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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

All eyes on Turkey during Tillerson's Middle East tour

US Secretary of State and his weakened department are emblematic of declining US influence

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends the Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the sidelines of Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq. Noufal Ibrahim / EPA
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends the Ministerial Meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the sidelines of Kuwait International Conference for the Reconstruction of Iraq. Noufal Ibrahim / EPA

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson may be visiting five countries during his Middle East tour, but the spectre of a trip to Turkey looms large. With little to analyse thus far, it is perhaps more illuminating to see where he is not going; most notably Israel. Mr Tillerson reportedly opposed President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The disharmony it has sowed in a volatile region justifies his stand. Following a cordial visit to Egypt on Monday, Mr Tillerson flew to Kuwait to attend a reconstruction conference which hopes to raise $88 billion to rebuild Iraq following its devastating war with ISIL. Despite the ruin inflicted by US-led airstrikes, Mr Tillerson will not pledge any money. Given that the US spent some $60bn to rebuild Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, this decision is emblematic of America’s declining geopolitical authority.

This decline is perhaps most glaring when it comes to an emboldened Turkey. US-Turkey ties have been steadily deteriorating since 2016’s failed coup, for which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. A recent US court case that implicated prominent Turkish officials in a conspiracy to help Iran evade sanctions further muddied the waters. Meanwhile a Turkish military offensive against Kurdish rebels in the northern Syrian city of Afrin – and potentially Manbij, where US troops are stationed – has caused significant disquiet in Washington. So too have Mr Erdogan’s overtures to Iran and Russia, whose regional ambitions do not align with those of the US. “We are urging them to show restraint,” said a State Department official last week. It is a task of considerable difficulty.

Mr Tillerson carries a heavy burden. Bringing Turkey to heel would test the most experienced of diplomats. But since his appointment last year, the business-minded Mr Tillerson has overseen the gutting of the State Department. The effects of mounting vacancies and resignations are starting to be felt in the department’s capacity to advance American interests. According to Democrats in the House foreign relations Committee, more than a hundred senior officials jumped ship last year. Mr Tillerson, whose own survival looks precarious, is not solely to blame. In her resignation letter last November, one official said the State Department had “ceded to the Pentagon our authority to drive US foreign policy, at the behest of the White House”. As David Rothkopf argued recently on these pages, American global influence is at its lowest since the fall of the Soviet Union. Into the vacuum a belligerent Mr Erdogan has lurched. While Mr Tillerson's promise of $200 million in aid to Syria today was welcome, at a time when a speedy resolution is vital to alleviate suffering in Afrin and elsewhere, the US’s fading influence lends little hope that Mr Tillerson can bring one about.