February 16, 2018

Squaring Circles? Tillerson’s Failed Middle East Sojourn

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson prepares for a meeting of a U.S.-led coalition fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant in Kuwait City, Feb. 13. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

Before he headed to the Middle East on his five-country journey, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was preparing himself for an unpleasant encounter with an angry Turkish president, a sullen Egyptian president, and a tight-fisted international community gathered in Kuwait clearly reluctant to commit billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq. Even in the friendliest capital, Amman, Tillerson had to contend with the impact of the disruptive policies of President Donald J. Trump, particularly his decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In Lebanon, a weak government operating in the shadow of a powerful Hizballah would be hard-pressed to act on his proposal for a settlement of maritime and land disputes between Lebanon and Israel. The Israelis have warned Iran and Hizballah repeatedly that they will not permit them to establish a permanent military presence in southern Syria. On the eve of Tillerson’s arrival in Cairo, the dark skies over Syria and Israel were lit by missiles, bombs, and falling airplanes, manned and unmanned. In a display of its military might in Syria, an audacious Iran, using a base in central Syria, dispatched a drone into Israeli airspace. An Israeli helicopter gunship downed the drone, while almost simultaneously eight Israeli bombers attacked the command-and-control center that launched it. For the first time in decades Israel lost an F-16 combat aircraft to anti-aircraft fire.

In fact, during the first half of February, the conflicts in Syria, and the regional and international struggle to determine Syria’s future, experienced a qualitative and brutal increase in violence and lethality. The Syrian regime intensified its aerial campaign against civilians trapped in the rebel-controlled Eastern Ghouta region, close to Damascus, and elsewhere. And for the first time, the U.S. forces deployed in Syria east of the Euphrates River led a coalition of Kurdish and Arab allies and repelled an attack by pro-Syrian regime forces killing more than a hundred of them. In the span of a few days, Russia and Israel both lost jet fighters, Turkey lost a helicopter, and the Iranians lost a drone. February’s violence was a stark reminder that the Syrian wars are not over, and if anything, they may intensify further. And if these dangerous events were not enough to make Tillerson’s main mission to stabilize the region following the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant almost impossible, he had to contend with growing anti-Americanism, particularly in Washington’s putative allies, Turkey and Egypt.

Tillerson went to Egypt with low expectations. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the country is consumed by its domestic travails. Economically it depends on the kindness of its Gulf allies, which is not limitless, though Egypt acts at times as if it is entitled to Gulf largess. And while Trump has expressed his admiration of Sisi, in 2017 the Egyptian government angered Washington because of its extensive military relationship with North Korea. In August, the United States punished Egypt by denying it $96 million in economic aid and by delaying $195 million in military assistance because of its relations with North Korea and its very poor record on human rights. The main area of agreement between Cairo and Washington is counterterrorism, and Tillerson emphasized this issue in his public remarks. But even in this area, both the Obama and Trump administrations have expressed their frustrations with the way the Egyptian state is conducting its war on terrorism, in total secrecy, particularly in the Sinai Peninsula. In the last few months, Sisi’s heavy-handed approach against peaceful reformers, and his intimidation of potential rivals in the upcoming presidential election, has alienated U.S. officials and, more importantly, influential members of Congress. Egypt’s friends in Washington are diminishing, and few people are willing to defend or justify the annual military and economic aid it receives.

Tillerson went to Kuwait, hat in hand, and tried to collect pledges from U.S. allies to help in the massive Iraqi reconstruction efforts, and to energize the private sector to invest in Iraq, which is now open to business, according to the secretary. Baghdad estimates it needs $88 billion dollars in funds and loan guarantees to rebuild the cities and towns that were destroyed in the war against ISIL. After a slow start, donors and investors at the Kuwait conference pledged $30 billion, despite fears that donor fatigue and Iraq’s famously corrupt political class would impede a positive outcome. It remains to be seen if the pledges will materialize. Ironically, the country that invaded Iraq in 2003 made it clear that it will not pledge new aid. The United States spent over $60 billion to help rebuild Iraq and re-equip and train its armed forces in the postinvasion years up to 2014. Before Tillerson’s trip, Trump, while discussing the annual budget, lamented the “mistake” the United States committed when it spent $7 trillion on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, saying that the “Middle East is far worse now than it was 17 years ago” when the United States invaded Afghanistan.

Tillerson knew that the road to Turkey would be the most tortuous, and that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the angriest man he would meet on his sojourn. What was seen decades ago as a solid alliance that survived military coups in Ankara, and even the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, is now fraying at the seams. This is the relationship that will test Tillerson’s skills as a negotiator, and his ability to square the circles that were created by the rapid and dangerous metamorphosis of the Syrian war. For years, Erdogan’s political discourse has been laden with anti-Western and anti-American sentiments. His rhetoric became more hostile after the failed military coup of 2016, when he accused the United States indirectly of being responsible for the coup because it gave political refuge to Fethullah Gulen, leader of the Islamist Gulen movement. Erdogan exploited the failed coup to create what he termed Turkey’s “New Nationalism” as a tool to mobilize popular support.

From the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Erdogan supported the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and opened Turkish borders to the jihadists who wanted to fight the Assad regime. Ankara’s relations with Washington deteriorated further after the emergence of ISIL when the United States cultivated an alliance with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which became the primary component of the Syrian Democratic Forces. These forces were the spearhead that defeated ISIL after receiving considerable arms, logistical support, and training from the United States. Erdogan views this U.S.-Kurdish collaboration as an unholy alliance, which he pledged to destroy. A recent study, by the Center for American Progress in Washington, based on extensive research, polling, and focus groups organized in Turkey paints a bleak picture of the prospects for U.S.-Turkish relations. Max Hoffman, the main author of the study, said that he does not believe Tillerson can stop the deterioration of relations because Erdogan is convinced that the United States deceived him when it developed military relations with Syria’s Kurds. The polling results on rising Turkish nationalism are disturbing: The percentage of Turks who have an unfavorable view of the United States is 83 percent, the American people 72 percent, NATO 67 percent, Europe 73 percent, Christians 69 percent, and Jews 78 percent. And while Russia is not popular (63 percent of Turks see Moscow unfavorably) it is not demonized like the United States.

Resolving the region’s seemingly intractable conflicts would be difficult under the best of circumstances; doing so without well-articulated, coherent U.S. policies in an atmosphere of deep distrust and even outright hostility makes the mission impossible. Tillerson’s regional tour has failed to make a difference at a time when the region’s challenges require muscular U.S. diplomatic engagement that is simply absent.

Hisham Melhem is a non-resident fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.