The situation in northern Syria is complex and changing by the day. The Kurds have effectively switched sides, Turkey has invaded and Russians are filming themselves touring military bases that just hours before were filled with US troops.
The country, already torn apart by a civil war that has raged since a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring in 2011, has long been the site of proxy wars between various other countries, all with their own competing aims.
Now, the events in Syria could well influence the power dynamics of the Middle East for years to come.
What’s the latest?
Turkish forces are currently on a collision course with the Syrian army as they both advance into an area of Syria that had been, until recently, relatively peaceful.
Russia has said it is working to prevent a conflict between the two sides, but one Turkish soldier has been killed. Dozens of civilians are dead and 160,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters after a visit to Baku.
OK, give me the background.
The situation on the ground is incredibly complicated and involves multiple groups with different aims, objectives and alliances.
It might help to begin with a map. The single country of Syria currently has roughly eight different power-brokers, though their influence varies dramatically.
Who are the good guys I can get behind?
There aren’t any really aside from the civilians caught up in the violence, at least 50 of whom have been killed in recent days.
It’s probably more helpful to talk about winners and losers.
What about the Kurds?
They have long fought for an independent state, but their host countries have resisted – particularly Turkey, which has even gone so far as banning the Kurdish language in an attempt to suppress their ethnic identity.
This struggle has at times manifested into open war, and in 1978 some Kurds formed a militant wing called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in order to fight these battles.
As you can see in the map, the Kurds control a large part of northern Syria, but this has made Turkey nervous, as it views the area as a safe haven for what it deems terrorists.
A “safe zone” patrolled jointly by Kurdish and American forces had until recently created a buffer zone between Turkey and the Kurds, which had helped to maintain relative peace in the area.
Is this where Donald Trump comes in?
It is indeed. After a phone call with Erdogan earlier this month, Trump upended US policy in Syria and said he would withdraw US troops from the “safe zone”, essentially giving Ankara a green light to take control of the region by force.
In the face of criticism from just about everybody, including members of his own party, Trump has spent the last few days desperately backtracking in a futile attempt to rein in Turkey’s military assault on the region.
What were US troops doing there in the first place?
American forces have been working alongside Kurdish forces to destroy the so-called Islamic State that had taken advantage of the chaos in Syria and controlled great swathes of territory by 2015.
Isis now controls barely any territory, but there are legitimate concerns they could regain some of their former strength in the chaos currently unfolding – hundreds of Isis-affiliated prisoners are reported to have already escaped from camps where they had been detained.
So the US comes out of this latest situation looking pretty bad, right?
Right. And this is compounded dramatically by the two people empowered by Trump’s decision: Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
What are the Russians doing in Syria?
Speaking to the Today programme on Wednesday morning, Russian Lieutenant General Evgheni Berschinski claimed the “ultimate goal of Russia is to end the war in Syria”.
He added: “Russia is not interfering. Russia is there on the official invitation of the legitimate Syrian government.”
But this isn’t the whole story. Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015 at the request of Assad who, at the time, was barely holding onto power as rebel forces approached Damascus.
Putin’s interests in the country were two-fold. Firstly, Russia’s only warm-water naval base in the world is in the Syrian port of Tartus, under an agreement with the Assad government, and the toppling of the dictator would have threatened this strategically vital facility.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the matter of prestige.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the northeast has cemented Moscow’s central role in shaping Syria’s future and given it an even stronger foothold in the Middle East – elevating Russia’s standing on the world stage.
It’s also resulted in surreal videos being posted to social media, which show Russian forces entering bases the US had occupied mere hours earlier, a situation unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago.
What about Assad?
Assad largely kept out of the Kurdish region as he concentrated his forces on strategic sites like Aleppo. With the help of Russian forces, he crushed opposition forces which now only remain in the north-western corner around Idlib.
Assad’s army, however, has been weakened by the prolonged conflict, and now relies heavily on Russia, Iran and Iran’s Shi’ite militia allies, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The Russians have behaved just as appallingly, using airstrikes to target civilians and destroy hospitals. Russia’s defence minister has even bragged about how many new weapons his military has had the opportunity to test whilst doing so.
Why are the Kurds now in an alliance with him?
The Kurds have now invited Assad’s forces into the area under their control in a bid to protect themselves from the invading Turkish forces.
Assad would never have had the manpower to take control of the region using force, so Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops is a godsend – an opportunity to seize back resource-rich territory he abandoned years ago.
The area includes oil, farmland, water resources and the hydro-electric dam at Tabqa – vital assets that will better position the government to cope with the impact of Western sanctions.
But are they going to have to fight Turkey?
Not if Russia can help it. Exploiting their newly-increased influence in the region, Moscow is now the de-facto power-broker.
“There are Turkish-Russian talks ... to set the tempo for northern Syria, particularly east of the Euphrates,” a regional pro-Damascus source told Reuters. “They are the ones moving all these plans.”
A Turkish official said Ankara is “working in very close cooperation with Russia”, and Erdogan pointed on Monday to Russia’s importance when he said that Putin had shown a “positive approach” to the situation.
The two countries may be able to forge an agreement dividing the northern border into new control zones and prevent their local allies – the Syrian government on the one hand and anti-Assad insurgents on the other – from going to war.
So who’s the biggest winner?
Although Assad will be happy with developments, Russia hasn’t been assisting for free, and arguments over war debts are already tearing the Assad family apart. Despite being nearly victorious in Syria’s civil war, he is far weaker than he was before it began and totally reliant on Putin to stay in power.
As for Erdogan, his military operation looks set to be successful, but his international standing has been seriously damaged, particularly among Nato allies.
But Russia’s indispensable role in Syria reflects a larger shift in the Middle East from Damascus to Riyadh, as showcased by Putin’s Gulf tour this week, including his first visit to Saudi Arabia in more than a decade.