As Russia and Iran move in more overtly on Syria, it’s important to understand that their objective is not to prop up a weak, dependent Bashar al-Assad. Doing that is a convenience. Assad functions now as a fig leaf for the real objective of his long-time patrons: establishing effective control of the territory of Syria.
The Western media will probably keep saying, by rote, that Russia and Iran are supporting Assad – just as they will keep saying that the U.S. coalition is battling Islamic State. But there’s a reason for the “why this summer; why right now” behind Russia’s seemingly sudden strategic move on Syria. And it’s not the superficial motives being attributed to Russia or Iran.
There are two interlocking catalysts for Russia’s decision to intervene actively, just at this moment. One is the U.S.-Turkey partnership “against ISIS,” which became active in late July, and immediately resulted in Turkey attacking not ISIS, but Kurds in Syria and Iraq.
The point of what Turkey attacked, from the cover of a new coalition with the U.S., is that the targets reflected Turkey’s greatest national concerns. None of this is meant as an indictment of Turkey; that’s a separate issue. This is an analysis. We need to understand that what Turkey is doing is leveraging a coalition with the U.S. to pursue Turkey’s highest priorities.
Indeed, Obama’s America is basically a junior partner in this arrangement, allowed to fly from Turkish territory but subject to a Turkish veto over what we will attack in Syria.
Russia sees the import of that, even if Westerners don’t. So does Iran. And there is no doubt in the strategic minds in Moscow and Tehran that Ankara’s long-term objective is to control the territory of Syria – now that Assad has been decisively weakened, and so much of Syria is either occupied by Sunni radicals, or would fall easily to the mere threat of military power.
There is nothing fanciful about Russian and Iranian perceptions. They’re based on geography and recent history. Only 100 years ago, Turkey was the seat of the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottoman Empire controlled the territory of Syria. It’s been a very, very long time since the armies of Persia rampaged unhindered through the territory of modern Turkey or Syria, but in terms of the vast scope of history, it’s been only the blink of an eye since a sultan in Istanbul controlled them both.
Moreover, the Ottomans’ control of much of the Middle East was established in the guise of history’s premier, longest-lasting Islamic caliphate. Atlantic Westerners may not remember, but Russians and Eastern Europeans certainly do, that the fall of the Western, Roman capital of Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the Ottomans in 1453 was a watershed of Islamic triumphalism: a culmination of the multi-century process of throwing post-Roman, Christian rulers out of the Middle East.
Today, U.S.-led Western power in the region has effectively collapsed – again. State-Islamism is on the rise, and multiple models of it are competing for primacy. Ottomanism doesn’t need anything but an opportunity, to begin showing the resumption of old patterns. For over a decade, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been preparing Turkey for a resurgence of state-Islamism, and in such conditions, a push for Turkey to begin acting out Ottomanism, as a model in the state-Islamism competition, was inevitable.
It was fully foreseeable as far back as 2009, and what Russia perceives is that it’s now happening. The answer to the “why now” question about Russia’s intervention in Syria is: “Because Turkey is using the coalition with the U.S. to make her move on Syria.”
Don’t get confused: Turkey has no intention of deploying vast armies to Syria to wage a conventional war of conquest. But that’s why Turkey needs to cultivate one faction in Syria and weaken another. ISIS has the potential to be a convenience for Turkey in Syria, which is why there have been so many reports of Turkey quietly supporting ISIS there. Turkey just has no intention of letting ISIS have the upper hand.
Turkey also doesn’t intend to destroy the Kurds. They make a fine buffer: a guarantee of strategic depth on Turkey’s border. But Turkey needs to keep the Kurds cowed and quiet.
Russia, meanwhile, wants to avert a worst-case scenario in which Turkey does gain effective control over Syria – however Turkey might manage it (e.g., through factions inside Syria). Russia’s concerns here are geographical as well as political. These concerns have been held in a tense stasis since Harry Truman proclaimed the Truman Doctrine, and Soviet Russia understood that she would be blocked in military-strategic terms at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea – but the United States would administer a status quo in which Russia would have access for non-military purposes.
Russia has never been satisfied with an outside power exerting ultimate control over the regime of access between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. But for nearly 70 years, she has not thought it worth fighting over, because America’s power has ensured that the regime of access doesn’t change. Russia has been able to count on it.
She no longer can. Obama’s America is behaving like a geriatric in an advanced stage of dementia, squandering our legacy on the nutty projects of radicals. That’s how strategists in Moscow see what we’re doing by joining forces with Turkey in Syria, and then standing by as Turkey ignores American intentions, and simply pursues her own.
Russia also sought throughout the post-World War II period to guarantee that she had friendly points in the Mediterranean, outside the Black Sea, to leapfrog to. Yugoslavia was one of these during the Cold War. Syria was another.
Both patches of territory are of special importance, not only because they’re outside the Hellespont, but because they flank Turkey. Russia’s view of the need to flank Turkey goes back centuries prior to the NATO alliance – perhaps even to the 14th century, when Slavic Christians were fighting Ottoman invaders for Belgrade, in what is now Serbia. The consolidation of the Ottoman Empire in the next century, with its seat in Istanbul, was a strategic blow to Russia, killing off the remnants of the old Orthodox Byzantine Empire, and turning Russia’s access point to the Mediterranean into the Ottomans’ bridge into Europe.
If you were Russia, you’d be perpetually nervous too about the disposition of the territory around the Black Sea. Moscow can’t afford to let Turkey – especially a resurgently Islamist Turkey – consolidate a swath of territory that would leave Russia unable to exert power or influence across this major access point.
And in 2015, Turkey is more likely to begin trying to do that than at any time since the Ottoman Empire was dismantled in the settlement after World War I.
Russia will fight for Syria. It isn’t enough to maneuver watchfully now; the time has come when Moscow will have to establish control. This is partly because of Russia’s tea-leaf reading of the U.S. coalition with Turkey. It’s also because of the second catalyst I mentioned at the beginning: the JCPOA with Iran, which shows up Obama’s America as willing to actively give up power, to a radical regional nation that also, like Turkey, is trying to establish control of Syria.
With his twin gambits with Iran and Turkey this summer, Obama appeared, in the space of about four weeks, to throw the United States in with both of these regional rivals for power over the Levant – and, in effect, against the interests of Russia.
Iran’s view of Syria is as a strategic prize, commanding the northern route to Israel and having all-important access to the sea. The mullahs see the Middle East through a historical Persian lens, but also through the lens of Shia apocalypticism. Filtered through both lenses, the strategic view of Syria is that her Mediterranean frontage must be held, to secure the interior (against “Greeks”), and that any thrust westward from Mesopotamia must hold the Euphrates Valley in Syria, and control it and the coastal precincts of Lebanon as the key to Israel, in the southern Levant.
Syria is also the territory that must be held to block an Ottoman Turkey from extending control southward. This consideration, again, has both historical and apocalyptic dimensions. If Turkey controls Syria, Mesopotamia can be cut off from the sea to the west. (Of course, its source of water can also be imperiled.) And by controlling Syria, Turkey gains a clear path to Israel – but also, very importantly, controls key sites of significance to the Sunni vision of the apocalypse. (ISIS has published quite a bit about this. See here as well.)
Occupying Syria thus satisfies a set of especially important strategic requirements for Iran’s mullahs. It’s not just about geography, Persian history, or even an apocalyptic conquest of Jerusalem: it’s about owning and controlling the whole Islamic apocalypse narrative.
This package of motives is why Russia is not coming into Syria today “on Iran’s side.” The partners will no doubt collaborate, because they have to, but Russia doesn’t trust Iran to administer Syria on Russia’s behalf, and the converse option is of no use to Iran. Frankly, I think Iran is suddenly beefing up her presence in Syria more overtly because Russia has just made her move there. With Russian military forces being landed in Syria as we speak, you’re either there, or you’re out of the game.
This is it: the real fight for Syria is now starting. I believe Russia will seek to gradually enlarge “Assad’s” control while playing an armed broker’s game between Iran and Turkey, using the leverage she has with both of them. Iran will be the putative favorite, but Russia’s not going to let Iran take over.
Moscow will try to break up Ankara’s partnership with Washington – partly by exerting pressure in various forms on the Obama administration. Putin will also try to work through local tactical arrangements with the U.S.: to baffle and stymie our use of military power, or even channel it to Russia’s advantage.
ISIS has a vote, and will make life miserable for everyone, at least for a while. Neither Russia nor Turkey, the two big land powers in this mix, has the might to put this thing to bed decisively in the space of a few months.
This is not Afghanistan
But, again, don’t get confused. This isn’t Afghanistan. To have an “Afghanistan,” for one thing, requires having an American superpower enforcing a status quo.
But Russia won’t ever see her engagement in Syria as a “quagmire.” In fact, Russia won’t hesitate to cooperate with ISIS on a temporary, tactical basis, if it’s necessary. For Russia, the whole point is to stay in Syria, even if it means fighting there for the foreseeable future.
All three nations, and a number of other actors – ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, the emerging Arab coalition – see today what they did not see six years ago: the real prospect of shifting the regional power matrix and redrawing the map. If you still think any of this is “about” having sympathetic allies, in the limiting context of boundaries that can’t change, you don’t understand what the collapse of American power really means.
It means boundaries can change, and there’s no one who can thump you decisively for making disruptive attempts on the status quo. Ukraine has been divided; that horse has already left the barn. Syria and Iraq are in shambles, unrestored and increasingly up for grabs.
The whole context in which the Syria drama was ever “about Assad” has been swept away. The fight is on for Syria, and it’s about Turkey and Russia now, and Iran and Russia, and the iron clamps of geography, and the Islamist vision of apocalypse and caliphate. As your eyes adjust, and see increasingly that there is no rational point to what U.S. forces under Obama’s command are doing in the region, the change in what it’s all about now will be the main reason why.