During a surprise meeting with the Syrian foreign minister, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Middle Eastern countries specifically, and the world in general to band together to defeat ISIS. Specifically, Putin called for an end to efforts to combat both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS at the same time. Putin argued that ISIS poses the greater threat to regional stability, and that Western-led efforts to aid those fighting Assad should stop.
The war in Syria has been raging since 2011 and has killed more than 220,000 people. The conflict was initially due to protests against the Syrian regime as part of the Arab Spring, which later evolved into a civil war between pro and anti-Assad forces. With the rise of ISIS, which has come to control large swathes of eastern Syria, the conflict has changed into a three-way battle with ISIS fighting anti-Assad forces, the Syrian government, and other Islamist groups.
Putin’s comments are not overly surprising, given that Moscow has long been a supporter of the Assad regime, viewing it as an important regional partner. The Kremlin is suspicious of Western efforts to arm and aid anti-Assad fighters such as the Free Syrian Army. Furthermore, Russia views many of the so called Arab Spring Revolutions as at least in part instigated by Western powers to undermine many regimes that had favourable relations with Russia.
In general Russia also has a long standing aversion to calls for regime change at the international level, claiming such efforts are neo-imperialistic. Moreover, Russia’s focus on ISIS makes sense within the context of its domestic politics. Many Muslims live in Russia, and many have been alienated by Russian aggression in Muslim areas such as Chechnya and Dagestan. Russia has also had experience fighting against Islamic terrorism (notably bombings of the Moscow Metro) and non-state actors (Chechnya).
Consequently, Russia is interested in defeating ISIS for several reasons: maintaining the Assad regime, decreasing regional instability, and preventing the emergence of pro-ISIS groups within Russia’s disaffected Muslim regions.