Pompeo says US still ‘fully prepared’ to take military action in Middle East

Asked about Turkey’s invasion of Syrian Kurdistan, US secretary of state says Washington has fulfilled its commitments to Kurds, but ‘interests remain’ in region

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, listens to US President Donald Trump, left, speak during a Cabinet meeting in the White House, October 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, right, listens to US President Donald Trump, left, speak during a Cabinet meeting in the White House, October 21, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the US was prepared to take military action in the Middle East after he was asked about Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria.

“America’s interests in the Middle East remain, our mission still remains there, we’ve just got an alteration in the nature of American interests in the region,” Pompeo said in an interview with CNBC.

“Where we see American interests at stake or fundamental norms around the world that need to be enforced, we’ll use all the powers that we have,” starting with economic and diplomatic efforts, he said. “We prefer peace to war, but in the event that kinetic action or military action is needed, you should know that President Trump is fully prepared to undertake that action.”

Interviewer Wilfred Frost had asked him what, if any, Middle East development would prompt a US response if not the killing of allies and the invasion of their territory.

But Pompeo insisted the US had fulfilled its commitments to its Kurdish allies through its ongoing efforts to counter the Islamic State, and that the US had entered into discussions with Turkey after the latter had already decided to invade Syrian Kurdistan.

Pompeo deflected criticism of the administration for allowing the invasion, saying that Turkey had invaded Syria, a sovereign nation. He was implying that since the Kurdish-controlled areas had not been recognized as such, they were not afforded the same level of protection as a sovereign nation.

US President Donald Trump two weeks ago abruptly decided to pull US troops out of border areas, abandoning their allied Kurdish-backed fighters and clearing the way for Turkey’s invasion. After the assault began on October 9, Trump ordered a general withdrawal from Syria.

The Kurdish-led force was the key ally of the United States in the long and bloody fight that eventually brought down the Islamic State jihadist group’s rule over northeast and eastern Syria. The American troops near the border were seen by the Kurds as insurance that Turkey would not attack.

After being abandoned by US forces, the Kurds agreed to a ceasefire deal brokered by Washington that requires them to leave a swath of territory along the border, handing it over to Turkish control.

A Syrian woman with her children, who were displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, wait to receive a tent and other aid supplies at the Bardarash refugee camp, north of Mosul, Iraq, October 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Despite the announcement of the ceasefire, some fighting between Turkish and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces has continued along the border. Turkey views SDF troops as terrorists linked to Kurdish militants on its own soil.

Earlier Monday, Trump said that a small number of US troops remain in Syria at the request of Israel and Jordan, with some positioned near the borders with Jordan and Israel and others deployed to secure oil fields.

“The other region where we’ve been asked by Israel and Jordan to leave a small number of troops is a totally different section of Syria, near Jordan, and close to Israel,” Trump said when asked whether he would leave soldiers in Syria. “So we have a small group there, and we secured the oil. Other than that, there’s no reason for it, in our opinion.”

“I always said if you’re going in, keep the oil,” Trump said, suggesting that the US would “maybe get one of our big oil companies in to do it properly.”

More than 176,000 people have been driven from their homes in the violence. About 70,000 of those are children, the international aid group Save the Children said Monday. It said thousands are taking refuge in schools and abandoned buildings without electricity or in open fields in Kurdish-run areas around northeast Syria. In the town of Hassakeh, where more than 4,000 are living in schools, the water station was knocked out of commission in the violence, so residents don’t have regular water or sewage services.

A Turkish-backed Syrian fighter runs along a road in Syria’s northeastern town of Ras al-Ain in the Hasakeh province along the Turkish border as Turkey continues its assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria on October 14, 2019. (Nazeer Al-khatib / AFP)

Dozens of mainly Syrian Kurdish civilians have also been killed in fighting.

Amnesty International has accused Turkey’s military as well as Turkish-backed militias of carrying out war crimes, exhibiting “a shameful disregard for civilian life.” The group also documented a Turkish-supported militia’s grim murder of a female, Syrian Kurdish politician.

Israelis have been watching Trump’s decisions on Syria closely, concerned that their country too could be abandoned by its most important ally.

Beyond that, Israel has longstanding concerns over whether its enemy Iran will move to fill any vacuum in neighboring Syria, where Tehran has been supporting President Bashar al-Assad in an eight-year-old civil war.

On October 10, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denounced Turkey’s invasion and said Israel was prepared to offer humanitarian aid to the Kurds in Syria.

“Israel strongly condemns the Turkish invasion of the Kurdish areas in Syria and warns against the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey and its proxies,” he said in a statement released by his office at the time. “Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people.”

Hosting Pompeo in Israel on Friday, Netanyahu thanked him and Trump for their “consistent support for Israel” and hailed the strength of US-Israel ties.

Commenting on the US-arranged ceasefire for Turkey’s offensive in Syria, the prime minister said mildly that he hoped it would “turn out for the best.”

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