Tillerson's Mideast tour: messenger without a message

If President Donald Trump was out to punish his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he's found just the thing....

Posted: Feb 15, 2018 12:55 PM
Updated: Feb 15, 2018 12:55 PM

If President Donald Trump was out to punish his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he's found just the thing.

Tillerson is currently on a tour of a Middle East more divided, more deadly, more dangerous than it has been in decades. Wars are raging in Syria, in Yemen, in Libya, in Egypt, and the potential for a mind-boggling array of other wars -- small, medium and large, regional and global, looms darkly on the horizon. All this at a time when the US, up to its neck in the minutiae of it all, is losing its grip.

The job of trying to sort all this out has fallen to an oil executive with no diplomatic experience leading a State Department hemorrhaging experienced staff, and to the president's 37-year-old son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a political neophyte well-versed in the murky world of Manhattan real estate, and not much else.

Tillerson's swing through the region takes him to Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. And if there was any doubt about shrinking American influence in the region, this whirlwind tour is making it abundantly clear.

Egypt

His first stop, Egypt, underscored the questionable fruits of the budding bromance between Field Marshall-turned-President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi and President Trump. Tillerson's host won a presidential election with a dubious 97% of the vote in 2014, and will shortly run again in another election in which he has detained or intimidated all meaningful challengers. Tillerson mumbled a few words about free and fair elections while in Cairo, but was quick to endorse Egypt's latest offensive against Islamist insurgents in the Sinai and the Western Desert.

At a time when press freedom and civil liberties are in dramatic retreat in Egypt, he made it clear that the Trump administration's priority is the almost 18-year-old and seemingly endless war on terrorism.

Kuwait

Next, Kuwait, where he attended a regional summit on the reconstruction of Iraq after the defeat of ISIS. Baghdad estimates reconstruction will cost $88 billion. Participants managed to raise more than $30 billion in pledges.

The US, to coin a phrase from the Obama administration, will be leading from the rear, coughing up a $3 billion line of credit.

Tillerson took the opportunity to weigh in on the continuing spat between Qatar on the one hand and a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia on the other. The Saudi-led bloc accuses Qatar of supporting terrorism and spreading subversion in the region, and last summer imposed an embargo on the country. Iran and Turkey quickly sided with the Qataris, while the US sent a barrage of mixed signals, with President Trump tweeting that the Qataris were funding terror, while the US maintains, and plans to expand, its airbase just outside the capital Doha, the largest US military facility in the Arab world. Last summer Tillerson tried, and failed, to mediate the dispute. His chances of success this time around aren't any better.

Jordan

Then the secretary flies to Amman, Jordan, where he meets with King Abdullah II, still unhappy over President Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital. Tillerson, who reportedly opposed the move, will just have to suck it up. The Israel-Palestine file is in Kushner's unsteady hands.

Jordan has long been a faithful ally of the United States, but it's an alliance that now comes with a high political cost, especially among the majority of Jordanians who trace their roots back to historic Palestine. In the days that followed the Jerusalem declaration, the Jordanian authorities allowed large and noisy protests in the hopes that Washington might hear, but no one listened.

As for the Palestinians, they've made it clear, at least to officials in Ramallah, that they've largely given up on the US playing the role of honest broker. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Moscow Monday in the hopes that President Vladimir Putin might step in to fill the vacuum left by an American administration seen as the most pro-Israeli in history.

Lebanon

Tillerson will then make the brief flight to Beirut Thursday. As part of the Trump administration's attempt to counter Iran's growing influence in the Middle East, he is expected to urge Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to distance himself from Hezbollah, Iran's main Lebanese ally. But Hezbollah is part of Hariri's coalition government. It played a critical role in crushing ISIS pockets in Lebanon side-by-side with the US-supported Lebanese army. And like it or not, Hezbollah is credited by many Lebanese across the political and sectarian spectrum with making sure ISIS never gained a foothold here. Pushing Hezbollah out of Lebanon's sensitive political equations threatens the kind of instability most Lebanese would rather do without.

A personal anecdote: The other night I sat in a West Beirut bar with a mixed group of Christians and Muslims. "What do you think of Nasrallah?" a Christian woman asked me, referring to Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah. "I love him!" she exclaimed before I could answer, raising her glass of whiskey in salute.

"He's the designated driver of Lebanese politics," chimed in another at the table.

Nasrallah's role in calming the choppy waters of Lebanese politics was highlighted last November when Hariri suddenly resigned under what many believe was pressure from Saudi Arabia, angry over the role of Hezbollah in Hariri's government and their belief that Iran, through Hezbollah, was manipulating Lebanese politics. Nasrallah made a series of television addresses during the tense days after the Hariri resignation, calling for calm. Many in Lebanon credit Nasrallah's stance with preventing a profound schism in Lebanon, perhaps even heading off the outbreak of violence.

Lebanon is a complicated place. Does Tillerson, or his boss, understand that?

Turkey

His final destination, and certainly his most difficult, is Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is livid over American support for Kurdish fighters in the war against ISIS in Syria. Turkey sees the Kurds there as an offshoot of the Kurdish Workers' Party, the PKK, which has waged a separatist war against the Turkish state since 1984.

Turkey launched an offensive against those Kurdish fighters, many armed and trained by the United States, on January 20 around Afrin, a Kurdish area in Syria along the border with Turkey. The US and Turkey are both members of NATO, but their alliance is in tatters -- indeed, close to its last gasp.

"Ties with the US are at a very critical point," said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu Monday. "We will either fix these relations, or they will break completely. There is no other choice here."

Not on Tillerson's itinerary, but very much at the center of regional concerns, is Syria. The past 10 days have seen Syrian rebels shoot down a Russian warplane. American and Kurdish forces in Syria killed as many as 100 Syrian pro-government forces, including several Russian contractors, in the eastern part of the country. An Iranian drone was shot down over Israel and Syrian air defenses downed an Israeli F-16.

Never have so many different and antagonistic forces been involved in so much military activity in such a limited geographical space.

The potential for catastrophic confrontation involving global and regional superpowers is huge. Notably absent in all of this is an American role. After the Iranian drone incident, and the downing of the Israeli F-16 and the Israeli airstrikes on Syrian and Iranian targets that followed, the US was AWOL. It could talk to the Israelis, but not the Syrians, nor the Iranians. It was the Russians, in touch with all parties involved, who stepped in and staved off war.

According to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone as Israel prepared for a massive counterattack. Putin warned Netanyahu not to escalate hostilities, and Netanyahu complied. The article's author Amos Harel was blunt about what it all meant: "The quiet after the Netanyahu-Putin call shows once again who's the real boss in the Middle East. While the United States remains the region's present absentee -- searches are continuing for a coherent American foreign policy -- Russia is dictating the way things are going."

And that about sums it up. Secretary of State Tillerson is, at the end of the day, President Donald Trump's messenger. But he's a messenger without a message.

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