Any pretence that Russia's heightened involvement in Syria's messy civil war would focus on destroying the Islamic State has evaporated very quickly. Its aerial assault has targeted rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad's army in the northwest of the country, not the concentration of Isis forces in Syria's east. Dozens of civilians have been killed in the onslaught, and Russia's objective is now very clear. It is determined to ensure the Assad regime clings to power, thereby retaining its chief seat of influence in the Middle East.
There is a very good chance that, in the short-term at least, it will succeed. The United States' unwillingness to commit itself deeply to the Syrian conflict has left a vacuum Russia has filled.
As much as the West may wish to see the despised Assad gone as soon as possible, the Russian action is already forcing a rethink. Britain's Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has said he could now accept Assad remaining as titular head of Syria for three years or more if it meant ending the conflict. He continues to talk vaguely of a managed political transition, but concedes there is no agreement with Russia on this.
The softened approach is an acceptance of a new and more complex reality in Syria. That is predicated on a prolonging of the conflict as Assad's position is strengthened by the Russian strikes and its supply of weaponry to Syria's army. If Russia's strategy is successful, the West will have no option but to accept a continuing role for Assad in post-conflict Syria. In that context, Russia has little cause to heed Nato's call for it to focus its efforts on fighting Isis and promoting a solution to the conflict through a political transition.
AdvertisementAdvertise with NZME.
Moscow knows, of course, that Isis will also have to be defeated. Indeed, it has as good a reason as the West for being alarmed by Islamic extremism. It was that very fear which triggered the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
The risk for Russia in Syria is that it could be dragged increasingly into another lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful campaign. If so, one of President Vladimir Putin's motives - that of using this escalation of its role to re-establish Russia as a global power - could backfire catastrophically.
But the greater risk for him is the toppling of Assad and the triumph of either Isis or moderate rebel groups. To prevent that, he has embarked on a hazardous path. As the Americans found in Iraq, there is plenty of room for unintended consequences. One based on antipathy to Moscow that has already come to pass is a greater unity among Syria's rebel factions. More than 40 have said jointly that Russia's air campaign has made a political solution to the conflict impossible.
The responsible course for Russia would be to accept Assad no longer has the support of the vast majority of Syrians, and to use its influence to rid the country of him.
A more forthright intervention by the American-led coalition might have already secured that outcome. As it is, Assad is set to remain indefinitely as a symbol of Western dithering and Russian opportunism.