Tillerson sees tough talks during Mideast trip

Six-day trip will take him to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait

16:33 February 10, 2018
 Rex Tillerson

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expects to have tough talks during a five-nation trip of the Middle East next week, including in Turkey, where he will urge leaders to rein in an offensive in northern Syria, US officials said on Friday.

Briefing reporters on Tillerson’s February 11-16 trip to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait, US officials acknowledged there would be difficult conversations at each stop.

Jordanian leaders were upset when the United States recognised occupied Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and suspended some aid for the Palestinians.

In Kuwait, Tillerson will attend an Iraq reconstruction conference at which Washington does not plan to contribute any money. Still, he hopes to make headway towards ending a dispute between Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Kuwait has sought to broker an end to the dispute triggered when the UAE, along with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt, cut off travel and trade ties with Qatar last June. They accused Qatar of supporting terrorism and Iran.

Turkey, a US ally, has launched a military air and ground operation into the Afrin region in northwest Syria targeting the Kurdish YPG militia despite US objections.

The United States and Turkey are allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato). Yet they have diverging interests in the Syrian civil war, with Washington focused on defeating Daesh and Ankara keen to prevent Syria’s Kurds from gaining autonomy and fuelling Kurdish insurgents on Turkish soil.

“We are urging them to show restraint in their operations in Afrin and to show restraint further along the line across the (border) in northern Syria,” a US official told reporters in a conference call. “That’s going to be a difficult conversation.” Speaking of US-Turkish relations, he added: “Look it’s difficult. The rhetoric is hot. The Turks are angry, and this is a difficult time to do business but it’s our belief that there are still some very fundamental underlying shared interests.”

‘Really tough issues’

On January 21, Jordan’s King Abdullah told US Vice-President Mike Pence that Washington must rebuild “trust and confidence” in a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians after President Donald Trump recognised occupied Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Trump’s endorsement of the Israeli regime’s claim to occupied Jerusalem as its capital drew condemnation from Arab leaders and criticism around the world. It also broke with decades of US policy that the city’s status be decided in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Speaking of the trip generally, the US official said: “These are really tough issues and these are going to be tough conversations.

“These are some of our closest partners but they are also partners with whom we are facing some of the toughest issues that we have to face in the region, whether its terrorism, whether it’s the future of US assistance, whether it’s the final defeat of Daesh.”