Several factors related to the civil war in Syria have engendered the cantonisation of the country’s north. From east to west, five northern border regions are to various degrees self-governing, though four are backed by, and even dependent on, Türkiye. Ongoing indirect negotiations between Türkiye and Syria—which were previously at loggerheads—may result in an adjustment of the boundaries of these cantons, but will not alter, let alone reverse, the phenomenon of cantonisation.

Key Themes:

  • The cantonisation of much of Syria’s north is a fait accompli. Cantonisation was midwifed by Turkish intervention and Russian-backed Syrian regime military action, the earlier wholesale flight of commerce from Aleppo to southern Türkiye, a cross-border aid economy increasingly controlled by Türkiye, and the Astana Peace Process, which was born in 2016 and is ongoing.
  • In part thanks to Astana, Türkiye was able to shift from supporting the Syrian opposition’s project of overthrowing the Assad regime toward how to tackle what it considered the Kurdish problem on its southern border.
  • Damascus’ security rapprochement with Ankara is itself the result of Astana. Indirect negotiations through Astana evolved into Russian-mediated talks outside that framework, but inspired by it.


  • The economic viability of the Syrian cantons Türkiye created through military operations was achieved thanks to the preexisting, war-engendered phenomena of wide-ranging cross-border commercial activity and increasingly Turkish-controlled channels of international aid.
  • If the Syrian regime ever had any illusions about retaking the northwest, its experience in Daraa, which is less sociopolitically complex and less densely populated, surely disabused it of such notions. The major lesson of Daraa is that, if faced with opposition, the regime has next to no ability to absorb the rebel-held northwest and its population.
  • Cantonization will not soon be reversed. In fact, it may not even have ended. Rebel-controlled Idlib and the three Turkish-dominated cantons will continue to exist in one form or another until a national framework reunites them and the Kurdish-run northeastern canton with the rest of Syria. That particular scenario is almost certainly a long way off.