relied on Russia’s diplomatic protection against Western intervention, as well as Russian military hardware. But he came to rely much more on Iran, which provided not just hardware but military officers and boots on the grounds, as well as support from the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. Putin is perhaps seeking to change that, or maybe he just wants to flex his military muscle. Time will tell how this saga unfolds.