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John Bolton and Mike Pompeo to reassure US allies in Middle East visit

Trump officials will travel to region to allay fears over recent policy upheaval

US National Security Adviser John Bolton attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and senior military leadership at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. AP Photo
US National Security Adviser John Bolton attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and senior military leadership at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq on December 26, 2018. AP Photo

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton plan to crisscross the Middle East to reassure US allies after President Donald Trump’s surprise withdrawal from Syria and Jim Mattis’s resignation as defence secretary.

Mr Bolton leaves Washington on Friday for stops in Israel and Turkey, he said on Twitter. Mr Pompeo will visit the region next week, visiting eight countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which he also visited last July.

The two men face allies worried that Mr Trump is ceding influence in the Middle East to Iran after his announcement that he would remove US military forces from Syria - apparently a snap decision made during a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The move prompted Mr Mattis’s resignation, and was followed by reports Mr Trump had also decided to halve the American military footprint in Afghanistan, though 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”.

Mr Bolton must shore up his own credibility in the Middle East, after declaring in September that the US would not leave Syria as long as adversaries including Iran, Russia and Islamic State remained in the country, which has been devastated by a civil war that began in 2011.

“Leaving tomorrow for Israel & Turkey to discuss the withdrawal of US forces from Syria, how we will work with allies & partners to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, stand fast with those who fought with us against ISIS, & counter Iranian malign behavior in the region,” Mr Bolton tweeted on Thursday night.

Mr Bolton said he would be joined in Turkey by General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria engagement.

Worries are growing within Israel and in Arab governments that Mr Trump is losing patience over the region’s long-standing conflicts, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

“This is a region that thought the president was on their side, and they thought Bolton was authoritative when he said US troops will remain in Syria as long as Iranian troops are outside Iran,” Mr Alterman said. “And we have something as close to the opposite of that policy going on as we could have. So where does that leave the Middle Eastern governments?”

Mr Trump’s decision to abruptly withdraw troops from Syria raised concern in Israel that the US was effectively ceding the country to Iran, which is fighting alongside the Lebanese militia Hezbollah and Russia to prop up Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. Israel has long warned that Iran is seeking to turn Syria into a launching pad for future attacks against it.

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.

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Mr Bolton will visit leaders in Israel and then Turkey, where he will be joined by Gen Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria engagement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long lobbied Mr Trump not to hastily withdraw from Syria, reiterated the request to phase out a withdrawal in a meeting with Mr Pompeo in Brazil this week, according to an Israeli official.

The US “is acting against Iran at the economic level and we here in Israel are acting against Iran at the military level”, Mr Netanyahu said on Thursday during an address to Israeli army cadets, seeking to downplay any disagreement between his country and the US on the need to confront Iran.

While many Israelis cheered Trump’s decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, officials worry that by pulling out of Syria the US was giving up any leverage it had to shape the final outcome once the civil war finally comes to an end. Mr Trump’s comments earlier this week that Iran “can do what they want there, frankly” further fed Israeli concerns.

In Turkey, Mr Erdogan wants reassurance that the US intends to pressure its armed Kurdish allies to withdraw from Syrian cities including Manbij and, more broadly, from the Turkish border. Turkey also wants the US to collect American weapons supplied to the Kurds, who Turkish officials view as terrorists, although it is not clear whether Mr Bolton will make such a commitment.

One country not yet on either Mr Bolton or Mr Pompeo’s itinerary: Afghanistan. The government there was incensed by comments by Mr Trump on Wednesday appearing to call the US-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 US on Mr Trump’s comments.

Updated: January 4, 2019 06:32 PM

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