Trump’s man in the Middle East doesn’t carry the weight of a superpower

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s fleeting visit to meet with Lebanon’s leaders might have been useful. But constantly blaming Hezbollah and Iran for Washington’s own failed diplomacy is already wearing thin.

The last time a US secretary of state breezed into Beirut was in 2014, when John Kerry admitted, more or less, that he had made a dog’s breakfast of the so-called Middle East peace process, after eight months of trying to find a needle in a satellite photograph of a haystack. He blamed the Israelis, although trying to impinge himself into a process which shouldn’t have started in the first place, wasn’t his finest move and Kerry never really recovered.

Today, the Middle East is in more of a quagmire than ever before, with Israel about to come under fire from the Gaza strip due to the US position on Jerusalem and Trump’s unfettered, if not unfathomable support for Israel; the region hangs on tenterhooks as Syria and Iran square up to Israel over a downed jet and Hezbollah in Lebanon prepares for an impending war, with threats issued via the Tel Aviv press on a near weekly basis.

And then there’s Afrin, which is threatening to draw in America to a war with Turkey, which is hard to ignore, but well worth the effort.

Rex Tillerson has a lot on his plate but is not hindered by great expectations neither by the Israelis who consider him to be little more than a messenger rather than a deal broker, nor even its adversaries who don’t hold Tillerson in much regard.

When the Texan oil man arrived at Lebanon’s auspicious Babdaa Palace on a grey morning, he was actually kept waiting for a few minutes while Lebanon’s President and his son-in-law let him in.

Perhaps this speaks volumes about what to expect in this part of the world, when Tillerson finishes his tour of Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Before he arrived in Beirut, much was expected from him by the Lebanese elite over how he would help defuse the tension between Iran and Israel and whether he had the silver bullet to ease tensions in Syria.

 

Not a man to over complicate the issue, he told journalists prior to landing in Beirut that Iran and its proxies simply needed to remove themselves from the Syrian battlefield. He also said that Hezbollah’s role in regional conflicts and its growing arsenal were only destabilising Lebanon more, parroting an Israeli assertion that the bigger and stronger your foe becomes, the more likely you are to hit him. Many were left bewildered by Tillerson’s comments.

On one hand, he certainly went off script when he recognised Hezbollah as a political force, but then seemed to argue in the same breath that Iran and Hezbollah’s hegemony needed to be curtailed, which didn’t really help the growing threat of Israel’s very real ambitions of attacking Lebanon once again.

Barely a week passes without the Israeli press dutifully publishing these threats, the most recent one from Israel’s defence minister who stated that in the next war, the Beirut cosmopolitan class would not be allowed to go to the beach as they did in 2006, when Israelis had to hide in bomb shelters in Tel Aviv.

This might have been fatuous chest beating but these comments are coming during a period where the Israelis are rebuilding a border wall with Lebanon, which constantly encroaches on Lebanese soil. And then there’s the issue of Iranian missile factories in Lebanon. Something’s got to give.

But it’s not the line in the sand which will start a new war between Israel and Hezbollah – but one in the ocean.

Since 2011, Israel has disputed a zone in the ocean – called block 9 – which Lebanon believes is theirs to sell to the highest bidding oil company. Israel recently called it a “provocation” and Hezbollah wasted no time in threatening military action if Israel were to try and take it.

 

Still on the touch line

Many Lebanese put their hopes in Tillerson to resolve this during his visit. Yet in reality, all he was able to do was to offer assuring words to both sides and present an old offer of giving Israel 40 percent of the field.

It’s unlikely to calm the waters between the two foes and is a startling reminder that Trump’s man in the Middle East is not a great diplomat. He’s not the rainmaker the region needs and really underlines America’s ‘touch line’ power broking, as opposed to Putin’s role.

Just days earlier the Russian president called Netanyahu over the knife’s edge situation with the downing of an Israeli jet, from Russian made anti-aircraft batteries of the Syrian regime army. Putin, with one phone call, averted a war between Israel and Syria – similar to the crisis created in 1982 when Ronald Reagan put Syria in the frame for its allegiance to Moscow.

Real super powers just need to make a call. Pseudo super powers need shuttle diplomacy and the incumbent fanfare of sycophantic on-board journalists and Fox News presenters who can’t pronounce the names of some of the countries they’re covering. And still The New York Times is addicted to the word ‘war’ in all of its Middle East articles.

It was a whistle stop visit which wasn’t supposed to offer tangible solutions to problems which, ironically have been created by Washington’s poor judgement in the region; seven years of backing Al Nusra Front and Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and not rolling its own sleeves up itself, was bound to create irony in delves later on. Tillerson is trapped in an echo chamber of false narratives and deluded ideas which blind him from the realities of say, Syria, where he can’t understand that many of ISIS (Daesh) were killed by Iran’s proxies.

In Lebanon, he reiterated support for the Lebanese state and its army, which Washington sees as a counterweight to Hezbollah – but fails to see how this ratchets up the odds even more for Israel’s armed forces to achieve anything. After all, President Michel Aoun has pledged to use the Lebanese army against any such unwise assault from Washington’s biggest recipient of military aid in the world.

It’s a similar triumph of idiocy in northern Syria where Tillerson has to prepare himself for a slap in the face, when he meets the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has given up totally on being an ally of Washington and is going it alone in the Middle East.

Just before arriving in Beirut, Tillerson spoke of the need for US forces to remain in Syria, citing the remaining pockets of extremists still there, albeit in small numbers. But how will he continue to keep a straight face and keep this story going, when those few remaining scattered Nusra fighters, particularly in the south of Syria, form part of a new Israeli led force which guards a ten kilometre buffer zone, which I, and a handful of other pundits in the region, believe is Israel’s next move?

If Tillerson wanted to be a real player, he could have used his experience in the oil and gas sector to thrash out a deal between Israel and Lebanon in the disputed field, rather than just dust down a six-year draft which made him look like a spectator to the big issues, rather than a useful conduit which some hoped he could be. I guess that might have taken more than the 45 minutes he had to give.

At least Kerry blaming the Israelis for the peace talks collapsing had a shred of credit to it, whereas Tillerson’s Iran rant sounds like a man battling with geopolitical dementia.

Martin Jay for TRT World Opinion. @MartinRJay

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