Russia's strategy in Syria may have just gotten a lot more complicated

ISIS terrorists claiming responsibility for taking down a Russian passenger plane over Egypt could complicate Moscow’s involvement in the Middle East.

So far, Russia has focused most of its involvement in Syria on hitting rebel targets to shore up territory for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But as ISIS affiliates in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula insist they took down a plane carrying 224 people as an attack on “Russian crusaders,” experts say Putin might have little choice but to get even more deeply involved in the Middle East.

“Putin is not going to reflect on his involvement in the Middle East and think about what he could have done differently,” Michael Pregent, a military analyst and former US Army intelligence officer, told Business Insider. “[Putin] is going to take action. He’s been telling his people he’s in Syria to attack ISIS but he hasn’t.”

Russian airstrikes have mostly hit areas where non-ISIS rebels who fight the Assad regime operate. Experts have accused Russia of obscuring its true intentions in Syria — to prop up the Assad regime rather than defeat ISIS — but now that Russia has apparently been provoked by ISIS (also known as the Islamic State), it might be forced to hit back.

“Russian people are going to demand action, and I have no doubt that Putin will comply,” Pregent said.

He compared the plane “attack” to ISIS burning a Jordanian pilot in a propaganda video in February, which propelled that country’s government to get more involved in the fight against ISIS.

“This is the same type of event that motivated the King of Jordan to step up his attacks against ISIS in Syria,” Pregent said. “This is 100 times that for a guy like Putin.”

But Putin might be reluctant to give ISIS credit for this attack, knowing that it would drag him even further into the fight.

“The big question is who will Russia be passing the blame for this to,” Michael Kofman, a Russia expert and public policy fellow at the Wilson Center, told Business Insider. “… They don’t want to assign [ISIS] credit.”

Russia is more likely to find some other group or country to blame for the crash, Kofman said. But if ISIS’s responsibility becomes distinctly clear, Russia would likely step up its attacks against ISIS targets. Russia would likely target Raqqa, the terrorist group’s de-facto capital in Syria, Kofman said.

“The whole point of [Russia’s involvement in Syria] is pre-decided as an operation and has almost entirely avoided or ignored the Islamic State because that’s not really a problem for Assad,” Kofman said.

He added: “If Russians do believe that the Islamic State did this, they will absolutely take revenge. … One of the few personalised elements of their foreign policy is that it is quite vindictive. It always has been under this leadership.”

Increased Russian involvement in Syria could, however, have unintended consequences in Iraq.

“US airstrikes have been limited in scope and are not denying [ISIS] freedom of movement,” Pregent said. “If Russia steps up its airstrikes … you’re likely to see the flow of high-value targets go back to Iraq.”

Another potential course of action for Russia would be to team up with Egypt in a military initiative against terrorist groups.

“Egypt has been one of the few, if not only, Arab states that has supported Russian intervention in Syria,” Boris Zilberman, an expert on the Middle East and Russia and the deputy director of Congressional Relations at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider in an email. “Putin has made it a priority to strengthen cooperation and economic/military/energy ties with Egypt.”

In any case, the exact cause of the plane crash is still unclear. Experts and intelligence officials are saying the crash was most likely caused by an explosion or structural failure, with evidence pointing to ISIS as the culprit.

UK Prime Minister David Cameron said Thursday that a bomb “more likely than not” brought down the plane. The White House on Thursday said it couldn’t rule out “terrorist involvement” in the crash, but it stopped short of assigning responsibility.

The Airbus plane was travelling from the resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg when it broke up in midair about 20 minutes into the flight.

As ISIS has used Russian airstrikes in Syria as the supposed motive for the attack it says it carried out, the group’s propaganda channels have been releasing photos of victims, claiming that Russian strikes hit a crowded market in Abu Kamal.

ISIS’s affiliate in Egypt claimed responsibility for the plane crash. But the group’s central leadership has so far remained silent. For its part, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson seemed to indicate frustration with the British government’s intelligence sharing.

“Frankly speaking, it is genuinely shocking to think that the British government has some kind of information that could cast light on what happened in the skies above Egypt. If such information exists, and judging by what the foreign secretary has said it does, no one has passed it to the Russian side,” said Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson, according to The Guardian.

Natasha Bertrand contributed to this report.

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