Cairo, Egypt, Jan 10 – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed Thursday the United States and its allies would work diplomatically to expel all Iranian troops from Syria, urging Middle East nations to forge a common stand against Tehran.
“It’s time for old rivalries to end, for the sake of the greater good of the region,” said Pompeo at a keynote address in Cairo.
America “will use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria and bolster efforts “to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people,” he added.
The top US diplomat was in Egypt on the latest leg of a whistle-stop regional tour aimed at shoring up Washington’s Middle East policy following President Donald Trump’s shock decision to withdraw 2,000 US troops from Syria.
In his speech at the American University in Cairo, Pompeo said the US is creating an anti-Iran front — the Middle East Strategic Alliance — bringing together Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan.
Pompeo said the US would ensure Israel has the military capacity to “defend itself against the Iranian regime’s aggressive adventurism.”
He stressed the troop pullout from Syria would go ahead, despite comments in recent weeks appearing to walk back Trump’s decision, but said that the US would remain engaged.
The “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,” Pompeo told reporters at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukry.
He also met earlier with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after arriving in Cairo late Wednesday on his longest trip since taking office last year which has already taken him to Jordan, Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
– ‘New beginning’ –
In his address entitled “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East” at the American University in Cairo, Pompeo also took aim at former president Barack Obama without naming him.
Trump’s predecessor had “grossly underestimated the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism,” Pompeo said.
And parroting Obama’s words in his landmark 2009 speech in Cairo, Pompeo vowed that now was really “a new beginning” in ties between the US and the Middle East.
Pompeo’s tour is aimed at urging regional allies to continue to confront the “significant threats” posed by Iran and Islamic State group (IS) jihadists.
Even though IS — also known as ISIS — has been largely eradicated from Iraq, after capturing a vast swathe of territory in 2014, it still controls a few pockets in war-torn Syria.
Washington-based Human Rights First slammed Pompeo’s speech, saying it “doubled-down on blanket US support for the authoritarian regimes that have driven decades of instability in the Middle East.”
Brian Dooley, the group’s senior advisor, said Pompeo failed to mention that Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen “repeatedly violated international law” and brushed aside the Egyptian government’s “targeting of human rights activists, or of how torture in jails is driving prisoners into the arms of ISIS.”
Obama’s longtime aide Ben Rhodes also lambasted Pompeo for giving a speech he said “no one will remember next week” unlike Obama’s address.
As Pompeo 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”.
He will also visit Gulf countries including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
The tour comes amid rising concerns that US policy is getting bogged down. A long-promised Trump plan for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians has so far failed to materialise.
And many of the Trump administration’s decisions have stoked confusion and angered many regional allies.
– ‘Middle East even messier’ –
“By most accounts, Trump’s Middle East policy has made a messy Middle East even messier,” Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat and now an analyst at the Wilson Center, said on Twitter.
“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.”
Turkey and the United States are now at loggerheads over the future of Syrian Kurdish forces, considered by Ankara as “terrorists”, after the troop pullout.
Turkish officials had a tense meeting this week with Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton in Ankara aimed at coordinating the pullout process after Bolton set conditions that appeared to postpone it indefinitely.
The terms included total defeat of IS — still active in some Syrian regions — and ensuring that Kurdish fighters who fought alongside the Americans against the jihadists will be protected.
On Thursday, Turkey renewed its threat to launch an offensive against Kurds.
“If the (pullout) is put off with ridiculous excuses like Turks are massacring Kurds, which do not reflect the reality, we will implement this decision,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told NTV television.