Mike Pompeo’s trip to West Asia
Hirak Jyoti Das, Research Associate, VIF

Between 8 and 15 January 2019, the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo undertook an eight country visit to Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and an unplanned trip to Iraq.1 The trip to Kuwait was cancelled because of family emergency.2 The visit is noteworthy following President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US would withdraw its troops from Syria which is perceived as a major policy shift under the present administration. Pompeo during the course of the trip sought to reassure US’ allies that it would continue its presence in the region and the conditions of withdrawal is contingent on situation on the ground which would depend on complete elimination of Islamic State (IS) as well as evacuation of Iranian troops and its proxies from Syrian battleground. The visit was also aimed to persuade US’ regional allies to assume more responsibility to deal with common threats in the region.

The Secretary of State articulated US’ present approach towards the region during his speech in the American University of Cairo on 10 January 2019. He made repeated reference stating “America is a force for good in the Middle East”3 and mentioned that the previous government had misread the developments in the region and underestimated the ‘tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism’ that has manifested itself in the formation and spread of IS. The US along with its allies have succeeded to uproot IS from 99 percent of its territory from Iraq and Syria. He noted that France and Britain have jointly carried out air strikes against IS targets, Jordan and Turkey have hosted thousands of refugees and Gulf states have contributed towards normalization efforts.

The US held the Iranian regime responsible for propagating radical Islam. The Barack Obama government according to Pompeo was slow to put a check on Iran and Hezbollah’s growth as well as oppose President Bashar Al Assad’s suppressive measures within Syria. Therefore, the government under the new leadership realizes its historic role in the region. The US, according to him is a liberating force and unlike Iran it would not seek to dominate in the region.

Pompeo’s trip coincided with US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s visit to Israel and Turkey between 5 and 8 January 2019 and it is largely seen as reaffirmation of Trump administration’s continued engagement in the region and as an attempt to reinvigorate the alliance against Iran. The broad themes of the visit can be summarized into bilateral, security and regional cooperation; conflict with Iran; US withdrawal from Syria; Israel-Palestinian peace process and Yemen crisis.

Bilateral, Security and Regional Cooperation

During the first leg of his trip, Pompeo met with King Abdullah II and Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi.4 Pompeo congratulated the enduring relationship between both states as Jordan celebrates its 70th anniversary. Since 2011, Jordan has provided refuge to more than 650,000 Syrian refugees. The US has offered US$ 6 billion through Foreign Assistance MOU in the last five years to support its humanitarian efforts.5 Both states discussed on common areas of bilateral cooperation and methods to expand their strategic partnership. The US reiterated its commitment to Jordan’s domestic stability and security and in its endeavor it has funded and built a counter-terrorism training facility in the Hashemite Kingdom.

Pompeo, after his visit to Amman, paid an unplanned visit to Iraq and met with the Iraqi President Barham Salih, Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi, Foreign Minister Mohamed Alhakim and Council of Representatives Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi on 9 January 2019.6 The visit was not announced allegedly due to security concerns. Notably, on 26 December 2018, US President Trump met with US troops at Al Asad air base near Baghdad; however he did not meet with any Iraqi leaders which had irked the political establishment and public opinion. Pompeo’s visit was therefore aimed at easing these tensions.

Pompeo underlined Iraq’s strategic role in the region and offered support to strengthen the security forces. There are presently around 5,200 US soldiers posted in Iraq.7 During Trump’s 26 December 2018 visit to Baghdad, he suggested that “we could use this as the base if we wanted to do something in Syria.”8 Therefore, the US military presence in Iraq is likely to continue and play a crucial role not only to contain IS but also check Iran’s overtures in both Syria and Iraq.

US reiterated its commitment to uphold Iraq’s sovereignty and integrity as well as address the political, economic and security challenges. Pompeo stressed on the early resumption of oil exports through Kirkuk oil pipeline to achieve energy sustainability.9 He also travelled to Erbil to meet with Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) leadership including Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Security Council Chancellor Masrour Barzani and expressed US’ wholehearted support for continued dialogue between the national government and KRG. 10 After Iraq, Pompeo proceeded to meet with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on 10 January 2019. The meeting focused on strengthening the strategic partnership between the US and Egypt and improving counter-terrorism efforts.11

Pompeo subsequently proceeded to visit the Gulf monarchies of Bahrain, UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman. For the US’ perspective, the strategic partnerships with the Gulf states are crucial for fulfilling its shared regional objectives ranging from eliminating the IS and radical Islamic terrorism, safeguarding global energy supplies, to hindering the influence of Iran and its proxies. In Manama, Pompeo met with Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa on 11 January 201912 and on 12 January 2019, he met with Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan.13 The areas of dialogue covered counter-terrorism, situation in Yemen and predictably Iran.

On 13 January 2019, Pompeo met with Qatari Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and co-chaired the second US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue along with Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. He held extensive discussions with the Qatari leadership over reaching lasting peace in Syria and in Afghanistan.14 Qatar is presently hosting talks between the US and Taliban. The US affirmed support for a strong and united GCC by bridging the gap between Qatar and its neighbors to achieve regional stability as well as challenge Iran’s policies.

On the strategic front, the US and Qatar signed an MOU to expand critical facilities at Al-Udeid air base. Qatar agreed to fund the capital expenditures and sustainment costs to improve US’ military infrastructure at the air base. Al Udeid air base presently hosts 13,000 US and coalition service members and serves as the US’ primary staging area for its campaign to defeat IS. Both sides discussed US$ 26 billion Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program to develop Qatar’s Expeditionary Amphibious Capability and expand its Joint Special Forces.15 They reviewed the progress made in cCounter-terrorism and law enforcement partnership and sought to improve coordination in areas such as terror financing, anti-money laundering, border security, information security, cyber security, aviation security and judicial capacity building. Both states also held meetings in the areas of trade, investment, energy, education and labor issues.

After Doha, Pompeo visited Riyadh to meet with Saudi King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir and Saudi Ambassador to the United States Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in on 14 January 2019.16 The issue of human Rights, especially the rights of women activists in Saudi Arabia was brought up during the meetings. On the question of murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Secretary of State maintained that the US is keen to ensure that justice is delivered. He however refused to divulge details on the nature of the assassination operation. The relationship, according to him, has however predated the Khashoggi incident and would continue to move forward. The US maintained that the mutually beneficial relationship would remain undeterred as Saudi Arabia is key to achieving stability in the region.17

On the last leg of the trip, Pompeo met with Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id on 14 January 2019. The US delegation held discussion on building bilateral US-Oman economic and security partnership.18

Conflict with Iran

Pompeo claimed that Iran’s export of Islamic Revolution as one of the biggest threats to regional stability besides IS. Therefore, the US needs to intensify its engagement with its allies in the region to hinder Iran’s political and strategic influence and terminate Islamic Republic’s attempt to float sanctions. In its efforts, the US policy was aimed at pursuing its regional allies to undertake more responsibility to counter Iran.

Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman Safadi noted that he shares concerns with the US with regard to Iran’s expansionist policies. It must therefore adhere to the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs and respect the territorial integrity of other states. In Baghdad, Pompeo accused Iran of interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs and supporting groups to spread sectarian tensions. He sought to reassure his partners and develop a common understanding to fight against both IS and Iran. He also noted that 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement was inadequate as it had not addressed critical areas, and that there is continuance of nuclear proliferation risks from Iran.

During the press statement in Amman, Pompeo linked the question of Iran’s military presence in Syria with the announcement of US withdrawal. Despite the withdrawal of US troops along with gradual acceptance of Bashar Al Assad’s government by the Arab counterparts, he pointed out that the ‘anti-Iran coalition’ would remain effective due to common threat posed by Iran to all its allies. He boasted that the US would continue to maintain an enormous military capability in the region but as a Secretary of State his priority would be to opt for diplomatic alternatives. Therefore, the anti-Iran coalition would be ultimately based on combined understanding of threats and the US would focus on diplomatic and commercial efforts to pressurize Iran. It would also require full support of its allies to counter Iran’s advances. On several occasions during the trip, he said that the announcement of withdrawal was only a tactical change and the mission to uproot terrorism stemming from Iran would remain constant.

During his speech at the American University of Cairo on 10 January 2019, Pompeo repeatedly condemned Iranian government for suppressing its own people. He believes that the Islamic regime is wrong to blame the US for stirring unrest within the country and warned about its growing influence in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. In terms of Iran’s influence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s accumulation of over 130,000 rockets and missiles could endanger its ally, Israel which remains a major cause of concern for the US. The US delegation throughout the trip repeatedly emphasized on the dangers posed by the Islamic Republic on the region and made numerous appeals to align the collective interests of its regional partners.

During the Second US-Qatari Strategic Dialogue held on 13 January 2019, both sides discussed on potential mechanisms to establish Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) with the aim of countering Iran and other regional threats. Pompeo appreciated the success of the MESA meeting held in Muscat on 9 January 2019. The conference stressed on enhancing energy and economic cooperation and strengthening regional security.

For the US, a united Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is seen as the backbone for regional peace, security and stability and critical in resisting Iran’s policies. The Gulf States have closely coordinated with the US to keep a check on Iran’s sanctions evasion, targeting financial schemes and material transfers that benefit the regime, identifying Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) proxies and combating illicit maritime activity.19 However, the Saudi led blockade against Qatar since June 2017 has remained unresolved hindering the progress in coalition building and continuing disunity within GCC.

On 17 January 2019, the US Treasury Department imposed new set of sanctions on an airline company linked to Iranian airlines, Mahan Air. The Treasury Department blacklisted Fatemiyoun Division and the Zaynabiyoun Brigade to cut off their access to global financial networks. These militias coming from refugees and migrants from Afghanistan and Pakistan are recruited by IRGC to fight in Syria.20 While President Trump has expressed his hesitation on military entanglements, as well as Pompeo’s remark on utilizing diplomatic methods to control Iran and its allies, the US’ overtures such as anti-Iran coalition building and unilateral sanctions runs the risk of provoking Iran to armed conflict which could escalate throughout the region.

US Withdrawal from Syria

Pompeo, on the question of Syria, agreed with Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi that peaceful resolution of the conflict is favorable for regional stability. And therefore, efforts must be made for peaceful resolution through UNSC Resolution 2254 which would preserve the security and stability of Syria, force withdrawal of all foreign forces and ensure the safe return of refugees. Moreover, both states agreed to maintain channels for future coordination on a bilateral level and through expert groups after US withdrawal. Safadi also touched upon a tri-lateral Jordan-US-Russia agreement to work together to vanquish IS. In such light, Foreign Minister’s insistence to include Russia could further bolster Russia’s regional clout over Jordan and the region.

In Erbil and in Abu Dhabi, Pompeo mentioned the need to protect the Kurdish population and the militias that has partnered with the US to fight against IS. He acknowledged the legitimate terror threat faced by Turkey and suggested that it would support Ankara in its efforts. He also expressed hope that Syrian refugees and internally displaced people could be rehabilitated at the earliest that would create favorable political conditions on the ground. However, he noted that as long as Iranian forces and Hezbollah remain present in Syrian battleground, the US would not undertake humanitarian assistance programs for areas that are under the control of Assad regime. The political settlement, defeat and total elimination of IS and removing Iranian and Hezbollah’s presence from Syria remained another key area of discussion with the Arab leaders.

Israel-Palestinian Peace Process

In Amman, while Pompeo hesitated to mention about the Israel-Palestinian peace process, Jordanian Foreign Minister Safadi made emphatic reference to the Palestinian question citing it as the key conflict in the region. He stated that Jordan and other Arab states are keen to achieve comprehensive and lasting peace with Israel. However, Israel must concede the territories it occupied in 1967 Arab-Israel War and acknowledge the legitimate rights of statehood and freedom to Palestinians. He revisited the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative to achieve comprehensive peace and urged the Jewish state to come to the negotiating table. According to him, it would address Israel’s concerns over security and help in gaining acceptance and normal ties with Arab states. Therefore, despite the present administration’s reluctance to accept the conditions on two states and on Jerusalem, there was a need for Jordan to seek international cooperation and continue open dialogue with the US to facilitate a comprehensive resolution to achieve two states with East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

Pompeo, during his speech in Cairo, expressed his observation on the peace process stating that the US is keen to achieve real and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. During the speech, he maintained the US’ pro-Israel tilt. He appreciated President Trump’s decision to honor the bipartisan congressional resolution to move the embassy in Jerusalem in May 2018. The Secretary of State noted that Iran’s aggressive adventurism endangers Israel. Therefore, it would continue to support Israel’s right to defence and aid in harnessing its military capability.

The US delegation held discussions with Qatari leadership about the ongoing developments in Gaza, and efforts to improve humanitarian and economic conditions as well as steps to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. On 28 October 2018, UAE for the first time allowed Israeli judo team to participate under its own flag in Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam and it was attended by Minister of Culture and Sports Miri Regev.21 The US appreciated UAE’s gesture and remarked it as a positive step in reaching political rapprochement. Pompeo also appreciated the efforts made by Sultan Qaboos bin Sa’id of Oman to invite Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on 21 October 2018 and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on 26 October 2018 to re-launch the peace process.22

Yemen Crisis

US supported the progress of UN-led talks between Yemeni government and the Houthis held in the Swedish city of Rimbo in December 2018. During the talks, both sides have agreed to swap prisoners and held talks on de-escalating troops from Hudaydah and Taiz as well as opening the airport in Sana’a. 23 Pompeo appreciated the role played by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Oman for arranging political consultations on the situation in Yemen. The meetings paid substantial attention towards the conflict situation and the Secretary of State held individual level discussions with the Gulf leaders to achieve a peaceful solution.

Conclusion

The key agenda throughout the trip was focused on developing a collective initiative to counter Iran’s influence in the region and eliminate the remnants of IS. The US would continue to use air strikes and engage in military intervention whenever the need would arise. It would assist its partners to protect borders, destroy terrorist infrastructure, monitor travellers and help refugees. The policy shift can be assessed from its reference to ‘assist its partners’ wherein Trump administration is expecting its regional partners to play a more responsible role in eliminating Islamist extremism in all its forms. Moreover, the present approach would also focus on diplomatic methods to counter Iran’s policies through economic sanctions and strict control on sanctions evasion. It would also focus on coalition building and deeper cooperation with its allies.

However, there are caveats in successful implementation of Trump’s policy change as the disunity in GCC has continued between Qatar and other Gulf states. Therefore, there is lack of unity of approach which may impede successful coalition-building process against Iran. Trump’s decision of withdrawal has also intensified the divergent interests of its allies especially in Syria, Libya and Yemen. In the context of Syria, while Qatar has maintained its opposition to Assad regime, UAE and Bahrain have hinted on resumption of ties with Damascus and announced their decision to re-open its embassies on 27 December and 28 December 2018 respectively. Moreover, the domestic political situation within the Arab states in terms of human rights and freedom of speech violations in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, sectarian nature of Iraqi political discourse, Arab states’ responses to Israel-Palestinian peace process, Russia’s strategic choices and posture, and internal inconsistency within Trump’s administration may interfere in successful implementation of US’ present policy in the region.

End Notes:
  1. Al Jazeera. "Pompeo: US to Boost Efforts to Counter Iran's 'malign Influence'." Al Jazeera, January 8, 2019. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/01/secretary-state-mike-pompeo-starts-middle-east-visit-jordan-190108090632341.html.
  2. CNBC. "US's Pompeo Meets Saudi Leaders, Cancels Kuwait Visit." CNBC, January 14, 2019. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/01/14/pompeo-kuwait-leg-of-mideast-trip.html.
  3. *U.S. Department of State. "A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East." January 10, 2019. Accessed January 25, 2019. https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/01/288410.htm.
  4. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With King Abdullah II of Jordan." January 10, 2019. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288387.htm.
  5. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo And Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi At a Press Availability." January 10, 2019. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/01/288382.htm.
  6. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi." January 9, 2019. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288388.htm.
  7. The Economic Times. "In Iraq, political wrangling spawns debate over US troops." The Economic Times, January 22, 2019. Accessed January 25, 2019. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/in-iraq-political-wrangling-spawns-debate-over-us-troops/articleshow/67636316.cms.
  8. Haaretz. "In Surprise Iraq Visit, Trump Defends Syria Pullout: People Will Come Around." Haaretz, December 26, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/us-news/in-surprise-iraq-visit-trump-defends-syria-pullout-people-will-come-around-1.6785698.
  9. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With President of Iraq Barham Salih." January 9, 2019. Accessed January 24, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288390.htm.
  10. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani." January 9, 2019. Accessed January 25, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288399.htm.
  11. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi." January 10, 2019. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288405.htm.
  12. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, and Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa." January 11, 2019. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288435.htm.
  13. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates." January 12, 2019. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288446.htm.
  14. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Qatari Amir Sheikh Tamimbin Hamad Al Thani." January 13, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288454.htm.
  15. *U.S. Department of State. "Joint Statement of the Second United States-Qatar Strategic Dialogue: Forward Together." January 13, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288455.htm.
  16. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir." January 13, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288460.htm
  17. *U.S. Department of State. "Remarks to Traveling Press." January 14, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019. https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2019/01/288461.htm
  18. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Meeting With Omani Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id." January 15, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288464.htm
  19. *U.S. Department of State. "Secretary Pompeo's Visit to the Gulf: Advancing Partnerships, Support for the Iran Pressure Campaign, and new Solutions to Regional Challenges." January 15, 2019. Accessed January 27, 2019. https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2019/01/288464.htm
  20. Regencia, Ted. "Is Trump Baiting Iran into an Armed Confrontation?" Al Jazeera, January 28, 2019. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/12/trump-baiting-iran-armed-confrontation-181208112950681.html.
  21. Haartez. "Israeli Minister Tours Abu Dhabi's Grand Mosque Days After Netanyahu Visits Oman." Haaretz, October 29, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2019. https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/israeli-minister-tours-abu-dhabi-s-grand-mosque-days-after-netanyahu-visits-oman-1.6601784.
  22. France 24. "After Netanyahu and Abbas visits, Oman offers help in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts." France 24, October 27, 2018. Accessed January 25, 2019. https://www.france24.com/en/20181027-oman-netanyahu-abbas-visits-offers-help-israeli-palestinian-peace-efforts-conflict-bahrain.
  23. Wintour, Patrick. "Yemen peace talks: UN says Hodeidah should be under joint control" The Guardian, December 10, 2018. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/10/yemen-peace-talks-un-says-hodeidah-should-be-under-joint-control

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