Russia and its main ally in the Middle East, the Assad regime, continue to target the Syrian civilians. In spite of the declaration of de-escalation zones by Russia, Turkey and Iran, attacks against the Syrian opposition continue and the Assad regime does not hesitate to use weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons. The Syrian opposition groups hold Russia responsible for the Assad regime's attacks; and eventually several days ago, a Russian warplane (Su-25 fighter jet) was shot down by in Idlib province in the northwest of Syria by the Syrian opposition.
This is not the first deadly Russian loss in Syria since its direct intervention into the Syrian civil war in September 2015. In November 2015, another Russian warplane was shot down by the Turkish troops (it was later revealed that those responsible for this attack were members of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), who had infiltrated the Turkish army, aiming to drive a wedge between Ankara and Moscow).
A year later (in August 2016), the opposition forces shot down a Russian helicopter in Idlib province. Five Russian soldiers were killed.
The area where the plane was shot down is part of the de-escalation zone under the responsibility of Russia and Turkey, but the region is controlled by al-Nusra Front, the Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate. Therefore, both Russia and other international actors blamed the al-Nusra militants for the attack. Since the Russian state does not differentiate between al-Nusra and other opposition groups in Syria, the Russian forces retaliated by attacking not only al-Nusra Front but also other Syrian opposition groups.
Russia involved in the Syrian crisis for different reasons such as the American reluctance, the weakening of its long-time ally - the Assad regime, the power vacuum created by the Western global powers, the Russian concern of the spillover effect of the Arab revolutions that may harm the Russian interests, the importance of the global energy market, and the need of controlling the Islamic world. After the unilateral and irresponsible American policy towards the Middle East, Russia remained as the only alternative powerbroker in the region.
Eventually, Russia has to maintain its relations and dialogue with all the relevant groups in any regional crisis, including the Syrian civil war. That is, Russia cannot remain indifferent to the demands and concerns of the opposition groups fighting against the Assad regime, if it wants to find a political solution to the crisis. Thus, Russia cannot depend on its hard power only. It has to utilize soft power in order to maintain good relations with different actors and also to secure the trust of all related actors.
Russia has to be careful not to target civilians during its retaliatory attacks. In the last several days, dozens of civilians were killed by the Russian troops. According to the London-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, while the Assad regime attacks with chemical weapons, the Russian strikes killed more than twenty civilians in the countryside of Idlib and Hama.
If Russia continues the heavy bombardment against the civilians, it will damage the future of the projected peace congress in Sochi, which aims to provide a political solution to the Syrian crisis. Otherwise, other global powers may hijack the Russian role as the main powerbroker. Hence, the Russian military has to act more responsibly in Syria not to lose its regional gains. It must not allow the Assad regime, or the Iranian affiliated groups, to continue their attacks against the civilians. And the Russian military must protect the de-escalation zones with the help of Turkey and Iran in order to continue its central role in the Syrian crisis.