Following high-level talks between Iran, Turkey and Russia on Wednesday, the three foreign powers whose militaries remain most active in Syria jointly announced that there was no military solution to the Syrian crises. Yet the announcement contained no indication that any progress toward a non-military solution had been made. On the same day, the White House, in promising to bring clarity to conflicting statements about America’s Syria policy, managed to further exacerbate the confusion.
The White House now appears committed to keeping U.S. forces in Syria for the next six months in order to wrap up the fight against the Islamic State. What happens after that, however, is less clear. President Trump has both publicly and privately voiced his desire to bring U.S. forces home as quickly as possible, while a number of his advisors have warned about the risk of a precipitous withdrawal.
Meanwhile, Moscow and Ankara were eager to make a show of their improving ties. In advance of the trilateral meeting, Russian President Vladimir Putin joined Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in announcing the launch of a Russian-Turkish partnership to construct Turkey’s first nuclear reactor, and the acceleration of Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. At the same time, relations between Ankara and Tehran appeared tenser than usual, with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani demanding that Turkish forces hand the city of Afrin back to the Assad regime. If Washington’s cooperation with Syrian Kurdish forces was worrying from Tehran’s perspective, Turkish occupation of Syrian territory does not appear preferable.
If U.S. policy remains ambiguous and Turkey, Russia, and Iran remain unable to reach an agreement, initiative will stay with Damascus. More likely than not this means the gradual consolidation of regime control across Syria, with increasing pressure brought to bear against Turkish-supported rebel groups in the northwest and the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast.
For the SDF’s Kurdish leadership, the long-term incentives will then be to come to terms with the Assad regime, trying to leverage the support they have received from the United States to reach a deal with Damascus that preserves some of their sovereignty in the face of a potential Turkish attack.
Turkey, in turn, could well conclude that this was an acceptable outcome and focus its resources on trying to secure some territorial gains for its proxies in Idlib and Jarabulus. Russia, ultimately, would be in the position of trying to ratify, and take credit for, the resulting arrangement at the earliest possible date.
If the White House believes this outcome is incompatible with U.S. interests, it has a limited window in which to identify an alternative vision for Syria’s future and a realistic strategy for achieving it.