By personalizing the Syrian conflict around President Bashar Al-Assad, both Russia and the West have failed to recognize the real and most relevant aspect of the situation – the existential threat posed by ISIS to Syria's minority groups.


A Syrian refugee child looks out of a bus that will take him and his family to the center for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, Friday, Sept. 11, 2015. Photo: AP

Western media continues to claim that Russia is stepping up its military presence in Syria, preparing for a ground operation by moving its artillery and rocket systems and heavy weaponry at Latakia, its Syrian airbase.

With the Kremlin refusing to comment on this speculation, many Russian pundits are now saying that Russia will use only air strikes to support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad by bombing terrorist and radical organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS).

Up to now, Russia has framed its military intervention in terms of the risk posed by ISIS. Russia, unlike the U.S, sees a real urgency in striking now rather than later: ISIS is essentially on its borders, thousands of its citizens are fighting in the ranks of ISIS, and radical Islamist followers are coming to Russia in the flow of labor migrants from Central Asia and the Caucasus. In addition, Russia could become the next destination point for the Middle Eastern refugees currently flooding Europe.

Also read: "Will Russia contribute to solving Syria's refugee crisis?"

However, there are increasing concerns about the response of Russia’s Muslim population to the Kremlin’s deeper military involvement in Syria. The fact that Russia has at least 16 million Muslims and their numbers and share in the overall Russian population is consistently growing due to both immigration and higher birth rates is exactly the reason explaining and justifying Russia’s current involvement in Syria.

That means there could be political costs for the Kremlin. First of all, there is a relatively high probability of a new wave of terrorism developing on Russian territory. There might be serious tensions emerging in its relationships with governing authorities and political elites of Russia's predominantly Islamic political units.

The problem is that Russian media outlets, including the state-owned ones, have fallen into a trap designed in the West. This trap is based on the constant demonization of Assad and the personalization of this conflict to focus only on the Syrian leader. However, focusing too much on Assad overshadows the real essence of the conflict – a fierce struggle of the coalition of Alawis (essentially, Shias), Christians and some other minority groups for not simply retaining governmental control, but protecting their very physical existence.

The West has been thus far very reticent in mentioning this circumstance and discussing the political views and orientations of the Syrian Christians. From this perspective, the predominantly Sunni elites of Russian Muslims might also perceive Putin’s current policies as being mostly anti-Sunni (and pro-Christian).

Also read debates: "Is there a way to reconcile interests of the US, Russia in Syria?"

Still, it is necessary to explain this systemic aspect of the current crisis not only to Russians, but also to the West. ISIS currently represents an equal threat to Shias, Christians and Jews – and this justifies the formation of an alliance of those groups and their respective states.

Essentially, it means the necessity for both Russia and the West to forget earlier grievances and form an anti-ISIS coalition with Assad’s Syria and Iran – and there is simply no other option. The Russian government understands this fairly well.

The signing of the Iran nuclear deal indicates that Obama himself also realizes that - but he cannot acknowledge this publicly for both foreign and domestic policy considerations. For the U.S., accepting the legitimacy and righteousness of the policies of Iran and Syria (who were treated as enemies for the last 36 and 45 years, respectively) and even Russia seems to be unbearable – it would be de facto recognition of a total failure of its policies and strategic designs.

And thus we will continue to witness an incredible inconsistency of Western actions in the region.​

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.