Photo Credit:
Zoomed in view of the Syrian terrain on the northern flank. Note that the weird “ISIS-free” zone to which the U.S. has committed in the partnership with Turkey lies across the Euphrates Valley at the Turkish border — strategically the most sensitive and important crossing point from Turkey’s perspective — and encompasses the supposed site of the Sunni “Armageddon” at Dabiq. (Map: nationsonline.org; author annotations)

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.

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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.

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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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