Tillerson’s Departure: Implications for Middle East Policy

President Donald Trump’s sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has important ramifications for US policy in the Middle East, and specifically toward the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Along with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Tillerson has held the official American line on neutrality regarding the conflict between GCC allies and on the importance of GCC unity for US interests. However, his work—and that of Secretary Mattis—which led to historic political and security agreements with Qatar during the last US-Qatar strategic dialogue, may be Tillerson’s greatest achievement in cementing American relations with the Gulf ally that hosts US CENTCOM’s forward headquarters and air base at al-Udeid near Doha.

While his mediation efforts in 2017 failed to resolve the current GCC crisis, Tillerson’s steadfast emphasis on keeping the United States on friendly terms with all states in the GCC was testimony to his adherence to American diplomatic tradition. His frequent criticism of the siege and blockade of Qatar soured his relations with leaders in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who are now likely to welcome his departure and hope to influence future US policy in a more anti-Qatar direction. Tillerson’s absence from upcoming meetings between President Trump and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is likely to influence the substance and outcome of the discussions.

Tillerson’s ouster is unlikely to have an impact on US policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since the White House, in the person of President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has monopolized the administration’s approach to it. In fact, Tillerson has merely commented as an observer on the administration’s purported plan for peace, the so-called “deal of the century.” What is known, however, is that he voiced opposition to two important White House decisions related to the conflict: President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the administration’s decision to cut in half its annual funding to UNRWA, the UN’s relief agency for Palestinian refugees. Tillerson considered those decisions detrimental to American interests in the Arab world and to the United States’ standing as broker of peace in the Middle East.

In Syria, Tillerson tried to hold the old position taken by the Obama Administration regarding the required political transition from the Assad regime according to the Geneva process of 2012. In a speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in January, he asserted that while the administration is dedicated to fighting the remnants of the so-called Islamic State in Syria, resolving Syria’s crisis has to include a transition from Assad’s authoritarian rule. Tillerson’s departure may thus allow the administration to change its position and move toward accepting the continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, along the lines of the Russian government’s plan for a post-civil-war Syria.

What is unlikely to change as a result of Tillerson’s departure is the American stance regarding Yemen, where a civil war is complicated by a Saudi-led military intervention that has exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country. US policy there is dominated by a counterterrorism policy against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic State, and support of the Saudi-led coalition’s operations such as intelligence sharing and aerial fueling. Proposed congressional action to halt such assistance is unlikely to find enough backing, especially that the administration considers its military support as helping to challenge Iran’s influence in Yemen.

On democracy promotion and respect for human rights around the world and in the Arab region, Tillerson toed the president’s line, asserting on many occasions that the United States is not in the business of nation-building and that it will work to safeguard American interests. This was obvious in his and the administration’s approach to relations with Egypt under the leadership of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. Tillerson and the White House viewed Sisi as a bulwark against extremism and ignored his record of human rights violations, crackdowns on press freedom and freedom of expression, incarceration of thousands of opposition members, and suppression of serious challenges to his candidacy in the upcoming presidential elections.