CAIRO: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo vowed on Thursday the United States and its allies would work diplomatically to expel all Iranian troops from Syria, urging Middle East nations to forge a common stand against Tehran.
“It’s time for old rivalries to end, for the sake of the greater good of the region,” said Pompeo at a keynote address in Cairo. America “will 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 added.
The top US diplomat was in Egypt on the latest leg of a whistle-stop regional tour aimed at shoring up Washington’s Middle East policy following President Donald Trump’s shock decision to withdraw 2,000 US troops from Syria.
In his speech at the American University in Cairo, Pompeo said the US is creating an anti-Iran front — the Middle East Strategic Alliance — bringing together Gulf countries as well as Egypt and Jordan.
Pompeo said the US would ensure Israel has the military capacity to “defend itself against the Iranian regime’s aggressive adventurism”. He stressed the troop pullout from Syria would go ahead, despite comments in recent weeks appearing to walk back Trump’s decision, but said that the US would remain engaged.
The “decision to withdraw our troops has been made. We will do that. We will withdraw our forces, our uniformed forces, from Syria and continue America’s crushing campaign,” Pompeo told reporters at a joint press conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shukry.
He also met earlier with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, after arriving in Cairo late Wednesday on his longest trip since taking office last year which has already taken him to Jordan, Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish regional capital Arbil.
Washington-based Human Rights First slammed Pompeo’s speech, saying it “doubled-down on blanket US support for the authoritarian regimes that have driven decades of instability in the Middle East”. Brian Dooley, the group’s senior advisor, said Pompeo failed to mention that Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen “repeatedly violated international law” and brushed aside the Egyptian government’s “targeting of human rights activists, or of how torture in jails is driving prisoners into the arms of ISIS”.
Operation in Syria not dependent on US pull-out: Turkey
Turkey’s planned military operation against a Kurdish militia in Syria does not depend on an American withdrawal from the region, Ankara said on Thursday, signalling Turkey remained undeterred by US efforts to protect its local partners.
The comments from Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu are the latest to highlight the deep divide between the two Nato allies over the implementation of Trump’s plan to bring home about 2,000 US troops stationed in Syria.
Washington has partnered with the YPG in the fight against IS in Syria, supplying it with weapons and training. Turkey, which considers the YPG a terrorist organisation, has long seen that support as a betrayal.
“Our problem is this: there is a terrorist organisation that poses a threat to us and the United States supports them,” Cavusoglu said in an interview with Turkey’s NTV. “Whether they pull out or not, we must do whatever is necessary against an organisation that poses a threat to our national security.”
Syrian militants cement grip in Idlib
Blacklisted militant fighters tightened their grip over Syria’s last major rebel-held region on Thursday after nine days of battle with Turkey-backed groups, putting a deal to prevent a massive army assault on the area in jeopardy.
The northwest of Syria near the Turkish border is the last part of the country still in the hands of fighters seeking to topple President Bashar al-Assad, but control has been divided between militant factions and other rebels backed by Turkey.
On Thursday Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant group listed as terrorists by the United States, Turkey and others, forced factions from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) to accept a peace deal recognising civilian control by an HTS-backed administration.
Under Thursday’s agreement, FSA groups accepted civilian control of some towns and villages by a body known as the Salvation Government which runs basic services in the city of Idlib and many towns that fall under HTS influence.