In the last few weeks, Russia has returned to the Middle East through a direct military intervention in Syria. In doing so, it has entered the Great Game for the heart of that country and the region. Early speculation that Russia intervened unilaterally to prop up the Bashar al-Assad regime has since been undermined by evidence that Russian air strikes are coordinated with an Iranian-supported regime offensive near Aleppo. In fact, it is likely that a June 2015 visit to Moscow by Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, was part of the planning for the eventual Iranian-Russian intervention.
Assad apparently invited the Russian strikes, which has given them some degree of legitimacy, as has Moscow’s concurrent promotion of negotiations, which started in Vienna last week. But by intervening on behalf of what Russian officials call a “mosaic” of Iranian-supported forces, Moscow has picked a fight with Syria’s majority Sunni rebels and their brethren in the region. It has also tripped into other regional players’ spheres of influence, including those of Turkey, the Gulf countries, the Kurds, Jordan, and Israel.
Before the Russian intervention, Syria seemed to be turning into Bosnia or Somalia. Now, it could well become another Afghanistan.
Russia’s intervention in Syria is the country’s first direct military engagement in the Middle East (in Egypt’s war of attrition, Soviet pilots flew Egyptian planes; in the 1973 war, the Soviets sent planes but didn't use them). The intervention has primarily consisted of air strikes in areas where the Assad regime had recently been losing ground: north Latakia, the Ghab plain north of Hama, the Rastan pocket north of Homs, and Aleppo. Meanwhile, according to multiple media reports, Iranian, Assad regime, and Hezbollah fighters have started a ground campaign to retake areas in the north lost earlier this year to the so-called Army