Geopolitics

Analysing Mike Pompeo’s Seven-Day Middle East Visit

United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a whirlwind, week-long diplomatic tour of seven Middle Eastern countries to offer reassurances to the region after President Donald Trump announced a withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

Pompeo visited Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman in that order.

Unsurprisingly, Pompeo covered more than just Syria and America’s sudden foreign policy shift, and he took on a broad range of issues.  In this article, we will analyse the most important topics discussed and what potential ramifications they have on regional diplomacy.


Syria and the Islamic State

First, Pompeo had to manoeuvre around President Trump’s Syria withdrawal announcement and the President’s praise to American troops in Iraq for the “near elimination of the ISIS territorial caliphate in Iraq and in Syria.”

At his first stop in Jordan, Pompeo said, “the most significant threats to the region are Daesh and the Islamic revolution.” 

But, several days after Pompeo returned to the United States, Vice President Mike Pence remarked, “the caliphate has crumbled, and ISIS has been defeated.”

Pompeo faced an uphill battle in clarifying Trump’s statements and positions, and the mixed messaging diminishes the word of the Secretary of State.  Pompeo’s mission was to assuage Middle East allies and convince them that the United States will scale back their presence in Syria slower than first anticipated.

However, the sudden nature of Trump’s withdrawal announcement and Pompeo’s subsequent tour will do little to change the reality that the region will have to make preparations for a multitude of potential and abrupt policy changes from the United States.

Iran

Pompeo did make one issue loud and clear during his diplomatic visits: Iran is a shared enemy of America and its Middle Eastern allies.  Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton have both previously advocated for regime change in Iran, and they represent America’s newly reinvigorated hawkish approach to the Shia state.

Amongst other political uncertainties and America’s new approach to Syria, the heads of state on Pompeo’s tour likely were happy to hear consistent and strong messaging on Iran.

In Cairo, Pompeo had particularly strong words for Iran as he said the United States and its allies will “expel every last Iranian boot from Syria.”

This was an attempt to offer some reassurance on the United States’ commitment to Syria, but it also made clear that Pompeo and the White House will continue to focus on the perceived threat from Iran.  The White House’s vendetta against Iran comes as no surprise considering President Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the reintroduction of harsh sanctions against Iran.

Qatari Blockade and Saudi Arabia

Pompeo also used the Iran talking point to pivot toward Qatar’s conflict with its neighbours.  The Qatari state is currently locked in a diplomatic battle with and being blockaded by a Saudi-led coalition who accuses Qatar of collaborating with Iran.

In the Qatari capital, the Secretary of State put a case forward for working in a united front against the threat from Iran.  Pompeo argued that the blockade on Qatar aided Iran, but the United States has been an unsuccessful mediator between Qatar and the Saudi-led coalition.

In Pompeo’s visit to Saudi Arabia, he spoke with Saudi crown prince Mohammed Bin Salman for nearly an hour.  Pompeo said he spoke with MBS about the wars in Yemen and Syria, the Qatari blockade, and the Jamal Khashoggi case.

Similar to previous Trump foreign policy with the Saudis, Pompeo emphasised the relationship between the two states before launching into any criticism of the Saudi state for its actions.  Saudi Arabia remains an important ally to the Trump White House on their shared goal of containing Iran, and this agreement seems to take importance over other issues.

Pompeo and the State Department have not been able to effectively convince the Saudis to end their blockade with Qatar.  But based on the talking points of Pompeo’s visit, ending the blockade will be a continued desire of the White House in its attempts to further damage Iran.

Pompeo also reiterated that there has been no change in the White House’s stance on the Khashoggi case despite the United States Congress adopting a more hard line view.


Conclusions

Overall, Pompeo’s Middle East trip was an attempt to steady tumultuous relationships and provide reassurances to allies.

In terms of the American withdrawal of troops from Syria, Pompeo’s visit did little to offer any concrete reassurances on the White House’s opinion on the matter of Syria and the Islamic State.  Conflicting statements from the White House and the State Department leaves America’s Middle Eastern allies in a similarly confused position as many analysts.  In this respect, preparing for multiple, uncertain scenarios is a wise and necessary move.

One clear takeaway is that the Trump White House wants to continue to work with Saudi Arabia and other regional partners to control Iran.  This is not a new foreign policy position for the United States, however, President’s Trump’s fervour in containing Iran seems to extend further than many previous presidents.

The Qatari blockade is no closer to being lifted, but the United States does seem keen to restore economic certainty to Qatar.  However, Pompeo reiterated the importance of the Saudi-American ‘friendship’, so Saudi Arabia still takes precedence over Qatar.