ANALYSIS: Tillerson’s ‘good cop’ Mideast tour

He called on Iran to withdraw from Syria and he stressed that the US supported Jordan’s role in the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson  (photo credit: REUTERS/ALEX BRANDON/POOL)
United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson toured the Middle East from Monday to Friday, 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 to take part in an Iraq reconstruction conference aimed at stabilizing the Middle East after Islamic State’s defeat in Iraq and Syria. Tillerson eschewed tough questions in favor of general statements about numerous crucial issues.
In Egypt, he said the US supports human rights and encourages the role of civil society. Although the US talked about free and fair elections, he refused to elaborate when pressed about the upcoming vote in March.
In Kuwait, Tillerson had too many things on his plate. He had to deal with the Iraq reconstruction conference where Baghdad was asking for $88 billion in financing to rebuild after ISIS. The Iranians sent a delegation but Baghdad’s funding is coming from Europe and Sunni Arab states. Quietly Iraq’s leadership, which is close to Iran, will funnel the money not just to Sunni Arab areas destroyed over the last three years, but also to Basra and other Shi’ite areas. Iraq has elections in May and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi wants support from his Shi’ite base.
Tillerson: US recognizes Turkey"s right to secure borders, February 16, 2018 (Reuters)
Tillerson didn’t have time except to praise these efforts while also speaking to the global coalition against ISIS, the 74-member coalition that is looking for a new mission as ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria. The US secretary of state spoke in general terms about supporting eastern Syria, where US forces are, and a viable Kurdistan autonomous region as part of a federal Iraq. Pressed about Turkish threats against US partners in Syria, Tillerson said Turkey is a “NATO ally” and partner against ISIS. He said the Afrin operation in Syria, where Turkey is fighting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which Ankara calls terrorists, is of concern to the US, but didn’t press Turkey to end it.
Tillerson also paid more lip service to ending the dispute between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but as with the statements to the coalition and the donors conference, his tight schedule didn’t allow for much more on this front.
In Jordan, Tillerson arrived in Amman after the Israeli clashes with Syria last weekend. He called on Iran to withdraw from Syria and he stressed that the US supported Jordan’s role in the Israel-Palestinian peace process. His main reason for being in Amman was to shore up financial support for the kingdom, which is hosting millions of refugees.
With Egypt, Kuwait and Jordan under his belt, the American statesman traveled to Lebanon. Here the visit began to fall apart. He was kept waiting by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Although Lebanon claimed it was not a slight and Tillerson has simply arrived early, the optics made it look like Beirut was showing it could push around the Americans.
Instead of pushing back on issues such as Hezbollah, Tillerson simply said the US would support Lebanon’s “institutions” and work to resolve tensions between Jerusalem and Beirut.
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.
IN TURKEY, Tillerson’s tour faced an even greater struggle. With numerous Turkish politicians making 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 counterparties, Tillerson said the US “stands shoulder to shoulder with Turkey against terrorist threats,” and that Ankara was a “critical partner in the global coalition to defeat ISIS.” Tillerson refused to discuss Turkish operations in Afrin in depth, but said Turkey had a right to secure its borders. “As to Afrin, we call upon Turkey to show restraint in its operation to minimize the casualties to civilians and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in that area.”
The statements didn’t seem to be rooted in reality. The rhetoric in Turkey against the US has reached fever pitch, with accusations at the presidential level that the US is training a “terror army” in Syria. To just talk about Turkey as an “ally” ignored the genuine crisis. In Egypt, Tillerson at least mentioned human rights, in Turkey, where there are numerous violations committed against journalists and dissidents, he fell silent. Just like refusing to discuss Hezbollah in Lebanon, he sought to ignore the elephant in the room.
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 well-meaning but it continues the tradition in which the State Department plays the “good cop” while other parts of the US government conduct a different policy. Countries notice the lack of message discipline in Washington and exploit it. For instance, Tillerson claimed during his trip that “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 helps control a quarter of Syria, was not involved in the conference. It wasn’t clear what Tillerson was referring to.
Tillerson can bask in the legacy of what appears to have been a successful trip to the region. However, what was said on paper doesn’t mesh with reality. The US hasn’t learned that simply saying “ally” and “institutions” and “milestone” doesn’t will these words into reality.
This is because Washington continues to see diplomacy as its own world that exists for its own sake, as opposed to being part of a larger consistent policy that meshes with the executive branch’s and the Pentagon’s actions in the region. Tillerson’s meetings in Lebanon and Turkey likely did not change the challenges the US faces in dealing with Hezbollah and the crisis with Turkey in Syria.