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Could Syria help bring Russia back from the cold?

The doctrine of my enemy's enemy is my friend may never have been harder to follow.

With signs that Russia is preparing for a more active role in backing the Syrian president against Islamic State (IS), there is speculation that Moscow may partner with Western powers in fighting insurgents—in return for some easing of sanctions.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Sasha Mordovets | Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia is already arming and training former Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's troops and rumors of more active involvement have been growing, with reports that Russia is establishing a base close to Assad-held territory.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Russian forces had started participating in small numbers in military operations in Syria, citing three unnamed Lebanese sources familiar with political and military developments in Syria.

According to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, this week Russian President Vladimir Putin himself said: "To say we're ready to do this today – so far it's premature to talk about this. But we are already giving Syria quite serious help with equipment and training soldiers, with our weapons."

Syria is mired in civil war, following a series of nationwide protests that begun in 2011 and met with violence from Assad's government. Since then, the proliferation of insurgent groups, including IS, has led Assad to lose control of large swathes of Syria.

With the world's focus on the millions of refugees from the conflict, particularly those trying to enter Europe, the West is under more pressure to do something, or at least seem to be doing something, to solve the crisis. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed in the fighting and around 9 million displaced, with more than 4 million Syrians now refugees in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.

U.S. President Barack Obama seemed optimistic in July that Putin was ready for what the U.S. president called "a serious conversation" about Syria. And French President Francois Hollande recently spoke of his wish to end sanctions against Russia, which were imposed by the West following Russia's annexation of Ukraine and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, allegedly by Russia-backed troops.

Yet it seems doubtful that a Russia-West partnership could also involve a rapprochement with Assad, after all the rhetoric against him from the West.

There is also the question of Russian involvement in Ukraine. Despite a peace deal in February, attacks in Ukraine's eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk continued during the summer.

"I still struggle to see how Russia will commit its own military personnel in significant scale in Syria, given that the Russian military is already stretched in maintaining troop presence in Ukraine," Tim Ash, a Nomura emerging markets strategist in London, wrote in a research note.

He added that recent slight improvements in Russian credit do not indicate a "new found optimism that Russia can somehow engineer a drop off in sanctions".