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Russia strikes in Syria: Why you should be worried

Syria has been threatening to become a proxy battleground for what some are calling the New Cold War for months, and Russian airstrikes Wednesday and Thursday may have tipped the balance.

Just hours after the Russian parliament waved through military intervention in Syria, its first air strikes in the civil war-torn Middle Eastern country were confirmed Wednesday night. On Thursday, there were further striked on rebel positions in the north-west, Lebanon's al-Mayadeen TV reported. This came after tense discussions between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the best course of action in Syria at the United Nations earlier this week.

"Putin has played a weak hand with considerable aplomb. His risks are very well calculated and have some kind of underlying caution," Christopher Granville, managing director of Trusted Sources, told CNBC.

Here, CNBC outlines why the latest salvo should be worrying for the West


Russia’s not just targeting IS

Russia's argument is that it is just leading the charge in an international coalition against terrorist group Islamic State -- much like Stalin allied with the Western powers to fight Hitler. However, this became a little more difficult to accept when western diplomats revealed Wednesday that its first targets were in parts of Syria far from Isis strongholds, including a US-backed rebel group called Tajammu al-Izza.

The kind of weapons Russia is using is also cause for Western concern. Deploying SA-15 and SA-22 air defense systems as well as Sukhoi SU30-SM fighters has no obvious use against Isis, who have yet to make a single airstrike, but could be used against Nato forces, Philip Breedlove, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said in Washington Wednesday.

‘Gasoline on the fire’

Dominick Reuter | AFP | Getty Images

Ashton Carter, US defence secretary, Wednesday night claimed that the Kremlin had poured "gasoline on the fire" of the volatile situation in Syria. However, as Granville points out, Western policy to date in the collapsed state has not exactly been a success. Selective airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition, and the training of Syrian rebels by the U.S., have so far had little impact on IS.

"They (Russia) have forced a change in the overall policy in Syria – normally no-one else in the world changes the foreign policy of the U.S.," Granville said.

"This (the process of negotiating a new Syrian government) is going to have to be restarted on a much longer-term and open-ended basis."

The West, led by President Obama, now has to make up its mind whether to take more active involvement in alliance with Russia, an alliance which will be difficult for many given continued anger over Russian actions in Ukraine.

Who’ll blink first?

Putin may have to compromise on his support for discredited Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to get international agreement. IS represents as much of a threat to Russia's sphere of influence as it does to the West, so the two may end up having to grudgingly work together, ultimately a victory for Putin. His objectives would be met if Syria was brought back into to the Russian sphere of influence, and if he could say with confidence that the IS threat had been lessened.

"He wants a Syrian state which is a client state of Russia…there are many more Russians fighting for IS than Britons," Granville added.


…Trump wades in

Of course, Donald Trump has a view, and the view, in an interview with Fox News, is that Putin is doing "a wonderful thing" backing al-Assad in Syria.