The era of foreign intervention in Syria is coming to an end – at least that’s what Russian President Vladimir Putin said when Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, visited Sochi last week. Granted, Putin’s statement was ambiguous – “in connection with the significant victories … of the Syrian army … foreign armed forces will be withdrawn from the territory of the Syrian Arab Republic” – but Russia’s Syria envoy clarified the next day that Putin was, in fact, calling on all militaries to vacate the country.
The nature of the conflict in Syria is changing shape again, with two important developments taking place over the past week. First, Turkey proposed cooperation with the United States in Afrin and Manbij, both of which are held by Syrian Kurds, whom the Turks consider hostile forces. Though no formal agreement has been reached, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said the U.S. would work with Turkey to coordinate their actions in Syria. Second, the Syrian Kurds appear to be willing to work with the Syrian regime against the Turkish assault on Afrin. Pro-regime forces reportedly entered Afrin on Feb. 20, a move that would require coordination with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which controls the region.
Less than a week after Turkey began its invasion of Afrin – the northwestern pocket of Syria that borders Turkey and is controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG – NATO has voiced its consent of the operation. On a visit to Istanbul, NATO Deputy Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller told a Turkish newspaper that NATO recognizes the threat terrorism poses to Turkey. While the language Gottemoeller used wasn’t highly specific, she was referring to the threat posed to Turkey by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an internationally recognized terrorist group. Over the past three decades, the PKK has led an insurgency that has caused the deaths of roughly 40,000 people.
Moscow’s policy isn’t about becoming a leader in the region but accumulating influence to use closer to home.
A new balance of power is solidifying in Syria. Iran, Turkey and Russia have all played a role in the conflict there – jockeying for position and even agreeing in September to set up zones of control. But Russia in particular has deftly managed the game up to this point, and it is emerging from the Syrian civil war with a strong hand. Ultimately, Russia’s goal is to parlay its position in the Middle East into advantages in areas that matter more to Moscow. To some degree, it has achieved this, but it’s still unclear whether its strategy will be successful enough to score Russia an advantage in the area it cares about the most: Ukraine.