STANFORD – Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the Syrian conflict has been welcomed by some as a moment for the Kremlin to “come in from the cold.” Russia’s conflict with the Islamic State, the argument goes, has aligned the country’s interests with those of the West. Even Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane does not seem not to have deflated this optimism.
Indeed, at a recent press conference, US President Barack Obama again urged Putin to join the alliance against the Islamic State. And French President François Hollande billed his recent visit to Moscow as an effort to build a broad international coalition against the terrorist group.
At first blush, the idea that Russia is a natural ally against Islamist terrorists seems to make sense. The country has suffered horrific terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, including the bombing in November of a plane above the Sinai Peninsula, which killed 224 passengers and crew, nearly all of them Russian. Around 20 million Muslims, most of them Sunni, live within the Russian Federation, and the country’s security officials report that some 7,000 fighters from the former Soviet republics and Russia have joined the Islamic State.
On deeper examination, however, it becomes clear that an anti-terror alliance with Russia is wishful thinking. Putin has not gone into Syria to defeat the Islamic State. He has intervened to save the regime of Russia’s client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Putin may sometimes give the appearance that he is ready to abandon Assad, but ultimately he will defend him. Leaving Assad to his fate would be a sign of weakness – and thus anathema to Putin.