Russia on Wednesday morning carried out airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria for the first time, and footage of Russian planes flying over anti-Assad rebels has emerged.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to portray the strikes as a pre-emptive attack against Islamic State militants. Why has he moved now, and what is his government’s goal?

Veteran Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn reports at The Independent:

Isis holds more than 50 per cent of Syria according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and has been advancing towards a strategically important road linking Damascus to the north. Its forces are now only 22 miles from this highway and President Assad’s army is on the retreat after four years of war and heavy casualties.

Russia’s key aim, therefore, is to prevent collapse – unlikely – or the significant weakening of the Assad regime. The US is not bombing Isis in Syria in areas the jihadist group is fighting the Syrian army.

Russia has also decided to move now following the failure of Mr Putin to reach any agreement with the US at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York where the threat of Isis has been high on the agenda. …

[Russia’s] priority is to defeat Isis and then save the Assad regime in Damascus. Despite all the controversy over whether Assad should stay or go, the war would carry on in either case. This is very much a civil war with committed supporters on either side. In the short term Russia wants to stop Isis, and if possible defeat it – though this not likely to happen.

Read more here.

— Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly.

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