TEHRAN, Young Journalists Club (YJC) - Speaking Saturday in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi as part of an anti-Iran regional lobbying tour, Pompeo insisted that the US troop withdrawal bid from Syria was a “tactical change” and that the American mission to counter Iranian influence there remained the same.
The top US diplomat had earlier vowed in a speech in the Egyptian capital Cairo that the US would “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, where American troops have reportedly begun a force withdrawal as US military presence in the region has been expanded to purportedly support the pull-out process.
“It’s an ambitious objective, but it is ours, and it is our mission,” Pompeo admitted in his Thursday remarks at the American University in Cairo, further vowing that “our airstrikes in the region will continue as targets arise."
Pointing to persisting disagreements between the US and Turkey over the American backing of Syria-based Kurdish terrorists, Pompeo claimed: “We recognize the Turkish people’s right to defend their country from terrorists, but we also know that those ... who are not terrorists and fighting alongside us for all this time deserve to be protected.”
“There are many details to be worked out but I am optimistic we can achieve a good outcome,” he further added during a Saturday press briefing while ties between the two NATO allies have been deteriorating over the US backing of Kurdish YPG militants, who Turkey regards as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Pompeo also unveiled that Washington’s envoy for Syria, Jim Jeffrey, had traveled to northeast Syria this week and would soon visit Ankara for talks on a variety of issues, including the UN-led political process to end the foreign-backed conflict in Syria, hinting that talks between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds could be part of a wider political solution.
'Precautionary' US military buildup in region
The development came as US press reports said the American troop withdrawal from Syria had begun amid what they described as “a precautionary buildup of US forces in the region” amid renewed threats from Turkey about waging an offensive against Washington-backed, mostly Kurdish militants labeled as Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
According to a report by the US-based military.com news outlet, The Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), carrying nearly 2,000 US Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), has been deployed in the Mediterranean “to guard against any threats to the withdrawal.”
It further noted that the ARG -- which includes the 22nd MEU, the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge, the amphibious transport dock Arlington and the dock landing ship Fort McHenry -- entered the 6th Fleet's area of operations, including the Mediterranean, last month.
"Teaming with the Kearsarge ARG, we look forward to training with allied and partner military forces while also providing versatile, amphibious response options to our combatant commanders as we face myriad global challenges," said the 22nd MEU Commander Colonel Michael Perez in a statement as quoted in the report.
Additionally, the report added, US warplanes from aircraft carrier USS Stennis -- currently deployed in the Persian Gulf -- were flying missions over Syria and Iraq.
"Out of concern for operational security, we will not discuss specific timelines, locations or troop movements," he added.
An AP report citing an unnamed American defense official, also pointed out that the pullout thus far has involved only equipment and not the estimated 2,000 US troops currently stationed in Syria.
The beginning of the US withdrawal followed a Tuesday meeting in Ankara between the US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford and his Turkish counterpart General Yasar Guler as well as Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
A readout of the meeting from the Joint Staff said that Dunford, Guler and Akar "discussed the security situation in Syria, the completion of the Manbij roadmap [on security cooperation], and the deliberate, coordinated effort to withdraw US ground forces from Syria."
"We have no problems with our Kurdish brothers, Arab brothers in Syria, Turkmens and other ethnic and religious groups. Our only targets are terrorists, Daesh (ISIL) and PKK/YPG," Akar reportedly said after the meeting.
Turkey threatens offensive if US delays pull-out
Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu threatened earlier in the week that Ankara would carry out the long-planned offensive against the YPG, regardless of the US withdrawal pace.
This is while the UK-based so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which claims to use a network of frontline activists to monitor the Syrian conflict, reported that nearly 10 US armored vehicles and several trucks pulled out of the northeastern Syria town of Rmelan on Thursday night and crossed into Iraq.
Spokesman for the US regional command -- Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve -- Colonel Sean Ryan, announced on Friday that the US had begun "the process of our deliberate withdrawal from Syria."