WASHINGTON — The United States will refuse any additional reconstruction assistance to war-torn Syria so long as Iranian troops are present in the country, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday.
Speaking to a pro-Israel group, Pompeo vowed to press forward with US President Donald Trump’s push to isolate Iran, boasting of imposing “some of the harshest sanctions in history.”
“The onus for expelling Iran from the country falls on the Syrian government, which bears responsibility for its presence there,” Pompeo told the Jewish Institute for National Security of America.
“If Syria doesn’t ensure the total withdrawal of Iranian-backed troops, it will not receive one single dollar from the United States for reconstruction,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo’s remarks come as the Trump administration shifts its reasoning for US involvement in Syria’s brutal civil war, which a war monitor says has killed close to 365,000 people since 2011.
The United States has some 2,000 troops in Syria, mainly training and advising rebels, after former president Barack Obama authorized the mission to defeat the Islamic State extremist group, or IS.
Pompeo said that fighting IS “continues to be a top priority” but listed rolling back Iran as another.
National security adviser, John Bolton, said last month that US troops would stay “as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.”
Iran, ruled by Shiite Muslim clerics, has deployed both troops, its Lebanese ally Hezbollah and other militias to prop up Assad, a secular leader who belongs to the Alawite sect and is facing down hardline Sunni Muslim forces.
Pompeo did not make similar demands for a withdrawal by Russia, which has long considered Syria a major ally.
Trump in August already pulled out of Syria’s immediate reconstruction, suspending $230 million after pledges by Gulf Arab allies.
“Iran has seen instability in Syria as a golden opportunity to tip the regional balance of power in its favor,” Pompeo said.
He warned that Iran, a sworn foe of Israel, would open a new front against the Jewish state if it remained in Syria.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria. It has launched numerous attacks on targets it says are a threat to its security.
Tehran has provided steady political, financial, and military backing to Assad as he has fought back a seven-year uprising. It has also sought to build missile factories in Syria and uses its bases there to convey advanced weapons to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
And Pompeo said that the US fully supports the Israeli strikes.
“Israel, like all nations, has the right to defend its sovereignty,” Pompeo said. “That means we will continue to stand up for its right to target Iranian-backed militias within Syria for as long as the threat remains.”