Skipping Israel, U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson Embarks on Middle East Visit

The U.S. secretary of state will visit Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, where he's expected to face unease over Trump's Mideast strategy

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pauses as he speaks during a media opportunity with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pauses as he speaks during a media opportunity with Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic at the State Department in Washington, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018Credit: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Middle East messes await U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as he embarks this weekend on a five-nation tour of the region.

From his first stop in Egypt to his last in Turkey, Tillerson will be confronting crises with partners and allies that threaten military success against Islamic State.

The other stops are Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon, where he’ll face mounting unease over the Trump administration’s Mideast strategy, particularly its approaches to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iran.

Tillerson's visit to the region will not include any stops in Israel or the West Bank.

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U.S. officials allowed on Friday that most of Tillerson’s discussions would be difficult, singling out those in NATO ally Turkey as especially prickly given Turkish military action against U.S.-backed Kurdish rebels in northern Syria and escalating anti-American rhetoric in Ankara. But the officials said diplomacy is necessary to cement anti-ISIS gains and restore regional stability as the administration presses other nations and private companies to help with post-war reconstruction.

Tillerson will arrive in Cairo late Sunday, days after Egyptian security forces launched major security operations against militants in the Sinai, Nile Delta and Western Desert. His meetings Monday include Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

The U.S. is offering help countering extremism. Tillerson also will raise human rights and democracy issues, according to officials, who previewed the trip on condition they not be quoted by name. The timing is sensitive: Al-Sissi is seeking a second four-year term with no serious contenders in a March presidential election. The opposition is boycotting as some potential rivals have been arrested or barred from running.

He then travels to Kuwait to lead the U.S. delegation to two international gatherings: That of the 74 members in the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition and a conference on Iraqi reconstruction.

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

The U.S. officials said the aim was to keep the coalition focused on the complete defeat of IS and other 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 counterextremist messaging.

Tillerson will not be making any new U.S. assistance pledges at the Iraq Reconstruction Conference, the officials said. Instead, he’ll 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 City, Tillerson will meet Kuwaiti officials who are attempting to mediate a resolution to disagreements between Qatar against its Arab neighbors Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In Jordan, Tillerson is doing damage control after U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and 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 expected to sign a multiyear, multibillion dollar U.S. aid package with Jordan to shore up the relationship.

Tillerson finishes the trip in Ankara with surely tense talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The U.S. officials said Tillerson will repeat warnings for Turkey to show restraint in military operations in Kurdish areas of Syria. He’ll look to address Turkey’s concerns about its borders in way to avoid killing civilians.

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