BY crushing the Syrian revolutionaries and leaving only Assad and ISIS standing, Putin hopes to force the West to accept that Assad’s regime (with or without Assad at the top of it) is their least worst option. Putin’s claim to stand for the “unity of the Syrian state” actually means restoring the rule of the totalitarian Baathist security apparatus over as much of Syria as possible (minus the more economically backward of the regions held by ISIS), so that there will be no doubt that a post-Assad Syria still sits firmly in Russia’s sphere of influence.
But Russia also needs to clip the wings of Iran, whose alliance with Hizbollah gives it an interest in keeping the Syrian war going on for much longer than Russia wants. Iran’s involvement in Syria (both directly and through its foreign Shi’ite militia allies) subverts the authority of the Assad dictatorship that they are meant to be there to preserve, and reinforces the belief of Syrians from all camps that they are under an “Iranian occupation”.
Putin’s agreement to coordinate in Syria with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been increasingly friendly towards Russia since the US-Iran nuclear deal in July, has allowed Russia to do just that. Israel assassinated prominent Hizbollah figure Samir Kuntar in an airstrike on 19 December with Russia’s consent, sending Iran a message that Russia will allow Israel to enforce its “red lines” in Syria and Lebanon.
Similarly, France’s direct coordination with Russia in Syria gives Putin some insurance against the risk that any clashes with France’s fellow NATO member Turkey might escalate into a confrontation with NATO. Two days after Turkey shot down a Russian bomber aircraft on 24 November, Israel’s defence minister Moshe Ya’alon stated that “Russia is not an enemy”, and that Israel had not and would not shoot down any Russian aircraft straying into “its” airspace over the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
France and Israel’s involvement alongside Russia forced David Cameron to speed up Britain’s formal entry into the war, in order not to be left out of any future division of the spoils. But it also weakens Obama’s ability to maintain an aggressive stance towards Russia over Ukraine, where Britain and the USA are backing a far-right regime that came to power in a fascist-supported coup in February 2014, provoking Russia’s annexation of the majority-Russian Crimea region and an anti-government insurgency in the Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east of the country.
Appearing to recognise this, US Secretary of State John Kerry told Putin on 15 December that Russia and the USA needed to find “common ground” on both Syria and Ukraine.