Washington: President Donald Trump’s top two foreign policy advisers will crisscross the Middle East over the next week to reassure nervous US allies after his surprise decision to withdraw troops from Syria and Jim Mattis resignation as defence chief.
National Security Adviser John Bolton will depart Washington Friday for stops in Israel, where he’ll meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Turkey. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will visit eight countries in the Middle East, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, over the course of one week starting Jan. 8, the State Department announced on Friday.
The two men will face allies worried that Trump is ceding influence in the Middle East to Iran after his announcement that he’d remove US military forces from Syria -- apparently a snap decision made during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
More broadly, Israel and many Arab governments are weighing whether Trump is losing patience over the region’s long-standing conflicts, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“This is a region that thought the president was on their side, and they thought Bolton was authoritative when he said U.S. troops will remain in Syria as long as Iranian troops are outside Iran," Alterman said. “And we have something as close to the opposite of that policy going on as we could have. So where does that leave the Middle Eastern governments?"
‘Slaughter the Kurds’
The Syria move, which Trump now says will take place “slowly," prompted Mattis’s resignation and was followed by reports the president also decided to halve the US military footprint in Afghanistan. The White House has said no such decision has been made. Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview with Fox News on Thursday night, said “the president’s looking at ways in Syria and perhaps even in Afghanistan where we can have less of a military commitment."
One reason why even key Trump supporters were alarmed by the president’s Syria decision was that it could leave Kurdish militias who have been allied with the U.S. in the country exposed to attacks by Turkey, which views them as terrorists. Pompeo’s warning during a Fox News interview on Thursday that the Turks shouldn’t “slaughter the Kurds" was denounced by Erdogan’s government on Friday.
Erdogan will be seeking reassurance that the U.S. intends to pressure its Kurdish allies to withdraw from Syrian cities including Manbij and, more broadly, from the Turkish border. Turkey also wants the U.S. to collect American weapons supplied to the Kurds, though it’s not clear Bolton would make such a commitment. The national security adviser will be joined in Turkey by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement.
Beyond Syria, the best public indication of the administration’s vision for the region may come during a speech Pompeo plans to give in Cairo on “the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Middle East," according to the State Department. But the administration’s long-awaited Mideast peace plan, drafted by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, may be on pause after Netanyahu called early elections for April.
Pompeo will also make a symbolically significant visit to Saudi Arabia, his first since rushing to the kingdom soon after the killing of Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi by people close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. A State Department official on Friday said the kingdom’s explanations for the killing don’t reach a threshold of credibility and accountability.
Pompeo will also seek to advance peace talks over the conflict in Yemen during his trip, which will include stops in Jordan, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Oman and Kuwait.
Bolton will seek to shore up his own credibility in the Middle East, after declaring in September that the U.S. wouldn’t leave Syria as long as adversaries including Iran, Russia and Islamic State remained in the country, which has been devastated by a civil war that began in 2011.
“Leaving tomorrow for Israel & Turkey to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria, how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, & counter Iranian malign behaviour in the region," Bolton tweeted Thursday night.
Trump’s Syria decision raised concerns in Israel that the U.S. is effectively ceding the country to Iran, which is fighting alongside the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Russia to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israel fears Iran is seeking to turn Syria into a launching pad for future attacks against the Jewish state.
Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against targets it describes as Iranian bases and weapons convoys, and it viewed an American presence in Syria as a deterrent against Iranian efforts to transport weapons to Syria and Lebanon. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration will ensure there is no power vacuum for terrorists to exploit in Syria as it begins to withdraw troops.
Netanyahu, who long lobbied Trump not to hastily withdraw from Syria, reiterated the request to phase out a withdrawal in a meeting with Pompeo in Brazil this month, according to an Israeli official.
The U.S. “is acting against Iran at the economic level and we here in Israel are acting against Iran at the military level," Netanyahu said on Thursday during an address to Israeli army cadets, seeking to downplay any disagreement between his country and the U.S. on the need to confront Iran.
One country not yet on either Bolton or Pompeo’s itinerary: Afghanistan. The government there was incensed by comments Trump made Wednesday appearing to call the U.S.-backed Mujahedeen, who fought against the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion, “terrorists." Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office said the government is seeking a “clarification" from the US on Trump’s comments.