Global news media are buzzing with reports about Russia's first official airstrikes in Syria and the U.S. response to them. To understand the impact of these actions, however, we need to explore Russia's objectives in Syria rather than the airstrikes themselves. Russia's decision to go after rebels other than the Islamic State in its first foray was a bold message, but it was just one phrase in a much broader geopolitical communication between Russia and the rest of the world.
The U.S. administration has focused on the fact that Russia's airstrikes did not target the Islamic State and is spinning a response that paints the Russian activity in a negative light. Diplomatic communications between Washington and Moscow have become more frequent. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, had multiple meetings Wednesday (though Kerry slighted Lavrov by showing up two hours late to the U.N. Security Council meeting, missing Lavrov's remarks).
Although the rebel groups Russia targeted are small and not very prominent, the targeted location near Homs puts the Russian airstrikes clearly out of the scope of operations against the Islamic State. Russia never said it would limit its strikes to the Islamic State; the Russian Federation Council's approval for the strikes didn't even specify Syria as the theater for Russian operations.
Stratfor has made the point that targeting other rebel groups would be unavoidable for Russia as it tries to achieve its objectives in Syria. Those objectives are at the core of Wednesday's events. Russia has a wide spectrum of goals it is trying to achieve in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. Support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad's government in Damascus is one element within the broader strategy. One of the reasons Russia is propping up al Assad and using its air assets to suppress rebel activities against loyalist forces is to set the stage for negotiations to take place.
Yet another objective extends this interest into the wider region. Russia's position in the Middle East has weakened, particularly with Iran and the United States reaching a nuclear deal. Guaranteeing the survival of the Syrian Alawite government, whether under al Assad or a replacement, enables Russia to protect its connection to that Alawite portion of Syria. It also rekindles greater Iranian-Russian cooperation over Syria.
Beyond the Middle East, Russia is trying to paint itself as a global leader — an international actor that takes responsibility and is able to stare the United States down instead of bowing to it. The airstrikes' target set clearly makes that point, and the U.S. reaction confirms the effect. Russia established its unilateral actions and set itself apart from the United States and its Arab and NATO partners. Moscow played this out even further by making the point that Russia is the only country acting on behalf of the legitimate government of Syria and thus abiding by international law. By Russia's reasoning, the coalition conducting strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, led by the United States, is an aggressor.
So far, Russia seems on track to meet most of its objectives, and its operations look like they will benefit al Assad and give Russia a seat at the table in both regional and international talks on resolving the Syrian conflict. Moreover, Russia is clearly showing its capability as a global leader counter to the United States. This last achievement, however, creates a serious barrier to another objective that Russia was trying to complete through its actions in Syria. Russians are chess players, and they don't stare at just one section of the board; Russia's actions in Syria relate just as much to the Russia-West standoff over Ukraine as they do to the Middle East.
Russia has been playing incredibly nice in Ukraine in recent weeks and has kept the rebels in check. Both on the battlefield and in negotiations, the Ukrainian separatists have offered compromise to Kiev. Russia was trying to influence this situation through its actions in Syria and thought that by forcing communications with the United States on military activity in Syria it would also be able to discuss military activity in Ukraine. Washington has categorically rejected the possibility of using the dialogue on Syria to segue into the United States easing up on its support for Kiev. Thus, Russia remains stuck in negotiations with the Europeans over Ukraine while the real threat to Russia in that theater comes from U.S. military support for Kiev and economic sanctions on Russia.