MOSCOW - Russia dramatically escalated its role in the Syrian conflict with airstrikes Wednesday. President Vladimir Putin described the campaign as the right way to fight international terrorists, by attacking them in territories they occupy.
But some Russian analysts suggest the Russian military maneuvers were as much about bolstering Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as about fighting terrorists.
"The justification of the Russian move in Syria is that, ‘We are going in to help Assad defeat ISIL,' ” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent analyst based in Moscow.
“Well, Assad is engaged in very few battles with ISIL,” added Frolov, referring to Islamic State by its alternative name. “The primary objective is to shore up Assad's regime, which was basically on the verge of collapse.”
As if to underscore that point, U.S. government officials and Western news agencies reported Wednesday’s Russian airstrikes took place around Homs — a region where the Assad forces have lost territory, but not considered an Islamic State stronghold.
Members of Syria's anti-Assad opposition backed those claims.
"Russia is not fighting ISIS. It is targeting civilians in communities that have rejected ISIS for the past year," said Khaled Khoja, president of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. "It is using its military force to support the Assad regime's war against civilians.”
Throughout the Syrian war, the Kremlin has been a steadfast supporter of Assad, its main ally in the Middle East. Over Western objections, Moscow has continued to provide the Damascus government with arms and military intelligence, arguing that Assad's government is best placed to combat Islamic State and other extremists and bring peace to the region.
In recent weeks, American intelligence agencies also have accused Moscow of conducting a thinly veiled mission to reinforce a Russian air base in the Assad stronghold of Latakia.
Defense analysts say such measures indicate some sort of extended military campaign is imminent — and now possible, given improvements to the base.
Still, Alexander Golts, a defense analyst and deputy editor at Ezhednevny Zhurnal, couldn't help but marvel at the Kremlin's ability to insert itself into the center of any Syrian solution — particularly given Moscow's isolation and Western sanctions over its actions in Ukraine.
He pointed to Putin's meeting with President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Monday.
“Two weeks ago, the West said no talks with Mr. Putin. Two weeks ago, they were very tough about the Assad regime. Now they say they will discuss how the power transition will go ... and blah, blah, blah,” Golts said. “I am absolutely sure the Kremlin will read these signals and say, 'OK, we can reach a situation when all these leaders will forget about Crimea.' ”