Pompeo, Bolton to tour Middle East
WASHINGTON - Top US officials will meet with leaders of 10 Middle East countries on whirlwind trips starting January 4 to reassure allies that the United States will remain in the region despite the planned withdrawal of US troops from Syria.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet top officials in eight Arab countries from January 8 through January 15 while White House National Security Adviser John Bolton travels to Israel and Turkey starting January 4.
Bolton will be joined by two senior officials – General Joseph Dunford, the top military adviser to President Donald Trump, and James Jeffrey, who on January 4 was named special US envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
The extraordinary diplomatic effort aims to counter “false narratives” that the US is turning away from the Middle East and to assure allies that the United States remains committed to fighting Iran, a senior State Department official told reporters January 4. “We are not going anywhere,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on the condition that his name be withheld. “The secretary will reinforce that commitment to the region and our partners.”
Another State Department official acknowledged, “This is highly unusual for a Secretary of State to visit all of the countries on one particular trip.”
The diplomatic initiative was announced one day after Trump raised concerns about his strategy in the Middle East when he spoke to reporters during a meeting of his cabinet. At the end of the meeting, Trump said, “Iran is pulling people out of Syria. They can do what they want there, frankly.”
Trump also appeared to disparage Syria, where an eight-year civil war has killed 500,000 people and uprooted 11 million Syrians, saying the country of 18 million people is “sand and death.” Answering a question about when US troops would leave Syria, Trump appeared to suggest that the country is beyond saving.
“Syria was lost long ago. It was lost long ago,” Trump said in a rambling answer. “And besides that – we’re talking about sand and death. That’s what we’re talking about. We’re not talking about, you know, vast wealth. We’re talking about sand and death.”
Trump’s comment about Iran in Syria shocked Israel, which already was reeling from Trump’s surprise announcement on December 19 that he plans to withdraw the 2,000 US troops based in northeastern Syria and assertion that the Islamic State (ISIS) was “defeated.”
“I am quite simply in shock,” an unnamed senior Israeli official told the Times of Israel. “Trump simply does not know what is happening in Syria and the Iranian retrenchment there.”
Bolton will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu before going to Istanbul where he will urge Turkish leaders not to attack Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. The Kurds, including the Syrian Democratic Forces, have been supported by the US but are considered terrorists by Istanbul. Many political leaders in Washington expressed alarm that a sudden US withdrawal from Syria would expose Kurdish allies to an onslaught by Turkey’s military.
Bolton wrote on Twitter that he plans to “discuss the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, & counter Iranian malign behavior in the region.”
Pompeo will meet with leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait in an eight-day journey to the United States’ Arab allies.
Pompeo will “reinforce” the US commitment to Jordan and give a speech in Cairo emphasising “America as a force for good in the region,” a State Department official said.
In the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Pompeo will talk with leaders about trying to negotiate an end to the blockade of neighbouring Yemen. He also will seek an update in Riyadh on the investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a US-based Saudi journalist. Suspects in the killing of Khashoggi attended their first court hearing January 3 in Riyadh, Saudi state media reported.
Saudi prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 defendants on trial for the death of Saudi writer on October 2 in Istanbul.
State Department officials continued to backtrack from Trump’s earlier statement that US troops would leave Syria within 30 days. “We have no timeline for our military forces to withdraw from Syria,” a State Department official told reporters.
“The President has made the decision that we will withdraw our military forces from Syria, but that it will be done in a deliberate, heavily coordinated way with our allies and partners,” the official added. “It will be done in such a way that we maintain – we and our allies and partners maintain pressure on ISIS throughout, and that we do not open up any vacuums for terrorists to exploit.”
Thomas Frank is a correspondent in Washington.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.