Syria it seems is beyond the comprehension of many of us in the west. It is part of the Levant – that part of the world that forms the bridge between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Home of some of the ancient civilisations, and home to the various Semitic Peoples who have given so much to the world, from Arabic Numbers, to the Great pursuits of wisdom and religion.
Islamic State has set it sights of securing Syria and clearly recognises it as a key strategic asset from the point of view of the corridor it provides into Europe. It was also vulnerable, in part because of the failure of the Arab Spring to take hold in Syria. When many of the old Islamic dictatorships were falling in favor of elected regimes of one sort or another the Assad regime was able to keep hold of power, in part by waging an appalling civil repression which drove the country into civil war. They are generally understood to have used chemical weapons against their own people. This brought about the fiercest condemnations from Barack Obama and others.
As such for many in the west the idea of supporting the Assad regime is not an attractive option. On the other hand the idea of support Islamic State in overthrowing the Assad regime does not seem like a viable option either.
The relationship between the Assad regime and Russia has been awkward and a bit testy. Russia has not wanted to support the Assad regime, however it now seems that it will to enter the affray in order to prop up the Assad regime. It would be silly to think that this means that Russia endorses the Assad regime, however it does have something to lose.
Russia’s largest naval base in the Mediterranean since the 1970’s is a leased facility in the Port of Tartus in Syria. Russia has continued the develop the site, which now has probably more than tripled its capacity since the 1970’s. Russia feels a real need to have a naval presence in the Mediterranean, otherwise it is simply locked into the Black Sea, and locked out at Gibraltar. Russia Forgave Syria basically 10 Billion dollars in a debt of 13 Billion dollars, which has certainly allowed Russia to have a fairly free hand in the Port. If Islamic State was to take hold of Syria the Russian Port would be compromised, and quite likely a deal of the asset would be in hands that the Russians would rather it did not have.
Russia’s interest in Syria is largely self-interest. To speak of Russia valiantly defending Orthodox Christians being persecuted in the region may make nice press, however it is an incomplete understanding. Russia’s approach to this has to my mind been largely pragmatic, and maybe that is the best you can achieve, given the choices that present.