WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's top two foreign policy advisers will crisscross the Middle East over the next week to reassure nervous U.S. allies after his surprise decision to withdraw troops from Syria.
In his first visit to the Middle East since Trump's announcement, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will stop in eight countries, starting with Jordan on Wednesday, the State Department said. National security adviser John Bolton planned to depart Friday for Israel and Turkey, his spokesman said.
The Syria decision, which led to the resignations of Defense Secretary James Mattis and the U.S. special envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition, Brett McGurk, is expected to dominate the officials' agenda, along with the Trump administration's hard line on Iran, the conflict in Yemen and the situation in Iraq.
The State Department announced Friday that veteran diplomat James Jeffrey, who has been serving since August as the special representative for Syrian engagement, would assume McGurk's anti-Islamic State duties.
The Trump-ordered withdrawal of U.S. troops in Syria was initially expected to be completed within weeks, but has been slowed as the president has acceded to requests from aides, allies and members of Congress for a more orderly pullout. The U.S. drawdown is feared to clear the way for a Turkish assault on Kurdish fighters in Syria who have fought alongside American troops against the Islamic State group.
Trump's decision also 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 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.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 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 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.
A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity to preview Pompeo's trip, said the secretary's aim was to counter "false narratives" that the U.S. is abandoning the Middle East and to make the point that Iran continues to be a threat. "We are not going anywhere," the official said.
In addition to Jordan, Pompeo plans stops in Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. The U.S. hopes each country will play a significant role in a planned regional strategic partnership being called an "Arab NATO."
Bolton also will focus on Syria and "how the U.S. will work with allies and partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, and counter Iranian malign behavior in the region," according to National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis.
Bolton was scheduled to meet with Netanyahu before being joined in Turkey by Jeffrey and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford. They are expected to pressure Turkish officials not to launch an offensive targeting Kurdish fighters in Syria.
Turkey considers the Kurdish People's Protection Units a terrorist group linked to an insurgency within its own borders.
Pompeo told Newsmax on Thursday that "ensuring that the Turks don't slaughter the Kurds" was part "of the American mission set," a comment that Turkey said showed a lack of information about the situation.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip 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.
After a brief stop in Amman, Pompeo will fly to Cairo for counterterrorism and energy cooperation talks with Egyptian officials and to give a speech on the U.S. "commitment to peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Middle East," the State Department said. The speech is expected to be a counterpoint to an address that President Barack Obama delivered in Cairo in 2009 in which he sought to reach out to the Muslim world.
From Cairo, Pompeo heads to Manama, Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, to continue discussions on the Middle East Strategic Alliance that is aimed at confronting Iran's increasing assertiveness in the Persian Gulf.
Pompeo will then visit Abu Dhabi, where he will push for all parties to the conflict in Yemen to follow through on de-escalation agreements they reached at U.N.-brokered peace talks in Sweden last month. The Emirates are Saudi Arabia's main partner in a coalition fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The UAE is also at the center of a festering dispute involving most of the Gulf Arab nations and Qatar, which will be Pompeo's next stop. In Doha, the secretary plans to underscore the importance the U.S. places on Gulf unity in standing up against Iran. Qatar has been subject to a blockade by its neighbors, including Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, which accuse it of supporting terrorism, since June 2017.
From Doha, Pompeo will travel to Riyadh for talks with Saudi officials about Yemen, Iran and Syria as well as the investigation into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Washington Post contributor was killed at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October.
Earlier this week, Saudi prosecutors announced they would seek the death penalty against five of 11 suspects in Khashoggi's slaying, in which members of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's entourage have been implicated. The State Department official said, however, that what the U.S. has seen so far is not enough and has yet to hit a "threshold of credibility and accountability."
Pompeo will wrap up his tour with stops in Muscat, Oman, and Kuwait City.
Trump's Syria announcement was followed by reports the president also decided to halve the U.S. 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."
Afghanistan is not on Pompeo or Bolton's itinerary. 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 U.S. on Trump's comments.
Information for this article was contributed by Matthew Lee and Zeke Miller of The Associated Press; and by Margaret Talev, Nick Wadhams, Eltaf Najafizada, Selcan Hacaoglu, Tony Capaccio, David Wainer and Justin Sink of Bloomberg News.
National Security Adviser John Bolton attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and senior military leadership at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. President Donald Trump made an unannounced trip to Iraq on Wednesday to meet U.S. troops. It's the sixth time that a U.S. president has visited Iraq.
A Section on 01/05/2019
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