As Vladimir Putin addressed the UN on Monday, he called for a coordinated coalition to co-operate against threat of Isis in Syria. Some interpreted this as an attempt to mitigate Russia's isolation after the annexation of Crimea. Some seemed to think this was Putin stepping up as a responsible global player. However, these hopes were all completely naive. Just a couple of hours after the Kremlin granted Putin military permission to carry out operations in Syria, Russia’s first airstrikes were not directed against Isis. Rather, they hit positions held by US-vetted rebel groups near Homs and Hama. The closest airstrike to an Isis stronghold was 55 kilometres away.
This is not mistaken targeting, it is a carefully considered strategic decision to hit opposition groups that pose a threat to Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad. For Putin, having sway in the region has little to do with bombing Isis and everything to do with maintaining Assad's position, which until recently was looking increasingly precarious. Key strategic areas for the regime that flank the M5 highway – the strategic road that connects the southern city of Daraa to Homs, and Damascus to the coast of Latakia and Tartus – have begun to look at risk. Losing these would isolate the capital from the coast, and compromise Assad’s weakened but otherwise sustainable position.
If Russia is indeed targeting the rebels making inroads around here, as seems to be the case, the strategic implications for the war could be profound. If Russia is indeed blurring the lines between bona fide jihadists and the ‘’moderate’’ opposition when conducting its airstrikes, it flies in the face of Putin’s UN rhetoric, and will have terrible consequences. It will only end up reinforcing the jihadist factions and push people towards al-Qaeda and Isis. Putin’s bombs will stunt the already stumbling attempts to form a unified, robust and credible opposition, something that is the fulcrum of the West’s strategy in Syria.
Putin’s expansionism makes prospects of “de-confliction” hard to achieve. As he aims to boost Russia’s primacy by attacking US and coalition allies, any chance of cooperation that can lead concrete outcomes in Syria inconceivable. With Turkey targeting the Kurds, the US-led coalition hitting jihadists, Israel attacking Hezbollah, and Assad bombing, well, everyone, Putin’s latest antics threaten to entirely derail any sense of unanimity when it comes to Syria.Reuse content