Once again, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has snapped up a prize from world powers that have been maneuvering in his country’s multi-front wars. Without firing a shot, his forces are returning to towns and villages in northeastern Syria where they haven’t set foot for years.
Assad was handed one victory first by US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northeastern Syria, analysts said. Then he got another from a deal struck between Turkey and Russia, Damascus’ ally.
Abandoned by US forces and staring down the barrel of a Turkish offensive, Kurdish-led fighters had no option but to turn to Assad’s government and to Russia for protection from their No. 1 enemy.
For once, the interests of Damascus, Moscow, and Ankara came into alignment. Turkey decided it was better having Assad’s forces along the border, being helped by Russia, than to have the frontier populated by Kurdish-led fighters, whom it considers to be terrorists.
On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan struck a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin that allows Syrian troops to move back into a large part of the territory and ensure Kurdish fighters stay out.
The Kurds once hoped an alliance with Washington would strengthen their ambitions for autonomy, but now they are left hoping they can extract concessions from Moscow and Damascus to keep at least some aspects of their self-rule.
Turkey, which had backed the opposition trying to oust Assad, has now implicitly given the Syrian leader “de facto recognition,” said Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.
“Assad and Russia see this recognition as the beginning of international community normalization with the Assad regime, and as such an indication of their victory in the war,” she said.
It’s a method that Assad has used successfully before, positioning himself as the lesser of two evils in the eyes of those who might want him gone. Throughout Syria’s war, he has presented the conflict as a choice between him and the extremists.
Fear of the extremists watered down enthusiasm in Washington and other Western governments for fully backing the opposition.
“Assad has been benefiting from two narratives: shaping the Syrian uprising as a regional war and reminding that there is no viable alternative to his rule,” said Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington DC.
Trump’s “America First” policy, with its sometimes chaotic and impulsive shifts, has been a godsend for Assad.
Last year, Trump called Assad an “animal” following a suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus, carrying out limited airstrikes as punishment.
But the US president has repeatedly said he’s not interested in removing Assad from power or keeping American troops involved in “endless wars” in the region’s “blood-soaked sands.” He has welcomed having Russia and Assad’s government fill the void.
Backing from Russia and Iran also has enabled Assad to simply outlast his opponents. With the help of Russian airstrikes since 2015, the Syrian military has recaptured town after town from the opposition.
Abandoned and exhausted, the insurgents have repeatedly submitted to deals with Assad that allowed them to leave their besieged enclaves with safe passage to the north.
But the Russian-Turkish agreement is not all good news for Assad.
It allows Turkey to keep control over a significant chunk of northeastern Syria, a belt of land 120 kilometers wide and 30 kilometers deep that it captured in its offensive. Turkey already holds a larger piece of the border in the northwest, captured in previous offensives.
Syrian forces will move into the rest of the border zone. But in a strip immediately at the border, Russian and Turkish forces will hold joint patrols, with only Syrian “border guards” in place, suggesting a presence in limited numbers.
Elsewhere, a large wedge of eastern Syria remains in the hands of the Kurdish-led fighters. That includes the bulk of Syria’s oil fields, depriving Damascus of control over a crucial resource and giving the Kurds a major bargaining chip. Trump has said some US troops will remain there to help Kurds “secure” the oil fields.
“Given where the regime was a few months ago, the regime is expanding its control,” Macaron said, but it has to live with its opponents’ presence on its soil and with Russia preventing any confrontation with them.
Politically, Tuesday’s images of the leaders of Turkey and Russia poring over maps and drawing up the future of northern Syria illustrated just how irrelevant Damascus is when it comes to negotiations.
Perhaps intentionally, Assad for the first time visited areas captured from the opposition in Idlib province, the last enclave they held in Syria. State TV showed Assad greeting military commanders and watching troops fire artillery. He talked of rallying “popular resistance” against Turkey “to expel the invader sooner or later.”
But the new agreement almost certainly made Syrian military action against Turkish forces impossible.
More likely, Assad will wait them out and maneuver for an opportunity to regain the rest of the land.
A political bargain that achieves that somewhere down the line is not completely far-fetched. Assad and Erdogan once had a close working relationship. In 2004, Assad became the first Syrian president to visit Ankara, helping overcome decades of animosity over territorial disputes, water resources, and Damascus’ support at the time for Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
Erdogan then switched sides and backed the opposition in Syria’s war. In recent years, however, he has been more concerned with recruiting opposition factions to fight the Kurds. Last year, Ankara signaled it would consider working with Assad once again if he won free and fair elections.
Now Turkey is entrusting the border in part to Assad. Other countries similarly have concluded they have no other choice.
Calls have increased from Arab countries to readmit Syria to the Arab League. The Sunni Muslim Gulf countries hope to curb their Shia-led foe, Iran, which saw its influence expand rapidly in Syria’s war.
“Assad will use the developments in northeast Syria to continue to pursue his strategy of presenting himself as the winning de facto authority in Syria who the international community has no choice but to cooperate with against extremist groups,” Khatib said.