Would Tillerson benefit US policy in the Middle East?
Relations between Russia and Rex Tillerson, US President Donald Trump’s pick to be secretary of State, have rightly come under scrutiny but parts of Tillerson’s testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee concerning the Middle East reflect an incomplete understanding of a chaotic region certain to challenge the new administration.
The former chief executive officer of ExxonMobil told the committee the need to continue US efforts to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) should be the “foremost priority” of the administration. Trump spoke repeatedly during his campaign about the necessity of defeating ISIS and Tillerson’s focus on counter-ISIS efforts was unsurprising.
Tillerson’s remarks on ISIS and Syria also raised questions. He argued that the United States should postpone a decision about the future of Syrian President Bashar Assad until ISIS is eliminated. That idea is certainly in line with the focus on defeating terrorism that Trump put forward during the campaign and in the weeks leading up to the inauguration. However, such a policy is deeply misguided and ignores crucial realities.
Assad’s brutal crackdown on his people facilitated ISIS’s rise in Syria. In turn, he has benefited from the terror group’s presence in his country; Russia’s intervention in Syria, which was nominally meant to counter ISIS, has, in practice, helped bolster Assad and weakened Syrian opposition forces.
Tillerson questioned why the United States should pursue Assad’s overthrow when the make-up of a post-regime governance structure is unclear. Rather than reflect smart policy, this position serves to conveniently excuse Assad’s war crimes in Syria while playing into the hands of ISIS and other extremist groups.
Tillerson’s understanding of the need for careful US manoeuvring in Syria also seemed to fall short as he said the United States should “recommit” to its “greatest” ally in the coalition fight against ISIS, namely the Syrian Kurds. However, US cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), threatens to antagonise Turkey. Turkey says the PYD is part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both the United States and Turkey designate as a terrorist group.
Turkey has lashed out in recent weeks at the United States for its support for the YPG and Turkey’s Foreign minister has said he hoped the Trump administration would sever cooperation with the group. While Tillerson praised the US-Turkey relationship in the hearing, his remarks on the YPG could have certainly been viewed by Turkey as inflammatory.
Some have asserted that Tillerson possesses the diplomatic experience and bureaucratic expertise needed to succeed as secretary of State because of his years with ExxonMobil. However, many of his remarks during the Senate hearing suggested a lack of nuanced understanding of the complexities facing US policy in the Middle East.
While Tillerson repeatedly referenced the need for stability in the region, he failed to acknowledge that responsible US engagement (as opposed to disengagement or a purely counterterror-focused agenda), good governance and respect for human rights in the region are necessary elements for regional stability.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee appeared deeply divided over Tillerson’s confirmation. Notably, committee chairman, Senator Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, said he would seek a full floor vote to confirm Tillerson if the committee votes “no”. Whether through a committee or floor vote, should Tillerson become Trump’s secretary of State, he will face a difficult road ahead in the Middle East.