Political News

A messy Middle East keeps Tillerson busy

Posted October 26, 2017 5:18 p.m. EDT

— Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's to-do list for the Middle East is not getting any shorter.

The top US diplomat outlined a series of US priorities and concerns in a briefing with reporters as he ended a six-day trip to the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.

Tillerson touched on US concerns about strife between Iraq and separatist-minded Kurds that could undermine the fight against ISIS; the need for Iraq to remain focused on defeating the terrorist group; the squabbling between America's allies in the Gulf; and Iran's influence in Syria and Iraq.

He also offered a glimpse into US efforts to improve relationships among its Middle East allies, one possible key to containing Iran's influence in the region.

The lengthy list was a reminder that despite President Donald Trump's campaign declarations that the US can no longer afford to be the world's policeman, the Middle East inevitably pulls every administration into its orbit and issues.

Tillerson gave a nod to threading that needle, saying that the US will continue its leadership role, but -- like the administration before it -- the Trump White House will call on other countries to do more.

"The US remains committed to providing leadership in every region of the world," Tillerson said at the end of travel to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, India and Switzerland. "And as we lead, we will continue to ask more of others to take up their responsible roles as well, so that they can ultimately provide for their own people and uphold their own sovereignty," the top US diplomat continued. "As we do, we will provide greater security and prosperity for the American people."

Tillerson spoke in Switzerland, where he met with Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy on Syria. There, Tillerson said that with ISIS "on the brink" of defeat, the US wants to see the war torn country turn to political negotiations about a future that eventually does not include its leader.

"As we have said many times before, the US wants a whole and unified Syria with no role of Bashar al-Assad in the government," Tillerson said. Referring to the Obama administration's early declaration that "Assad must go," Tillerson said that, "when this administration came into office we took a view that it is not a prerequisite that Assad go" before a political process starts.

"Rather, the mechanism by which Assad departs will likely emerge from that process," he said.

Asked about the view that Syria has been a victory for Tehran, because it has kept Assad in power and maintained its hold on a country strategically important to it, Tillerson framed his answer in terms of the fight against ISIS.

"Iran has not particularly been successful in liberating areas," he said, praising the Russian government and the anti-ISIS coalition for successes. "So I don't think that Iran should be given credit for the defeat of ISIS in any way in Syria, rather I think they have somewhat taken advantage of the situation with their presence there."

Tillerson also touched on Iran's ties to Iraq. The long border and centuries long connections between the two neighbors means "we are not going to eliminate all contact between those two countries. There are legitimate contacts that should continue, economic, trade, things like that," Tillerson said.

But he indicated that the US would like to see more distance between the Iraqi government and Iran. "What we're saying to Iraq is you must develop the capacity to stand on your own and resist that influence," Tillerson said.

In its place, he indicated, the US would like to see a closer relationship between Iraq and countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, that are close US allies as well.

"There has been more than three decades of isolation almost between Iraq and the GCC countries," Tillerson said,

Iraq and the Gulf countries share a common culture and ethnicity, Tillerson suggested. "These are all the same people. Iraqis are Arab. Iraqis are not Persian," he said.

The US has strongly supported recent overtures between Saudi Arabia and Iraq. "We've worked hard to facilitate and encourage that," Tillerson said, describing the Saudi and Kuwaiti commitment to helping with Iraq reconstruction.

"It is important to facilitate Iraq again standing on its own, that it doesn't have to only look to the east," where Iran sits, Tillerson said. "It has important partners, security partners and more importantly, economic partners to the south, and I think this is how we strengthen Iraq as an independent country and they can make their own decisions then."

Referring to a recent meeting between Iraq and GCC members in Saudi Arabia, Tillerson said the US is "glad to see expanding connections between Iraq and its neighbors."

The efforts to pull Iraq farther away from Iran have been complicated by a dispute within the GCC, with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others accusing Qatar of supporting terrorism.

"The US remains troubled and concerned about the far-reaching consequences of the Gulf dispute," Tillerson said. "Our message is clear, the GCC is strongest when it is united."

And tensions within Iraq, between the central government and Kurds who have pushed for independence in the north, are another concern.

"We are disappointed the parties have not yet been able to reach an entirely peaceful resolution over recent tensions," Tillerson said.