Seven Important Points:
1) While Hafez Al-Assad was indisputably in power, his son was not groomed for succession, and was basically parachuted out of his London Ophthalmologist practice into Damascus. There he immediately became a puppet of the Alawite Mukhabarak (intelligence services), something he eventually managed to partially minimize.
2) In the original protests, Assad initially attempted negotiations, but, partly due to ingrained behavior and partly due to the quite considerable regime casualties even in the "peaceful" phase, supporters of a "forceful" approach within Syrian security won out, and attempted to solve the issue by force.
3) Temporarily, this put Assad himself between all chairs. The opposition viewed him as a traitor (due to the security organization being very violent despite orders to the contrary) and the security state itself viewed him as a weakling due to his non-violent orders.
The American assistance that "Assad must go," as a precondition of entering any negotiations was, under that background, seen as sheer bad faith by the Russians. Assad could be utilized as a tool to rein in the Syrian Mukhabarat, and he was/is certainly more controllable/civilized then the people actually running the various Mukhabarats, removing him would achieve nothing, other then the Mukhabarat fighting completely gloves off for its own survival.
4) Assad actually managed, partly due to attrition among some Syrian Mukhabarat puppet masters and partly due to Iranian support to mostly regain control, but now risks becoming an Iranian puppet. Russia’s intervention is partly also there to give Assad other options, and to prevent Iranian influence from becoming too suffocating. In particular, Iranian opened Islamic schools, imposition of Iranian social norms etc. all could backfire, and alienate secular and currently loyal Sunnis away from Assad. Russia is most certainly not out to convert Syrians to Christianity, and is as a matter of fact completely non-judgmental on matters of "Islamic theological doctrine". Alawis generally aren’t very keen on Iranians viewing them as "little wayward brothers."
5) I believe that the total non-reaction of Israel was partly based on the Russian argument that "Assad is too important to be left to the Iranians."
6) Inside Iran, it would appear that a considerable faction, even within the Pasdaran, are interested in Assad as a "vassal/client" but not as a "puppet", partly because they (correctly in my point of view) assume that the costs of keeping Syria as an Iranian puppet would soon prove to be prohibitive. The Iranians already in Syria meanwhile hope to gain their own "fiefdoms", and are more interested in Syria becoming a puppet. They aren’t exactly as independent of Teheran as, lets say the Kwantung army was of the Imperial Japanese court, but there are considerable and highly interesting power plays within these structures.
7) One such fracture is the following: supporters of a more "independent" Syria in Iran likely won the "puppeteers" over by claiming that the Russian intervention, while decreasing the Iranian proportion of the "Syrian cake" would nevertheless increase the "total size" of the "cake" (in terms of influence, well endowed positions, etc.) meaning that is preferable to control, in tandem with Russia, 80 percent of Syria then it is to exclusively control 20 percent of it. To make this argument stick however, the Russo-Iranian-Syrian coalition actually has to advance and make gains though.
Republished with permission form Sic Semper Tyrannis.