SYRIA AT A GLANCE March 1, 2018
Things are finally arriving at a phase of relative (though conflict-ridden) stability in Syria where a summary like this can be written.
RUSSIA + IRAN + ASSAD REGIME
1) Establish and strengthen the Shi'a-Alawite axis of Iran, Iraq, Integrated Assad-ruled Syria, and Lebanon that affords a land corridor between their territories and access to the Mediterranean sea (for gas pipelines, Russian military bases, etc.)
2) If possible woo Turkey away from the US.
Control the territory in RED
1) Disrupt the Shi'a-Alawite axis of Iran, Iraq, Integrated Assad-ruled Syria, and Lebanon and diminish or eliminate the influence of Russia over this axis, thereby advancing Saudi and Israeli interests.
2) Keep Turkey on their side.
Control the territory in YELLOW (via the SDF). Syrian Democratic Forces are mainly Kurdish (politically PYD, militarily YPG/J) though with some Arab groups mixed in. There is mistrust between the Arab and Kurdish components of SDF.
USA also has some degree of control over the territory in LIGHT GREEN (e.g. areas marked 2 and 3). This is via the "rebel" forces, which include so-called Free Syrian Army opportunists, as well as Islamist groups like Ahrar-al-Sham, Jaish-al-Islam, and HTS (which used to be Al-Nusra). These are a disparate jumble of forces. Ahrar is influenced greatly by Turkey. HTS is linked to Al-Qaeda and hence unfriendly to the US. Free Syrian Army is a US/UK poodle brigade.
1) Disrupt any chance of a Kurdish state emerging in northern and eastern Syria (YELLOW areas). Occupy Syrian territory as a buffer (DARK GREEN area marked 4).
2) Intermediate priority: play Russian Axis against USA to gain maximum advantages for itself geopolitically.
3) Intermediate priority: gain as much control over the wider middle east as possible by playing godfather to Islamist militias. This puts it at odds with the Assad government.
The SDF-controlled yellow regions are of great concern to Turkey because the PYD (Syrian Kurdish political entity) is aligned with the PKK (Turkish Kurdish political entity, which has separatist ambitions).
Keep these objectives in mind when you consider the following markers.
First of all, the US (via SDF) has carved out a more-or-less contiguous territory in Northern and Eastern Syria, particularly Northeast of the Euphrates. This territory contains most of Syria's valuable agricultural land, a good amount of its oil and gas resources, as well as its key source of hydroelectric power, the al-Tabqa dam (MARKER 1). It is therefore a key bargaining chip for the US in achieving its primary goal: disrupting the Iran/Iraq/Syria/Lebanon axis.
By holding on to Al-Tabqa dam (MARKER 1) and all the territories to its east and north, plus Al-Tanf area (MARKER 2) and Sayda area (MARKER 3), the US has a boot on the economic neck of Assad's regime. Al-Tanf commands the highway to Baghdad, and Sayda commands the highway to Amman... the two major overland routes on which Syria's trade depends. In this way the US assures that even if Assad and Russia defeat the major concentration of Jihadi rebels in Idlib (MARKER 7) and surrounding areas, plus other pockets like East Ghouta (MARKER 8 ), the Syrian state will be starved of resources and trade, and hence too weak to form a strong axis with Iran and Iraq, or even to survive.
The USA originally planned to oust Assad through direct rebellion (to serve Saudi and Israeli interests). Russia spoiled that plan. Now, the Americans are holding on to these bargaining chips outlined above so that in a future "peace deal", they can insist on "democratic elections" that will oust Assad as a condition for recovering Syria's economic lifelines.
Now coming to Turkey. MARKER 4 shows the Syrian territory occupied by Turkish Islamist proxies, including Ahrar-al-Sham, as part of so-called "Operation Euphrates Shield". You can see that MARKER 4 area cuts through the otherwise contiguous SDF-controlled territory. It splits off an SDF pocket to the west (MARKER 5), which is Afrin, from the rest of SDF territory.
Moreover, Turkey is heavily involved in the instability in Idlib (MARKER 7) where many Jihadi groups (mainly Al-Qaeda backed HST and Turkey-backed Ahrar-al-Sham) are fighting each other. Note all the dark blue towers on the frontier of Idlib: they are Turkish observation posts along the frontier with Assad-controlled territory.
The area around MARKERS 4, 5, 6 is where things get very interesting.
Before the fall of ISIS, the USA had promised Turkey that it would back the SDF (i.e. the PYD Syrian Kurds) only as long as it needed their help to defeat ISIS and take Raqqa. After the fall, the USA changed its mind. It has decided to maintain its presence and guarantee the security of the yellow SDF-controlled areas, at least the ones northeast of the Euphrates river (MARKER 1 and all areas to east and north of that). The reason the USA wants to stay here, as I explained, is to keep its boot on the economic lifelines of Assad's regime.
Erdogan is very angry about this. He has always insisted that he should be able to fight the PYD ("terrorists" in his view), by invading and bombing the yellow SDF areas at will. Now the USA has enforced a no-fly zone to the north and east of the Euphrates river to protect the SDF there.
So Erdogan is flexing his muscles by attacking, instead, the SDF areas WEST of the Euphrates. He has already occupied dark-green MARKER 4 area via his Jihadi proxies. He is currently attacking SDF in Afrin to the west of this region (MARKER 5). This has put great pressure on the USA-SDF alliance: the SDF are looking to the USA to protect them, but the USA is afraid of pushing Erdogan into the arms of Russia!
The Russian-Syrian alliance is at some odds over what to do about this. Putin would like nothing better than to sit back and watch while the Turks pummel the USA's proxy, SDF. The USA is faced with two bad choices: alienating either the SDF or the Turks, and both would be good outcomes for Putin. However, Assad would like to help out the SDF in Afrin because after all, Kurdish goodwill may be key to his ability to stitch back a united Syria (perhaps with greater regional autonomy for the Kurds) in future. So Putin is trying to woo Turkey away from the USA, while Assad is trying to woo SDF away from the USA.
The fun will only increase when Erdogan (as he has threatened) attacks Manbij (MARKER 6). This area is close to the SDF heartland and they have drawn a redline with the Americans, demanding overt support against a Turkish attack on Manbij if the SDF alliance with USA is to hold. The USA for its part is demurring because Manbij is still technically to the west of the Euphrates river.
The dance unfolding between Turkey, Russia, Syria, SDF, and the USA is the space to watch for the near future, in terms of geopolitical consequences. Remember SDF's going along with USA is critical for the USA to stop the Iran-Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis from fructifying, while Turkey's membership of NATO is a crucial pillar of the USA's geopolitical position against Russia!
Nothing much else to add. The USA is now trying to open other fronts against Assad to hedge against the potential loss of the SDF as their ally. They are making halla bol around the Assad/Russian attacks on East Ghouta (MARKER 8 ) which is controlled by Free Syrian Army plus some Jihadi groups. The hope is that with bad publicity (blaming the Syrians and Russians for civilian deaths) they can compel UN "humanitarian" sanctions against Assad, thereby replacing some of the economic leverage that will be lost if the SDF ditches them.
I should also say that the dark grey areas are the ones where ISIS is still supposedly running around and mating with camels. As of now, they don't matter very much to the overall picture.