Mike Pompeo seeks to calm Gulf allies rattled by Donald Trump's policy shifts
US Secretary of State faces difficult talks to keep GCC states on side and on course to take on a bigger regional role
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will have a lot of explaining to do for his boss’s erratic tweets, but he is unlikely to waver on President Donald Trump’s message that Gulf allies need to shoulder more responsibility in the region.
He kick-started his Gulf tour in Bahrain on Friday, before flying to Abu Dhabi later in the day. He is then expected to travel to Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait City. Topping the agenda of Mr Pompeo's visit is the future of Syria. After the scare triggered by Mr Trump's “immediate” withdrawal tweet last month, the US clarified that it will take a more gradual approach to pulling out troops. But the shock announcement has already had consequences.
Three GCC countries announced they would be resuming diplomatic relations with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's government after a six-year hiatus. The Arab League, which expelled the Syrian leader, is now considering welcoming him back into the fold in a move to normalise relations after a conflict that has killed more than 360,000 and displaced millions.
It is still not clear how the US expects GCC allies to address the troubling issue of Mr Al Assad’s relationship with Iran, which gives Tehran the much feared land bridge to the Mediterranean via Iraq.
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Mr Pompeo’s surprise visit to Baghdad sends a strong signal to the rest of the region. Political uncertainty in Iraq cannot again provide the environment for Tehran’s foreign actors. Iraq’s relations with its Arab neighbours, regardless of internal politics, should be strong and aimed at ensuring Iran fails to spread its political reach. The US cannot afford to let Tehran take advantage of Baghdad’s political uncertainty to ensure its access to Syria and to direct the actions of its strategically important neighbour.
The restoration of Gulf diplomatic ties with Syria provides a direct line of access and signals a monumental shift in their relations. The implied message may be that Damascus, seeking an estimated $250 billion for post-war rebuilding, would be better off seeking Gulf money than relying on Iran, whose economy is ailing under US-imposed sanctions.
The US-backed Kurdish-led alliance has not materialised as the key stabiliser in Syria that Washington had hoped. It now wants its Arab allies to maintain its objectives in Syria of ensuring the lasting defeat of ISIS and, the more difficult task, containing Iranian influence.
“The withdrawal means that this option is off the table and the GCC now has to revert to a Plan B, namely, trying to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. Whether they will be able to do so is far from certain and I think Gulf countries are realistic about what they can achieve given Iran’s deep penetration in the Assad regime,” said Michael Horowitz, deputy head of intelligence at Le Beck International, a Bahrain-based think tank.
Mr Pompeo’s message on all policy issues has been the gradual passing of the baton to US allies in the region. As the US divorces itself from costly Arab crises that it has been able to resolve effectively, the onus will be on Gulf leaders to maintain stability in a region growing increasingly chaotic from meddling foreign actors.
But it remains to be seen if the GCC countries can contain Iran and maintain stability in the region without the military might and expertise of the US army.
“We are seeing lesser engagement, there is no doubt, but hopefully these decisions will be more gradual and more coordinated with the Arab allies who are themselves very stretched, and can be hesitant about taking more matters into their own hands,” said Cinzia Bianco, a GCC analyst for Gulf State Analytics and research fellow at the European Commission.
The war in Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia and the UAE intervened at the head of an Arab military coalition supporting the internationally recognised government, presented a difficult learning curve but also many valuable lessons for the armed forces of the two countries.
After Yemen, "it’s possible there will be a forward and somewhat critical discussion between the US and its allies because we know that these conflicts are drawing a lot of criticism in Congress and public opinion,” Ms Bianco said.
The goal for the US is to ensure that both sides pursue the political settlement begun at talks in Sweden as it looks to quickly end its involvement in an increasingly unpopular war.
But this cannot come at the expense of its GCC allies or the possibility that Iran gains a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula through the Houthis.
Mr Pompeo is likely to present the proposed Middle East Strategic Alliance (Mesa), or "Arab Nato", as the best solution to these regional concerns. However, with little progress being made since its announcement and no details given, Mesa seems a long-term prospect rather than an immediate remedy to a US withdrawal.
Mesa will require concerted efforts from all GCC countries, particularly those that host large US military bases, but the rift in the bloc over Qatar weakens their ability to align on key issues. The US will insist on Doha’s involvement as long as Qatar hosts the largest US air force base in the region.
However, the crisis is unlikely to end anytime soon. Anthony Zinni, the US envoy tasked with resolving the dispute, resigned on the eve of Mr Pompeo’s tour.
“Pompeo’s visit will most likely be about 'damage control' rather than pushing anything truly new," Mr Horowitz said. "Trump’s announcement highlighted significant contradictions in the US strategy vis-a-vis Iran, particularly when it comes to Washington’s pledge to impose 'maximum pressure' on Tehran. The withdrawal shows once again that Washington is unwilling to shoulder the weight of such a strategy and is looking for regional powers to do so.”
Under Mr Trump’s administration, the US has been more aligned with its Gulf allies on Iran than at any time during the Obama administration. However, they face the task of stabilising the region while subject to at least another two years of abrupt policy pronouncements by the US president, interpreted by a revolving cast of senior advisers.
Updated: January 12, 2019 02:55 PM