US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in the Middle East on Tuesday for a tour that started in the Jordanian capital Amman before moving to Cairo and then the Arab Gulf countries.
His visits are taking place at the same time as others by US National Security Adviser John Bolton to Israel, earlier in the week, and then Turkey.
They are intended to clarify Washington’s policies in the Middle East with its regional allies and further strategic objectives that focus on the war against militant groups and the isolation of Iran.
However, top of the agenda of both sets of talks are US plans on Syria, and the parallel visits come at a confusing moment for the region when it is not clear whether or when US President Donald Trump will execute plans to withdraw US troops from Syria as announced in December.
One informed Cairo diplomat said that Trump’s announcement of the withdrawal had not been coordinated with Washington’s allies in the Middle East. “It did come as a surprise to many,” he said.
Earlier this week, Trump, who has lost his secretary of defense James Mattis and his representative to the anti-Islamic State (IS) Coalition Brett McGurk over his surprise announcement on Syria, seemed to be taking a step back on the decision to withdraw the US troops when he said the timeline was still being decided.
According to an assessment by Cairo-based Western diplomats following US policy on Syria, it seems that Trump has come under considerable pressure from his European allies to rethink his plans on Syria.
There was also pressure coming from the Pentagon, the diplomats said, as well as scepticism from some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, especially after a late December statement in which Trump said that the situation in Syria would now be handled by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
According to the diplomats, many Arab capitals, especially Saudi Arabia which has been funding the US troop presence, will not want a situation that could allow for a wider Iranian presence in Syria.
The Saudis have often complained to the US about the Iranian military presence in Syria. Their complaints have been seconded by Israel, which has indicated to both Washington and Moscow the limits of its toleration of the Iranian presence in the country where the International Coalition has been battling radical Islamist groups including IS and Al-Qaeda.
In a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi in Amman on Tuesday afternoon, Pompeo stressed that the US is not withholding its commitment to limit Iran’s influence in the region.
According to one informed Arab diplomat, it is this concern about the possible extension of Iranian influence in Syria, “added to the very visible Iranian influence in Iraq and other Arab countries”, which has led Riyadh to condone Arab attempts to re-engage the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad despite the long history of hostility between it and the regime in Riyadh.
The UAE, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, acted late last year to re-open a diplomatic mission in Damascus as part of this re-engagement, and several other Arab countries might soon follow the UAE move.
The same Arab source said that Egypt, recently expanding the scope of its ties with Syria, has been consulting with Kuwait to start the diplomatic momentum to re-integrate Syria back into the Arab fold.
However, it is not yet clear how this can happen, since it will require a decision of the Arab League to annul a previous decision adopted in the heyday of the Arab Spring that froze Syria’s membership of the Arab organisation in protest against its aggressive quelling of then peaceful demonstrations for democracy.
“But so much has changed during the past seven years, and today we are talking about an extensive Russian military presence in Syria, an obvious Iranian presence, and a possible Turkish military presence as well. This is not in the interest of any Arab country,” the Egyptian source said.
Possible steps towards an Arab re-engagement of Syria are likely to be discussed by senior Arab officials with the visiting US secretary of state this week, given the firm position that Washington has been taking against the re-engagement of the Al-Assad regime.
Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri said in a press statement on Tuesday that there are “things” that Syria needs to do before its reintegration in the Arab regime is secured.
For his part, speaking with Pompeo in Amman, Safadi said that reaching a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria should pave the way to end the exclusion of Syria from the Arab regime.
Meanwhile, according to the same Egyptian source, some Arab capitals are set to share their concerns with Pompeo over Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria that seemed to be giving a green light to Ankara.
Egypt, the source said, had made it clear that this was not something it saw as useful for regional stability. Egypt had shared this view with its Arab allies and several European capitals, which shared its concern about any expanded Turkish military operation in Syria to eliminate militant Kurdish units that have been part of the anti-IS Coalition.
In statements made earlier this month, Trump seemed to understand the concerns over the fate of the Kurdish militant groups, and ahead of leaving for the Middle East Pompeo indicated his country’s commitment to securing the Kurdish fighters.
While in Israel, Bolton said that the US would not jump-start its withdrawal from Syria before securing the safety of the Kurdish fighters.
One Cairo-based foreign diplomat informed on the highlights of Bolton’s talks in the Middle East this week said that the US national security adviser had assured his interlocutors that the US would neither risk the stability of Syria nor allow for a situation that could endanger their interests.
The same source said that he understood Bolton to have told the Israelis that the US withdrawal from Syria would be a very slow process that could undergo delays if needed.
In Ankara, which has already protested against the statements made by US officials on the Kurds, Bolton was expected to discuss guarantees that Turkey would not start military operations in Syrian territory to eliminate the Kurdish militant units.
However, Bolton’s remarks on the Kurdish matter had infuriated Ankara. By Tuesday evening, Erdogan was declining a meeting with the US national security adviser who had arrived to the Turkish capital.
In addition to explaining Washington’s policy on Syria and reassuring its allies, especially Saudi Arabia, that the US is not giving up on plans to isolate Iran, Bolton and Pompeo will also give time to discuss the Palestine-Israel “situation”.
“It would be too much to say that either will be discussing the potential for restarting the long-stalled peace process, first because neither Bolton nor Pompeo necessarily knows much about this file, which is handled by [Trump’s son-in-law] Jared Kushner, and second because the Americans have told the Israelis and will be telling other allies in the Middle East that plans to put forward a peace plan for the Middle East will be delayed until the summer,” said a Washington-based diplomatic source.
Washington has never committed to a date for the announcement of what has been promised to be a possible basis for a final settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli struggle, sometimes dubbed the “deal of the century”.
However, Palestinian diplomatic sources have repeatedly said they do not like what Kushner has been indicating, leading the Palestinian Authority (PA) to suspend contacts with Trump’s envoy.
Speaking from Ramallah earlier this week, a PA source said that nothing had changed on this matter. He added that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would underline it during talks with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Cairo during a relatively extended visit to Egypt.
In a press statement made in Cairo, Abbas reiterated a statement suggesting that he could not agree to what the Americans seemed to be offering.
Palestinian, Arab and European sources have spoken of bits and pieces of a plan that seems to be offering very little to the Palestinians and “less than a demilitarised state on much less than 20 per cent of the territories Israel put its hands on in 1967,” as one senior European diplomat put it, in return for their ending the struggle with Israel.
Informed regional diplomats said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is undergoing a rough political moment and is scheduled to face early elections in the spring, had asked the US to delay any announcement pending the outcome of the current political turmoil in Israel.
“Negotiations with Israel are off the table now. What could be on the table is an Egyptian wish to continue its mediation to resolve Palestinian divisions,” said the PA source from Ramallah.
This will likely be a central issue in the Abbas-Sisi talks in Cairo this week.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 10 January, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: US damage control