By Niu Song
Recently, the "drama" on the withdrawal of the US troops from Syria has had its ups and downs. The US President Donald Trump's different rhetoric within half a month adds further confusion to the "drama".
The pace of the withdrawal has been slowed from the initial "comprehensive" and "quick". The period of the withdrawal has changed from the first 30 days to the following four months until "no timetable” for the exit. Trump's contrary decisions on the withdrawal from Syria clearly show that Trump has proceeded in his usual style, except this time is not due to his “willfulness”.
To some extent, the pressure from the military’s opposition and the field experience from Iraq counter-terrorism frontline have prompted Trump to make a temporary compromise. In other words, Trump's latest decision to delay the withdrawal is his attempt to balance out the relationship with the military and eventually pave way for his future moves.
First, the early departure of former US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has intensified tensions between Trump and the US military.
Trump has played a series of "political cards", "religious cards", and "economic cards" which he is good at on the Jerusalem issue, as well as the withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal and re-imposing economic sanctions against Iran.
However, Trump is not so good at dealing with defense affairs. The claim by Trump that full withdraw American troops from Syria in a short period of time caused extreme disapproval from Mattis and led to Mattis’ resignation at the end of 2018. In his farewell letter, Mattis cited a line from President Abraham Lincoln's telegram to General Ulysses S. Grant, insinuating that Trump is intervening in the military decision of Pentagon.
Second, Trump’s "flash visit" to the US military base in Iraq provided him an opportunity to compromise.
Trump visited the Al Asad Air Base in western Iraq on December 26 last year. This is his first visit to the battlefield after he took office. The base played an important role in the fight against the IS in Iraq. According to some media, Trump listened to the opinions of frontline officers and soldiers on combating the IS in Iraq, which changed his perception on counter-terrorism.
Trump's decision to slow down the withdrawal will have a major impact on the situation in the Middle East.
Israel responded to Trump's initial withdrawal decision strongly by launching an airstrike against the Iranian arsenal in Syria on December 25 last year. On December 30, 2018, the Associated Press also reported that Trump had ordered to slow down the withdrawal and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had authorized Iraqi troops to enter Syria to fight against the IS. This indicates Syria's attempt to win over Iraq through common counter-terrorism interests so as to further divide the US and Iraq.
Trump's visit to the US military base in Iraq has led to the condemnation of the Iraqi parliament leader Sabah al Saadi. Saadi said that Trump's visit is a flagrant and clear violation of Iraq's sovereignty.
The US' attempt to play the role of "offshore balance" in the Syrian situation through withdrawal troops has not changed. For Trump, the priority is to maintain a good balance between further consolidating the US’ military presence in Iraq and the goal of final withdrawal from Syria.
Disclaimer: The author is Niu Song, researcher fellow from the Middle East Studies Institute of Shanghai International Studies University. The article was published on the China's National Defense newspaper on January 9. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military Online.