Regional developments and protocol mishaps managed to overtake US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first expanded high-level trip to the Middle East earlier in February. In Lebanon, he was made to wait for President Michel Aoun to greet him, in a break from standard diplomatic practice. In Turkey, he broke protocol by meeting all by himself with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for over three hours, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoğlu acting as translator. Most importantly, Israel and Turkey, directly or indirectly, upstaged Tillerson’s trip as US foreign policy faces fresh challenges in the Middle East that are increasingly difficult to control.
Israel and Turkey Challenge Tillerson’s Agenda
From February 11 to 16, as Tillerson was crisscrossing the Middle East, new regional challenges began to emerge. The original purpose of his trip was to plan for the day after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS), while regional powers remain focused on controlling the areas liberated from IS. Two US allies, Israel and Turkey, played a crucial role in disrupting the focus of Tillerson’s agenda.
On February 12, the White House had to deny claims made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he had been in discussion with Washington to plan the annexation of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. A White House spokesperson affirmed this in clear language: “The United States and Israel have never discussed such a proposal, and the president’s focus remains squarely on his Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.” Meanwhile, Tillerson came under pressure by Israeli media for not making a stop in Israel. A State Department official explained that Tillerson regularly meets with Israeli officials and advised not to “reach any conclusions” about Tillerson skipping Israel in his tour. The fact is, however, that the White House is leading most of the communications with Israel, most notably on the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative that is under review by President Donald Trump’s administration. During a press conference in Amman, Tillerson gave the impression of not being directly involved in this process when he said, “I have seen the (administration’s peace) plan … It’s been under development for a number of months. I have consulted with them on the plan, identified areas that we feel need further work. I will say it’s fairly well advanced.”
On Syria, Israel has also been leading an aggressive approach against Iran and focusing its consultations mostly with Moscow. On February 10, an Israeli F-16 was shot down after violating Syrian airspace, which exacerbated Iranian-Israeli tensions in the already crowded Syrian conflict. Tillerson called Netanyahu on the same day. However, Netanyahu’s most important call after the incident was to Russian President Vladimir Putin. While the United States reemphasized Israel’s right to defend itself, the White House’s message was that Iran and its allies should “cease provocative actions and work toward regional peace.” Meanwhile, on February 7 the United States launched an airstrike on a pro-Syrian regime convoy in Deir Ezzor, which reportedly killed 80 to 100 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm. All these events managed to overshadow the US strategy in Syria that Tillerson announced in mid-January.
On January 31, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman considered Lebanon’s exploration of the disputed oil and gas block 9 as “provocative,” which prompted both sides to exchange threats. Subsequently, Tillerson had to add a last-minute stop in Beirut on February 15, the first visit to Lebanon of a US Secretary of State in four years. For weeks, Acting Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield had been leading US efforts to tone down Israeli rhetoric and mediate between Lebanon and Israel on demarcating the disputed maritime border. Secretary Tillerson also came under fire for a statement he made in Amman about acknowledging the reality that Hezbollah is “part of the political process in Lebanon.” During his joint press briefing in Beirut with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Tillerson set the record straight and reaffirmed that Washington considers Hezbollah “a terrorist organization” and that it is “unacceptable for a militia like Hizballah to operate outside the authority of the Lebanese Government.”
It was not only Israel that was challenging the US attempt to reactivate its diplomacy in the Middle East. On January 19, Turkey announced a military operation against Kurdish forces in Afrin and began gradually threatening that its forces might also take the battle to the Kurds in Manbij to the east, where US forces are based. This Turkish move tested the United States’ commitment to its Kurdish partners in Syria, mostly to those located west of the Euphrates River. While Tillerson showed sympathy to Turkey’s security concerns, no breakthrough was reached during his visit to Ankara. The United States is still trying to find a way to work through its relations with Turkey while continuing its support for Kurdish forces in Syria.
Standing next to Tillerson in Ankara, Turkish foreign minister Cavusoğlu noted that the two countries’ bilateral relations have reached “a critical turning point” and talked about “promises that were not kept” by the American side. However, Tillerson struck a more positive tone, asserting that both Washington and Ankara “share the same objectives in Syria: the defeat of ISIS, Daesh; secure and stable zones; an independent and unified Syria; and help chart a new democratic future for Syria….” Tillerson did not offer an effective way forward on how to deal with the situation in either Afrin or Manbij. Cavusoğlu noted that, “If Manbij is 95 percent Arab, it actually does not make any sense that YPG is going to provide security there….” There was a plan floated in Ankara that US-Turkish forces could deploy in Manbij, but there has been no response from Washington yet. Soon after Tillerson left Ankara, the Syrian regime went into Afrin in a deal with the Kurdish forces that seemed to be endorsed by Moscow.
The challenges back at home were not less difficult. While Tillerson was traveling, the White House proposed a one-third cut in the 2019 State Department budget on February 12. While this proposed budget is unlikely to be passed as it is by the US Congress, it reflects once again the White House’s attitude toward the State Department. There were also reports that seven of the nine leadership positions at the State Department remain vacant, which also raised questions about Tillerson’s ability to handle multiple international crises. In an interview with CBS News on February 18, Tillerson had to defend why 41 US embassies around the world are without confirmed ambassadors, assuring that there is no “dismantling at all of the State Department.”
What Did Tillerson Achieve on This Trip?
The US message that Tillerson carried on this trip to all parties concerned, regarding the need to keep the focus on the “enduring defeat of ISIS,” fell on deaf ears. The State Department argued that the ultimate defeat of IS would boost the achievement of other priorities in Syria like stabilization, political transition, and checking Iran’s behavior. Tillerson stayed on message regarding the priority to fight terrorism. In Kuwait, he described the divisions of the Gulf Cooperation Council as “counterproductive to security for the region.” In Cairo, Tillerson made no explicit statement that future US aid would be contingent on progress toward free and fair presidential elections next month, as the White House continues to support Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and the military campaign he is launching in the Sinai. The highlights of the overall trip, however, might have been the strengthening of US relations with Iraq and Jordan.
At the Kuwait Reconstruction Conference for Iraq on February 13, Washington hoped to prop up Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ahead of the parliamentary elections next May and to see a greater engagement from Iraq’s Arab neighbors in terms of financial pledges and political support. Since 2014, the United States has contributed more than $2.2 billion to Iraq in economic and security assistance as well as a $2.7 billion Foreign Military Financing loan in June 2016 to support Iraq’s security forces. It is yet to be seen how this US assistance can help Abadi in the coming weeks and months.
In Jordan, Tillerson followed up on Vice President Mike Pence’s visit and signed a new five-year memorandum of understanding to smooth things over with Amman. In December, Trump had threatened to cut aid to all countries, including Jordan, that voted in favor of a United Nations resolution demanding that the United States withdraw its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The United States pledged in the new aid package to provide no less than $1.275 billion to Jordan per year. While Jordan has recently repaired its relations with both the United States and Israel, it is yet to be seen whether the White House can advance a credible peace process between Palestinians and Israelis that could appease Amman’s concerns on this issue.
US mediation between Lebanon and Israel was also at a critical juncture. The Syrian regime and Hezbollah are feeling empowered after the downing of an Israeli F-16. In addition, any concessions on the contested oil and gas field in Lebanese waters ahead of the parliamentary elections next May might be problematic for the Shia alliance in Lebanon. On the Israeli side, the dispute is a low-cost Israeli veto imposed on Lebanese waters that could, however, escalate and complicate the exploration process across the Mediterranean. There have been no indications that Tillerson made any breakthrough on this issue during his five-hour stop in Beirut.
It is hard to assess what Tillerson’s Middle East tour has achieved amid regional turmoil. The United States continues to lack a clear strategy in the Syrian conflict, in dealing with Iran’s nuclear deal, and in the Palestinian-Israeli peace initiative. Kurds in Syria feel left out by their US partners while Ankara remains defiant against Washington despite US attempts to reach common ground. Iran also continues to expand its influence across the Levant and there are no signs that a breakthrough is possible in Yemen in the foreseeable future. The Arab allies of the United States are also in disarray, unable to take the lead in addressing regional conflict or in deterring Iran, as they are mostly focused on their own domestic challenges.
There is not much that Tillerson could have accomplished in this chaotic landscape. Most importantly, he came to the Middle East without a mandate to convey a clearly articulated US policy that could rally allies and deter foes. US allies, like Israel and Turkey, forced their agenda on Tillerson, who was unable to stay on message as he went from one Middle Eastern capital to the next. Hence, one cannot argue that Washington has reinvigorated its diplomatic engagement following this Middle East tour, and that is more of a problem for the White House than for Tillerson.