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US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson kicks off 'difficult tour' of tense Middle East

Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (L) has his work cut out for him [AFP]

Date of publication: 12 February, 2018

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Flying into Egypt on Sunday, the US Secretary of State has started a five-nation tour in the Middle East, amid heightened tensions and unease over Trump's policies in the region.
After flying into Egypt on Sunday, the US Secretary of State has started a five-nation tour in the Middle East, amid heightened tensions and unease over US President Donald Trump's policies in the region.

Rex Tillerson arrived less than 24 hours after Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes in Syria, after intercepting an Iranian drone that had infiltrated its airspace and an Israeli F-16 was downed upon its return from Syria.

It was the most serious Israeli engagement in Syria since the war there began in 2011.

In Egypt, as well as in Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan - the tour’s other Arab stops - Tillerson will almost certainly hear misgivings about Trump’s recent decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

That move had angered Washington’s Arab allies and undermined the chances of a timely resumption of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Officials told AP on Friday that most of Tillerson’s discussions will likely be "difficult", saying those with NATO ally Turkey will probably be especially prickly given Turkish military action against US-backed Kurdish rebels in northern Syria and escalating anti-American rhetoric in Ankara.

Tillerson will raise human rights issues with Sisi, according to the US officials

Tillerson meets President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo on Monday, three days after the Egyptian leader ordered his security forces to launch a major offensive against militants in the Sinai Peninsula, Nile Delta and Western Desert.

Tillerson will raise human rights issues with Sisi, according to the US officials. The timing is sensitive; Sisi is seeking a second four-year term in office with no serious competition in the March election. The opposition is calling for a boycott of the vote after serious challengers were either arrested or forced to quit the race.

A general-turned-president, Sisi is running against an obscure politician who is among his ardent supporters.

Tillerson travels to Kuwait next to lead the US delegation at two international gatherings - that of the 74 members in the US-led, anti-Islamic State coalition and a conference on Iraqi reconstruction.

Tillerson will seek to focus the coalition on its priorities, many of whose members are increasingly distracted by national interests in Iraq and Syria.

The US officials said the aim was to keep the coalition focused on the complete defeat of the Islamic State and other militant groups, and then rebuilding war-devastated zones to prevent extremists from regaining territory. They said the coalition would look at containment and elimination of IS outside of Iraq and Syria by strengthening intelligence sharing, law enforcement cooperation and counter-extremist messaging.

Tillerson will not be making any new US assistance pledges at the Iraq Reconstruction Conference, the officials said.

Instead, he will press companies and banks to boost activities in Iraq to spur long-term development. Some 2,300 representatives from the private sector, including from more than 100 American companies, are slated to attend.

In Kuwait, Tillerson will meet officials who are attempting to mediate a resolution to disagreements between Qatar and its Arab neighbours Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egypt. All four nations complain that Qatar was moving too close to Iran and supporting militant groups. Doha denies the accusations.

In Jordan, Tillerson will be doing damage control after Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his administration’s subsequent decision to withhold aid money from the UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees. Jordan, which has a large Palestinian population, including refugees, is among the most concerned.

In Amman, Tillerson is also expected to sign a multi-year, multibillion dollar US aid package with Jordan to shore up the relationship.

Lebanese leaders are expected to raise with Tillerson Israel’s construction of a controversial 'separation wall' on a disputed area along the Lebanon-Israel border

Tillerson is then expected in Beirut on Thursday for talks with Lebanese leaders. His discussions, according to local officials quoted by The Daily Star, will likely focus on heightened tensions in the southern border region fuelled by Israel’s construction of a wall and its threats over Lebanon’s oil and gas exploration near a disputed maritime boundary.

Lebanon's upcoming parliamentary elections, as well as the US role in two international conferences in Rome later this month and in Paris in March or April to bolster the Lebanese Army and security forces and shore up Lebanon’s ailing economy, will figure high in Tillerson’s talks with Lebanese leaders, The Daily Star said.

Lebanese leaders are expected to raise Israel’s construction of a controversial “separation wall” on a disputed area along the Lebanon-Israel border with Tillerson, as well as Israel’s threats over Lebanon’s oil and gas exploration, the report added.

The source quoted by the Daily Star declined to comment on media reports that Tillerson, himself an oil and gas expert, would seek to mediate in the oil dispute between Lebanon and Israel in exchange for Lebanese officials acting to rein in Hizballah's powerful role in Lebanon.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said recently that oil and gas exploration projects in Lebanon’s maritime Block 9 were “very provocative.” He urged international firms not to carry out work in the block that he claimed partly belongs to Israel.

Defying the Israeli threats, Lebanon last Friday signed its first offshore oil and gas exploration and production contracts for two energy blocks, including the disputed Block 9.

Tillerson concludes the trip in Ankara with talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan which are expected to be tense. The US officials said Tillerson will repeat warnings for Turkey to show restraint in military operations in Kurdish areas of Syria.

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