An “expert” quoted in Chinese state media Friday suggested that the U.S. presence in Syria was the only thing keeping the war from ending and that the distinct possibility now exists for the Syrian Civil War to become history.
The remarks follow the Chinese Foreign Ministry refusing to specifically address President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would withdraw troops from Syria and fully exit the war theater, instead repeatedly insisting that the war must end through a “Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process.”
China is not a party to military action in Syria, but has watched keenly from afar as Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, and a variety of non-state actors have fought for years over various territories in the country. America’s involvement in Syria has largely been to target the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group, which Trump claimed this week had been sufficiently defeated to warrant an exit.
The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party newspaper, described the U.S. withdrawal as “an unexpected move that analysts said exposes the divide among US policymakers and does not necessarily indicate the U.S. will shift its focus to other regions.” The article then proceeded to cite Chinese government-approved experts who expressed optimism with the removal of American forces looming.
“This decision could probably put an end to the Syrian Civil War, because this means the U.S. has formally abandoned its goal to overthrow the Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad,” former Chinese ambassador to Iran Hua Liming is quoted as saying.
Another expert, Diao Daming of Renmin University, adds that Chinese observers should not believe that the withdrawal from Syria means that Trump is retreating from the world stage. “We don’t need to treat this as a signal, as with the Obama administration in the past, that a decreasing presence in the Middle East signifies a rebalancing toward the Asia-Pacific region,” Diao says, stating that the United States still has a compelling reason to stay: curbing Iranian influence in the region.
Diao’s skepticism echoes urging in Turkish media to wait for concrete evidence that American troops have left before praising the decision. Yeni Safak, a newspaper closely aligned with Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published a piece Friday suggesting there may be “new plans of destruction behind Trump’s latest announcement.”
“Turkey is taking the decision with a pinch of salt,” Yeni Safak reports. “Even though [Trump] did say that troops would withdraw [from Syria], the U.S. increased its presence in the oil-rich country, having over 20 military bases. Hence, eyebrows are being raised as to whether this is just another fluke.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which typically offered less heated commentary than the Global Times, did not indicate whether it agreed. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Friday that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria be respected, and the future of Syria be determined independently by the Syrian people.”
“We hope that all relevant parties could work together to create favorable conditions for an early launch of an inclusive Syrian-owned and Syrian-led political process so that a proper settlement for the Syria issue could be reached at an early date,” she added, without mentioning the United States by name. “This serves the common interests of all members of the international community.”Hua added that China will continue to “make contributions to and work for the peace and reconciliation process of Afghanistan” in response to a question about similar reports that President Trump will soon withdraw from that war, which has raged for nearly two decades. Unlike Syria, China shares a border with Afghanistan and aspires to build a lucrative transportation system through the country as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), nearly impossible to do given the robust jihadist presence in the country.
Trump announced that the U.S. would no longer participate in the Syrian Civil War, which featured upwards of ten separate militias and state armies at the peak of conflict, on Wednesday, citing the near-total defeat of the Islamic State. On Thursday, Trump declared on Twitter that it was time to leave the country and not continue to get mired in foreign entanglements.
“Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing?” Trump wrote. “Do we want to be there forever?”
The decision has triggered outrage among Syria’s Kurdish population, who were primarily responsible for eradicating ISIS with American support. The Turkish government has repeatedly threatened to attack Syrian Kurdistan and eradicate the Kurds, halted only by the presence of American troops in Kurdish areas.
“If the Americans pull out and leave us to the Turks or the [Syrian] regime, our destiny will be like the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991. Neither the regime, nor Iran nor Turkey, will accept our presence here,” Arin Sheikmos, a Kurdish journalist, said on Thursday.