Branding and policy go hand in hand when it comes to American and Chinese policy in Syria. As the Trump administration expresses support for unilateralism and isolationism, Beijing positions itself as a great defender of multilateralism. This tension has played out in both nations’ decisions in the Middle East, exemplified by their diverging policies in Syria. President Donald Trump’s recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria raised questions about the sustainability of America’s strategy in the Middle East and how Trump’s support for unilateral policies would impact US allies and supporters. Meanwhile, China’s Syria policy is at times driven by two conflicting desires: to use its role in Syria to prove its legitimacy as a great power on one hand, while on the other to assert that the situation in Syria is a sign of the failure of a great power-based international order.
While China proclaims its altruistic intentions, Beijing acknowledges that it needs a stable Middle East to realize the broad ambitions it has for the Belt and Road Initiative. Stability is required for China to achieve its commercial interests and Xi’s vision of increasing China’s prestige as a global actor. In practice, China has grown more active only through mediums with limited costs, namely international institutions. Trump, for his part, has promoted his particular brand of “America first” unilateralism through inconsistent demands to withdraw the remaining 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria. While declarations about removing American forces from Syria play well to a populist base, these promises have provoked visceral pushback from both lawmakers and military advisers. It is far easier, as Trump has discovered, to make broad declarations that troops will leave while continuing to delay a withdrawal schedule. Moving forward, the key questions are: What will the US do? and Will China’s increased attention on Syria result in serious changes to the international community’s Syria policy?
Syria as a snapshot of Beijing’s view of the Middle East
Some Chinese analysts argue that China’s role in Syria demonstrates that it is a responsible major power, a role which requires increased engagement. China’s stance in Syria exemplifies its shift in the region, argues Global Times commentator Lan Shunzheng. From Lan’s perspective, China’s desire to become more involved in the Middle East is driven by growth in national strength and the desire and ability to fulfil “major power” responsibilities. In addition, Beijing needs to establish strong relations with the Middle East as a source of energy security and to anchor a major hub in the Belt and Road Initiative. Researcher Wu Sike affirms that China is acting as a responsible great power in the Middle East, including by supporting consultations with regional parties regarding Syria and participating in joint UN resolutions. Despite Wu’s affirmation of China’s mediation skills, others have criticized Beijing’s joint action with Moscow to block sanctions on the Assad regime. Taking action in Syria, critics say, should mean resolutely opposing the use of chemical weapons.
While some Chinese analysts see China’s Syria policy as evidence of its credentials as a major power, others in China use it to argue that the situation in Syria shows the fragility of the existing major power system. Researcher Zhang Jingwei argues that the US has used intervention as a way to threaten China and control the region. The divergence between the US, EU, and Russia on Syria shows the tension of cooperation and competition between major powers, argues university director Feng Shaolei. He argues that this dissonance creates a stalemate in Syria, reinforcing the deficiencies of big power cooperation.
D.C. Dissents: unpredictability of American Syria policy
Trump’s Syria policy, meanwhile, is marked by unpredictability and internal dissent. Trump announced on December 19, 2018 that US troops would withdraw from Syria within 30 days. This decision was met with resignations from a variety of staff members amid fears that an abrupt departure would destabilize the region, ceding the field to ISIS, Russia, and Iran. This announcement was not backed by traditional interagency debate, but instead blindsided Trump’s own Defense Secretary and generals, angering lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Since this initial declaration, Trump and his team have backtracked, stating that troops will be withdrawn sometime between 30 days to four months.
In addition to highlighting the Trump Administration’s poor policy practices and unrealistic timelines, naysayers also object to the impact this approach will have on the Kurds, the US’ major allies in the region. Some assert that, should the US leave Syria, Turkish forces will target the Kurds, who have served as longtime, loyal allies for a variety of US operations in the Middle East. While Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey would protect the region, he is resistant to providing guarantees that he would protect the Kurdish forces.
Looking forward: next steps for Syria
The range of opinions in both nations vary drastically, and none point to a quick fix for a complex and volatile conflict. On the Chinese side, analysts such as researcher Liu Fenghua advocate for China to increase cooperation with Russia to reduce conflict with the US on Syria. Both countries share substantial ties through the Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Syria and other issues in the Middle East should not be addressed by one single country, or individually, writes Chinese envoy to the Middle East Gong Xiaosheng. Instead, they must be viewed as simultaneous processes.
The Trump administration, for its part, has not laid out a clear vision for its objectives in Syria, as Trump’s own language clashes with the advice of his administration and lawmakers. Initial delays communicate that withdrawing US troops is a delicate process that will likely take months or even years to accomplish. Ultimately, the status quo will likely continue in Syria, with the US maintaining a minimal troop presence and China increasing its rhetoric but limiting its hard commitments.
The bottom line is that, while Syria languishes, both the US and China can use its rhetoric in the region as a way to advance their public image, without high costs or firm commitments. The regional impact of extended China-US competition in Syria will not benefit an already conflict-ridden region; instead it will harm prospects for brokering stability between fractured and entrenched parties.