The situation in northern Syria is complex and changing by the day. The Kurds have effectively switched sides, Turkey has invaded and Russians are filming themselves touring military bases that just hours before were filled with US troops.
The country, already torn apart by a civil war that has raged since a popular uprising against President Bashar al-Assad during the Arab Spring in 2011, has long been the site of proxy wars between various other countries, all with their own competing aims.
Now, the events in Syria could well influence the power dynamics of the Middle East for years to come.
What’s the latest?
Turkish forces are currently on a collision course with the Syrian army as they both advance into an area of Syria that had been, until recently, been relatively peaceful.
Russia has said it is working to prevent a conflict between the two sides, but one Turkish soldier has been killed. Dozens of civilians are dead and 160,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump announced new sanctions against Turkey on Monday to try to pressure Turkey to accept a ceasefire, and Vice President Mike Pence has flown to Ankara for talks.
“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told reporters after a visit to Baku.
OK, give me the background.
The situation on the ground is incredibly complicated and involves multiple groups with different aims, objectives and alliances.
It might help to begin with a map. The single country of Syria currently has roughly eight different power-brokers, though their influence varies dramatically.
Who are the good guys I can get behind?
Hmm, there aren’t any really aside from the civilians caught up in the violence, at least 50 of whom have been killed in recent days.
It’s probably more helpful to talk about winners and losers.
What about the Kurds?
They have long fought for an independent state, but their host countries have resisted – particularly Turkey, which has even gone so far as banning the Kurdish language in an attempt to suppress their ethnic identity.
This struggle has at times manifested into open war, and in 1978 some Kurds formed a militant wing called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in order to fight these battles.
As you can see in the map, the Kurds control a large part of northern Syria, but this has made Turkey nervous, as it views the area as a safe haven for what it deems terrorists.
A “safe zone” patrolled jointly by Kurdish and American forces had until recently created a buffer zone between Turkey and the Kurds, which had helped to maintain relative peace in the area.
Is this where Donald Trump comes in?
It is indeed. After a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this month, Trump upended US policy in Syria and said he would withdraw US troops from the “safe zone”, essentially giving Ankara a green light to take control of the region by force.
In the face of criticism from just about everybody, including members of his own party, Trump has spent the last few days desperately backtracking in a futile attempt rein in Turkey’s military assault on the region.
What were US troops doing there in the first place?
American forces have been working alongside Kurdish forces to destroy the so-called Islamic State that had taken advantage of the chaos in Syria and controlled great swathes of territory by 2015.
Isis now controls barely any territory, but there are legitimate concerns they could regain some of their former strength in the chaos currently unfolding – hundreds of Isis-affiliated prisoners are reported to have already escaped from camps where they had been detained.
So the US comes out of this looking pretty bad, right?
Right. And this is compounded dramatically by the two people empowered by Trump’s decision: Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
What are the Russians doing in Syria?
Speaking to the Today programme on Wednesday morning, Russian Lieutenant General Evgheni Berschinski claimed the “ultimate goal of Russia is to end the war in Syria”.
He added: “Russia is not interfering. Russia is there on the official invitation of the legitimate Syrian government.”
But this isn’t the whole story. Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in 2015 at the request of Assad who, at the time, was barely holding onto power as rebel forces approached Damascus.
Putin’s interests in the country were two-fold. Firstly, Russia’s only warm-water naval base in the world is in the Syrian port of Tartus, under an agreement with the Assad government, and the toppling of the dictator would have threatened this strategically vital facility.
Secondly, and more importantly, is the matter of prestige.
Trump’s decision to pull out of the northeast has cemented Moscow’s central role in shaping Syria’s future and given it an even stronger foothold in the Middle East – elevating Russia’s standing on the world stage.
It’s also resulted in surreal videos being posted to social media, which show Russian forces entering bases the US had occupied mere hours earlier, a situation unthinkable just a couple of weeks ago.