The ongoing Russian air strikes against mainly Syrian opposition groups not affiliated with the Islamic State have not only taken the United States off-guard, but also elicited a number of well-argued analyses on the causal factors of Russian actions. This debate, with few exceptions, underscores the irony and emptiness of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertion that he is fighting the Islamic State. In reality, his targets comprised almost all Syrian opposition groups. One argument contends that Russian actions are meant to prop up the shaky Syrian regime. Concurrently, some analysts argue that Putin’s view of the political landscape in Syria rests on dividing the country into two camps: one formal camp, led by the Syrian regime, and the other, a terrorist camp, led by a motley Syrian opposition groups, at the forefront of which is the Islamic State. In other words, Putin has painted all opposition groups in the terrorist corner, while at the same time acknowledging the legitimate rule of the Assad regime.
How persuasive are such arguments? No doubt the Russian military buildup in Syria, especially in the Alawi region of Latakia and Tartus, and recent Russian military involvement in the Syrian conflict are intended to prop up the Syrian regime. Since March 2015, the regime has lost significant territories consequent upon concerted attacks by a reconfigured Salafi-jihadist axis, funded and armed with sophisticated weapons mainly by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar. As I argued on these pages in May 2015, the al-Nusra Front-led alliance, under the name of Army of Conquest seized control of the Syrian city of Idlib in late March 2015, a major urban center with a population of around 165,000 people. Idlib is considered to be the second provincial capital to fall into opposition hands after Raqa, now a stronghold of the Islamic State. No less significant, this alliance united anew with another Salafi-jihadist organization Ahrar al-Sham and waged a battle for Jisr al-Shaghour under the name "Battle for Victory.” By taking the geostrategic town, the Salafi-jihadists have edged closer to the coastal province of Latakia, President Assad's stronghold, and they are now a short distance from villages loyal to the government near the coast.
Meanwhile, the Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), led by the Saudi Arabian-supported Zahran Alloush, along with other armed factions grouped together under the name of the East Gouta Council, have waged constant attacks against the regime from Gouta in Damascus countryside. At the same time, al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State waged a battle against the regime’s ally Hezbollah in al-Qalamoun and al-Zabadani areas adjacent to the Lebanese border. Although Hezbollah has been able to fend off the attacks by al-Nusra and the Islamic State, it has not been able to impose its complete control over these areas. Significantly, Hezbollah has lost a significant number of its fighters in this war of attrition, which the Shi’a Islamist party aspired to settle swiftly.
This apparent concerted effort to wage an ongoing multi-pronged attack on the regime is what made both the Iranians and Russians worry about the near future viability of Assad rule. In fact, by June 2015, the intelligence and political rumor mill in Beirut buzzed with news that the battle for Damascus, supported by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, has neared a conclusive end. During my visit there in June and July, I came across the palpable feeling of the much exalted prospective victory over Damascus. The military setbacks suffered by the regime and the inconclusive effort of Hezbollah to control the approaches both to the Syrian capital and Lebanese border appeared to confirm the pro-Saudi and Turkish hopes. Paralleling this development, a new reality has finally dawned on some governments. The actual number of foreign jihadi fighters in Syria has remarkably belied the low estimates put out by many governments, including that of United States. And, no less significant, the chronic shortage of Syrian recruits in the army of the Assad regime, together with mounting cynicism over Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria by some of its members and their parents, have even convinced the skeptics that the defeat of the Assad regime has become a matter of time.
Undoubtedly, this plausible analysis raised the wishful thinking of some regional and international governments and observers alike. But what this analysis left out was the extent to which Russia and Iran have been strategically dedicated to the survival of the Assad regime. This serious flaw in the analysis obfuscated Russian readiness for military intervention in Syria, which clearly took the United States, among other nations, by surprise.
Washington should not be taken off guard again as to the unfolding actions of the concerted Russian and Iranian strategy. On one end of the spectrum, being the last bastion of Russian influence in the Middle East, Syria commands a geostrategic and geopolitical dimension in the calculus of Putin’s strategic thinking. Syria offers Russia an important outlet to the Eastern Mediterranean putting southern Turkey, Arab coastal states, Cyprus and Israel in Moscow’s potential sphere of influence. Syria also offers a theatre of operations in which radical Muslims, a significant number of whom are from the Caucasus, can be fought. Putin has been extremely concerned about the expansion of radical Salafism and Wahhabism into Russian heartland, potentially affecting the ideology of the growing number of Russian Muslims. No less significant, Syria offers Putin a leverage with which he can face off Western actions in relation to Ukraine, Crimea, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia, by militarily inserting itself in Syria, has become both part of the problem and solution of the Syrian crisis, which the West can no longer afford to ignore.