Geneva is key to Assad's rehabilitation
It's hard to keep track of what's going on in Syria these days. This is because all parties involved are acting extremely pragmatically at the moment to assert their own short-term interests, preferring to come to temporary agreements with their opponents rather than seeking long-term alliances.
This has resulted in NATO partner Turkey exercising control over the northern Syrian border together with NATO adversary Russia, while both are annoyed that American units have remained behind to guard the oil for the Kurds. The Kurdish People's Defence Units (YPG) have meanwhile withdrawn from the border, ceding the field to either the extremists in the Syrian National Army, who as Syrian mercenaries in the service of Ankara are expelling and massacring their own compatriots, or to the regime's own troops, who are advancing wherever they encounter little resistance.
Further west, the Russian military in Idlib province allowed U.S. combat helicopters to use the airspace in order to eliminate IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. His presence near the Syrian-Turkish border evidently escaped the notice of the Turkish observer posts stationed there.
Turkey is regarded as the power protecting the last province held by opponents of Assad. It was originally supposed to keep radical insurgents in Idlib in check and thus avert a military offensive by the regime and Russia. But instead of protecting three million civilians from Russian air raids and the Syrian regime's advancing troops, President Erdogan chose instead to brainwash the Islamists he finances with anti-Kurdish sentiments, in order to then dispatch them to do battle with the YPG east of the Euphrates in the guise of the Syrian National Army.
So much for the dynamics of recent weeks, which have seen various government and non-government armed forces take up their positions: Turkish, Russian, American and Syrian soldiers, plus Kurdish fighters and Islamist militias.
Process of rapprochement rather than confrontation
Is a military escalation now looming in north-eastern Syria, while Europe half-heartedly discusses internationally controlled protection zones? No. As a matter of fact, what looks like confrontation is actually the beginning of a process of rapprochement. If Idlib can be recaptured by force and the north-east then put under the control of the regime again through unilateral agreements, the world – including Turkey and the USA – will have to come to terms with that fact that Assad has won. Then leaders like Erdogan and Assad, Putin and Trump can pat each other on the back and tweet about the "great deal" they have made.
Behind this all is a Russian strategy born of necessity. President Vladimir Putin has invested a great deal in keeping his protege Bashar al-Assad in power, but he cannot lastingly stabilise the regime in Damascus on his own. Reconstruction is too costly and the local warlords too powerful, while the regime-loyal businesspeople have exaggerated expectations of what is possible.
Clientelism and the war economy will continue to make everyday life in the regime-held areas difficult in the foreseeable future. Rather than building social housing for domestic displaced persons atop the ruins of destroyed city districts, luxury apartments are going up for an Assad-loyal elite. And at the checkpoints, Syrians without the necessary connections are at the mercy of the whims of the militiamen who happen to be on duty.
Although the plight of the people will be alleviated somewhat by humanitarian aid from the United Nations, financed predominantly by the West, dissatisfaction among the populace will only grow, especially with regard to housing. This resentment can only be kept under control as long as the fear of arrest is greater than the push for change. The omnipotence of the secret service is therefore Assad's prime instrument for wielding power.
Syria – a heavy burden for Russia
With this state of affairs, Syria is a heavy burden on Russia. For even though the Syrian conflict has helped Putin to consolidate Moscow's role as a world power and to demonstrate diplomatic, political and military muscle, stabilising Syria in the long run is more than he can handle economically. He needs allies for this task – the Gulf States, China, but above all Europe and the USA.
Putin is therefore deftly engineering Assad's international rehabilitation. Along with targeted propaganda ("the West has lost the military battle and now wants to destroy Syria economically through sanctions") and a PR campaign that embeds Western journalists in the country alongside members of the Russian and Syrian military, Moscow is offering every stakeholder just what they need.