Syria's President Assad, Russia's President Putin, andHezbollah
A poster of Syria's President Assad, Russia's President Putin, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on a Latakia taxiReuters

Russia beefing up its military presence in Syria not only caught Russian President Vladimir Putin's Western counterparts by surprise, but also caused them to question what Russia is really trying to achieve in Syria.

It was recently reported that Moscow is building two military bases off the Syrian city of Latakia in addition to the one it is believed already to have in Syria. The city's airport is also reportedly being converted into a military hub in addition to Russia's Tartus naval base 60km south of Latakia.

As the media is swamped with stories of Russian military presence in Syria, the US appears bemused as to Putin's intentions for getting involved in the conflict. US Secretary of state John Kerry recently suggested that Russia would play a limited role in protecting Assad's forces as they fight Islamic State (formerly known as Isis).

Kerry said he was concerned that Russian support for Assad would mean that he would not feel compelled to reach a compromise with opposition factions in Syria to end the brutal civil war.

"[If Russia is there to] shore up Assad and to certainly provide Assad with the continued sense he doesn't have to negotiate, then I think it's a problem for Syria, and it's a problem for everybody who wants to bring an end to this conflict," Kerry said.

For his part, Putin has said openly that Russia will back its long-time ally Assad against terrorist forces in Syria: "We are supporting the government of Syria in the fight against terrorist aggression [and] will continue to offer it necessary military-technical assistance," he said.

But Kerry's comments are a red herring. Firstly, because it is clear that at some point Assad will need to negotiate with opposition forces in Syria. Putin – who has significant if not total influence over the Syrian president – himself said recently that some "healthy opposition forces" can enter the reformed Syrian government.

And second, Kerry's words reflect a policy that simply doesn't work. The "Assad must go" rhetoric has been President Barack Obama's top priority throughout the Syrian campaign but is looking increasingly redundant in the face of the virus-like spread of the IS influence in Syria and the chaos that the country finds itself in today.

Putin is stepping in at a crucial moment. On the one hand, Assad's loyalists are vexed and shattered by the three years of the civilian war. On the other hand, the segmented Syrian opposition seems incapable to battle even this weakened army.

These two factors would make finding an answer to the question "How do we battle IS?" or, to be more cynical, 'Who will battle IS?' more than difficult. But it is still not too late to end this active political stand off for the sake of saving the country and the region – and the world, for that matter – from a far more disastrous threat, that of IS.

We should not forget also that the memories of the Islamic terrorism are too raw for Russia to just sit and watch the self-made jihadists proclaim its Caucasus region and the neighbouring Central Asian countries as their caliphate. They are far away yet but we could find them knocking at our door tomorrow – or should I say, blowing it away.

Meanwhile, Iraq and Afghanistan taught us that it's wiser to deal with the enemy on their territory but hand-in-hand with a faithful Muslim friend to avoid being labelled a foreign invader.

"Putin is more of an opportunist than a strategist," said former Swedish foreign minister Karl Bildt. Ok, let it be so, but I'm happy with it in this situation. Because it's so much better to use an opportunity when it arises, to your advantage, and act decisively, than to destroy states one by one, provoke chaos and set up sham red lines with no real strategy behind it.

Yaroslav Zheltovskiy is a freelance journalist in Moscow. He is writing under a pseudonym to protect his identity.