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Pompeo and Bolton head to Middle East to do Trump-Syria damage control

They have to reassure allies Trump made nervous.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with National Security Adviser John Bolton before a news conference won June 7, 2018.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo talks with National Security Adviser John Bolton before a news conference won June 7, 2018.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Top Trump administration officials are in the Middle East just weeks after the president’s announcement that he plans to withdraw US troops from Syria to reassure allies America won’t abandon them during a particularly crucial time.

John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and others will criss-cross the region for a series of meetings with their counterparts, stopping in Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt, among other places. While they will surely discuss other bilateral issues, the presence of America’s 2,000 troops in Northeastern Syria will be highest on the agenda.

The president shocked many around the world when he tweeted out a video of himself on December 19 proclaiming “it’s time to bring our great young people home,” because “we have won against ISIS.” That announcement led Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, among others, to resign, and led to a massive outcry from Trump allies at home and abroad.

In the weeks since, Pompeo, Bolton, and even Trump have tried to backtrack the comments, offering differing timelines ranging from 30 days to four months for the withdrawal. When Trump made the announcement, almost nobody in the US government knew what would happen next.

Bolton, who spent the past weekend in Israel during his part of the trip, told reporters the US won’t leave Syria until two things happen. First, the 17,000 remaining ISIS fighters in Syria must be completely defeated. And second, Turkey must vow not to attack US-backed Kurdish fighters in Northern Syria. Turkey considers Kurds near its border a serious terrorist threat and has plans to remove them.

Trump seems to have bought into the new timeline, even if it’s longer than what he originally said. “[W]e will be leaving [Syria] at a proper pace while at the same time continuing to fight ISIS and doing all else that is prudent and necessary!” Trump tweeted on Monday.

It’s now very possible US armed forces will stay in Syria longer, pleasing America’s friends in the Middle East. That will take some pressure off of Pompeo, who on Tuesday will spend an entire week in the region mainly talking about Syria, but it doesn’t make the trip any less of a test of his diplomatic skill under the highest pressure.

What Pompeo will do in the Middle East

The Trump administration’s efforts to defeat ISIS and curb Iran’s regional power have pleased America’s Middle East allies, mainly Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Syria withdrawal announcement, though, seemingly shook their confidence in the US. So Pompeo will spend considerable time assuring leaders in Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait that Trump plans to continue that strategy.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference following the UN Security Council meeting on Iran on December 12, 2018 in New York City.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press conference following the UN Security Council meeting on Iran on December 12, 2018, in New York City.
Kevin Hagen/Getty Images

He plans to deliver a major speech from Cairo this week that the State Department says will focus on “the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Middle East.” The fact that he chose Egypt’s capital, the same location where former President Barack Obama spoke in 2009 about America’s relationship with the Muslim world, means that it could serve as a blueprint for the Trump administration’s Middle East plans over the next two years.

Pompeo’s trips in the coming week to the UAE and Saudi Arabia will be interesting because of another country — Yemen.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE lead the coalition fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen’s bloody civil war that has seen tens of thousands killed and millions of others displaced or sickened. The US supports the coalition by providing intelligence. Until late last year, the US also refueled coalition warplanes before they made bombing runs.

But Democrats and Republicans pressure the Trump administration to curtail America’s involvement in the Yemen conflict after the administration backed Saudi Arabia despite its murder of dissident, journalist, and US resident Jamal Khashoggi last October. At the end of last year, the GOP-controlled Senate voted to consider ending US support for the war, but a similar measure never reached the House floor.

Opposition to America’s role still exists in Congress, though, so Pompeo may have to spend time promising the Saudis and Emiratis they can still count on Washington’s help.

The trip will prove a massive test of Pompeo’s diplomatic skill. He’s helped by recent statements on Syria, but he still has plenty of work to do to make the whirlwind sojourn a successful one.