Russian jets are flying over Syria and dropping bombs. There are two basic reasons why the Russians are there: 1. To protect their investment in the port and airfield in Latakia that has been given to them by the Syrian regime of Pres. Assad; 2. Because of the absence of any coherent US policy in Syria, that has left a power vacuum that Pres. Putin is ready and eager to fill. This represents another of Putin’s moves to expand and enhance (his and) Russian influence around the world, first Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, now western Syria. The Russian Parliament voted unanimously to support Putin’s move in Syria, but not to put Russian “boots on the ground” there.
There are many air forces operating over Syrian skies, including the Coalition forces consisting of the US, France, UK, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and others, the Syrian Air Force allied with the Russians and finally Israel. Israel is not officially engaged in the Syrian war, and is not attacking the Islamic State, which is the main target for the Allies, but Israel has attacked several times into Syria, both to respond to shells fired into Israel (both accidentally and deliberately) and also to attack and destroy arms shipments going from Iran through Syria to Hizbollah in Lebanon. The IAF also carried out targeted killings of Iranian and Hizbollah military leaders who were intending to establish an Iranian forward base on the Golan Heights in order to attack Israel. PM Netanyahu went to Moscow to see Pres. Putin in order to try to facilitate communication between the Russian and Israeli military authorities to avoid any kind of incident in which either might misconstrue the intentions of the other and to avoid accidents.
Apparently until now there is no such agreement between the Russians and the US and its allies to avoid unintentional incidents over Syria, a so-called “deconflict.” agreement. Last Wednesday US Secty. of State Kerry and Russian FM Lavrov met at the UN in order to facilitate such an agreement. This was complicated by the fact that the Russians claimed that they had hit only IS targets in Syria, while the Americans claimed that they had also hit anti-regime targets, including those forces that the US and its allies are supporting (according to reports the Russians killed 39 civilians, although they deny this). Kerry has said that the US will not cooperate with the Russians if they are fighting to support the Assad regime rather than focusing on hitting IS targets. In his press conference on Thursday, Lavrov emphasized that the Russians only struck IS targets and that a deconflict agreement with the US was in the works.
While the Russians are another possible ally in the air war against IS, the Russians main aim will be to ensure that the Assad regime does not collapse. It is imperative that a channel be opened to prevent any unfortunate incident or accident between US or allied planes and Russian planes. If such an incident occurred the consequences could be highly dangerous. If the Russians are lying about the targets they hit this could prevent such a channel being opened and could produce unforeseen consequences.