US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a major policy speech in Cairo this week, will focus on Iran’s role as a “dangerous actor” in the region, as well as on American commitment to the Middle East “despite false narratives” surrounding Washington’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria, a senior State Department official told POLITICO Monday.
Pompeo leaves for a week-long whirlwind tour of the region Tuesday, during which he will visit Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait.
Politico reports 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 Prime Minister Benjamin 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.
The secretary will seek to paint Tehran as the chief source of regional instability and terrorism in his Cairo speech, the news site reported.
In an interview with CNBC broadcast Monday, Pompeo said that one aim for the trip is to build a global coalition of countries, including Israel and the Gulf states, which believe Iran must cease acting as a state sponsor of terrorism.
His speech in Cairo will also serve as a rebuke of former president Barack Obama’s policies in the region, sources told the website — particularly his decision to negotiate with Iran.
Pompeo will seek to reassure allies in the region of US commitment to their security and to countering Iran, a task that may prove difficult due to the inconsistent statements made by US President Donald Trump, most recently on his plans to withdraw American troops from Syria.
“One day he is saying we are in Syria for the long term to fight Iran. The next day Trump says we’re leaving in 30 days and Iran can do whatever it wants in Syria. It’s impossible to be effective in this environment,” Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official, told POLITICO.
Trump on Monday sought to end fears of an abrupt US pullout from Syria, saying the fight against the Islamic State group was not over and that withdrawal would be done in a “prudent” manner.
The president has come under withering pressure both at home and in allied capitals, after previous statements indicating that he considered the IS group vanquished, and that he wanted US troops out of Syria imminently.
Trump’s new statement follows a trip by his national security adviser John Bolton to Israel in which he told Netanyahu on Sunday that withdrawal would not happen before “ISIS is defeated and not able to revive itself.”
The reassurances followed a diplomatic storm caused by Trump’s surprise announcement in December that appeared to signal a rapid withdrawal from Syria, where US special forces play an important role in supporting local forces fighting IS.
“We’ve won against ISIS,” he said at the time. “We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land. And now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”
Allies like Britain and France warned that IS was not defeated. Questions were also raised over the fate of Kurdish groups that have done much of the fighting alongside the United States in Syria, but now fear attacks from Turkey.
Israeli officials expressed alarm that a swift withdrawal could enable Iran to expand its influence and presence in Syria, wracked by a years-long civil war and Islamic State militancy. Netanyahu reportedly asked Trump to stagger the US withdrawal over a lengthy period of time, rather than carry out an immediate pullout.
The initial pullout promise also sparked outspoken opposition from within Trump’s Republican party and the resignation of respected defense secretary James Mattis.