By Wang Xinyuan
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a hanger rally at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq.
On December 19, the White House announced that the US government has started withdrawing US troops from Syria as the Islamic State (IS) was now defeated. The US Department of State personnel in Syria will be back within 24 hours and 2,000 officers and soldiers will be coming home within 60 to 100 days.
The unexpected news immediately triggered heated debate in the international community. The decision to withdraw signifies neither a diminishing influence of the US nor the transfer of its national interests in the region. It is the result that the US policymakers reassess gains and losses, debug policies, re-integrate relations, and realize "offshore balancing". The United States will continue to exert influence on the Syrian situation, and the competition among other parties in Syria will intensify.
Sudden withdrawal of US troops triggers controversy
US President Donald Trump's decision to "withdraw" from Syria is a long-term intent rather than an abrupt plan. Trump has always adhered to the concept of "America first". He was and remains wary of the large-scale US military presence overseas and expressed his desire to withdraw troops from Syria since his presidential campaign.
In April this year, Trump said the US military operations in the Middle East cost a lot but gained "nothing" in the past decade, and wanted to "bring the troops back home". However, he was forced to "postpone" due to the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria.
In August, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis proposed three preconditions for the withdrawal of troops: defeat the IS, train Syrian local forces to safeguard security in their home, and the Syrian peace progress in Geneva talks.
Persuaded by his advisers, Trump approved the "New US Strategy in Syria" in September, indefinitely extending the duration of the US military presence in Syria to the time, as Trump said, "when the regions rescued from terrorists is kept stable and the IS terrorist groups are eliminated with no hope of resurgence."
However on December 6, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford claimed that the aim of training 35,000 to 40,000 armed forces in Syria was only 20% processed and there was a lot of work to do.
Trump shocks allies and advisers with his radical idea on Syrian issue. According to a source from the White House, Trump announced his decision after a high-level round table meeting at the White House on December 18, where most of the White House advisors and defense officials held that it was still not the right time to withdraw. The IS has basically lost most territory in Syria and Iraq and currently controls only less than 2% of those at its peak period. Trump's decision to withdraw seems "justified" logically, but it is incorrect to take the geographical area as the only measure of the existing terrorists force.
It is estimated over 14,000 IS armed personnel are still active in Syria, so the goal of the United States is far from the end. Considerable political and academic people in the US believed that abandoning the long-term military presence of the United States in Syria is a "big mistake." In view of this, the White House responded that withdrawing troops does not mean the breakup of the international alliance against the IS, nor does it mean the end of the crackdown.
Trump's motive is thought-provoking
Analysts pointed out, that Trump firmly decided to pull out from Syria despite of strong opposition and political pressure from the government, the Congress and the military, is not recklessness. Trump has his own sophisticated reasons.
A series of sectarian violence, terrorism, democracy movements, and external interventions spread across the Middle East and the situation has been increasingly complex since the Arab Spring Movement. In this regard, Trump holds a different view with the conservatives in terms of Syria's strategic interests, that the geopolitical characteristics of the Middle East has determined it is better to change the US's position in Syria from deep dominance to limited intervention, and then maneuvering from behind the scenes, instead of blind investment without any results achieved. The US should conduct a full draw-back, so as to cut down investment, put off its "responsibility burdens" and achieve the intention of "stop-loss strategy". Therefore, the US can gain political capital, serve its domestic political needs, adjust its foreign policies and optimize resource allocation.
However, domestically, the views of the American society on the Syrian war are quite different from those of the US policymakers. Trump's withdrawal is intended to adhere to public opinions and fulfill his campaign promise. As suggested by a 2017 poll, only 17% of the American public believes that the United States should retain military power in Syria.
Trump is currently facing tremendous pressure from events such as the investigation of his potential "collusion with Russia", so the withdrawal of troops from Syria can divert domestic attention to some extent. In addition, Trump will work with a House of Representatives under the control of the Democratic Party in the next two years, and it is harder for him to implement many kinds of domestic political agendas. Thus, more focus on the international affairs will be favorable for him to win the next election in 2020.
From the perspective of the international environment, the withdrawal of US troops also has the consideration to repair relations with Turkey, its traditional ally in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Some analysts pointed out that the timing when Trump released his decision to withdraw is "very delicate", during which the United States and Turkey had frequent and close interactions.
On December 14, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his US counterpart Donald Trump had a telephone conversation to exchange views on Syrian situation and reached a certain "political tacit understanding" on the Kurdish armed forces in the northeastern part of Syria. On December 18, the US Department of State approved an agreement of Turkey's purchase of US Patriot missile defense system worth US$3.5 billion, ending years of debate on this deal. On issues straining US-Turkey ties, such as the extradition of Fethullah Gulen, an exiled Turkish preacher who has allegedly masterminded the failed coup attempt in 2016 to topple Erdogan, and the journalist Jamal Khashoggi's killing incident, the two countries also showed a relatively "open and general" attitude, and this also attributes to the compromise of the United States on the Syria issue.
Great powers reshuffle
The withdrawal of US troops from Syria can have a profound and far-reaching impact on the Syrian conflict and even on the future peace process. Due to the nature of a proxy war for the Syrian conflict, the power vacuum after the departure of the US troops will be filled by regional powers such as Russia, Turkey and Iran. In this process, all relevant parties will inevitably secure their own interests and potential problems among Russia, Turkey and Iran will surface. In particular, the close relationship between the United States and Turkey will seriously impact on the potential common interests between Russia and Turkey. The collaboration among Russia, Turkey and Iran on the Syrian issue may disintegrate or even cease.
The Kurdish armed forces in Syria regard the withdrawal of the US troops as "a stab in the back for the Kurds", because Turkey is given a pass to launch military operations against the Kurdish armed forces. On December 20, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that when the time is right, the Turkish troops will intrude into Manbij and the east coast of the Euphrates and destroy the Kurdish armed forces there. Due to the loss of support from the United States, the Kurdish armed forces are likely to take the initiative and contact the Bashar al-Assad government and Russia when facing threat of survival, and temporarily abandon its political demands of building an independent state, change the mode of autonomy in the northern Syrian region, as well as put their own safety first and give up some of the economic benefits of the oil producing region.
After Russia's "takeover" on Syria issue, the original disagreements between the United States and Turkey will directly evolve into disagreement between Turkey and Russia. Turkey may encourage the Syrian opposition forces under its control to resist the political arrangements led by the Bashar al-Assad government. The political settlement of the Syrian issue and reconstruction of Syria will be full of complexity and uncertainties for a long time.
On the other hand, the withdrawal of the US troops has greatly reduced Iran's obstacles to expand its regional influence. Iran will further deepen all-round cooperation with the Syrian government and strengthen its military presence in Syria, posing a serious threat to Israel and the region.
For a long time, Russia has maintained a subtle relationship with Israel in cooperation. Israel has not followed the United States to impose sanctions against Russia, and Russia has also remained silent on Israel's air strikes against targets in Syria. Therefore, Russia will also face challenge of strategic choices.