Initially, it appeared to be a geopolitical puzzle. First, the United States announced that it was pulling out of northern Syria, leaving its Kurdish allies to the mercy of Turkey. Then Turkey launched an offensive in Kurdish towns along the Syrian border. Neither the Syrian government nor its Russian allies did anything to stop the Turkish incursion. For reasons that are unclear, it seemed that everybody was on board when it comes to taking on the Kurds.
Then everything fell into place when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in the Black Sea town of Sochi. Mr. Erdoğan wants to carve out a 400-km long and 30-km wide buffer across the Turkish border, stretching from Manbij in northwestern Syria to its northeastern corner on the Iraqi border. His plan is to drive the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia out of this buffer, which he calls the “safe zone,” and resettle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey in this region. The “safe zone” will be run by pro-Turkish Syrian militias. In the Sochi summit, Mr. Putin practically accepted this proposal, but with one rider: the “safe zone” would be jointly patrolled by both Russian and Turkish troops. Russian and Syrian troops will push the YPG away from the buffer.
In the end it was a win-win deal. Ankara got what it wanted without fighting a full-scale war with the Kurds — a buffer along the border; Damascus got what it wanted without fighting the Rojava — sovereignty over northeastern Syria; Moscow got what it wanted — the Americans out of Syria (only a small contingent of U.S. troops are likely to stay back); and U.S. President Donald Trump got what he wanted — to end America’s role in at least one of the several long-drawn wars it’s fighting.
The only losers in this great game are the Kurds. For over four years, they have been on the front line of the war against the Islamic State (IS). They defeated the terrorist group and established a semi-autonomous administration in areas liberated from the IS, only to lose both territories and autonomy. The U.S. has abandoned them. Turkey is bombing them. For Russia, they are just a pawn on the geopolitical chessboard.
Mr. Putin has established himself as the most critical player in the Syrian theatre. Regional leaders who have stakes in Syria, from the Syrian President to the leaders of Israel, Iran and Turkey, frequently visit him to discuss their strategies as the Syrian foreign policy is practically set by the Kremlin. There can’t be any solution to the Syrian crisis without Mr. Putin’s approval. The U.S. withdrawal from the country further bolsters Russia’s standing as it eagerly seeks to fill that vacuum. But then why is Russia helping Turkey create a buffer and turning against the Kurds who defeated the IS?
For Mr. Putin and Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, the war is not over yet. True, the Syrian government has practically won the civil war. If the government was on the brink of collapse when the Russians arrived in Syria in September 2015, it’s now on a firm footing, controlling most of the country, except the Idlib governorate. Idlib is controlled by Ahrar al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra which was an offshoot of al-Qaeda, and pro-Turkish militias. On Tuesday, when Mr. Erdoğan was in Sochi, Mr. Assad visited the Idlib front line. The visit itself was a statement. Mr. Assad wants Idlib back. He held back an operation because there’s a Turkish-Russian deal to stall any offensive on Idlib. Now that Turkey can carve out its buffer along the border, Mr. Putin could press Mr. Erdoğan to drop Ankara’s opposition to a Syria-Russian operation. A Turkish buffer would also mean that potential refugees from Idlib in the event of such an attack (there are some three million people living in the governorate) would not cross into Turkey, unlike what happened during the battle for Aleppo. Sochi is only the beginning of a grand bargain.