Pompeo reiterates commitment to fighting ISIS, countering Iran

“America is still committed to taking down the malign influence that the Islamic [Republic] of Iran … present[s] to the world. There’s no change,” Popeo told CNBC.
Tuesday 08/01/2019
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with the press  as he flies to the Middle East on January 7, 2019. (AFP)
Damage control. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks with the press as he flies to the Middle East on January 7, 2019. (AFP)

WASHINGTON – US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on the eve of an unprecedented trip to eight Middle East nations the United States would continue to battle the Islamic State (ISIS) and Iran even as it plans to withdraw troops from Syria.

Pompeo, who kicks off a weeklong tour January 8 in Amman, sought to assuage Middle East allies that the United States would support them and continue working to stabilize the region.

“There’s no change in our commitment to the defeat of the caliphate or of ISIS globally. There’s no change in our counter-Iran strategy,” Pompeo said in an interview on January 7 with CNBC cable-news station. “America is still committed to taking down the malign influence that the Islamic [Republic] of Iran … present[s] to the world. There’s no change.”

Pompeo’s comments came one day after US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser delivered a similar message during a visit to Israel as part of the Trump administration’s effort to reassure Middle East allies following Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw roughly 2,000 troops from north-eastern Syria.

“We’re going to be discussing the president’s decision to withdraw, but to do so from north-east Syria in a way that makes sure that ISIS is defeated and is not able to revive itself and become a threat again,” national security adviser John Bolton said when meeting Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem. Bolton said US forces “won’t be finally pulled out until ISIS is gone,” which contradicted Trump’s recent statements that ISIS was “defeated” and that US troops would return home within 30 days.

Trump sought to backtrack from his announcement December 19 that US troops in Syria would be “coming back now.” Writing on Twitter January 7, he said: “We will be leaving at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!”

Pompeo in his interview sought to minimise the significance of Trump’s announced troop withdrawal, calling it “a change in tactics.”

“The mission, the purpose for which we have been involved for the 24 months in the administration, remains in full. That’s why we’re heading there,” Pompeo said, referring to the trips to the Middle East that he and Bolton are undertaking. From January 8 to January 15, Pompeo will meet with leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait in an eight-day journey to the United States’ Arab allies.

Bolton is meeting with leaders in Israel and Turkey, which has generated international concern by amassing troops on its south-eastern border with Syria and threatening to attack the US’ Kurdish allies in Syria. The Kurds, including the Syrian Democratic Forces, have been supported by the United States but are considered terrorists by Istanbul. Many political leaders in Washington expressed alarm that a sudden US withdrawal from Syria would expose Kurdish allies to an onslaught by Turkey’s military.

Pompeo, asked by CNBC how sure he was that Turkish forces would not slaughter Kurdish fighters, said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “made a commitment to Trump” that Turkish forces would continue to fight ISIS and that “the folks that we’d fought with… would be protected.” Bolton, who was in Israel January 6, arrived in Istanbul on January 7 for what are expected to be contentious talks with Turkish leaders.

Asked if he trusted Erdogan, Pompeo did not answer directly and said: “My sense in all of these things in my world internationally is it’s about acts on the ground.”

Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria sent shockwaves through Washington and led Defence Secretary James Mattis to resign in protest.