Secretary of state seeks to reassure Middle East that US is not abandoning region
Martin Chulov Middle East correspondent
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has vowed the US and its allies will “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria as he sought to reassure Middle Eastern nations it was not withdrawing from the region despite Donald Trump’s call for troops to return home.
In a keynote speech delivered in Cairo, pitched as the centrepiece of his nine-country regional tour, Pompeo called for a common stand against Tehran. “It’s time for old rivalries to end, for the sake of the greater good of the region,” he said.
The US would “use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria and bolster efforts “to bring peace and stability to the long-suffering Syrian people”, he said.
The US’s most senior diplomat also delivered a rebuke to Barack Obama, whose address from the Egyptian capital a decade ago set the course for his government’s outreach to Iran and disavowal of George W Bush’s intervention in Iraq.
Pompeo claimed the US under Obama had been timid about asserting itself, “when the times – and our partners – demanded it”, and had emboldened Iran to entrench its influence across the region.
He committed to ongoing airstrikes against Isis but did not directly address Trump’s decision to withdraw 2,000 US ground forces from eastern Syria.
Pompeo and the US national security adviser, John Bolton, have attempted to walk back Trump’s December announcement and observers considered the announcement of continuing US airstrikes to be a further move to reassure allies, particularly Kurdish proxies, that they would not be abandoned.
In remarks aimed at Obama’s support for the Iran nuclear deal, but which could also be applied to the withdrawal from Syria, Pompeo said: “When America retreats, chaos follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. When we partner with enemies, they advance.”
Casting Iran as a “cancerous influence”, Pompeo said the US had “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,” he said.
Consolidating traditional US relationships in the Middle East has been central to Trump’s regional strategy, as has bedrock support for Israel and attempts to align Arab allies with Jerusalem, particularly on Iran. Identifying as an evangelical Christian, Pompeo lauded the UAE’s recognition of Israel at a judo competition late last year, a move he said had been two years in the making.
Pompeo spent little time on human rights or governance – touchstone issues for previous leaders. He did thank the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, for a recent court decision to acquit US citizens who had been convicted of improperly operating NGOs.
Nancy Okail, the executive director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, was one of the 30 people acquitted in the case. She said while Pompeo’s acknowledgment of the case was important, “it is also necessary to recognise that prominent Egyptian civil society members are still being prosecuted under the same case. Forty-one of them are banned from travelling, along with having their assets frozen. This case must be fully closed and civil society should be allowed to perform their crucial role freely.”
Pompeo’s address was largely in line with previous speeches from Trump, the most significant of which he gave in Riyadh nearly two years ago on his first trip abroad as president. The administration’s mantra has been to assist rather than lead, and Pompeo claimed the US had falsely considered itself a “force for what ails the Middle East”.
“We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies,” he said. “In just 24 months, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes.”
Rob Malley, a former senior official in the Obama administration, said: “Listening to Secretary Pompeo’s speech is like listening to someone from a parallel universe – in which the war in Iraq or Abu Ghraib, US indifference to its allies’ human rights violations, or Washington’s own complicity in the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen never occurred.
“Back on planet Earth, they will see it for what it is: a self-congratulatory, delusional depiction of the Trump administration’s Middle East policy.”