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Tillerson prioritizes Daesh ‘defeat,’ rebuilding ‘frayed bonds’ in Mideast

Rex Tillerson, US President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Washington on Wednesday. (AFP)

WASHINGTON, DC: More than four hours of questioning by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee of Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson yesterday offered a peek into the Middle East policy of the incoming Donald Trump administration, prioritizing the “defeat” of Daesh in the region and “asserting” US leadership on the global stage. 
Tillerson, a former CEO of Exxon who has worked in Iraq and Yemen, struck a cautious tone when talking about “competing priorities” in Syria and verifying the Iran nuclear deal. His criticism of the outgoing administration of Barack Obama and its failure to implement “red lines,” and singling out the threat of “radical Islam,” suggests a break for the Trump team from the last eight years in the Middle East.

Daesh defeat and Syria
Tillerson’s long history at Exxon and his good business rapport with Russia took up a big chunk of the hearing, with the nominee calling Moscow an “unfriendly adversary” but stopping short of labeling its President Vladimir Putin a war criminal. However, key statements on the Middle East were made during the session.
Tillerson said defeating Daesh “must be our foremost priority in the Middle East,” because “when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” There was no clear roadmap from him on achieving that goal, however, and he acknowledged that he has not discussed the issues of Russia, Syria or Daesh yet with President-elect Trump.
However, on Syria, Tillerson emphasized that the incoming administration would not pursue “competing priorities” of ousting President Bashar Assad and defeating Daesh at the same time, reaffirming that the first would have to wait until the defeat of the extremist group in Syria.
Tillerson seemed open to exploring cooperation with Putin on Daesh, saying: “When cooperation with Russia is based on common interests, it is possible, such as reducing the global threat of terrorism.”
In Syria particularly, the nominee called for re-engaging Turkey, a key US ally whose differences with Obama on arming the Kurds and creating a safe zone has drawn a wedge in the relationship. “The US must re-engage with the Turkish president,” Tillerson told the committee, blaming this lack of engagement for driving Ankara closer to Moscow.
The nominee took a jab at Obama’s red line in Syria that was altered in 2013, saying: “We sent weak or mixed signals with red lines that turned into green lights.” Tillerson added that “unintended signals were sent,” undermining US credibility to the point of prompting Russia’s annexation of Crimea in Ukraine a year later without an appropriate US response.
In a departure from the Obama administration, Tillerson used the phrase “radical Islam” instead of extremism in describing the threat. “Radical Islam is not a new ideology, but it is hateful, deadly and an illegitimate expression of the Islamic faith,” he said, going as far as labeling its “other agents” besides Daesh as “Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and certain elements within Iran.”

Verifying the Iran deal
Tillerson embraced a more hawkish tone on Iran, pledging in his opening statement that “we must hold those who are not our friends accountable to the agreements they make,” and “our failure to do this over recent decades has diminished our standing and encouraged bad actors around the world to break their word.”
While he shied away from any talk on repealing the agreement signed in 2015, Tillerson said: “We cannot afford to ignore violations of international accords, as we have done with Iran.” Later in the hearing, the nominee called for a “full review of that agreement, as well as any number of side agreements that, as I understand, are part of that agreement.”
While agreeing with the objective to prevent Iran from buying a nuclear weapon, he voiced doubts that the nuclear deal prevents Tehran from doing so. Arms-control experts in Washington disputed his claim. “What comes at the end of the agreement?” Tillerson asked.
The former CEO and engineer tried to stress the importance of rebuilding relations and restoring US credibility in the region. He advocated to “build pathways to new partnerships and strengthen old bonds which have frayed,” and warned: “If we do not lead, we risk plunging the world deeper into confusion and danger.”
Tillerson voiced strong support for Israel, “our most important ally,” and called UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which the US abstained from vetoing, “unhelpful.” He also opposed regime-change policies in the region, saying the decision to “overturn the leadership in Iraq, while well-intentioned, did not achieve its objectives.”
It was unclear if Tillerson convinced the skeptics on the committee on his ties to Russia, which is necessary to sail to confirmation. But if confirmed, the nominee echoed a centrist, cautious approach in the Middle East, in a different direction than the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama.