The U.S. isn’t leaving Syria just yet. On Friday, senior Trump administration officials confirmed that around 400 troops will remain in Syria – roughly a fifth of the current U.S. military presence there. The troops are expected to be divided between two locations: an outpost near the border with Iraq and Jordan and, more important, an unidentified location in the northeast. From Washington’s perspective, it’s a small but important footprint for a few reasons. One, it will likely help to ensure a longer-term multinational presence, expected to be in the range of 800 to 1,500 troops, potentially reducing domestic political pressure on European allies like France to follow the United States’ mad dash for the exit. Two, the coalition presence would keep capabilities in place to fend off whatever reconstituted version of the Islamic State took shape. Three, it would give structure to a formal “safe zone” in the north. Even Turkey, which would be free to deal with the Kurds however it saw fit if the U.S. left, appeared to welcome the move, with the defense minister warning that Washington’s total departure could leave behind a power vacuum.
Omar al-Bashir isn’t leaving Sudan just yet. The Sudanese strongman has been grappling with mass countrywide protests in Khartoum since December. The protests were sparked by rising bread prices but have since turned into a broader anti-al-Bashir movement. On Friday, it looked like the end was nigh, when al-Bashir’s powerful intelligence chief, Salah Gosh, announced that the president would step down as National Congress Party boss and abandon efforts to amend the constitution to allow him to stand for reelection in 2020. Al-Bashir apparently didn’t get the memo, announcing instead that he was imposing a yearlong state of emergency, dissolving federal and state governments, replacing state governors with loyalist generals, and merely suspending, not stopping, work on the constitutional amendment. Regardless, Sudan’s economic woes aren’t going to be resolved anytime soon. Al-Bashir will have to continue his desperate search for outside assistance, creating new opportunities for outside powers like Iran and the Gulf states to compete for influence in the strategically important state.
Saudi Arabia isn’t ignoring Asia. On Friday, as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, Saudi Aramco finalized an agreement with two Chinese companies to build a $10 billion refining and petrochemicals complex in Liaoning province. Saudi Arabia is expected to provide as much as 70 percent of the crude oil for the complex, which will have a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day. It was a colorful meeting. Salman made it a point to defend China’s widespread use of internment camps for ethnic Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang — something that has sparked a mild backlash in several Muslim countries, particularly Turkey. Beijing, for its part, praised Saudi Arabia’s hefty investments in Pakistan’s Gwadar port, a key Belt and Road Initiative project that has raised eyebrows in India, Iran and the U.S.
Obviously, anything Beijing and Riyadh do to help each other reach their geostrategic goals is worth paying close attention to. But this isn’t exactly evidence that some kind of tight Saudi-Pakistani-Chinese axis is forming. Saudi Arabia’s main interests in the Indo-Pacific are commercial, and it’s making big energy infrastructure investments across the region, including in South Korea and Malaysia. On Thursday, in New Delhi, Salman pledged to invest some $100 billion in several Indian sectors, including refining and petrochemicals, agriculture, infrastructure and manufacturing. He and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also announced that the two countries will hold their first-ever joint naval exercises. And, as a general rule, it’s easy to overestimate how much geopolitical influence a country like Saudi Arabia can reap from crude oil exports. The fact is that since crude can be transported cheaply, and since there is an abundance of exporters, oil prices are fairly consistent across the global market, and buyers typically don’t become dependent on any one supplier.
- U.S. President Donald Trump said that drawing down U.S. troops in South Korea is not on the table for his upcoming talks with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
- The Philippines’ largest telecommunications firm, Philippine Long Distance Telephone, said it is looking at other vendors of 5G equipment. The decision was made in response to U.S. pressure to abandon Huawei.
- Thousands of protestors took to the streets in cities throughout Algeria in opposition to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s plan to seek a fifth term.
- India announced plans to divert water from Pakistan in response to last week’s suicide attack that killed 40 members of Indian security forces in Kashmir.