U.S. 'Is Willing' to Use Military Action Against Syria Again, Donald Trump's Top Diplomat, Mike Pompeo, Warns

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would be willing to use military action against the Syrian government again if necessary, despite President Donald Trump's desire to scale down involvement in the country.

During a speech at the American University of Cairo, Pompeo railed against Iran and the "fundamental misunderstandings" held by previous administrations in Washington. Rather than echoing Trump's criticisms of the "endless wars" waged by the U.S. across the Middle East, the top diplomat argued these interventions did not go far enough and, even as Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, the Pentagon's full force could be unleashed at any time in response to the use of chemical weapons.

"If we commit American prestige to an action, our allies depend on us to follow through," Pompeo said. "The Trump administration didn't stand idly by when Bashar Assad used chemical weapons against his people. President Trump unleashed the fury of the U.S. military not once, but twice, and with allied support. And he is willing to do it again, although we hope we won't have to."

"For those who fret about the use of American power, remember—America has always been a liberating force, not an occupying power, in the Middle East. We've never dreamed of domination. Can you say the same of the Iranian regime?" he added.

Guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey fires a Tomahawk land attack missile at Syria as part of an allied strike April 13, 2018. Though the U.S.-led coalition's mission was officially limited to defeating ISIS, the Pentagon and its allies have intervened in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government. Matthew Daniels/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Assad, an ally of Russia and Iran, came to power in 2000 after his the death of his father, Hafez, who supported the U.S.-led intervention against Iraqi during the Gulf War in 1990. After the U.S. pushed Saddam Hussein's forces out of Kuwait, the George W. Bush administration imposed no-fly zones against Iraq, and eventually invaded the country in 2003 on the pretense that it possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The ousting of Hussein and subsequent U.S. occupation of Iraq stirred a Sunni Muslim insurgency, first led by Al-Qaeda and later by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). In neighboring Syria, former President Barack Obama approved the covert funding of insurgents targeting Assad's government in the wake of a 2011 rebel and jihadi uprising, but by 2014 committed to leading an international coalition to bomb ISIS, which had taken over half of both Iraq and Syria.

Trump, an outspoken critic of Obama's policy of funding Syria's opposition, inherited this conflict in early 2017 and soon cut assistance to rebel groups. By this time, the U.S. had already teamed with a mostly Kurdish group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces. Meanwhile, a resurgent Syrian military was in the midst of a comeback campaign boosted by the Russian military and various pro-government militias, including Shiite Muslim forces backed by Iran.

Trump initially downplayed U.S. opposition to Assad, even suggesting a potential partnership with Russia, but in April 2017 ordered airstrikes against a Syrian airfield after the Syrian government was blamed for an alleged toxic gas attack. A year later, he joined France and the United Kingdom for a second round of strikes after another reported chemical assault. Despite escalating international tensions, the attacks were limited in scope. Only isolated skirmishes occurred between the pro-Syrian government and U.S.-backed campaigns against ISIS, which has been isolated to the country's far east.

With the militant threat mostly neutralized, officials in Washington focused on expanding the U.S. mission in Syria to include ousting Assad as well as forces suspected of being controlled by Iran, which has supported the Syrian and Iraqi governments against insurgents. Last month, special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey suggested measures, such as no-fly zones, that resembled the leadup to the 2003 Iraq War. But two weeks later, Trump suddenly announced that ISIS had been defeated and U.S. soldiers would be coming home, sparking new debates at home.

Syrians wave the Syrian, Iranian and Russian flags along with portraits of President Bashar al-Assad while riding in a car as they condemn U.S. airstrikes, Umayyad Square, Damascus. Uncertainty about the level of U.S. commitment, the Syrian Democratic Forces have reached out to Damascus and Moscow. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

At least four senior officials, including Defense Secretary James Mattis and top anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk, have resigned in the immediate aftermath of Trump's announcement. Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton both visited the Middle East in order to reassure allies, but have been denounced by fellow NATO Western military alliance member Turkey.

Trump's decision to exit Syria reportedly came after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkish leader has repeatedly condemned U.S. support for Kurdish groups he considered terrorist organizations, due to their links to banned separatist militants. When Pompeo and Bolton separately suggested that the anticipated U.S. withdrawal came with assurances Turkey would not attack these U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, Erdogan quickly shot them down and warned Thursday that he would order an attack if Trump did not pull soldiers out immediately.

Uncertainty about the level of U.S. commitment, the Syrian Democratic Forces have reached out to Damascus and Moscow, which recently began military patrols in former Kurdish-controlled positions near the northern city of Manbij. The Syrian government and Syrian Democratic Forces had been united in their opposition to Turkey, but the former has criticized U.S. backing for Kurds, as they considered the Pentagon's presence to be illegal by international law.

Despite ongoing U.S. opposition to Assad, Egypt and a number of other countries on Pompeo's tour have made overtures toward rebuilding diplomatic relations with the Syrian leader.