Most regional and global powers have been oscillating between different positions and facing dilemmas in their foreign policy in the Syrian crisis due to the current comprehensive regional and global transformation. Neither regional nor global powers have well-defined projections regarding Syria's future. There are many paradoxical realities between the political projections of the external powers and the situation on the ground. It is quite difficult, if not impossible, to reach a sustainable solution without harmonizing the expectations of both the external powers and internal actors. In this piece, I want to briefly define the positions of the main external players. It seems Russia is one of the strongest and most effective actors in the Syrian conflict. On one hand, it directly intervened in the crisis in September 2015 and saved the Bashar Assad regime from collapse.
Russia has been supporting the Assad regime since then; however, it does not want the regime to be under the control of Iran, which is isolated and sanctioned by the United States and its allies.
Therefore, Russia does not want further Iranian effectiveness in Syria. In addition, Russia has been providing logistical support to PKK-affiliated groups, namely the People's Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the main American allies on the ground in the Tel Rifat region.
On the other hand, Russia has been cooperating with Turkey to end the conflict. At least, Russia is part of the Astana Process, which was initiated by Turkey, Russia and Iran. For Russia, Syria is the most significant stronghold of its Eastern Mediterranean strategy and its Middle Eastern projections; therefore, it will continue to invest in the crisis and will sit at the negotiation table as the main sponsor of the regime. Similarly, the United States, the other influential outside actor on the ground, has been asking for the removal of the Assad regime and supported opposition groups during the first two years of the crisis. During this period, the U.S. followed a policy parallel to that of Turkey.
Later, especially after the emergence of Daesh in the country and its dominance over a large area of territory, it has changed its position and began to support the YPG and the PYD against the Daesh threat. Accordingly, the U.S. has reduced its Syrian policy to the struggle against Daesh. Even though Daesh was mainly fighting against the mainstream opposition groups, the U.S. undermined Syrian opposition forces by ignoring the Syrian opposition and by discouraging its allies from supporting them. The U.S. has been supporting the YPG and the PYD, which is the offshoot of the PKK, recognized as a terrorist organization not only by Turkey but also by the U.S. and other Western countries. That is, the U.S. began to support the archenemy of Turkey, its NATO ally. The U.S. disregarded security threats directed at Turkey and eventually alienated its ally. Furthermore, the U.S. has abandoned its harsh anti-Assad policy. Nowadays, it has stopped insisting on the removal of the regime.
Authoritarian Arab regimes, namely the Gulf states – the current American allies in the region, in particular also face a similar dilemma in the Syrian conflict. They have mainly been following the lead set by the U.S.
On one hand, Gulf states do not want to support the Assad regime since it is largely under the control of Iran. On the other hand, they do not want to support the mainstream opposition groups either, since they closely associate themselves with Turkey.
In other words, under normal circumstances, the Arab regimes prefer the continuation of the Assad regime, if possible. However, since the regime is an ally of Iran, they have refrained from offering support. As an alternative, they want to support the Arab opposition against the Iranian-backed regime, but the opposition is too diverse, and most of them are close to Turkey.
In addition, the U.S. has discouraged them from supporting the Arab opposition. Instead, they support the American allies, the YPG and the PYD, the only non-Arab actors in the Syrian conflict.
The remaining relevant regional actors, namely Turkey, Iran and Israel, have relatively straightforward and unambiguous positions. While Iran has been supporting the Assad regime from the beginning of the crisis, Israel prefers a weakened or divided Syria. Iran and Israel have been following overall conflicting regional projections and trying to change the regional balance of power in their favor.
On the other hand, Turkey has been supporting the mainstream opposition groups, the main representatives of the Syrian people, from the beginning. While supporting the opposition, Turkey asked the Assad regime to hand over power. However, Ankara was alone in the stance, and the Turkish support fell short of removing the Assad regime from power.
After the rise of Daesh, the YPG and the PYD in the northern part of the country, Turkey shifted its priorities toward the struggle against terrorism. After the defeat of Daesh, the YPG and the PYD remained as the only targets for Turkey.
For now, the YPG and the PYD constitute vital security threats against its territorial integrity in the long run. It has to negotiate the issue with the U.S. The second priority is the management of the refugee problem.
Turkey intends to send a large part of the Syrian refugees living in Turkey to a projected safe zone in the north of Syria, namely the area controlled by the Syrian opposition and the Turkish security forces.
Turkey is negotiating this issue with Russia, who has been attacking the Idlib region, a potential area for the resettlement of the refugees. Ultimately, Ankara has to take initiatives on these two issues despite the hesitant policies of other regional and global powers. Turkey wants to persuade the other external powers operating on the ground. If not, it has to take unilateral measures; otherwise, for Turkey, the alternative cost will be too high.