December 27, 2018 Special Dispatch No. 7821

Saudi Journalists Claim U.S. Withdrawal From Syria Serves Iran, Wonder About The Motives Behind It

December 27, 2018
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 7821

President Donald Trump's December 19, 2018 announcement of the imminent withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Syria sparked many reactions in the Saudi press, the vast majority of them expressing disappointment at the decision and apprehension that it would strengthen Iran in Syria and in the region. The writers noted that the decision was unexpected and even shocking, since it contravened statements and promises made by Trump and his officials, according to which the U.S. forces would to remain in Syria until ISIS was defeated, Iran removed its forces from the country, and a political solution was reached regarding its future. They argued that a withdrawal today, before these goals have been achieved, means leaving Syria in the hands of Iran, Russia and Turkey, and may lead to a resurgence of ISIS and instability in Syria and throughout the Middle East.

However, the writers conspicuously avoided directing personal criticism at Trump, a Saudi ally, and stressed that he was still acting against Iran more forcefully than his predecessors. Some of the journalists speculated that the decision may be motivated by secret considerations, such as a desire to mire Russia in the Syrian mud or even a plan to stage a military attack on Iran.

The following are excerpts from some of the articles:

The U.S. Withdrawal Is A Victory For Iran; Trump Has Broken His Promises

Senior Saudi journalist 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the former editor of the London-based Saudi daily  Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and former director of Alarabiya TV, expressed shock and rage at Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. forces from Syria and thus hand it over to Russia and Iran, as he expressed it. He stated that Trump was breaking his promises and warned that, following the U.S. pullout, the situation in Syria would only deteriorate, since both the Iranian presence and ISIS activity would grow. This, he added, could adversely affect the entire region. While noting that Trump has confronted Iran more forcefully than his predecessor Obama, he assessed that the results of the withdrawal would eventually compel Trump to imitate Obama and redeploy the forces in Syria, and emphasized that the removal of the Iranian militias from Syria was a condition for achieving stability there. The following are excerpts from the English version of his article published on the Alarabiya website.[1]

Al-Rashed wrote: "The U.S. President shocked many people when he announced that he was withdrawing his forces from Syria just a few days after the State and Defense departments announced efforts to reinforce [the] policies of the [U.S.] government in Syria, politically and militarily, whether against ISIS, the Turkish intrusion or the Iranian presence. Practically withdrawing the U.S. forces means handing the remaining lands to Russia and Iran. While it may spell the end of the Syrian revolution, it is, however, not the end of the regional war on Syrian lands or [in its] skies. Iran and its militias would still remain, as well as ISIS, while Turkey will continue its battles [in] northern Syria.

"Trump confused his administration [and] his government’s plans, and broke his promises, and has pleased Moscow, Tehran and Damascus. However, he is still the only U.S. president who confronted the Iranian regime more than the administration of the former U.S. president, Barack Obama...

"The U.S. forces are not that huge nor [very] powerful over there... [Their] importance is that [they] represent the commitment of the superpower to impose its policy… The U.S. withdrawal and the resignation of its defense secretary [will] complicate the situation even further...  inside Syria and [in] its surroundings. Iran will not withdraw now, but rather will reinforce its presence. In return, Israel will intensify its confrontation[s] and ISIS hidden cells will come out from their hideouts…

"This contradicts Trump’s narrative that ISIS had been eliminated and that his government is not ready to fund others’ wars. [Like] confronting Iran and [besieging] Al-Qaeda, [this] is a war for U.S. security and its interests, which of course converges with the interests of the region and the world.

"Whether the motives of the U.S. president were domestic, in preparation for another presidential campaign in two years, or to get out of the Syrian situation, Trump will most probably do what his predecessor Obama did: he will resend his forces to Syria. Without getting Iran’s forces and militias out, the situation will not stabilize. It [will] attract different regional and international interferences, which in turn, in the light of this chaos, [will] bring back the terrorist militias…

"In my opinion, U.S. withdrawal [will] increase the intensity of the regional conflict and reduce the chances for peace. It [will] be the worst option, specifically [in terms of] Iran, considering that [Iran] is the winner in this withdrawal which it considers a defeat for the American side. With no agreement signed by all parties in Syria, the crisis and the conflicts will continue in different ways."  

The U.S. pullout from Syria opens the door wide to the terrorists lying in wait (Source: Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, December 24, 2018)

The American Withdrawal From Syria May Have Irreparable Consequences

'Ali Al-Kheshaiban, a columnist for the Saudi Al-Riyadh daily, contended that Trump's decision will necessarily have unexpected side effects, as a result of which the world will face one of two possibilities: either a sea change in the political and economic world order, or a serious mistake that must be rectified as soon as possible. He wrote:

"Trump uses Twitter to broadcast his decisions, and the U.S. has quickly become a country whose decisions are unpredictable. In the first 24 months of his presidency, Trump has preserved the strong relations with his country's allies – yet he constantly surprises everyone with his unpredictable decisions...

"The U.S. President's decision to withdraw from Syria gives rise to big questions regarding the Middle East and the extent of the potential repercussions this decision will have. Will it trigger political or military developments that will necessitate a reevaluation of [the situation in] the region? Although the U.S. forces in Syria are few, the departure of even one U.S. soldier will signal the beginning of unpredictable developments, and every possible side effect may arise...

"The entire world, including the countries of the Middle East, is worried about the irreversible side effects of such decisions which, immediately upon their approval by the U.S. administration, spark more opposition than applause. The world now faces only two [possible] scenarios: Either it faces significant structural changes in the political, economic, and cultural order – which will necessitate a different kind of thinking, unusual and unexpected decisions, and a global reshuffle – or it faces a serious mistake in world history, that must be rectified fast."[2]

 "Why The Urgency To Withdraw From Syria?"; Trump's Explanations Are Unconvincing

Some writers tried to find explanations and justifications for the U.S. withdrawal in light of the fact that the stated goals of its presence have not been achieved. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat editor Mashari Al-Dhaidi wrote that Trump's claim – that the mission of defeating ISIS has been accomplished – is not convincing, and noted that even the Pentagon has admitted in a statement that the campaign against ISIS is still ongoing. Trump's decision, he said, is motivated by secret U.S. interests that are either shared by Russia and Turkey, or else meant to make difficulties for them: "As is his custom, U.S. President Donald Trump has changed the [entire] global picture with one unexpected decision... But the embarrassing fact is that the situation hasn't changed. Why then this 'urgency' to leave Syria? Is there a new or a clear justification? ISIS is still there, and Iran is intensifying its dark activities, both openly and secretly. So what has changed?...

"Trump's own explanation is interesting. He tweeted: 'Getting out of Syria was no surprise. I’ve been campaigning on it for years... Russia, Iran, Syria & others are the local enemy of ISIS.' This may be understood as, 'Let's leave it to the Russians, the Iranians, and Bashar's gangs to wallow in the mud with ISIS, because it is not an enemy of the Americans alone.' In contrast to Trump's bubbly statement, the statement issued by the U.S. Department of Defense, [i.e.,] the Pentagon, to justify the decision was more realistic, for it ultimately [admits] that 'the campaign against ISIS isn't yet over'!...

"Is this decision a betrayal of [America's] local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF]? That was implied in an official SDF statement...

"[Trump's] decision is strange, and the stated, official American explanation of 'mission accomplished' cannot be accepted, unless there are other, secret reasons, [either shared by] the Turks or the Russians or intended to mire them in difficulties... Who knows?"[3]

Trump follows in Obama's footsteps, walking away from Syria and Iraq  (Source: Makkah, Saudi Arabia, December 23, 2018)

Trump's Decision Is A Temporary Tactic Intended To Improve His Standing At Home And America's Situation Abroad

Columnist Ahmad Al-Jumay'a, former deputy editor of the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh, assessed that Trump's decision was just a temporary tactical move designed to mire the Russians in the Syrian mud, to move away from the Middle East so as to invest American resources in blocking the expansion of China, and to restrain criticism at home. He assessed that the U.S. ultimately means to return to Syria under more favorable conditions to settle the conflict in its own way.

e wrote: "The most important question is why Trump decided to withdraw from Syria at this particular point in time. What are the reasons for it? What are the implications of a decision of this magnitude for the future of America's allies in the region? The answer clearly brings us back to the American objectives in Syria: liquidation of the ISIS terror organization, the ouster of the Iranian forces from Syrian territory, and the achievement of a political solution [in Syria]. For the most part these objectives have not been achieved, as ISIS still poses a threat, Iran remains in [Syrian] territory, and the political solution has become dependent on the results of the military activity. Therefore, there is no justification for withdrawal...

"Some hold that the withdrawal is an American tactical [move, motivated by the desire] to mire the Russians in [the efforts to find] a political solution in Syria, and by Trump's wish to avoid bearing the cost of rehabilitating Syria. In addition, the U.S. wants to redirect its resources away from the Middle East – where the time has come for others to fight, as Trump said – in order to contend with China, which has already reached [the U.S.]  borders with South America and is threatening [Trump's] strategic interests in Central Asia by means of its economic [might]. Internally, the withdrawal is intended only to relieve the pressures exerted on President Trump by his rivals in Congress...

"Trump's decision is nothing more than a temporary internal tactic intended to reunite the American institutions behind him under the slogan "American First." [It is also] another tactic that will lead to a renewal of the conflict in the region, [this time] between warring sides... that are unable to resolve the issues themselves, and then the U.S. will return [to Syria] to settle the dispute its own way!"[4]

The U.S. May Be Withdrawing From Syria In Preparation For A Military Attack On Iran In Its Own Territory

In the Saudi 'Okaz daily, columnist Hani Al-Zahiri also suggested that the withdrawal from Syria is part of a strategic U.S. maneuver: one taken in preparation for a direct military attack on Iran. He wrote: "Perhaps the U.S. pullout from Syria is a tactical [move] that heralds a hurricane. I see this as a real possibility that cannot be ignored, for there are indications that the U.S. [is preparing for] a military attack on the Iranian regime in its own territory. Among these indications are the resignation of the U.S. secretary of defense, who was apparently offended that the president had kept him in the dark regarding his security decisions and the real reasons behind them... Another important piece of information in this context is the return of the U.S. aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, to Persian Gulf waters the day before yesterday, following a 17-year absence. It was accompanied by... the USS Mobile Bay guided-missile cruiser, the USS Decatur and  USS Mitcher destroyers, as well as a nuclear submarine. Naturally, this military fleet did not travel thousands of miles to the region for tourism purposes and to sunbathe along the beaches of the Gulf.

"The Iranians, for their part, are experiencing a suffocating economic crisis, following the reinstatement of the U.S. siege, and their regional project has shrunk. Should they be dealt a military blow in the coming weeks or months, they will be forced to withdraw from Syria and return to their bases inside Iran... Is this what the Trump administration is planning now?..."[5]



[1], December 22, 2018. The text has been lightly edited for clarity. For the Arabic version of the article, see Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, December 22, 2018.

[2] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 24, 2012.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 21, 2018.

[4] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), December 24, 2012.

[5] 'Okaz (Saudi Arabia), December 23, 2018.


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