Three of the Trump administration’s biggest names are in the Middle East this week.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is pulling off a Kissinger-like journey through five states, while National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is in Turkey, and anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk heads for Kuwait.
On February 8, the US State Department released a sketch of an itinerary for Tillerson’s February 11-16 trip to the region.
In Jordan, he is supposed to conclude a new memorandum of understanding on bilateral assistance. In Turkey, he plans to discuss regional issues, referring to the crises between Ankara and Washington over Syria, including Washington’s concern over Turkey’s offensive in Afrin. In Lebanon, he will meet Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and emphasize the US’s commitment to the Lebanese armed forces and the citizens of Lebanon.
In Egypt, which is in the midst of a recently announced massive campaign to uproot terrorism in the Sinai, he will seek to strengthen the partnership between Washington and Cairo. In Kuwait, he will lead the US delegation for the ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and sit at the Iraq Reconstruction Conference.
The Trump administration has a reputation for having a chaotic foreign policy, where one member of the band doesn’t seem to know what the other is doing. But on this trip it appears the concert is going well, with McMaster keyed into Turkey while McGurk preps for the Kuwait conference.
The White House readout of McMaster’s February 11 meetings in Turkey says that he met with Turkish Presidential Spokesman Ibrahim Kalin and discussed “priorities and concerns” and ways to expand the fight against “all forms of terrorism.”
Last week, on Wednesday, Kalin was reported as saying that “The public questions whether the US has plans to stay in the region in the long term due to ongoing US support for the PYD [Democratic Union Party].” Turkey views the Kurdish PYD and its associated group, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as terrorists while the US has been fighting alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which includes elements of the YPG.
The Turkish press has been extremely critical of the US during McMaster’s visit, with a clear nod from Ankara. The Yeni Safak newspaper claimed that “US government-funded TV spreads FETO propaganda.” FETO is an acronym for what Turkey calls the Fetullah Terrorist Organization, which is accused of being behind the attempted coup in 2016.
Last Thursday, Daily Sabah accused US generals of hijacking Syrian policy.
Despite the comments, including Ankara’s assertion that the US is training a “terror army” in Syria, Washington’s envoys prefer to not be critical of Turkey.
In Egypt, Tillerson’s meetings have been predictable. He said that the US is standing with Egypt in its efforts to defeat ISIS. During the Obama years, Washington was critical of Cairo, especially during the initial Arab Spring protests in 2011, and then again in October 2013 after current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood.
In 2017, the US again announced an aid cut of almost $100 million, claiming that Egypt’s human rights record was problematic. Tillerson is expected to patch things up. With the new Egyptian offensive in Sinai and presidential elections on the way, the US wants to continue to anchor part of its policy on the Nile, as it has for almost four decades.
In Jordan, Tillerson will meet a friendly administration that benefits from US support. Jordan and the US partner on security and support for the almost one million Syrian refugees. The US and Jordan are partners to a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria that is being risked by Iranian meddling. So Tillerson will need to address the kingdom’s concerns. Some of this may also relate to Trump’s Jerusalem policy, which has displeased the king.
In Lebanon, Tillerson will play the usual US double-game. The US condemns Hezbollah, which is part of the government, while supplying the government with aid for its army. Tillerson likely won’t mention Hezbollah while he is there, but if he does it will be interesting to see the response.
In Turkey, Tillerson will follow the road traveled by McMaster, meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and presenting a rosy picture of US-Turkey relations amid the crises. If he says anything about the Afrin offensive it will be important because Trump has urged Turkey to restrict its military campaign in the Kurdish region of Syria.
In Kuwait, Tillerson and McGurk will be part of the largest 74-member global coalition meeting to date. Despite the defeat of ISIS and the reported drawdown of US troops in Iraq, the coalition wants to remain relevant by focusing on “stabilization” and “combating ISIS’s global networks,” according to a tweet by McGurk.
It’s not entirely clear where the coalition goes from here. The Philippines? Libya? Sinai? Likely not.
The Iraq reconstruction conference is interesting especially because reconstruction efforts have totally ignored any support to the Sinjar region of Iraq where ISIS carried out a genocide of Yazidis. Nadia Murad, a former slave of the ISIS war criminals, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging support for her people, some 300,000 of whom still live in refugee camps.
If the US continues to ignore the area of Iraq that led Obama to start air strikes in August 2014, it will show that the legacy of caring for regions affected by genocide has been replaced by new priorities.
With the administration’s largest coordinated Middle East policy adventure underway, what’s not mentioned or not on the list will get as much attention as what is discussed.