Amid brutal fighting and a raft of diplomatic deals involving Russians, Turks, Americans, Kurds, and the Syrian regime, you may be forgiven for asking: What just happened? And how much of the chaos that ended up redrawing the map of northern Syria was, in fact, planned in advance?
Looking back at the events of the past few weeks, what stands out is not just the violence and the confusion—rival powers rushing to fill a space vacated by U.S. forces while President Donald Trump rewrote American foreign policy on Twitter on a daily basis—but also, in fact, the coordination.
The two nations may support different sides in Syria’s civil war, but Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad’s government, and Turkey, an ally of the anti-Assad rebels, have in fact worked closely together since 2016. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the main goal is to keep Assad in power; for Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to secure his southern border and expel American-backed Kurdish forces.
Turkish and Russian diplomats may not have been the only ones to trade maps behind the scenes.
This time around, too, Russian and Turkish military moves meshed into each other like connecting cogwheels, carving up Syrian land without clashing. Intriguingly, even Washington’s seemingly disjointed diplomatic response ended up facilitating Russia and Turkey’s synchronized conquest of American-evacuated territory, which suggests, even if it does not prove, that Turkish and Russian diplomats may not have been the only ones to trade maps behind the scenes.
As always with Syria’s war, events flicker past like shadows on a wall—and we may never know the truth of what exactly happened.
How Did We Get Here?
On October 6, President Trump announced that the United States would be withdrawing its troops from the Syrian-Turkish border, to protect them from an upcoming Turkish attack on the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose Kurdish core faction Ankara considers a terrorist group.
Erdogan made good on his threat on October 9, sending special forces and Free Syrian Army–flagged rebel proxies across the border to seize an area between Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain. This mostly Arab-populated region was the subject of a U.S.–Turkish deal back in August, when Erdogan demanded that a thirty-kilometer “safe zone” along the border be cleansed of Kurdish fighters. The United States instead offered Turkey joint border patrols, but, evidently, that wasn’t enough for Erdogan.
Unable to withstand Turkey’s attack and unprotected by the Americans, SDF leaders fell back on a Russian-brokered deal with Assad’s government. Syrian regime forces began to deploy along the rest of the border and to areas 30 kilometers south of the Turkish intervention zone, exactly in line with how far Erdogan had planned to expand. All the while, Russia and Turkey kept a diplomatic conversation going behind the scenes, as they have for years.
With tens of thousands of civilians on the run, Trump came under blistering bipartisan criticism at home. In response, the president levied sanctions on Turkey on October 14 and sent Vice President Mike Pence to Ankara. Soon enough, Pence had elicited a Turkish promise of a five-day ceasefire that would let SDF fighters withdraw thirty kilometers south of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain. In practice, the Pence deal also gave the Syrian army and its Russian allies time to complete deployments outside that area, in line with their own deal with the SDF.
When the U.S.–Turkish deadline expired on October 22, the SDF had withdrawn from Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain area as mandated and Turkey called off its offensive.
Earlier in the day, however, Erdogan and Putin had sat down for a marathon meeting in Sochi, Russia, to hash out the details of an agreement that appears to have been long in the making.
The resulting memorandum consecrated the just-completed carve-up of Syria’s border into Turkish-controlled zones and Russian/Syrian-controlled zones. Kurdish fighters were told to withdraw thirty kilometers south from the Russian/Syrian areas, too, into an interior region that remained under SDF control and where U.S. troops still lingered. Erdogan and Putin also agreed to jointly patrol the border to ensure Kurdish compliance. (Russian Deputy Defense Minister Sergei Vershinin has since claimed the SDF withdrawal is proceeding according to plan.)
As soon as the Sochi meeting had wrapped up, Putin got on the phone with Assad to brief him on the details—or perhaps simply to confirm that everything had gone according to plan. According to the Kremlin’s readout of the call, Assad voiced “complete support” for the agreement.
The following day, Trump stepped onto the White House podium to explain that the victory was all his and that “no other nation” had been involved in rearranging northern Syria. As expected, he lifted the sanctions imposed on Turkey. More surprisingly, Trump also announced that the United States wouldn’t in fact be leaving Syria—at least not yet. The president said he will keep a small number of troops “where they have the oil,” as well as in the Tanf enclave in southern Syria, where he has previously vowed to maintain a “small footprint.”
However, Trump’s decision to once again postpone the withdrawal is no major game changer. At most, it seems like a game-prolonger.
The Tanf deployment is hotly contested, but as long as Washington is willing to bear its outsized costs it may be sustainable. However, keeping a U.S. mini-force in a rump SDF enclave seems doomed to fail, oil fields or no oil fields. Even putting aside the legal and logistical hurdles, it would require SDF members to trust Trump with their lives a second time. In other words, unless Washington’s oil field gambit is some sort of tactical ploy to help the SDF wring a better end status deal from Damascus, it is a nonstarter—or just very, very dumb.
Winners and Losers
Trump claims to have secured a historic “breakthrough” and to have come out of the October ordeal a winner, even though he had to back down from his stated goal of withdrawing from Syria. The U.S. political establishment and a plurality of the general public seem to have a different opinion, but that’s neither here nor there to a president happily basking in his own praise.
Still, there are more obvious winners in this sordid affair: Erdogan, Putin, and Assad.
Erdogan isn’t getting all he wanted, but he did secure the top item on his wishlist: Turkey has successfully pushed Kurdish fighters away from its southern border and out of America’s embrace. Erdogan’s demand for a broader, thirty-kilometer deep “safe zone” was fulfilled on paper only, since most of the border reverted to Syrian government control—but Putin and Assad have promised to remove SDF fighters from there, too. To quote another shrewd authoritarian, if the cat catches mice, who cares if it’s black or white?
Putin, too, has every reason to feel content. His nimble diplomacy has prevented a destabilizing Assad–Erdogan clash in the vacuum after the U.S. withdrawal, even if current arrangements are unlikely to last forever. Moscow and Ankara will continue to wrestle over Syria, and there may be unpleasantries ahead. But with the United States now bumbling toward the exit and Ankara-Damascus contacts quietly restored, the Syrian war has come closer than ever to a resolution on Russian terms.
Assad will be as delighted as Erdogan to see the end of the U.S.-powered SDF enclave. Although Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain are lost to Turkey for now, he has recovered most of his border for the first time since 2012. SDF loyalists continue to rule a large chunk of the northeastern interior for now, including those oil wells, but Assad isn’t likely to lose much sleep over it. The SDF enclave was hard enough to sustain before and it is now decidedly nonviable. He knows that the Americans won’t hang around forever and that SDF leaders will have to bend the knee sooner or later.
Left on the battlefield, counting their dead, are two groups of Syrians: the SDF and their Turkey-backed rebel enemies. Both groups are pawns in a game played by others, and both are in for an uncertain future. If Russia succeeds in rekindling the Ankara–Damascus relationship, Assad and Erdogan may one day come to look at these washed-up insurgents and forlorn border pockets as tradable assets—and if so, the nightmare for these fighters and their families has only just begun.
Chaos or a Pre-Planned Carve-Up?
So that’s what happened. But how did it happen—and why?
All through October, everyone involved acted as if they were only now, for the first time, thinking about how to resolve the game of musical chairs set in motion by Turkey’s intervention. That is highly unlikely.
In retrospect, it is striking how well Turkish, Russian, American, and Syrian actions fit together, effectively shaping an outcome in concert instead of bouncing off each other and breaking down in chaos.
In retrospect, it is striking how well Turkish, Russian, American, and Syrian actions fit together, effectively shaping an outcome in concert.
To recap: the moment Turkish forces burst into the Tell Abyad/Ras al-Ain area and forced the SDF to throw itself at Assad’s feet, Damascus and Moscow began to deploy along the rest of the border without any sign of Turkish resistance. The United States then conjured up a timely five-day ceasefire to let SDF fighters withdraw from the Arab-majority region sought by Erdogan, which also bought time for Syrian-Russian troops to reach the remaining, Kurdish-majority border areas. And, at the end of America’s deadline, Erdogan and Putin came together to formalize the new lay of the land.
Trump’s confused bluster gives little reason to think of him as a master Machiavellian. And although Pence’s plan slotted neatly into the territorial jigsaw puzzle designed by Putin and Erdogan, it remains unclear to what extent U.S. leaders may have predicted, endorsed, or co-directed the actions of its rivals.
But that Russia and Turkey were in cahoots seems clear, and we can quite safely assume that Assad, too, was kept in the loop by the Kremlin. That isn’t to say there weren’t wrinkles left to be ironed out or hard bargains to be brokered. For example, Erdogan may now have to pay for his gains the northeast by permitting a Syrian army offensive on Turkish-protected Idlib in the northwest.
Nevertheless, the idea that the carve-up of Syria was the result of sheer improvisation and happenstance is so far-fetched that if you believe it—well, I’ve got a pontoon bridge over the Euphrates to sell you.
This work was supported by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation.