Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1426, (17 - 23 January 2019)

Ahram Weekly

A soft disengagement

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech in Cairo last week came as no surprise to those who have been following the ups and downs of American policies in the Middle East, writes Hussein Haridy

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid his first visit to Egypt in his capacity as secretary of state on 10 January as part of a tour of the Middle East that included eight Arab countries in addition to a surprise visit to Iraq. In addition to Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab countries that have signed peace agreements with Israel, he toured all the member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Never before has an American secretary of state visited that number of Arab countries in one regional tour. 

The tour came against a background of uncertainty and ambiguity as to the future US strategy in Syria after US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of American troops from Syria last December. There was a subsequent telephone call with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which the two men agreed that Turkey would fight the militants of the Islamic State (IS) group that still remained in Syria. It is strange that the American president took this promise for granted. 

During his visit to Cairo, Pompeo addressed students at the American University in Cairo and through them allies and partners of the United States in the region. The speech, intended to be a defining one like that former president Barack Obama delivered in Cairo ten years ago in June 2009, was entitled “A Force for Good: America Reinvigorated in the Middle East.” Although the theme was quite ambitious, the remarks were not a surprise to those who have been following the ups and downs of American policies in the Middle East. These have always assumed the role of something like the 19th-century idea of US “manifest destiny.”

From the speech that former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice gave before the students of the same university in 2005 passing through the Obama speech of 2009 and the Pompeo remarks last week, the tone has never changed. The Middle East has needed fixing of sorts, and the remedies are to be found in Washington, whether under Democratic or Republican Party administrations. It goes without saying that Israel is excepted from this American conceptualisation of the Middle East.

Putting aside the attack against the position taken by Obama in Cairo in 2009, Pompeo stressed in his speech that the US withdrawal from Syria did not mean that the mission was over. He made it clear that the United States “will not retreat until the terror fight is over” and that America “will labour tirelessly alongside you to defeat IS [Islamic State], Al-Qaeda and other jihadists that threaten our security and yours.” He said that Washington remained committed “to the complete dismantling of IS – the IS threat – and the ongoing fight against radical Islamism in all its forms.”

The other enemy in the new American approach to the region is Iran, which comes as no surprise. Pompeo expressed the conviction that the countries in the Middle East “will never enjoy security, achieve economic stability or advance the dreams of their people if Iran’s revolutionary regime persists on its current course.”

Making no secret of the administration’s plan to forge a regional alliance of America’s allies and partners, Pompeo said that Washington was working “to establish the Middle East Strategic Alliance,” MESA as an acronym, in order to face the “region’s most serious threat and bolster energy and economic cooperation”. He said that American efforts in this respect were bringing together the GCC countries and Egypt and Jordan. The United States had asked them to take the “next step and help [America] solidify MESA,” he said.

In his remarks, Pompeo also referred to a certain opening between Israel and some Arab countries, calling it necessary for “greater security in the face of our shared threats, and hint[ing] at a much brighter future for the region.”

Speaking of Israel, he said that it had the absolute right to defend itself and that the United States would stand by its side. It is interesting to note that Ambassador John Bolton, the national security adviser in the White House, tweeted, while visiting Israel on 7 January, that the alliance between the United States and Israel was unbreakable “and under this administration our ties grow ever stronger by the day. United States support for Israel’s right to self-defence is unwavering.”

It seems that senior American officials have long forgotten that the Jewish state is an occupying power that has never answered to international law or to United Nations resolutions related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It has never showed any compassion for the two million Palestinians who have been living under Israeli siege for the last 12 years.

It would not be much to ask the Arab officials who confer with Pompeo or Bolton to remind them of the humanitarian plight of these human beings who have every right to live like any Israeli citizen in security and peace, if not because of international law or out of respect for the Geneva Conventions, then at least out of sheer human decency.

While the US secretary of state was touring the nine Arab countries, the state department had a strange surprise up its sleeve, at least from the perspective of the Arab countries. On 10 January, it released a “Joint Statement on the Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East.” The surprise lay in the fact that the American and Polish governments had invited participants from all over the globe to take part in this Ministerial (meeting) to take place in Warsaw on 13-14 February. 

According to the joint statement, the meeting will be a forum in which participants will address a range of critical issues, including terrorism and extremism, missile development and proliferation, maritime trade and security and threats posed by proxy groups across the region. I cannot but sense that Israel is behind this meeting. And I cannot help but ask whether it was discussed with the Arab countries beforehand, or whether they are just going to be among the guests at the meeting.

The American withdrawal from Syria is a piece in a larger puzzle. It would not be a bad idea for the Arab countries to come up with a unified position on their own vision for the future security and stability of the Levant and the Gulf, instead of leaving this to other powers. As a reminder to the Arabs, the New York Times published an opinion piece signed by Erdogan on 7 January, who wrote that following the American withdrawal from Syria Turkey would include all fighters with no links to terrorist organisations in a “new stabilisation force” in the country.

He added that under Turkey’s watch, the Syrian territories that are under the control of the YPG (the Kurdish People’s Protection Units militia) or the so-called Islamic State will be governed by popularly elected councils that will be advised by Turkish officials with relevant experience in municipal affairs, education, healthcare and emergency services.

I hope the Arab countries will have an adequate answer to this blatant Turkish meddling in Syria. And I wonder if the American administration finds this Turkish blueprint acceptable?

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

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