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Tea for the Tillerson: The Middle East Tour

By Nicholas Danforth

Friday, February 9, 2018

Last month, following a string of battlefield victories against ISIS, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave a speech outlining the administration’s plan for building on this success to prevent the emergence of new terrorist threats and check Iranian expansion. Now, he’s off to the Middle East to help put this plan into practice. And with U.S. forces on the ground in Syria facing off against Iranian proxies and, in a worst case scenario, Turkish soldiers, the stakes are particularly high.

In the course of visits to Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, Tillerson will meet with other leaders of the anti-ISIS coalition with three main goals in mind:

  • Reconstruction: Cities like Syria’s Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul remain in ruins following the costly conflict required to take them back from ISIS. At the very least, rebuilding shattered infrastructure in these areas and providing a modicum of good governance is necessary to prevent the return of radical groups. Securing the political and economic buy-in from partners to make this possible will be a key goal when Tillerson attends the Iraq Reconstruction Conference in Kuwait.
  • Solving Syria, Stabilizing Iraq: Seven years into the country’s civil war, the United States now has boots on the ground in northeastern Syria. Several thousand Special Forces are supporting local allies in a region that was recently recaptured from ISIS. Aside from some remaining rebel-held territories, much of the rest of the country remains under the control of Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian and Russian backers. Washington’s challenge now is to use the leverage provided by its military presence to secure a solution to the civil war that will constrain Iran’s growing political and military influence in Syria and in the region. Similarly, in Iraq, Washington seeks regional support in strengthening the government of Haider al-Abadi going into May elections and limit the influence of Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
  • Maintaining Alliances: Following a Turkish incursion into Syria last month, the Kurdish forces that worked with Washington to defeat ISIS are now at war with a NATO ally. In Turkey, Tillerson will face the task of trying to assuage mounting Turkish anger over U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds. There is little at this point that Tillerson can offer that would satisfy Ankara, but at minimum a clear statement of U.S. red lines could help prevent the current conflict from spreading into areas where U.S. forces are located. In Jordan, Tillerson is expected to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on bilateral assistance. In Lebanon he will reportedly seek to address mounting tensions between Hezbollah and Israel on the country’s southern border.

ISIS has been deprived of its territory, an important victory in and of itself. But if Iran emerges stronger from the group’s defeat, or ongoing instability enables its return, this victory will be a fleeting one. Post-ISIS progress now requires reconstructing liberated regions, pursing palatable political arrangements in Syria and Iraq, and preventing Turkey from playing a spoiler role. The success of Tillerson’s trip will be measured by the advances he makes toward these goals.

KEYWORDS: DEPARTMENT OF STATE, ISIS, MIDDLE EAST, REX TILLERSON