Rex Tillerson reaping whirlwind of Trump’s disruptive Middle East policies

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Trump’s divisive Middle East policies in the past year are not advancing Tillerson’s goals to stabilize the region and finish off Isis

Simon Tisdall

Like Jeeves clearing up broken crockery after a night of riotous partying by Bertie Wooster and his chums, Rex Tillerson is trying to soothe tempers and repair damage across the Middle East after a year of Donald Trump shenanigans.

As a former high-flying Exxon-Mobil chief executive, the US secretary of state is unaccustomed to groveling.

But Tillerson, whose five-country regional mission culminates in Turkey later this week, may have no choice.

America’s top diplomat is reaping the whirlwind of 12 months of disruptive, divisive policies and what critics say is Trump’s lack of strategic vision for a troubled region vital for western interests.

Nobody is angrier than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s choleric president.

Erdogan has a long list of additional grievances with his Nato ally. But it is US policy in Syria, and especially its support for the YPG Kurdish militia, that really gets his goat.

Before invading the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin last month, Erdogan told the US to get out of the way.

Erdogan has vowed to “strangle” a Kurd-led border security force recently unveiled by Tillerson, and warned that Turkish troops and their Syrian allies intend to advance east from Afrin to Manbij, where US special forces are deployed alongside the Kurds.

Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Turkey’s foreign minister, accused the US of bad faith and delivered an ultimatum: “Our relations are at a very critical point. Either we repair our relations or [they] will be broken altogether.”

But the US military has told the Turks, in effect, to get lost. In an unusually frank admission, the state department says it expects Tillerson will have a “difficult conversation” in Ankara.

History suggests the row will be patched up. But Erdogan believes he has other options if the US alliance implodes. He is increasingly cooperating with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s main backers, Iran and Russia.

This collaboration has grave implications for Turkey’s place in Nato. Russia and the US are involved in a far wider, escalating struggle for control and influence in post-Isis Syria.

Just how dangerous this is was shown when a Russian Su-25 fighter jet was shot down recently by Syrian rebels using a shoulder-held MANPAD missile, allegedly supplied by the US.

In addition, there are unconfirmed reports that several, and maybe dozens, of Russian nationals fighting alongside Syrian government troops were killed last week in clashes with US and US-backed forces. Russians, possibly mercenaries, are also said to have died in an American airstrike near Deir al-Zour, close to the Iraqi border.

Further roiling the conflict, Iran is using Syrian territory as a launchpad for exerting military pressure on Israel, Washington’s close ally, as last weekend’s unprecedented aerial clashes demonstrated.

Tillerson’s Middle East pilgrimage coincides with rising anti-American sentiment. In Turkey, a Center for American Progress poll this week showed 83% of Turks view the US unfavourably, and 46% believe Erdogan should do more to confront Washington.

Hostility to Trump’s policies bedevils Tillerson’s other visits this week. In Amman, he will try to placate Jordan’s government, a long-time ally, which is angry about US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and its cut in aid to the Palestinians.

In Kuwait on Tuesday, Tillerson faced the damaging consequences of Trump’s close embrace of Saudi Arabia, whose bitter dispute with Qatar – home to a vital US military base – has jeopardised western security interests and poisoned Gulf relations.

The financial cost of the Trump-endorsed Saudi war in Yemen, plus the Iraqi leadership’s ties to Iran, have also reportedly led Riyadh to renege on billions of dollars in pledges to fund Iraqi reconstruction.

None of this helps advance Tillerson’s stated aims: stabilising the region and finishing off Isis.

Tillerson’s first stop – a visit to Egypt on Monday – inadvertently highlighted another controversy: Trump’s failure to maintain traditional US advocacy for democracy and human rights.

Congratulating his hosts on counter-terrorism operations in Sinai, Tillerson made no mention of next month’s rigged presidential poll, when Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who Trump calls a “fantastic guy”, will be re-elected. All credible challengers have been disqualified or locked up.

Maybe Tillerson is finally learning deference. Jeeves would approve.

 

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