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.