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{Originally posted to the author’s website, Liberty Unyielding}

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.

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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.

Turkey

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.

The Ottoman Empire in its later days. Present-day Syria and Israel were part of the last portion to be lost, after WWI. Note the exceptional inconvenience posed to Russia by the consolidation of the Ottoman Empire around the Black Sea.

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.

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J.E. Dyer is a retired US Naval intelligence officer who served around the world, afloat and ashore, from 1983 to 2004.
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