It suggests that Moscow is getting ready to go in to save President Bashar Assad’s regime. It has given Assad diplomatic support, financial aid and some weapons over the course of the four-year-old Syrian civil war, but it will take more than that to save him now. That would include at least an airlift of heavy weapons, but maybe also direct Russian air support for Assad’s exhausted troops.
They need it. Since the fanatical fighters of the Islamic State militant group captured Palmyra in central Syria in May, they have advanced steadily westward from their new base.
One month ago they captured the mostly Christian town of al-Qaratayn, north-east of Damascus. (The inhabitants fled, of course). And now Islamic State forces are within 30 km of the M5, the key highway that links Damascus with the other parts of Syria that remain under government control.
The jihadis captured Palmyra, by the way, because the “anti-Isil coalition” — the U.S. Air Force, in practice — did not drop a single bomb in its defense. It made at least a thousand air strikes to save Kobani, the Kurdish city on the border with Turkey that was besieged by Islamic State fighters, because the Kurds were U.S. allies. Whereas Palmyra was defended by Assad’s soldiers, so the U.S. let Islamic State have it.