Tillerson 'Keeping Close Tabs' on Syria Escalation, but No Plans to Visit Israel During Mideast Tour

State Department official says Syria escalation tops Tillerson's agenda, but adds 'no plans on this short trip for the secretary to make a stop in Israel'

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington, Friday, Feb. 9, 2018
Carolyn Kaster/AP

Despite Saturday's military escalation between Israel and Syria, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is still not planning on stopping in Israel during his Mideast tour.

A U.S. State Department official told Haaretz Sunday Tillerson, who is currently on a five-country tour of the Middle East, still has no plans to change his schedule and add a stop in Israel. The official said however that the recent escalation in Syria is at the top of Tillerson's agenda.

The top U.S. diplomat embarked on the trip on Sunday, with his first stop in Egypt. He is scheduled to visit Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey over the next 48 hours.

"The are no plans on this short trip for the secretary to make a stop in Israel," the State Department official said. "He is keeping close tabs on the situation."

Tillerson spoke on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday, hours after Israel's downing of an Iranian drone, subsequent strikes in Syria and the shooting down of an Israeli fighter jet

The U.S. State Department released a statement folllwing the events on Saturday, in which it criticized Iran and expressed support for Israel.

"The United States is deeply concerned about today's escalation of violence over Israel's border and strongly supports Israel's sovereign right to defend itself," the statement said. "Iran's calculated escalation of threat and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region - from Yemen to Lebanon - at risk. The U.S. continues to push back on the totality of Iran's malign activities in the region and calls for an end to Iranian behavior that threatens peace and stability."

Similar statements were released the Pentagon and the White House.

Tensions await Tillerson's tour

In Egypt, as well as in Kuwait, Lebanon and Jordan — the tour's other Arab stops — Tillerson will almost certainly hear misgivings about U.S. President Donald Trump's recent decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. The move angered Washington's Arab allies and undermined the chances of a timely resumption of long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

U.S. officials agreed 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 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-Islamic State gains and restore regional stability as the administration presses other nations and private companies to help with post-war reconstruction.