Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin addressed the United Nations General Assembly, defending his country’s support for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and casting Russia’s military buildup in Syria as an effort to combat jihadist forces, including the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). Days later, Russia began a campaign of airstrikes in Syria. Washington immediately cried foul, asserting that Russia had actually targeted not ISIS but rather other opponents of Assad—including some backed by the United States. American officials warned of the risk of miscommunications and mishaps as both U.S. and Russia warplanes carry out missions in the skies above Syria.
Most analysts have viewed these developments through the lens of geopolitical competition between Russia and the United States. Some have argued that Putin is taking advantage of a vacuum supposedly created by limited U.S. involvement in Syria, and that Putin is using the crisis as a way to increase Russia’s influence in the Middle East. Others have countered that the Russian leader is merely dragging his country into a quagmire that U.S. President Barack Obama has opted to avoid. Both of those arguments, however, share the assumption that Russia’s stepped-up support represents a boost for the pro-Assad coalition, which in addition to Russia also includes Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah.
But deeper Russian intervention also has the potential to complicate matters for the pro-Assad bloc, since Russia’s interests are not always aligned with those of Assad’s patrons in Tehran and allies in Beirut. In fact, Russia’s interests are in some important ways less aligned with those of the pro-Assad faction than with the interests of that bloc’s sworn enemy: Israel. And Putin could very well use his newfound leverage within the pro-Assad coalition to push both the Syrian regime and its other backers into more moderate positions—on the Syrian conflict and beyond.
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