Does Putin want to protect the Assad regime or fight ISIS?

As expected, Putin glossed over Assad’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors demanding greater freedoms

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President Vladimir Putin of Russia did not mince words when he delivered yet another scolding rebuke of U.S. policy towards the Middle East and North Africa at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly on Monday.

Referring to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to NATO’s military intervention, which ultimately led to the removal of the Muammar Qaddafi regime in 2011, Putin argued that the ensuing power vacuums were “immediately” filled by “extremists and terrorists,” a clear reference to rise of the Islamic State group, or ISIS, which currently holds onto large swats of territory in Syria and Iraq.

While Putin asserted that “tens of thousands” of militants operating in Syria hailed from Iraq and Libya, which he unambiguously attributed to U.S. “policies based on self-conceit and belief in one's exceptionality,” the Russian leader also indirectly accused Washington and its allies of supporting terrorism. “And now, the ranks of radicals are being joined by the members of the so-called moderate Syrian opposition supported by the Western countries,” Putin lamented while seeking to justify his continued military and intelligence support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

As expected, Putin glossed over Assad’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protestors demanding greater freedoms and dignity during the early demonstrations against the Alawite regime in 2011.

Putin’s address did not surprisingly include any references to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people nor his frequent use of barrel bombs against civilian targets, but his core message instead called on the international community to partner with the embattled Syrian dictator to fight ISIS.

What does Putin want?

Prior to Putin’s U.N. address, he left the door open to dispatch Russian troops to Syria to help fight ISIS in a high-profile interview with CBS News, an American TV network. This comes as Russia is building an air base in the city of Latakia while expanding its naval base at Tartous, both within territory controlled by the Assad regime.

For Putin, who repeatedly calls the collapse of the Soviet-Union a “historic mistake,” his foreign policy priorities are merely motivated by strengthening Russia’s position as a global power but he appears equally committed to chipping away from America’s superpower status wherever or whenever he can; be it in Ukraine or in Syria. With ISIS expanding its territorial reach, Putin’s U.N. address is hardly another stinging critique of the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition’s failure to destroy the terrorist organization’s infrastructure, but rather an indication of his determination to use military force to protect the survival of the Alawite regime by turning the battle in its favor, if necessary.

Putin’s extended commitment to Assad comes only days after his government announced that it would strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation not only with Syria but with Iran and Iraq as well. By tying the governments of Damascus, Baghdad and Tehran together under the auspices of fighting ISIS, Moscow appears more than willing to capitalize on the region’s sectarian hatred to help establish itself as an arbiter of power and influence as part of its apparent objective to protect the Assad regime’s long-term survival.

This could have profound implications on regional dynamics as the Assad regime would become fully dependent on Moscow for its protection, which could trigger ripple effects on how the weak governments of Iraq and Lebanon respond to a changing order. How Iran, Turkey and Israel will respond, is anyone’s guess: What is certain is that Putin is attempting to make the Middle East an even more dangerous region.

Syrian refugees

It was not surprising that Putin’s vision for Syria, as outlined in his UN address, did not include any commitments to accept Syrian refugees as he outright rejects European multiculturalism and democratic traditions by favoring authoritarian nationalism where Russia is defined as a country for Russians.

This, coupled with his antipathy for the West and of the United States in particular, explains why Putin likely prefers the Syrian migration crisis to continue as he hopes it will divide Europe and by extension weaken its economy and wealth over time.

While Putin’s Russia is genuinely opposed to ISIS, it likely prefers an outdrawn battle between the terrorist organization, Washington and its Arab allies as Moscow hopes to fill vacuums both in Syria and in Ukraine by keeping adversaries entangled in the seemingly never ending war against extremism.

Sigurd Neubauer is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. Follow him on twitter @SigiMideast.