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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 April 2019

Mike Pompeo had Iran in his sights on regional tour

The US Secretary of State tackled a number of issues, including the Arab Nato and Tehran's proxies

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil in Beirut. Marwan Tahtah / AP
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil in Beirut. Marwan Tahtah / AP

Russian-Israeli understandings in Syria have greatly paved the way for Israel to tighten its control of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights, to the point that the Israeli ambassador to Moscow once scoffed at the idea of returning them to Syria. A tweet from US President Donald Trump recognising the area as Israeli marks a flagrant violation of international law and is an example of dangerous and humiliating shortsightedness in both its timing and substance.

It is not the American president alone who is scrambling to gift Israel the precious Golan Heights, aiming in part to boost Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of his election battle. Perhaps the failure of Syrian-Israeli negotiations, which almost restored the Golan to Syrian control in the 1990s had it not been for the deadlock over the Sea of Galilee, brought us to this point. Mr Trump’s move came during Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tour of the region, which included Kuwait, Israel and Lebanon, and ahead of the Arab League summit in Tunisia and his grand reveal about the “deal of the century”. Logically, if the Trump administration was intent on rallying moderate Arab states behind its quest to rein in Iran’s incursions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, it would have been prudent not to assail two important issues with significant nationalist and emotional dimensions among a majority of Arabs: namely, Palestine and the Golan Heights.

Mr Pompeo will be fully aware of what Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has been preparing with regards to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The two men are on good terms and co-ordinate often on issues of US foreign policy. The Palestinian Authority’s rejection of negotiations with the Trump administration over the peace deal could have emotional and political justifications but practically speaking, it does not serve Palestinian interests. Even during Mr Pompeo’s recent visit, he asked for dialogue with the Palestinian leadership through mediators, according to deputy prime minister Nabil Abu Rudaina, who said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was determined not to restore relations with Washington until the administration reverses its decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. What was interesting in Mr Rudaina’s remarks was his admission that Hamas has benefited from the PA’s boycott by working to fill the void.

Perhaps it is too late to convince Mr Abbas and his team to even review the deal as its unveiling draws near. Mr Kushner says that when the terms are revealed, Palestinians will be offered conditions that are comparably better than their current ones. This, in his view, will rally support for the first practicable peace plan presented by the Americans, complete with maps and finances, that will establish a Palestinian state. Mr Kushner of course also intends to improve Israel’s position in return, meaning he will most likely want to meet its historic ambitions to swallow Palestinian territories and annex the West Bank.

Mr Pompeo laid out a number of messages: the importance of full determination to prevent a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, letting Hezbollah know that its intervention in Syria on behalf of Iran will not go unpunished, and letting the Lebanese government know that it must seriously implement its self-declared pledge of neutrality in Syria or face sanctions along with Hezbollah

The Trump administration then intends to legitimise the occupation of the West Bank and the Golan and is unlikely to face any serious resistance. Neither Russia nor Iran will fight on the ground for Syria’s sovereignty, Jerusalem, nor the rest of occupied Palestine, as each side has its own priorities. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has calculated that the region’s priorities are the Iranian threat, from expansion in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to its destabilising influence.

Mr Pompeo’s stop in Kuwait tackled a number of issues, including the Middle East Strategic Alliance, the so-called Arab Nato, which brings together the US and its Arab allies to counter Iran. Another issue was the strategic dialogue to end the dispute with Qatar. On this issue, Kuwait has been a key mediator and is expected to resume its role. Mr Pompeo also tackled the issue of the Yemen war, which both Washington and the Saudi-led coalition want to end. However, attempts to end the war have consistently hit a wall from Iranian proxies. Hezbollah’s destabilising role in the Gulf was also discussed.

On his Lebanese stop, prior to which he issued stark warnings to Hezbollah and its allies that Washington would not tolerate the use of the Lebanese government as political and security cover for the group he described as a terror organisation, Mr Pompeo laid out a number of messages: the importance of full determination to prevent a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, letting Hezbollah know that its intervention in Syria on behalf of Iran will not go unpunished, and letting the Lebanese government know that it must seriously implement its self-declared pledge of neutrality in Syria or face sanctions along with Hezbollah.

Headlines by the pro-Hezbollah Al Akhbar newspaper were indicative of the group’s reactions to Mr Pompeo’s first visit to Lebanon since assuming office. Prior to the visit, Al Akhbar describe the visit as “Pompeo’s sedition” and, on the day of the visit, “the dirty Yankee and his lackeys”. An editorial went even further. This is official escalation and warning, not passing remarks, and reflects not just Hezbollah but also Tehran’s view, or at least that of the Quds Force, the foreign arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps headed by Qassem Soleimani.

Some within the US administration reportedly want to add the Quds Force to a new terror list. But for now, Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo are adopting a language of confronting Iran’s destabilising influence via Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Quds Force in Syria and the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq. They are vowing the US and Israel will co-operate to repel all “Iranian aggression” in the war on terror, whatever that entails.

Updated: March 23, 2019 09:06 PM

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