NEW DELHI: Tens of thousands of people have fled Aleppo, as the fighting in Syria intensifies with the US-led coalition and the Russians carrying out airstrikes. Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad flew into Moscow for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The sudden visit marks Assad’s first trip abroad since the start of the war in 2011, and comes on the heels of Russia launching an airstrikes campaign to assist the Syrian President.

According to the UN, the latest wave of airstrikes have caused tens of thousands of people to flee, and Russian strikes -- now in their fourth week -- have resulted in at least 370 casualties. The latest exodus has been centred on Aleppo, where loyalist forces have launched offensives since Russia began its air campaign on 30 September.

“Around 35,000 people are reported to have been displaced from ... the south-western outskirts of Aleppo city, following government offensives,” said Vanessa Huguenin, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (as quoted in The Guardian). Many “urgently need food and basic household and shelter items” as the weather gets colder, Huguenin added.

Meanwhile, Russia and the US have come to an agreement to reduce tensions and ensure air safety over war torn Syria. “There’s a series of protocols in place that effectively are intended to avoid any sort of risk of a midair incident between our air crews and Russian air crews,” Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.

Russia’s deputy defence minister, Anatoly Antonov, said “the memorandum contains a number of rules and restrictions aimed at preventing incidents.”

Russia’s involvement in Syria has been a moot point, with the country having carried out 500 airstrikes in support of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad (whom the US opposes and is seeking to overthrow). The US have used Russian involvement to point to a change is the country’s strategy, and indicated that it may harm efforts against the Islamic State.

Russia, however, has been characteristically vague about its intentions. "Russia has never made a secret of its military-technological cooperation with Syria. Russian military specialists help Syrians master Russian hardware," Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said.

The US, in turn, seems worried that this assistance to the Syrian regime extends to military support in the forms of supply of weapons, and possibly even boots on the ground.

Russia’s role in Syria, however, should not come as a major surprise. Syria is Russia’s closest ally in West Asia, ever since the Suez War accelerated a multiplication of ties between Syria and the Soviet Union—ties closely associated with the increase in power and influence of the Ba'ath Party.

Syrian-Soviet ties tightened with the rise of current President Bashar al Assad’s father in 1971. Hafez al-Assad’s Ba’athist regime was built loosely on the model of a Soviet single party state. Thousands of Syrian military officers and educated professionals studied in Russia during the senior Assad's four-decade rule.

In April 1977, President Hafez al-Assad visited Moscow, and met with Soviet leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin among others, as a sign of improved Syrian relations with the USSR. Three years later, in October 1980, Syria signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union gained a repair and resupply center in the port of Tartous -- a facility which is now Moscow's last outpost on the Mediterranean.

This historical relationship continued even after the fall of the Soviet Union, with Russia in the past decades accounting for a bulk of Syrian weapons purchases. On the eve of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Russia had $4 billion worth of outstanding weapons contracts with Damascus. Russian companies invested about $20 billion in Syria between 2009 and 2013.

Therefore, Russian efforts to provide further assistance to Assad fall in line with the relationship that the two countries have shared, and Moscow’s interests in West Asia, including guarding Tartous. The Syrian government forces have faced recent setbacks, and both the government and the moderate opposition seem to be losing ground to the Islamic State.

The irony of US and NATO opposition to the Russians assisting Assad with the view to defeat the Islamic State is reflective of the mess in West Asia, where the enemy of your enemy is also your enemy. Meanwhile, the civilians of Syria, face the brunt of the mess.