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A Mixed Tour
U.S. Secretary of State's Middle East trip yields limited results
By Gao Shangtao  ·  2019-01-27  ·   Source: NO. 5 JANUARY 31, 2019
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (left) and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi hold a joint press conference in Amman, Jordan, on January 8 (XINHUA)

Entrusted by U.S. President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman in early January, just weeks after Trump's announcement that the U.S. will withdraw its troops from Syria. Pompeo skipped a scheduled stop in Kuwait due to personal reasons.

The whirlwind tour was intended to consolidate Trump's Middle East policy and ensure that U.S. strategic objectives can be achieved, such as restoring relations with allies, reaffirming the U.S. presence in the region and reclaiming the commitment to leading and helping allied countries to maintain economic security and fight terrorism. Hence, this means a U.S.-centered relationship in the Middle East, with Iran—that has been accused of supporting terrorism and destabilizing the region—as their common target.

The U.S. needs intensive coordination and communication to eliminate obstacles to working with its allies in the region. It seeks to promote U.S.-led regional stability in the Middle East and at the same time, block the presumed "malicious" influence of Iran.

So, to what extent did Pompeo achieve these objectives?

Syrian issue

The Trump administration, along with its allies, aims to propose its own solution to the Syrian civil war. During his trip, Pompeo discussed how to solve various perceived problems such as Iran's influence on Syria and Russia's involvement. However, it is hard for the U.S. to achieve its goal, since neither Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Iran or Russia will be willing to follow U.S. plans. Other political factions in Syria, including U.S. Kurdish partners, are not capable of changing the political landscape by themselves. Therefore, it can basically be regarded as a long-term goal that is unlikely to be realized in one simple visit.

By proposing a safe zone on the Syrian-Turkish border, Trump seeks to ensure the Kurdish militia—a U.S. ally in the anti-ISIS campaign seen as a terrorist group by Turkey—will be protected. Trump warned Turkey to stop its actions against Kurdish rebels or face severe economic sanctions. A safe zone in north Syria, which has not been agreed upon by any of the players, is a U.S. plan to maintain stability in the region after its troops withdraw from Syria, and will certainly be opposed by Assad. The progress of this issue will depend on the results of negotiations between the U.S., Turkey, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

The U.S. also plans to form an Arab military force that is acceptable to both Turkey and Syria in the border areas of the two countries, separating the Kurdish armed forces from the Turkish army. However, this plan has been proposed for some time, and the implementation details are still under discussion.

Pompeo declared that "the U.S. will not retreat until the fight against terror is over," but in the meantime acknowledged that Trump has made the decision to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria. "We always do (withdraw) and now is the time. But this isn't a change of mission," he said. "We remain committed to the complete dismantling of the ISIS threat and the ongoing fight against radical Islamism in all of its forms." He also stated that any withdrawal is "condition-based," including the defeat of the ISIS, the protection of its Kurdish partners and the assurance that Iran will not increase its influence in the region.

The Trump administration claims it wants to build a safe border for all political parties in Syria and its neighbors after the U.S. withdrawal, not only for Turks and Kurds, but also Arabs and Christians, and to create a place where there is no violence, or at least reduced levels of violence, where displaced people will be able to return home. This is basically an ideal goal, and it is hard to believe that Trump will focus on achieving it, but he may urge Arab allies to find ways to maintain relative order in Syria.

Confronting Iran

Iran is another matter of great concern to the Trump administration. It believes that the Islamic revolutionary government is determined to subvert other state powers and poses a threat to regional stability. The U.S. accuses Iran of financing and supporting non-state militant actors, such as the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Iran, on the other hand, considers these groups to be national liberation movements with the right to self-defense. Thus, the U.S. seeks to mobilize all of its Middle East allies in an attempt to build a strategic alliance in the region to jointly contain and crack down on Iran. Pompeo's visit may help contribute to the consolidation of this anti-Iranian alliance.

The Trump administration is particularly concerned about Iran's support for Iraq's Shiite militia and has decided to rally its Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia to help maintain the "independence" and "sovereignty" of the new Iraqi Government and keep it from falling under Iranian influence. This U.S. plan, which also involves a variety of economic means, coincides with the intentions of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries, and it's highly probable that it will advance through coordinated actions.

Pompeo also discussed with Sunni allies providing economic and financial support to the Iranian people to rebel against the Iranian Government in the hope of establishing a change of guard. This has been the Trump administration's plan all along and is believed to have already been put into action. Concerted efforts between the U.S. and its allies may escalate actions for this purpose.

The Trump administration regards the Iranian Government's recent move of arresting U.S citizens as especially reprehensible. The U.S. State Department established a team to free these detainees, requiring its Arab allies, especially Oman, to provide assistance. There is reason to believe that these efforts will be enhanced in the coming period.

Regional relations

Another challenge is the relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Pompeo reassured Saudi Arabian leaders of their country's importance to the U.S. as one of its key partners in the Middle East, second only to Israel. He pointed out that the two countries share common strategic objectives in anti-Iranian and counter-terrorist matters, and called for strengthening joint efforts in the future.

The two sides exchanged views regarding Saudi Arabia's human rights issues, which are of international concern, especially the protection of journalists after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the investigation and accountability of those involved in the case, as well as the suppression of women's rights by the Saudi Arabian Government.

Although Saudi Arabia declared it would work with the United States on these issues, it is believed that it will only pretend to relax the open and direct repression of dissidents. It will never loosen control and put its monarchy at risk.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis is another headache for Trump. He hopes to see a united GCC where Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Bahrain resolve their disputes with Qatar and stop blockading it. The GCC split has weakened the joint efforts of the U.S. and the Sunni Arab countries against Iran. The U.S. is willing to provide assistance to help them reconcile and reunite.

However, the conflicts are intense and unlikely to be resolved soon. Although a softening of tone against Qatar can be expected with U.S. mediation, a complete lifting of the blockade is unlikely any time soon. With the restoration of GCC unity improbable, the U.S. attempt to unite them in its fight against Iran will not be fully realized.

To summarize, Pompeo's trip to the Middle East will, to a certain extent, help implement some aspects of the Trump administration's Mideast policy, but it will prove more difficult for the U.S. to achieve all of its goals.

The author is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at China Foreign Affairs University

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to yulintao@bjreview.com

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