* This story has been updated to clarify that the US is not currently planning to facilitate Arab forces entering in Syria
US officials dismissed criticism following the news of their hasty withdrawal from Syria, saying on Friday that there “is no timeline” for the pull-out and that it will be a “deliberate, co-ordinated” process that will not leave behind a vacuum in the war-ravaged country.
Four US officials briefed reporters on Friday about US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's tour of the region from January 8 to 15. The officials, who did not wish to be identified, said Washington was considering "a variety of options” in Syria but that there were no plans at the moment to facilitate Arab forces going into the country.
Mr Pompeo is set to visit all six Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Kuwait) as well as Egypt and Jordan. The US is seeking to group these same countries (GCC+2) under an umbrella organisation dubbed Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA) in 2019. A brief visit to Iraq is also scheduled for January 11.
US officials stressed that the US “is not leaving the Middle East.” While its military presence in Syria (2000 troops) is "not indefinite”, there is no fixed deadline. “We have no timeline to withdraw from Syria,” one official said. “We don’t intend to have indefinite presence in Syria…but we don’t want to create vacuum,” he added.
These comments are at odds with those issued by US President Donald Trump last month, where he vowed to pull out in 30 days. The US President retracted this week, telling reporters that the process would be “slow and co-ordinated”.
Asked about the possibility of dispatching Arab troops to Syria and whether this matter would be discussed by Mr Pompeo on his trip, one official said: "We’re exploring a variety of options – I won’t go into details on those – but we don’t have any plans right now to facilitate Arab forces going into Syria." Arab media have reported that the deployment of Egyptian or Moroccan troops is one of the possibilities currently on the table.
The departure of US troops from Syria, however, does not seem to be imminent. Officials said the US intends to remain in the country until the battle against ISIS is won and the group is fully uprooted.
US officials also insisted that countering Iran will remain a primary objective of the US’ policy in the Middle East even after it pulls out its troops from Syria.
“The Iranian regime is the greatest threat and most dangerous actor in the region” one official said.
Mr Pompeo will discuss Jordan’s security and stability while in Amman, before travelling to Cairo “where he will meet with Egyptian leaders to discuss critical regional issues, including Iran, Gaza, and counterterrorism, as well as economic and energy cooperation.” “The Secretary will [also] deliver a speech on the United States’ commitment to peace, prosperity, stability, and security in the Middle East.”
One official stressed the unique nature of the trip, which includes a stop in all GCC countries. He said the US is still seeking to host the MESA summit in the first quarter of 2019. The Trump administration rescheduled the summit at least twice due to the White House’s schedule as well as delays in agreeing the MESA concept and mechanism.
In the UAE, Mr Pompeo will “discuss regional and bilateral issues, including ways to further expand ties in areas such as trade and investment…the need for all parties to adhere to the agreements made at the Yemen talks in Sweden, particularly the cease-fire and redeployment of forces in Hudaydah, in support of the efforts of the UN Special Envoy for Yemen” the statement said.
The war in Yemen will also be on the agenda in Saudi Arabia, where Mr Pompeo is expected to meet the new Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al Assaf and the Saudi leadership. “The Secretary and Saudi leaders will discuss ways to continue bolstering UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths as he works toward a comprehensive political agreement among parties to end the conflict and realise a brighter future for Yemen” the statement read.
The investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi will also be on the agenda in Riyadh, the US official said. From the US viewpoint, he noted that “the Saudi narrative or legal process has yet to hit the threshold of credibility [and] accountability.”
Strategic dialogue and GCC unity will be discussed during Mr Pompeo’s stops in Oman, Kuwait and Qatar. “The Secretary and Omani leaders will discuss the Middle East Strategic Alliance and the importance of a united GCC in advancing the peace, prosperity, and security of the region” the statement said.
The State Department also announced on Friday that current Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, will add to his portfolio the position of the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. The last envoy Brett McGurk resigned on December 22 in protest of Mr Trump's withdrawal announcement.