Secretary Tillerson Came to Lebanon, Spoke, and Left – What’s Better Now?

It has been an extraordinary week in the Middle East, a region that continues to defy normalcy. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out for the Middle East to bring some measure of calm to America’s bilateral relations with Egypt and Turkey, promote funding for Iraq’s reconstruction in Kuwait, and reassure Jordan and Lebanon that the US valued their survival. Against a background of continuing chatter about the lack of US leadership in the Middle East, a rather opaque foreign policy, except for US ties with Israel, and no inkling of what’s next, Secretary Tillerson was not accorded a hero’s welcome.

Regarding Lebanon, even a brief stopover had its complications. First of all, the Secretary spoke out about a maritime and land border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, cautioning both sides to use diplomacy to settle the issues. According to the US News, “The U.S. has been trying to mediate in the dispute, and Tillerson suggested Israel should stop building a border wall until the border between the two countries is agreed on.”

Of course Hezbollah did not escape his radar. Tillerson called its growing arsenal a threat to Lebanon’s security and said that it should cease its military activities in other countries to help draw down tensions in the region. “Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has only perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime,” Tillerson said, at the news conference with Lebanese PM Hariri, “a western ally whose coalition government includes the group,” the article added.

Hariri made it clear that Lebanon will uphold its position on the border issues. “What is ours is ours and what is Israel’s is Israel’s. We are trying to find solutions that will be fair to us and fair to everyone.” In this he echoed the Secretary’s position when Tillerson said, “Let’s get the border agreed first and then people can think about if they need a security wall or not at that point.”

During his visit, Tillerson reiterated US support for Lebanon’s government and the Lebanese armed forces, which is a major recipient of U.S. military assistance. reported that “Discussions also touched on the recent introduction of legislation targeting Hezbollah’s financial network.” Lebanon’s President Aoun made it clear that Lebanon has been “abiding by regulations that restrict terrorist money laundering activities,” yet noted that some of these sanctions have hurt Lebanon’s economy, throwing off potential investors. He highlighted that the US reduction in aid to UNRWA from $264 million to $60 million will gravely affect Lebanon’s ability to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Aoun assured the Secretary of State that Lebanon is committed to its policy of dissociation, whereby the country refrains from involvement in regional conflicts, yet is “not responsible for any regional conflicts that might influence Lebanon, as this out of our control.” In his note in the visitors’ book, Secretary Tillerson said that the US will “stand with the Lebanese people for a free and democratic Lebanon,” while confirming the US’ “continued support for the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces,” and the article added that the US “yet maintained that it considers both the political and military wing of Hezbollah as terrorist organizations.”

In meeting with Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shia bloc in Parliament and Speaker, Tillerson reaffirmed “the importance of the close US-Lebanese partnership as the “two countries work together to pursue common goals that advance Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability, and prosperity,” according to Naharnet.

So where is the US and what is its game plan?, were questions raised in several articles. For example, New York Magazine said that in the recent crises between Turkey and the US over its support for Kurdish fighters; Iran, Israel, and Syria over the recent cross-border military actions; and Lebanon and Israel’s borders, “Washington is pursuing its interests from the edges, rather than the center of the action.” The article gave several examples of Russia’s ascendant role in the region including its power broker role in Syria, influential relations with Turkey and Iran, and its continuing bromance with Israel.

“Washington has relatively few levers to affect what happens in Syria, not so much because of the limits of its military stance but because it has so little to offer on the diplomatic front. Not aid for rebuilding even post-ISIS Iraq, let alone any part of Syria. Not aid or placement for refugees. Not political leadership at peace talks. Not the ability to cut a deal with Russia or Iran, given the levels of domestic political rhetoric on both topics in Washington,” the article mentioned.

The Atlantic was equally critical of Washington’s lack of leadership while Russia is “a power broker in the Middle East, a spoiler in North Africa, and a partner (of sorts) in Asia, making it at least a global player if not a superpower.” It pointed out that “Russia is learning the lesson of so many imperial powers past: It’s much easier to get into a Middle Eastern conflict than to get out of one. For now, Putin has won his desired role as a geopolitical player. So far, he probably feels he’s winning in Syria. But the game is not over, and the costs are rising.”

Secretary Tillerson’s visit and words of support for Lebanon were welcome indeed, and as Edward Gabriel, President of the American Task Force for Lebanon, a leadership group of Lebanese-Americans who support strong US-Lebanon ties noted, “Without a comprehensive strategy for the region that commits the US to proactive policies that support our interests and our allies, the US risks its larger role of global leadership, a goal that can’t be attained without thoughtful and credible engagement.”

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