All players seem to be coordinating their moves quite well. The United States, in a bid to deliver on directives issued by the White House long ago, has now made a decision to withdraw from Syria, as its mission of destroying the terrorist quasi-state can be considered completed. This has left the position of Kurdish forces who helped the American troops in danger.
However, that alliance was a short-term one; whereas America’s long-term partner in the region is Turkey. US-Turkey relations are complicated, but they go back a while and are based on a NATO partnership.
Turkey, on the other hand, has its own security interests that call for a weaker Kurdish presence on the Turkish border. In line with all this, the United States has tried to accommodate the best interests of its long-term partner while giving its short-term partner a chance to minimize its losses through Mike Pence’s recent deal with Erdogan.
Russia is undoubtedly a key external player on the ground in Syria. Negotiating with Russia is therefore crucial to getting anything done in the region. Turkey knows that any of its military operations make sense as long as it stays clear of the pro-government forces backed by Moscow.
The United States knows, too, that the lesser of two evils would be to let Syrian and Russian troops take control of the infrastructure rather than let it be seized by extremists. There is military coordination in place between the US and Russia, and an ongoing political process between Russia and Turkey.
As a result, a certain high-level algorithm emerges that allows space to maneuver for all parties involved by ensuring that no ‘red lines’ are crossed.
This allows everyone to avoid a head-on collision of any kind. Turkey thus gets the green light for a security zone on its border from both superpowers, even though, strictly speaking, it is illegal. The US then can afford to pull out of the game, since it is not that important anymore, and save face (more or less).
Assad’s next move will be to claim the rogue territories officially to ensure Syria’s territorial integrity. The Kurds’ move will be to trade recognition of Assad’s regime for cover. Russia will reaffirm its role as the key regulator and guarantor state, while enhancing its military positions. The ground will be clear for the next attempt to shape a new Syria.
This is the best-case scenario. It is what will happen, assuming everyone acts in a rational and calculated manner. But now, let’s go back and factor in everything we chose to overlook.
First of all, in truth, there is hardly any coordination among the players in the region – whenever they do agree on something, they do so «in hindsight.» US policy in the region is fraught with contradictions, as Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria is challenged by a substantial part of his own political community. The decision hit both his base (his refusal to support the Kurds was negatively received by the fundamentalist Christians, one of the pillars of Trumpism) and America’s image abroad – so the White House started stalling.
Trump is known for acting on the spur of the moment, and then backpedaling. The nature of current US relations with Turkey is not clear: one moment Ankara is given the green light, the next moment it turns red.
There is a lot of emotion and accumulated grievances between the two countries, which can hardly foster any sensible or level-headed dialogue. With Putin and Erdogan, the situation is less complicated, and both have a great deal of experience with contingencies, but there is still bound to be tensions: after all, Turkey is invading the territory of a sovereign state – and while this invasion might be seen as the «lesser evil» in the context, it still runs counter to Russia’s fundamental principles. Moreover, there is considerable risk that, for some reason or another, the operation will spiral out of control, with violence spilling over a much larger area.
Then there is Iran with its reserved stance. Tehran is not fond of Turkey’s assertiveness, since it could undermine the already fragile status quo. The Kurds themselves feel encircled by hostile forces (not that this is something new to them), and might act quickly and unpredictably.
The situation in general can be viewed from two angles. On the one hand, all these developments seem logical and, in certain circumstances, could even create favorable conditions for a settlement. It is noteworthy that relations between the key players in the region (Turkey, the US, and Russia) are driven not by mutual trust or aligning interests (neither exists, really), but by a purely rational realization that none of them can achieve their goals without interacting with the other two.
On the other hand, there is a growing reliance on emotion and propaganda, which could undermine any reasonable or well-founded intentions. Public discourse keeps putting pressure on Erdogan, Trump and Putin to act. There is nothing random about the wave of comments in the West describing Russia as ‘victorious,’ saying that everything depends on it or revolves around it, etc.
Whether consciously or not, this is done to provoke Trump, to encourage him to try and «catch up» with triumphant Moscow, and, ideally, put it in its place. This could mark a major turning point for Syria, and the stakes are high. From this point, it is all about having a strong will and a cool head.
This article was initially published in Rossiyskaya Gazeta.