US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday began a Middle East visit to talk to regional leaders about ramping up pressure on Iran.
Pompeo’s first stop is pro-West Jordan, followed by visits to Egypt and Gulf nations.
He told reporters he plans to talk to allies about “modalities by which we may continue to apply pressure” on Iran, branded by Washington a sponsor of terrorism.
Pompeo will likely face questions about last month’s surprise announcement that US troops would soon leave northeastern Syria, where they help battle remnants of the Islamic State terror group.
He didn’t give a timeline. Asked about confusion among allies, he said: “I’ve actually spoken to them all.”
Leaving on his trip to eight Arab capitals on Monday, Pompeo vowed that IS would not be allowed to regroup and told reporters he would show that “the United States is still committed to all the missions that we’ve signed up for with them over the past two years.”
The trip comes weeks after US President Donald Trump announced that the United States would quickly pull its 2,000 soldiers out of Syria, declaring that IS had been defeated.
His advisers have since been walking back his timeline, with national security adviser John Bolton telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday that the United States would verify that the group is truly defeated before withdrawing.
Highlighting that IS — also known as ISIS — emerged during the tenure of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, Pompeo said the campaign to destroy the movement’s self-styled caliphate in war-battered Syria has been “enormously successful.”
“And I am confident that we will continue to ensure that the kind of rise that ISIS had under the Obama administration doesn’t occur again,” he said on his plane as he started his longest trip since taking over as top US diplomat last year.
Pompeo opens his trip in Jordan and will deliver an address on Middle East policy in Egypt, whose military ruler turned president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, has been a key partner of Trump.
Politico reported Monday that Pompeo may also visit Israel and Iraq, although last week the State Department said Jerusalem was not on his schedule.
The trip comes a week after the top American diplomat met with Netanyahu in Brazil and assured him that the planned pullout from Syria will not alter Washington’s commitment to countering Iranian aggression and maintaining Israel’s security.
Israeli officials are concerned that the withdrawal of the 2,000 US military personnel from Syria will create a military vacuum enabling Iran to increase its foothold in the country, where it is supporting the Syrian regime in ending the country’s civil war. The US forces have been assisting local militias in defeating the Islamic State terror group in the country.
Another major focus of the tour will be sustaining a regional coalition to counter Iran, the main enemy of US allies Saudi Arabia and Israel.
“This is a coalition that understands that the largest threats — terrorism and the Islamic Republic of Iran — are things that we ought to work on jointly and we will be marshaling all of the resources, theirs and ours, to achieve them,” Pompeo said.
Last year, Trump pulled out of an international accord negotiated under Obama on ending Iran’s nuclear program and has instead reimposed biting sanctions.
Pompeo repeatedly has called Iran “the world’s largest state sponsor of terror,” pointing to its targeting of domestic rivals in Europe and support of militant movements such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
The Trump administration has cited Iran as a reason for maintaining a strong alliance with Saudi Arabia, which Pompeo also will visit, despite the killing and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October.
One of the rare US partners to support the US withdrawal from Syria has been Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, spoke to Trump before the US leader’s December 19 decision.
Pompeo, in an interview before his departure, said that Erdogan has given assurances to Trump not to attack US-allied Kurdish forces who fought IS in Syria.
“President Erdogan made a commitment to President Trump as the two of them were discussing what this ought to look like — that the Turks would continue the counter-ISIS campaign after our departure and that the Turks would ensure that the folks that we’d fought with, that had assisted us in the counter-ISIS campaign, would be protected,” Pompeo told CNBC television.
Pompeo was elaborating on his remark last week that the United States was working to ensure that “the Turks don’t slaughter the Kurds” — a choice of words that angered Turkey, which said the top US diplomat had a “worrying lack of knowledge.”
The US-backed Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units form the backbone of the opposition Syrian Democratic Forces, but Erdogan considers them linked to the PKK, which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey in the name of the Kurdish minority.
Bolton, meanwhile, is set to hold talks Tuesday in Turkey after meetings in Israel, which has privately worried that Trump’s withdrawal would empower Iran, which along with Russia offers military backing to Syrian President Bashar Assad.