Pompeo adamant US troops will leave Syria

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (far left) meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo yesterday. Mr Pompeo's Middle East tour is aimed at urging regional allies to continue to confront the threats posed by Iran and Islamic militants.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (far left) meeting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo yesterday. Mr Pompeo's Middle East tour is aimed at urging regional allies to continue to confront the threats posed by Iran and Islamic militants.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Top US diplomat, on Middle East tour, tries to reassure allies ahead of withdrawal

CAIRO • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisted yesterday that American troops will leave Syria, ahead of a keynote speech aimed at laying out a coherent policy in the Middle East.

"(President Donald Trump's) decision to withdraw our troops has been made. We will do that. We will withdraw our forces, our uniformed forces, from Syria and continue America's crushing campaign," Mr Pompeo told reporters.

Washington's top diplomat was speaking at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry on the third leg of a key Middle East tour.

He had earlier met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after arriving in Cairo late Wednesday on a trip which has already taken him to Jordan, Baghdad and Erbil.

Later yesterday, Mr Pompeo gave an address entitled "A Force For Good: America Reinvigorated In The Middle East" at the American University in Cairo.

His tour is aimed at urging regional allies to continue to confront the "significant threats" posed by Iran and Islamic militants despite Mr Trump's shock decision last month to pull all 2,000 American troops from Syria.

But the muddled pronouncements from the Trump administration, which swiftly walked back the planned withdrawal from Syria, has sparked regional concern.

 
 
 

A senior State Department official insisted ahead of the trip the US will "not leave the Middle East".

The whistle-stop tour will also take Mr Pompeo to Gulf countries including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

As he arrived in Egypt, the State Department described the country as a "steadfast partner in the anti-terror fight, and a courageous voice in denouncing the radical Islamist ideology that fuels it".

But there are rising concerns that US policy is getting bogged down. And many of the Trump administration's decisions have stoked confusion and angered regional allies.

"By most accounts, Trump's Middle East policy has made a messy Middle East even messier," said Mr Aaron David Miller on Twitter. The former US diplomat, now an analyst at Woodrow Wilson Centre, said: "A risk-averse President who makes new policy by tweet or phone call surrounded by risk-ready advisers who run cleanup, don't respect deliberation and have objectives that aren't clear or attainable equals US policy (or lack of it) in Syria."

Meanwhile Turkey and the United States are at loggerheads over the future of Syrian Kurdish forces after the troop pullout.

US forces have been working with Kurdish militia to fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants. The Kurds control a swathe of north-eastern Syria, Washington's foothold in a conflict that has drawn in Russia, Iran, Turkey and other regional powers.

Washington has repeatedly said its Kurdish allies will remain safe despite the troop withdrawal. But Turkey, which considers the US-backed Syrian Kurdish YPG militia an enemy, has repeatedly vowed to crush the group and repudiated any suggestion of protecting it once US troops leave.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan denounced visiting US national security adviser John Bolton on Tuesday for suggesting that protecting the Kurds would be a pre-condition of the US withdrawal, a suggestion Mr Erdogan called "a serious mistake".

Asked on Wednesday if Mr Erdogan's pushback puts the withdrawal at risk, Mr Pompeo told reporters in the Kurdish regional capital Erbil: "No. We're having conversations with them even as we speak about how we will effectuate this in a way that protects our forces."

He added: "It's important that we do everything we can to make sure that those folks that fought with us are protected and Erdogan has made commitments, he understands that."

The withdrawal of US forces from Syria is seen as strengthening the position of both Turkey and the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by Russia and Iran.

Mr Pompeo has stressed throughout his trip to the region that Washington still aims to counter Iranian influence.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2019, with the headline 'Pompeo adamant US troops will leave Syria'. Print Edition | Subscribe