/What Trump just triggered in Syria, visualized

What Trump just triggered in Syria, visualized

As the United States heads out, other forces are heading in.

Who has taken advantage of Trump’s Syria pullout?

Turkish troops from the north have advanced on Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters since Oct. 9, with the aim of carving out a buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. Facing the militarily superior Turkish forces, the Kurdish fighters struck a deal with the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad — a government backed by Russia and Iran — to allow Syrian government forces back into the country’s northeast.

The troop movements are set to radically alter Syria’s geopolitical maps, even though it was still unclear how far either of the two powers would end up advancing into Kurdish territories as of Wednesday. First reports indicated gains for Assad near Manbij and Turkish advances near Ras al-Ayn.

What impact has Trump’s pullout already had, exactly?

A new assessment by IHS Jane’s Conflict Monitor from Wednesday shows the Assad regime may be poised for its biggest territorial gains in more than nine months, and perhaps even years.

Assad’s forces have already reentered a number of cities and areas, said Columb Strack, the principal Middle East analyst at IHS Markit, an analysis firm that has tracked the war in Syria. But he cautioned it remained unclear what sort of control regime forces will exert there, both in the short and long run.

Syrian forces may initially act as a deterrence to Turkey but not seize full control of the areas, Strack said. That could change in coming weeks, however.

While the Syrian government may not yet fully control those areas, its forces now have a more expansive geographical footprint than at any time during the past half decade — a direct result of Trump’s Syria pullout.

What factors will determine how much Assad can gain?

On paper, a deal between the SDF and the Syrian regime could give Assad control over all territory held by Kurdish forces. Before the U.S. pullout, Kurds occupied 28 percent of inhabited, non-desert territory in Syria. The Assad regime could now theoretically gain control over this area, meaning it would double the amount of land it governs.

How control over Syria has evolved

Prior to Trump’s Syria pullout, Assad’s territorial advances had slowed down. His regime could now gain control of large parts of the Kurdish-held areas.

Sparsely populated

desert areas

Data is not yet available for Syrian government-

backed and Turkish forces that have gained

territory since Oct. 9.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit

RICK NOACK/THE WASHINGTON POST

How control over Syria has evolved

Prior to Trump’s Syria pullout, Assad’s territorial advances had slowed down. His regime could now gain control of large parts of the Kurdish-held areas.

Sparsely populated

desert areas

Data is not yet available for Syrian government-backed and

Turkish forces that have gained territory since Oct. 9.

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit

RICK NOACK/THE WASHINGTON POST

How control over Syria has evolved

Prior to Trump’s Syria pullout, Assad’s territorial advances had slowed down. His regime could now gain control of large parts of the Kurdish-held areas.

Sparsely populated desert areas

Data is not yet available for Syrian government-backed and

Turkish forces that have gained territory since Oct. 9.

RICK NOACK/THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit

How control over Syria has evolved

Prior to Trump’s Syria pullout, Assad’s territorial advances had slowed down. His regime could now gain control of large parts of the Kurdish-held areas.

Sparsely populated desert areas

Data is not yet available for Syrian government-backed and Turkish forces that have gained territory since Oct. 9.

RICK NOACK/THE WASHINGTON POST

Source: Conflict Monitor by IHS Markit

In reality, however, Assad is unlikely to gain control of the full area so far held by the SDF.

For one, the Turkish offensive in northern Syria already has gained control over a significant stretch of land previously held by the Kurds. Turkey is unlikely to give up that territory, as it plans to resettle Syrian refugees there. (It’s unclear how much farther Turkey can advance, though, as international pressure from Europe and the United States mounts, and as Assad’s forces begin facing off with Turkish troops.)

A second unknown factor is whether all stakeholders that so far had a say in the SDF-held territory are on board with an Assad deal. “The SDF are not purely Kurdish. There are also Sunni Arab tribal components and they are opposed to this reconciliation with the Assad government,” said Strack, the Middle East analyst.

Areas in Syria’s east were particularly likely to resist Assad seizing control, he said.

What do Assad’s advances mean in the long run?

They may indicate an uncomfortable truth: “Assad is winning the war,” Strack argued.

In a way, the past nine months were an outlier: Since the beginning of the year, government forces have made so few advances that they did not account for one percentage point of Syria’s full territory.

There were few territorial changes near rebel-held Idlib in the northwest. Meanwhile, the Kurdish forces — which at the time were backed by the United States — stood their ground.

Areas in Syria occupied by Kurdish groups

Areas in Syria occupied by Kurdish groups

Areas in Syria occupied by Kurdish groups

Areas in Syria occupied by Kurdish groups

But the largely static territorial situation this year differed significantly from prior years — with heavy shifts between different factions — and it was unlikely to last.

Assad’s days appeared numbered shortly after the beginning of the Syrian civil war in March 2011. By September 2013, Syrian opposition groups had taken over large swaths of the country.

But two years later, the picture on the ground already looked more complex, even though not necessarily better for Assad. His regime held only 16 percent of Syria’s inhabited areas at that stage.

In the north, the Kurds had taken over about 11 percent of Syria’s territory.

Having accumulated about 30 percent of the territory, the Islamic State was wreaking havoc in the north, east and center of Syria.

The Islamic State did not only battle other Syrian enemies, but also a U.S.-led coalition, which mainly used airstrikes to combat the militant group starting in 2014.

Russia, which backed Assad from the beginning, entered the war one year later. Starting in late 2015, Russia’s military targeted both moderate rebels and the Islamic State.

The foreign intervention did not immediately push back the Islamic State, however.

About two years on, in 2017, the map of Syria had changed: The U.S.-backed Kurds had successfully battled the Islamic State in the northeast. Meanwhile, the Russian-backed Assad regime had made inroads into territory previously held by the Islamic State and rebels.

But a look at a map of both Iraq and Syria reveals what Turkish military planners appeared increasingly worried about: A large cross-country territory held by Kurdish groups in Syria and Iraq, who they insist are tied to the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey views the PKK as a terrorist group and a direct threat to the Turkish government.

As the Islamic State was pushed back and eventually lost all of its territory in Syria, questions over the Kurdish presence in the north became omnipresent.

Areas controlled

by Islamic State

Areas controlled

by Islamic State

Areas controlled

by Islamic State

Areas controlled

by Islamic State

Supporters of the Kurds long feared the United States, which has a track record of abandoning the Kurds, might do so again as soon as the fight against the Islamic State was over.

U.S. officials in the region reassured them things would be different this time.

Trump himself chimed in, writing on Twitter last Tuesday, “We may be in the process of leaving Syria, but in no way have we Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters.”

Map data from IHS Jane’s Conflict Monitor

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October 17