The U.S. pulled back. Turkey moved in. Kurdish forces retreated. The Syrian government gloated. Russia struck a deal and sent in more troops. More than 100 people died and more than 100,000 fled.
All this happened over a few weeks in October across a long but narrow strip of Syrian land running 300 miles along the Turkish border. It looked like a 21st-century great-power scramble to redraw the map. In reality, not much territory changed hands. So after almost a month of chaos, the U.S. is caught in a new maelstrom of competing proxies, its weak leverage further damaged, and the future of its anti-Islamic State fight thrown into doubt.
The supposed winners—Turkey, Russia, and the Syrian regime—have gained some slapdash spheres of influence and a severe hit to American prestige. The losers, as ever, are Syrian civilians.
The U.S. military, with President Donald Trump’s repeated seesaws over whether to stay or go in Syria, now must keep up the fight against ISIS with fewer troops and local Kurdish partners, who may no longer trust it.
Meanwhile, the vacuum along the border has given way to a patchwork of outside forces and the proxies they back. “There’s so many armed forces driving around with different flags,” Steve Gumaer, president of the aid organization Partners Relief & Development, who recently returned from a visit to northeastern Syria, told me. He said members of his team saw two Syrian personnel carriers, as well as Russian carriers, Turkish tanks, and vehicles of the Free Syrian Army, the militias Turkey relied on to help push back the Kurds. Perhaps some 30 groups or factions make up the Turkish-backed proxy forces operating there, according to Oula Alrifai, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, citing Kurdish sources. These include Islamist extremists. “Some elements,” she told me, “are more radical than others.”