Pompeo Fails to Calm Nerves as ISIS Strikes Again

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

January 22, 2019

Ever since Donald Trump’s surprise announcement in mid-December ordering the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria, Washington’s regional allies and rivals have been jockeying for position to fill the expected power vacuum. Statements by U.S. officials and a recent visit to the region by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have done little to provide further clarity or assurances to U.S. allies. The future of U.S. disengagement from Syria has become further blurred by a recent attack, claimed by ISIS, which took the lives of four Americans, two soldiers and two Defense Department civilians, although early signals from the White House indicate that the withdrawal of troops will proceed.

Mr. Pompeo’s speech in Cairo last week was meant to provide some clarity about where the U.S. policy in the region was headed, and, according to Asharq Alawsat’s Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, the U.S. official had only one objective in mind: “U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s Middle East tour brings to mind the sport of hurdling, as he tries to overcome obstacles while eyeing the last objective: Confronting Iran. The list of hurdles grows long: The Kurds, Turks, Syrians (both the government and fighting factions), Israelis, Iraqis, Saudis and Qataris…. A big challenge, however, awaits Pompeo in trying to build a strong alliance against Iran — including the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states along with Egypt and Jordan — while also calming regional tensions. This is an almost impossible quest that requires him to adopt a different way of thinking and forge bilateral and multilateral brainstorming sessions.”

That message was not lost on the Iranians, who found Mr. Pompeo’s message and tone undiplomatic. Writing for Tehran Times, M.A. Saki opined that the top U.S. diplomat showed little desire to engage in diplomacy during his visit in the region: “Diplomacy brings to mind the profession of bringing ideas close together and resolving disputes between countries. The person credited with the post of diplomat should adopt an insightful and wise approach. But Pompeo acts the opposite…. Pompeo and his boss are against any move, treaty or economic project that can help reduce tension or foster tension between countries…. And while Iran is repeatedly saying that it is ready to offer ‘hand of friendship’ toward its Arab neighbors on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf, Pompeo is currently visiting one Arab country after another to mobilize them against Iran.”

However, Al Ahram’s Hussein Haridy is not convinced that Mr. Pompeo’s message in Cairo and throughout the region was any different than that of his predecessors, despite some stylistic nuances: “From the speech that former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice gave before the students of the same university in 2005 passing through the Obama speech of 2009 and the Pompeo remarks last week, the tone has never changed. The Middle East has needed fixing of sorts, and the remedies are to be found in Washington, whether under Democratic or Republican Party administrations. It goes without saying that Israel is excepted from this American conceptualization of the Middle East…. It would not be a bad idea for the Arab countries to come up with a unified position on their own vision for the future security and stability of the Levant and the Gulf, instead of leaving this to other powers.”

While debates about the future of the region rage on, the situation on the ground shows no signs of improving any time soon. As Mr. Pompeo wrapped up his tour of the Middle East, ISIS fighters struck in Manbij, thus, as The National’s editorial puts it, demonstrating the “enduring threat” posed by ISIS: “Not only can ISIS still spill blood, the group also demonstrated its tactical acumen by hitting Manbij, a flashpoint in the eight-year war. While any other US administration would now strike the militants, Mr. Trump could well use it to justify his troop departure. And with the US gone, the worst excesses of regional powers, notably Turkey and Russia, will foster the type of environment in which ISIS thrives…. Robust attempts to dismantle the group must continue in earnest. But it is plain for all to see that Mr Trump’s ill-conceived troop withdrawal will thwart that goal…. A re-formed ISIS, a threatened Kurdish minority and a bellicose Turkey should all concern Mr. Trump. Instead, the US offers only a power vacuum, which various competing actors are racing to fill.”

But Mr. Trump’s decision has been warmly welcomed in Turkey. Considering Turkey’s central role in the unfolding drama, it is not surprising that Turkish observers and editorials have expressed support for the initial U.S. decision to withdraw from Syria, while coming out strongly against the perceived equivocations of administration officials. A Daily Sabah editorial doesn’t mince any words when it calls the attempted walk-back a “soft coup,” reminding the US government that “Turkey was already getting ready to send its troops to northern Syria before U.S. President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement last month, it is time for Washington to accept that it isn’t negotiating with Turkey from a position of power…. What is happening today isn’t a policy debate, but a direct challenge to American democracy by unelected paper-pushers…. A soft coup against Trump is underway in the United States.”

Though much of the rhetoric about U.S. involvement in Syria has revolved around the removal of ISIS from Syria, another hot topic in Washington is the safety and the rights of the Kurds in Syria and elsewhere. This is a subject that irritates Turkey, which, as Hurriyet Daily News’s Bora Bayraktar suggests, sees the Kurdish question as a broader regional dilemma: “Experts in the U.S. and some members of the American administration have recently been talking about ‘protecting Kurds from Turkey’. This approach reveals the fact that the dynamics of the region still cannot be understood precisely by the Washington elite, because the next war in the Middle East will not be between Turks and Kurds. The main axis of conflict in the region lies between Kurds and Arabs, and this conflict already started…. The Arab-Kurdish conflict is based on real issues like sharing resources, territorial problems and identity issues. Forcing Kurds to pursue independence or autonomy without convincing Arabs makes them a target. And this is what western countries are doing now.”


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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