CIA Director Mike Pompeo said that the defeat of the ISIS is America’s top priority at the moment, but the second name offered by the CIA director was Iran.
This came at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado where he was interviewed by New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, Breitbart reported on Saturday.
“Today you have Iran extending its boundary, extending its reach, now making an effort to cross the borders and link up from Iraq,” said Pompeo. “It’s a very dangerous threat to the United States. Just yesterday, one more time we learned that Iran is the world’s largest state sponsor of terror, and they now have a significant foothold in Syria.”
Pompeo segued from Iran to Russia, saying he hoped the U.S. could find
ways to work alongside the Russians in Syria, but “we really don’t have the
same set of interests there.”
“When the decision was made to allow the Russians to enter into Syria, now coming on four years ago, it fundamentally changed the landscape, and it’s certainly been worse for the Syrian people,” he said.
Pompeo restated that point more forcefully later, during his question-and-answer session with the audience, recalling an editorial he co-wrote in 2013 saying that President Barack Obama should have acted in Syria, but instead he invited the Russians to step in and address the chemical weapons issue.
“The previous president instead chose to invite the Russians in, and that was a major turning point. That’s not a political statement, it’s a factual observation. It was a major turning point in the capacity of America to influence events in Syria. And so today we find ourselves in the position where we’re working to develop partners and those who are willing to work alongside us to get an outcome that’s in the best interests of America,” he said.
Pompeo said America’s objective in Syria, beyond defeating ISIS, should be enhancing the stability of the Middle East, an objective shared by America’s partners in the region as well as European allies.
Interestingly, he was somewhat ambivalent about whether the Kurds can be counted as an American friend in Syria, arguing that it is not accurate to speak of them as a unified individual element because of their complex internal politics. “Suffice to say there are places where we are definitely working alongside them and which they’re going to help us achieve the outcome that America wants,” he said.
On the biggest Syrian question, Pompeo deferred questions about whether America will push for the end of Bashar Assad’s dictatorship to the State Department. He quoted Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s assessment that Assad is “not a stabilizing influence” and agreed it is “difficult to imagine a stable Syria that still has Assad in power.”
“He is a puppet of the Iranians. Therefore, it seems an unlikely situation where Assad will be sitting on the throne and America’s interests will be well-served,” Pompeo said.
He expressed concerns about Iran’s use of proxy forces like Hezbollah and Shiite militia groups in Syria, citing the threat posed by these forces the Gulf states. He noted other Iranian proxy forces have gained a disturbing foothold in Iraq as well.
“This administration is going to have the task of unwinding what we found when we came in,” he said. “We’re working diligently to get the right place there. I will tell you that some of the actions we have taken have let folks know that we are at least back working this problem in a way that wasn’t the case six months ago.”
Asked if there was any evidence Russia has pursued a serious strategy against the ISIS, instead of concentrating its fire on the more “moderate” opponents of the Assad regime, Pompeo bluntly answered, “No.”
Pompeo warned there are signs the terrorist organization is already mutating and spreading into other parts of the world to survive its inevitable defeat in Raqqa, naming Libya, the Sinai peninsula, and the hinterlands of Iraq and Syria as particular concerns.
“We broke the back of al-Qaeda. We crushed them. We didn’t do it just by taking out a handful of folks. We took down their entire network. That’s what we’re going to do again,” he promised.
He stressed that the ISIS remains dangerous even without its “caliphate” territory, but America is “infinitely better off” with that territory liberated because holding cities in Iraq and Syria helped ISIS build the infrastructure it uses for recruiting and terrorist attacks around the world.
Pompeo said that, although the State Department has certified continued Iranian compliance with the JCPOA (i.e. the Iran nuclear deal), the Trump administration remains committed to pushing back against Iran in many areas. A longtime skeptic of the nuclear deal, he humorously compared Iran’s technical compliance with the behavior of a poor tenant who complies with the rules just enough to avoid eviction.
“Grudging, minimalist, temporary, with no intention really of what the agreement is designed to do,” he said. “It was designed to foster stability and have Iran become a re-entrant to the Western world, and the agreement simply hasn’t achieved that.”
Pompeo said it was not easy to articulate what would achieve those goals but stressed that “continued appeasement, continued failure to acknowledge when they do things wrong” will never be the right strategy. He expressed confidence that the Trump administration could engineer a fundamental shift in the Iranian situation.