The dejure reference for the region of conflict is "South" Ossetia. North Ossetia lies within Russian boundaries and South within Georgian boundaries. However, this was one region, and they have voted for independence and to be joined. That joined nation is Ossetia-Alania. It was one region prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union. With that breakup came North and South Ossetia.
Georgia, on the other hand, would prefer to not do the North-South naming as it implies the historic (and ongoing) connection within the divided region. We get this explanation from the BBC Regions and Territories: South Ossetia (emphases mine):
As far as Georgia is concerned, the use of the word "north" in the title North Ossetia is misleading. In Tbilisi's eyes, the region of Russia which bears that name is the only Ossetia. It prefers to call South Ossetia, which is part of the Georgian province of Shida Kartli, by the ancient name of Samachablo or, more recently, Tskhinvali region.
Russia it would seem would prefer Ossetia - and North-South Ossetia.
The fact it is being almost universally referred to as South Ossetia would weight the naming bias towards the Russian side with perhaps a bias towards the people of Ossetia's side.
Naming aside, Ossetia is resource rich and strategically located. It is one of the few primary routes between Russia and Central Asia. Georgia's claiming of South Ossetia, and the efforts to enforce the boundary between Russia and Georgia, is rife with both resource and political conflicts. The U.S. backing (and hand in initiating the current conflict) of Georgia is clearly an effort to keep Russia on the political defensive (as with the so-called missile shield) and to combat Russian energy dominance in the region and Europe.
Seemingly lost in all the finger pointing is that Georgia attacked South Ossetia (watch Escobar report below). While I doubt that Russia responded out of great concern for the people of "South" Ossetia), they did respond to Georgia's aggression. While Georgia may claim that they attacked South Ossetia in an effort to stop a breakaway in the region, both Russia and Georgia are battling over resources and resource control.
Pepe Escobar of Real News Network:
The evidence seems to suggest that Georgia was motivated into the provocation by the U.S., which while supposedly trying to work with Russia has clearly been trying to hedge Russia's energy, economic, and political power. This has been clear with the bartering with Poland about the missile shield (now supposedly a done deal), and with the attempt to place further missile installations around Russia's borders. While the U.S. may have hoped that Europe and NATO nations would jump in on Georgia's side, Russia controls much of the natural gas energy resources of the region.
According to a 2007 Congressional Reporting Service (CRS) report, "... Russian gas represented 98% to 100% of the total natural gas consumed by Belarus, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, and Slovakia." Further, Russian natural gas makes up 39% of the supply in Germany, 31% in Italy, 69% in Austria, and 43% in Poland. This dependence undermines U.S. influence - particularly with winter coming on. Russia has shown in the past that it is quite willing to shut down their exports to Europe for political reasons. This radically reduces U.S. influence in garnering cooperation in leashing the Russian bear. Given the reliance on Russian oil and gas, I don't understand why the U.S. thinks it can encourage Europe and former Soviet satellites to directly provoke Russia.
So while geopolitics wash back and forth over Alania, it is the people who are hurt. It is their homes bombed, and their families separated and decimated. They are ground zero in yet another resource war.
The South Ossetia case. Conciliation resources. 1999.
Conflict Escalates in Resource-Rich South Ossetia. The New Security Beat. 8/09/08.
Georgian-Ossetian conflict\. Wikipedia.
The Republic of North Ossetia - Alania
North Ossetia-Alania. Wikipedia.
South Ossetia: Russian, Georgian...independent?. Walker. New Democracy. 11/15/06.
Regions and territories: South Ossetia . BBC.
Did the U.S. Prep Georgia for War with Russia?. Hodge. Wired. 8/08/08.
U.S. knew Georgia trouble was coming, but couldn't stop it. Landay. McClatchy. 8/11/08.
Roots of Georgia-Russia clash run deep. Weir. CSM. 8/12/08.
Russian Natural Gas: Regional Dependence. Bernard Gelb. CRS Report for Congress. 1/05/2007.
Russia-Georgia conflict raises worries over oil and gas pipelines. Douglas. LA Times. 8/13/08.
Russia's Strike Shows The Power Of the Pipeline. Pearlstein. WP. 8/13/08.