Political Observation - Rex Tillerson’s Middle East Tour
بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
Political Observation - Rex Tillerson’s Middle East Tour
US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, ended a very significant two-day visit to Turkey on 16 February 2018 as part of a tour to the region that included visits to Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon.The importance of this tour is that it came at a time when the region is undergoing rapid and major events. With the exception of the Iraq reconstruction conference that took place in Kuwait and the attempt to diffuse the situation between Israel and Lebanon regarding the construction of the border wall and gas exploration in the Ballout region, Tillerson's visit to Ankara was of paramount importance in this tour.
Secretary Tillerson began his tour on Sunday, 11 February 2018, in Egypt, where he affirmed US support for the presidential election farce there; and while in Jordan, Tillerson succeeded in signing a memorandum of understanding for the strategic partnership between the United States and Jordan, the aim of which was to renew the US military presence there for an annual payment of $1.3 billion for the next 5 years.
Tillerson also met with a delegation of the Syrian opposition in Amman instead of Turkey where the most prominent members of the opposition reside whom he visited later. Tillerson preferred to meet with the delegation in Amman to send a message to Turkey that the US is able to deal directly with the Syrian opposition without any Turkish mediation. The meeting was a message to Russia as well that the US intends to take the reins of the political initiative itself, and it shall not rely solely on other political tracks such as Geneva, Sochi or Astana.
However, the chief-in-importance stop in Tillerson’s visit is Turkey where critical negotiations are due to take place considering the deep disagreement between the two governments. Turkey's operation Olive Branch has thrown a spanner in the works of the American plan to establish a Kurdish political and military entity in northern Syria.
Facing Turkey's determination to continue the war against the Kurdish forces under the pretext of protecting its national security and with undeclared Russian support, Tillerson’s visit aimed to stop the Afrin operation and prevent an advance of the Turkish forces to Manbij by putting forth proposals that the Turkish leadership may accept.
Despite the nearly four hour meeting between Secretary Tillerson and President Erdogan on the first day, a joint meeting between the foreign ministers of the two countries on the second day and a press conference and a joint statement, no clear outlook emerged for an official American proposal to overcome the deep crisis between Turkey and the US.
However, what has been officially announced is the "establishment of a joint mechanism" by mid-March to resolve the differences between Washington and Ankara.
Excluding the American proposal to establish a safe zone in northern Syria that Turkey rejected as being a mere hoax to stop the Afrin operation, the leaked new proposal entails an American withdrawal from Manbij in return for the Turkish army not entering the city centre of Afrin. Another proposition involves a Kurdish retreat to East Euphrates in exchange for a Turkish and a US military presence in the region of Manbij, in addition to a host of American guarantees acceptable to Turkey concerning the presence of Kurdish Protection Units in eastern Syria.
It is clear that Olive Branch has dealt a fatal blow to the American plan of establishing a Kurdish entity in northern Syria. Moreover, it is true that the US has taken control over Syria's agricultural and oil wealth due to its control of Raqqa, Deir ez-Zour and northeastern Syria. However, the situation is far from being settled, especially after the emergence of a real and public dispute between the US and Russia on the Kurdish issue. Russia, though politically embracing the Kurds and adopting federalism in Syria, does not want to establish an independent Kurdish entity as America seeks. The Russian foreign minister expressed this position and candidly accused the US of dividing Syria and provoking Turkey on more than one occasion.
Russia's stance stems from her awareness of the serious threat this plan poses not only on Syria but also the territorial integrity of Russia in the coming years, not to mention the plan’s potential to weaken both Turkey and Iran, who are viewed by Russia as the vanguards to the protecting her stability.
It appears that America is behind the downing of the Russian jet, as well as the drone strike on Hmeimim airbase before that which were preceded by the demise of a top Russian military adviser on the outskirts of Deir ez-Zour last September, the recent battles in the Koneko oil field in Deir ez-Zour and the death of several Russian contractors (mercenaries). These are all direct US messages to Russia urging it to observe its relations with America and cease its cooperation with Turkey.
However, it seems that Russia is determined to cooperate with Turkey in an attempt to prevent the US from being the sole determiner of Syria’s future, especially after the renewed Russian fears of an American failure to comply with previous agreements. This was evident in downing the Israeli jet fighter with a drone in the Golan Heights that was then attributed to Iran and the Syrian regime’s defenses.
By downing the Israeli fighter, Russia sought to shuffle the rules of engagement and drag Israel into the war in Syria, which would frustrate America's plans, in light of Turkey's determination to fight the pro-Pentagon Kurdish organizations. It is true that Russia does not have the ability to confront America head-on, in Syria or elsewhere, but it has the tools to impede America's projects in Syria, especially after it has acquired a military presence in the Hmeimim airbase and Tartus naval base.
Given the new circumstances, a Russian attempt to capitalize on the increased tensions between Turkey and the United States is expected in order to strike at the unity of NATO from within. However, that does not mean that America will stop pushing for the implementation of parts of the Greater Middle East Initiative in the region, despite Turkish military intervention and rising tensions with Russia upsetting some of its plans in Syria.
The Turkish military intervention in Afrin (Operation Olive Branch) and previously Operation Euphrates Shield have proven that confronting America and thwarting some or all of her plans is within the grasp of anyone who strives to control his political and military volition, a process that entails manufacturing one’s own weapons.
It seems clear from the Turkish insistence on the Afrin operation that this is a tactical move towards her strategic objective of controlling Manbij and expelling the Kurdish Protection Units to East Euphrates, thus smoothing her path towards upping the ante to gain a better deal in the region from the US, the most important of which is suspending US support for the Kurdish units and retrieving their heavy weapons, then withdrawing the Kurdish units from the Arab territories under their control, thus paving the way for the return of the Syrians to their land headed by refugees in Turkey.
The question remains, will Turkey dare to engage the US in a direct military confrontation if the latter refuses a Kurdish withdrawal from Manbij? Or will America fail its Kurdish agents in Manbij in the same way it did in Afrin and before that in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to maintain its relationship with Turkey, its NATO ally, and to prevent a further tightening of Turkish-Russian relations and cooperation? Manbij is a real test for the Turkish leadership, the US government and the course of their relationship. This is clearly what the Turkish foreign minister meant at the joint press conference with US Secretary of State Tillerson when he said: "Ankara will be able to take joint steps with the United States in Syria once the Kurdish People's Protection Units leave the Syrian city of Manbij."
30 Jumada al-Oulah 1439
16 February 2018