As Syria began to fall apart in 2011, an opportunity presented itself. Those with a stake in the country, both internally and externally, saw the chance to change what had long been the status quo. From rebel groups in Damascus to outside benefactors such as Iran, every stakeholder sought to bend the situation to its own self-interest. Thus, even as increasingly fractured and discordant groups tore up the state's territorial integrity, outside powers couldn't help but be drawn in.
For one reason or another, countries including Iran, the United States, Turkey, Russia and nearly all of Europe have an ever-increasing interest in exerting influence in or bringing stability to Syria. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) also have a vested interest in maintaining the region's stability, to say nothing of groups such as Hezbollah and the looming force of the Islamic State. And what these various actors are finding is this: Having an interest in Syria is easy, but shaping a favorable outcome on the ground is daunting.
Russia got directly involved in Syria for a number of reasons. Arguably its primary objective was to get a seat at the table from which it could negotiate on grander issues with other interested parties, such as the United States and the European Union. Washington's primary concern in the matter, on the other hand, is the containment and destruction of the Islamic State, while Hezbollah wants to protect its flank and supply lines, in addition to one of its important patrons. Israel wants to prevent Hezbollah from expanding its military capability, namely through the acquisition of dangerous materiel. And Turkey must somehow manage the security chaos created by the civil war, and at the same time contain Kurdish ambitions both in Syria and at home. Iran wants to preserve its reach with allies and militant networks. The GCC, especially Saudi Arabia, wants that reach curtailed. Finally, Europe needs the massive influx of migrants spurred by this fight to stop exacerbating its domestic troubles.
Though all of these interested parties have leaned in at some level through proxies, support or direct combat, Russia is the most recent to get directly involved. Then, in what seemed a dramatic reversal, Russia announced the drawdown of its military mission, followed almost immediately by the actual withdrawal of portions of its air component, confirmed as of Tuesday. This is rapidly changing the calculus of all involved as they try to understand the intent and implications behind the move.
Yet it is easy to see that a bargain may have been struck between some of the actors. Or, if a bargain was not struck, Russia's actions could lead to an attempted bargain. With so many moving pieces and interests, the possible deal combinations are numerous. For instance, Russia's pullback could open the door for Turkish military intervention in northern Syria. Turkey wants to help the United States roll back the Islamic State, contain the territorial expansion of the Kurdish People's Protection Units, relieve rebel proxies in the region and, ideally, create a safe zone where migrants can be contained. But the Russian military presence in northern Aleppo province, which became substantially more aggressive after Turkey shot down a Russian military plane, has impeded progress toward these goals. A reduced Russian footprint in Syria could change that.
Of course, Russia would not do this for free, and Turkey has little to offer. But serious Turkish cooperation could stem the flow of migrants abroad, a prize Russia could present to Europe as a whole. Russia wants sanctions relief, and Turkey wants financial assistance to deal with the migrant burden, along with a more advantageous relationship with Europe. What would Europe be willing to offer to see Turkey and Russia move past their tensions and cooperate to stop the migrant waves?
The variations on these themes are endless, and it is possible to envision a grand deal in the making. But this is dangerous. Ultimately, the actors in Syria — who still far outnumber those lending support — and their desires will be the deciding factors. After all, the most recent cease-fire was, in reality, just a lull in fighting. In the grand scheme of the war, Russia's military presence in Syria was limited, and government loyalists, Iranian-backed militias and Hezbollah have borne the brunt of the fighting. They have their own objectives, which they want to preserve with or without Russian participation. The rebels, who are so fractured that they lack cohesive leadership, will see a slightly weakened opponent as incentive to regain initiative. And as fighting continues, more people will be displaced. These people will continue to try to get to Europe, where they still see the most opportunity, regardless of the hardships. Some will make it there. If actors negotiating a prospective bargain fail to deliver what they promise, the European Union would be less inclined to follow through on its end.
While this specific outcome is not guaranteed, it nonetheless illustrates the potential pitfalls of any bargain. In the end, a discrepancy exists between what the powerful external actors want in Syria and what they can actually make happen. The Russian drawdown may reflect this disconnect: Russia is withdrawing its military presence before it spends too many resources helping al Assad reach a victory, an outcome it may not think it can realistically achieve.