US reiterates commitment to counter Iran, faces more tensions with Turkey
ISTANBUL - A high-level exercise in damage control by the United States aimed at calming nerves in the Middle East following US President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement to withdraw US troops from Syria has had mixed results.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton embarked on separate tours of Middle Eastern countries, insisting that the US withdrawal from Syria would not weaken the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) or against Iran’s aggressive regional policies.
However, Turkey’s stated determination to send troops to fight US allies in Syria, despite a request by Washington to hold back, shows that key actors in the region remain unimpressed.
Trump’s order to pull out US troops was followed with conflicting announcements that have left many in the Middle East unsure of the Americans’ strategy. “There is confusion about what the US wants to do,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Centre for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
During his talks with Egyptian officials, Pompeo said there was no contradiction between Trump’s promise of a quick withdrawal of US forces deployed in Syria and a statement by Bolton, who said the pullout depended on several conditions in connection with Turkey, ISIS and Iran.
US Army Colonel Sean Ryan, spokesman for the coalition fighting ISIS, on January 11 said the United States had started “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria.”
“President Trump has made the decision to bring our troops home from Syria,” Pompeo said. “We always do and now is the time but this isn’t a change of mission. We remain committed to the complete dismantling of the ISIS threat and the ongoing fight against radical Islamism in all of its forms.”
“When America retreats, chaos often follows,” Pompeo said in a speech in Cairo. “America will not retreat until the terror fight is over.”
Pompeo maintained that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had promised that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia, which is allied with the United States in Syria, would not be harmed after the American withdrawal. The Turkish government said no such promise was made.
Rising tensions between the United States and Turkey became visible during a visit by Bolton to Ankara when Erdogan refused to meet with the US official.
A day after Bolton left, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu underlined Turkey’s criticism that the YPG was a “terrorist organisation that poses a threat to us and the United States supports them.”
Speaking to the Turkish broadcaster NTV, Cavusoglu suggested that Turkey might not wait for the US forces to leave Syria before sending in its troops.
Experts said that the US withdrawal might not give Ankara the free hand it wants to deal with its Kurdish nemeses. “Turkey managed to launch two operations in Syria because Russia gave the green light,” Tol said by telephone, in reference to Turkish incursions in 2016 and 2018. “If America is out of the picture, Russia might be not as willing to accept a Turkish presence in Syria.”
Amid uncertainties about US relations with Turkey, Pompeo and Bolton tried to hammer home their message that the real danger in the region was Iran.
Pompeo announced that there would be a US-led international conference in February in Poland to discuss containing Iran’s activities in the Middle East. The gathering, he told Fox News, would “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security here in this region and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilising influence.”
Pompeo used a speech in Cairo to dismiss efforts by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, to engage Iran in a dialogue, which produced the international nuclear agreement with Tehran.
“Remember: It was here, here in this very city, another American stood before you,” Pompeo said in reference to Obama. “He told you that the United States and the Muslim world needed ‘a new beginning.’ The results of these misjudgements have been dire,” Pompeo told a select group of Egyptian officials, foreign diplomats and students.
Trump made dismantling the Iran nuclear deal a major campaign promise and he unilaterally withdrew from the agreement last May. The United States has since reimposed economic sanctions on Tehran, including on its oil exports, shipping and banking industries.
“The US reimposed sanctions that should never have been lifted. We embarked on a new pressure campaign to cut off the revenues the regime uses to spread terror and destruction throughout the world… Countries can increasingly understand that we must confront the ayatollahs, not coddle them,” Pompeo said.