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Here's Why Russia Is Dropping Bombs In Syria Now

Short answer: it's the next step in Moscow's longtime support for Syria's leader.

Posted on September 30, 2015, at 12:19 p.m. ET

Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, Russia has stood firmly behind Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, joining the beleaguered leader in referring to the rebels as "terrorists" and emphasizing the need for stability.

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The Kremlin has never been shy about openly supporting Assad — and rejecting the United States' position that Assad must leave power in order to solve the Syrian conflict.

Mary Altaffer / AP

Russian president Vladimir Putin has been more vocal lately about the need for Assad to remain in power at least for some period of time. In his speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, Putin said it would be "a huge mistake" to stop working with Bashar al-Assad's government, which is "bravely fighting face to face with terror."

Earlier this month he said that the embattled leader was ready to share power with the "healthy opposition." A few days later, Putin added that Russia will aid "the government of Syria in its fight against terrorist aggression, we provide and will go on providing it with all necessary military assistance.

When in 2013 it seemed like the Assad regime had used chemical weapons against civilians, a United States bombing campaign was delayed at least in part by a Russian push to have Assad turn over his chemical stockpile.

Larry Downing / AP

That mission, which initially was reported as a total success, has since then proved to be less complete than initially believed. Activists continue to accuse the Syrian government of using chlorine gas against civilians and the U.S. has expressed its concern that Assad is hiding still more weapons.

Since the conflict started, Russia has also — along with China — vetoed four resolutions at the United Nations Security Council designed to help end the conflict. Moscow argued that each of the drafts was biased against Assad.

Jason Decrow / AP

Alongside the rise of ISIS, the conflict in Syria has also spawned a refugee crisis that has seen millions of Syrians displaced, a state of play that Russia has blamed Europe for encouraging.

Raad Adayleh / AP

Russia's diplomatic support in recent weeks has shifted into a more overt military support. As of last week, more than thirty Russian aircraft were reported inside Syria, including fighter jets, bombers, and helicopters designed for ground assaults.

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Russia has argued that the build-up is to help fight ISIS, which has taken over large areas in Iraq and Syria. Last weekend's surprise announcement of an intelligence-sharing accord between Russia, Iraq, Iran, and Syria would seem to bolster that claim.

Mikhail Klimentyev / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at U.N. headquarters

The payoff to the military build-up came on Wednesday when Moscow announced that it had begun striking targets inside Syria. At first glance, it would appear that Russia is joining the ongoing U.S.-led anti-ISIS campaign.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

But the first round of strikes, according to Syrian activists, didn't take place in ISIS-controlled territories in Syria's east. Instead, they hit the provinces of Homs, Latakia, and Hana, areas where Western-backed rebels have been operating.

Muhammed Muheisen / AP

U.S. officials have spent the last two weeks talking about "deconflicting" with Russia in Syria, making sure American and Russian planes don't accidentally engage. But on Tuesday, Russia sent an official request for U.S. planes to leave Syrian airspace.

Emrah Gurel / AP

The U.S. has said it would continue its own operations in Syria. Despite American protests, though, Moscow's actions are legal: the Syrian government has asked Russia to launch its campaign, just like Iraq asked the U.S. to start up its mission.

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

Whether Russian forces will ever actually target ISIS positions — and whether the U.S. and Russia will manage to share the space in the air over Syria — remains to be seen.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

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