By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson toured the Middle East from February 12-16, meeting with his counterparts in Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Turkey. His goal was to shore up US support for a variety of allies and take part in an Iraq reconstruction conference aimed at stabilizing the Middle East after Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and Syria.
“We have always advocated for free and fair elections.”
Tillerson’s first stop was in Egypt where he met Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. Egypt had just announced a major offensive to root out ISIS in Sinai. Egypt is heading to a presidential election in March as well. Tillerson said the US would continue “close cooperation on counterterrorism measures.” He also said the US discussed the “importance of protection and promotion of human rights and the vital role of civil society in Egypt.” He claimed that the US supported a transparent electoral process and “citizens being given the right and the opportunity to participate freely and fairly.” Asked about the arrest and disqualification of some presidential candidates, Tillerson reiterated that “we have always advocated for free and fair elections.” His comments were a reminder that the US had cut aid to Egypt in the fall of 2017 citing human rights concerns. But besides talk it wasn’t clear if Tillerson’s comments went beyond words or what leverage the State Department has with the administration to suggest further action.
On February 13 Tillerson spoke at the Iraq Reconstruction Conference where Iraq was seeking to raise $88 billion to reconstruct after the ravages of ISIS. Tillerson claimed that 3.2 million internally displaced Iraqis had returned home and that Baghdad was reasserting control of its borders with Syria where ISIS is still active. He noted that as Iraq enters a important juncture after ISIS, with elections coming up in May, that the US supported a “united, democratic, federal and prosperous Iraq, and a stable and viable Iraqi Kurdistan region as part of the Iraqi state.” The nod to Kurdistan sought to shore up support for the autonomous region that has suffered sanctions from Baghdad since its independence referendum last fall.
Speaking to the 74-member global coalition to defeat ISIS he stressed US financial support for eastern Syria and claimed the US was “keenly aware of the legitimate security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally.” Turkey has threatened to attack Manbij, where US forces are based alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces, and Ankara had recently threatened to give the US and “Ottoman slap” if its policies didn’t change. Tillerson refused to address the specifics of the disagreement with Turkey. Turkey claims the US if working with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units which it views as a terrorist organization connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Moving from Turkish concerns to the wider war on ISIS, Tillerson noted that ISIS was attempting to stoke insurgencies in Afghanistan, the Philippines, Libya and West Africa.
In Kuwait, according to readouts from the US State Department of his speeches, also thanks the Kuwaitis for playing a key role in trying to resolve the dispute between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Since June 2017 Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt have cut relations with Qatar, accusing it of supporting terrorism and instability. Tillerson said the US “will continue to encourage a settlement and support Kuwait in our shared priorities and goals of restoring GCC unity.”
"Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria and allow the hope for peace process to take hold in Geneva."
Leaving Iraq for Kuwait, Tillerson seemed to have racked up several successes. In Amman he met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and signed a Memorandum of Understanding that provides for $1.275 billion in US bilateral foreign assistance a year to the kingdom. He spoke briefly about the important of peace and Jordan’s “tireless pursuit of such a peace.” Asked about the clashes between Israel and Syria on Saturday February 11, Tillerson claimed that he was concerned about the clashes and that “Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria and allow the hope for peace process to take hold in Geneva.” Oddly, Tillerson then praised the “important milestones achieved after the Sochi conference that was hosted by the Russians.” The Sochi conference hadn’t achieved a milestone and the US, which helped control a quarter of Syria, was not involved in the conference. It wasn’t clear what Tillerson was referring to.
In Lebanon Tillerson met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and with speaker of the parliament Nabih Berri and with President Michel Aoun on February 15. Tillerson carefully avoided mentioning Hezbollah, which is part of the Lebanese government but whose members the US has sanctioned as terrorists, during his comments. “We stand firmly with the Lebanese people and Lebanon’s legitimate state institutions,” the Secretary said. He also said the US was working to “ensure Lebanon’s southern border remains calm,” a reference to recent tensions with Israel. The visuals at the meeting with Aoun did not go well. Tillerson was kept waiting in front of cameras. Later the Lebanese claimed he had arrived early for the meeting.
The day after Tillerson’s meetings, Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah threatened to attack Israel oil rigs off the coast. “Lebanon must not allow the devils to persuade it to give up its unity in defending its natural resources. Hezbollah is the only force that can protect Lebanon’s natural resources.” Nasrallah’s comments were a clear challenge in the wake of Tillerson’s trip.
“We’re used to that kind of rhetoric”
In Turkey, Tillerson’s tour faced an even greater struggle. With numerous threats against the US in recent weeks, Tillerson sought to ignore tensions and reassure Ankara. “We’re used to that kind of rhetoric,” the State Department claimed, in the wake of the Ankara’s threats to “slap” the Americans. After long meetings with Turkish officials, Tillerson said the US “stands shoulder to shoulder with Turkey against terrorist threats” and said Ankara was a “critical partner in the global coalition to defeat ISIS.” Tillerson refused to discuss Turkish operations in Afrin deeply, but said Turkey had a right to secure its borders. “As to Afrin, we call upon Turkey to show restrain in its operation to minimize the casualties to civilians and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in that area.”
Given the harsh rhetoric against the US from Turkey, it appears Tillerson’s warm words generally sought to show support for Ankara as an ally. There was no pushback or condemnation of the rhetoric and threats that have come from the highest levels of government. This was similar to Tillerson’s refusal to even mention Hezbollah in Lebanon.
All in all the trip was a successful one from the State Department's point of view, but it put forward primarily rhetoric instead of any policy changes or willingness to discuss specifics in any of the core areas of US interests. That Tillerson did not confront challenges in Lebanon or Turkey leave many questions unanswered and could continue the collision course between US policy and interests.