Pompeo ‘optimistic’ about Syria’s Kurds
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates — Washington’s top diplomat said on Saturday he was “optimistic” a way could be found to protect Syrian Kurds while allowing Turks to “defend their country from terrorists” following a US pullout from Syria.
“We are confident we can achieve an outcome that achieves both of those,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told journalists in Abu Dhabi, following a phone call with his Turkish counterpart.
The UAE is one of his stops in a regional tour aimed at reassuring allies after a shock December announcement by US President Donald Trump that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria.
Pompeo’s remarks follow tensions between the United States and Turkey over the fate of Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies in the fight against the Islamic State group.
Turkey had reacted angrily to suggestions that Trump’s plan to withdraw troops was conditional on the safety of the US-backed Kurdish fighters, seen by the Turkish government as terrorists.
US-led operations against IS in Syria have been spearheaded on the ground by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.
Ankara sees the backbone of that alliance, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (also known as YPG), as a terrorist group linked to the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (also known as PKK) which has fought a decadeslong insurgency against the Turkish state.
Pompeo said that Washington recognized “the Turkish people’s right and (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan’s right to defend their country from terrorists”.
But, he added, “we also know that those fighting alongside us for all this time deserve to be protected as well”. Pompeo said he had spoken to Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.
“Many details (are) still to be worked out but I’m optimistic that we can achieve a good outcome,” he said.
Trump’s announcement last month prompted the YPG to call on Syrian government troops to deploy alongside their own forces in the north to help counter a potential Turkish offensive.
A spokesman for the US military said on Friday it had begun “the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria”.
But US defense officials quickly sought to clarify that while gear was being pulled out, “we are not withdrawing troops at this stage”.
Syria’s conflict began in 2011 with anti-government demonstrations that were brutally crushed, sparking a complex war involving multiple foreign militias and jihadist groups, as well as regional and international powers including the US.
The withdrawal announcement has also sparked concerns among Arab states and Israel that it could open the door to growing Iranian influence.
Pompeo has pledged to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, and on Saturday sought to downplay the impact of the US pullout on this goal.
“The fact that a couple of thousands of uniformed personnel in Syria will be withdrawing is a tactical change,” he said.
“It doesn’t materially alter our capacity to continue to perform the military actions that we need to perform.”
On Sunday, Pompeo arrived Qatar and signed several agreements with Qatari officials.
He thanked Qatar for hosting US forces at Al-Udeid Air Base, home to the US military’s Central Command forward headquarters.
Qatar’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said his country’s relationship with the US “has enabled us to confront so many regional and international challenges”.
Washington is set to convene an international summit in Poland next month focusing on stability in the Middle East.