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Why Putin is bombing Syria, explained in 500 words

Russian President Vladimir Putin observing military exercises in Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin observing military exercises in Russia.
Sasha Mordovets/Getty

Why is Russia bombing Syria? How did this happen? What does it have to do with the Bashar al-Assad and with ISIS, and what does it mean for Syria's war and for the United States? What follows is an explanation of the very basics, written so that anyone can understand it.

Russia, once a superpower with proxies around the globe, does not have a lot of reliable allies left — and one of its remaining few is in real trouble. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, four years into the civil war he began by mass-murdering peaceful protesters in 2011, has lost control over most of the country.

In mid-September, Russia sent a few dozen military aircraft to Syria, as well as a couple hundred ground troops to guard them. Russia has had a small military presence in Syria for years. But this was something new: the start of an intervention. Sure enough, on Wednesday, Russian jets began bombing targets in Syria.

Russian military positions in Syria's civil war (Institute for the Study of War)

Russian military positions in Syria's civil war. (Institute for the Study of War)

Russia says that this is about fighting extremists, particularly ISIS. But in fact, its intervention is pretty clearly designed to help prop up Assad by bombing his enemies, namely non-ISIS rebel groups. Those groups are Assad's biggest threat — but they're also fighting ISIS. Some are extremists; others just want to fight Assad. Some are backed by the US.

So on the surface, Russia is trying to stave off Assad's defeat so as to retain one of its last remaining allies and a toehold of influence in the Middle East — to keep what is left of Russian global power.

But there's a lot more going on here. Russia, over the past two years, has become isolated and sanctioned for its invasion(s) of Ukraine. Its economy has cratered. So Russian President Vladimir Putin trying to sell his Syria intervention as a bold stand against terrorism, hoping it will give him leverage to negotiate with the West or even attract Western support, ending his isolation.

On an even deeper level, Syria represents the forces Putin fears could threaten his own regime: popular uprisings, tumbling dictatorships, violent extremism, chaos, Western interventions. He wants to turn back those forces wherever he can.

The US is not happy about Russia's intervention. The US believes Assad is the real driver of Syria's war, and thus of ISIS's strength there, so it opposes anything that bolsters him. Russia says it will work with the US on finding a political resolution to the war, and if Moscow convinces Assad to step down that could happen — but right now it seems very unlikely. The US is so far rebuffing Putin's invitation to form a grand coalition in Syria.

Russia's intervention is probably too small to change the fundamental calculus of Syria's war. Assad is still far too weak to defeat the rebels, even with Russian help, which may actually backfire by galvanizing opposition groups against it. The US and its allies will continue bombing ISIS. The world will grudgingly tolerate Russia's intervention — what else can it do? — and will continue to push peace talks, but Putin will probably remain isolated.

As always, the biggest burden will fall on Syrian civilians, who with Russia's entry in the war now have yet another threat to fear. To date, at least 250,000 Syrians have been killed (probably far more), and 12 million — more than half the population — have been forced from their homes.

VIDEO: Putin on foreign fighters in Syria