On the eve of the constitutional committee meetings that Russia and other international countries are backing in Geneva, the Syrian regime is rushing forces to fill any gaps in lines around the Turkish forces that invaded eastern Syria on October 9. Since a Russian brokered ceasefire on October 22, everyone is looking to see if the Syrian regime and others, such as the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and Turkish-backed Syrian extremists will stop shooting.
Under the Russian-Turkish agreement that Russian President Vladimir Putin helped craft at Sochi, the SDF and elements linked to it, are supposed to withdraw the kilometers from the border and withdraw from areas where Turkey launched a offensive. Turkey claims it is fighting terrorists in Syria and argues the SDF is linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 200,000 people have fled Turkey's bombing and Turkish-backed extremists groups that were unleashed as part of Turkey's invasion have killed and plundered border areas. Russia sought to put a stop to the chaos and broker a deal as US President Donald Trump said the US would leave parts of northern Syria.
Now a race is on. The Americans are racing to secure the oil while the Syrian regime, driving in the other direction sometimes waving at the Americans as they leave, is racing to secure areas around the Turkish occupation forces, so that a ceasefire line can function well. But clashes have resulted. Dave Eubank of the Free Burma Rangers who are providing medical aid to Kurds and others near Tel Tamr reported over the last days that there was no real ceasefire, instead forces were fighting to grab up areas around villages that were disputed. It is not always clear who is fighting, with the SDF supposed to withdraw, ostensibly the Syrian regime is not fighting the Syrian rebels.
The SDF put up images of its forces removing from areas, long caravans of technical and other half-armored vehicles were seen driving away. Meanwhile the SDF and the US are working closely on anti-ISIS raids, including some in areas occupied by Turkey. This raises questions of what is going on and why ISIS members have turned up in areas held by Turkey in Afrin and near Jarabulus.
Russia says it has high hopes for the Geneva talks. This involves 50 members of the regime and 50 members of civil society and 50 opposition activistssent to make a new constitution for Syria. Usually things involving 150 people trying to make one decision do not work well. But Moscow thinks it's worth a try, at least to pay lip service to some kind of "constitution" for Syria, a country that is currently run by one man and his family since the 1970s. But maybe Bashar al-Assad will share power unlike his father Hafiz. If history shows anything it is that this is unlikely. Instead the Syrian regime says that it is returning to areas that Turkey and the rebels control, such as Idlib. Russia is concerned that theUS is taking the oil, but the regime is concerned about Kobane, Sere Kaniye, Tal Rifat and Idlib. "We will raise the national flag on all of Syria's territory," the regime's SANA media said Tuesday. There will be no long-term compromise with Turkey's occupation, or the Americans securing the oil. Trump thinks there might be a deal. Assad doesn't make deals though, usually Russia, Iran and Turkey broker deals for Syria, with Iran and Russia on the side of Syria and Turkey trying to salvage its image as best it can by slowly playing to lose.
The next days will tell if the ceasefire holds and if Russia can achieve anything in Geneva. The way in which Geneva and the end of the first 150 hours of the ceasefire coincide is not coincidence. The US still plays little role in Geneva, excluding its own SDF from any role in the future of Syria, something the SDF has learned to accept and has likely motivated them to open some discussions with Russia and the regime after the US choose to abandon the border areas. It seems that everyone is carving up their own bit of Syria, without asking the locals what they want. Turkey is doing it so it can say it "fought terrorists," even though no terrorists ever attacked Turkey from Syria. Russia wants to show it can balance its work with Turkey and the Syrian regime. Trump wants to claim he can get the oil and a deal from it. Iran is silent because it doesn't know what comes next. For Syrians trapped along the border seem, such as Kurds in eastern Syria, the future remains unclear.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.