Turkey’s October invasion of Syria forced the United States to withdraw from territory it de-facto controlled along the border and prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to reach a narrow, security-focused arrangement with the Syrian regime to return to a series of towns and territory in the northeast. The Turkish armed forces have separately reached an agreement with the United States and Russia for a safe-zone, spanning the territory between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ayn and extending down to the M4 highway. This Turkish zone fall far short of Ankara’s original plan to take control over the entirety of the northeast, but prompted the Syrian Kurds to invite the regime and the Russian Federation back to territory Damascus had abandoned in 2012.
At the edges of the Turkish zone, Ankara’s proxies have clashed directly with the Syrian Arab Army and the SDF. Ankara’s relative hands-off approach to these skirmishes suggests that Turkey is content with allowing its Arab proxies to clash with the regime in Ain Issa and Tel Tamr, but is not politically prepared to fight for control over these two towns. The clashes, however, have helped to solidify the narrow, security specific entente between the SDF and the Syrian regime.
The Syrian regime has, for now, the luxury of choosing its battles. With Russia’s open-ended support, the regime can focus the brunt of its military power on Idlib. The “Turkey issue” is, for now, Russia’s to manage and to contain. After Idlib is retaken, the regime can work through Moscow to push for an outcome that is not detrimental Bashar’s interests, and includes a demand for foreign forces to leave the country. At this point in the conflict, the regime and its allies are certain to increase pressure on the SDF, so as to ensure that any effort to create parallel political and military structures is prevented.
The American presence, now south of the M4 highway and in the isolated Al Tanf base in southeastern Syria, is unlikely to prevent this outcome. The United States has managed to slow and complicate a SDF-regime agreement over the future of the northeast, but the American presence is temporary and will eventually end. Projecting forward, the SDF will eventually have to grapple with a post-American Syria, and how a broken state, under Bashar’s control (with Moscow’s security guarantee) will use the threat of military force to coerce Kurdish acquiescence to regime rule. The United States could play a more constructive role, but to do so it would need to reach agreement with Russia about the future of Syria and the role of the Syrian Kurds within it. This approach would require iterative and open dialogue between the United States and Russia and would require Moscow be willing to make concessions to Washington, and vice versa.