Tillerson plans Middle East swing to boost anti-IS fight

Visit, which will not include a stop in Israel, comes as Syria chaos has grown with Turkish offensive against US-backed Kurdish militia

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (out of frame), in Bogota, on February 6, 2018. (AFP/Raul ARBOLEDA)
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (out of frame), in Bogota, on February 6, 2018. (AFP/Raul ARBOLEDA)

WASHINGTON — Washington’s top diplomat will make a five capital tour of the Middle East and Turkey next week, rallying allies as Syria’s multi-front civil war rages unabated.

Officials portrayed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip to Cairo, Kuwait City, Amman, Beirut and Ankara as a chance to build on US-led successes against the Islamic State group.

Notably missing from the itinerary is a stop in Jerusalem, which had expressed uneasiness about a US-Russia brokered ceasefire in southern Syria last year that critics say allowed Iran to gain a foothold near Israel’s border.

The visit comes as Syrian and Russian forces step up strikes against rebel-held enclaves, Turkey battles US-backed Kurdish forces for a foothold in the north, and US-led forces bombed pro-regime fighters attacking their local allies in the east.

The State Department said Tillerson would travel to the region between February 11 and 16.

In Kuwait, he will attend a meeting of the “Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS,” the first gathering at this level since US-backed local forces drove the jihadist group out of its Syrian bastion Raqqa, a statement said.

“The secretary and his counterparts will discuss how the 74-member global coalition can ensure an enduring defeat for ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Iraq has declared its territory liberated from the Islamic State group, but about 2,000 US troops remain in Syria supporting a mainly Kurdish militia that controls part of the east of the country.

These Kurdish forces are now under attack from both Washington’s NATO ally Turkey and by Syria’s Russian-backed regime.

Turkish-backed fighters from the Free Syrian Army stand in the Tal Malid area, north of Aleppo, as they fire towards Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in the village of Um al-Hosh, in the area of Afrin, on January 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Nazeer al-Khatib)

This week US forces helped repel an attack by government forces in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, reportedly killing around 100 pro-regime fighters in air and artillery strikes.

The chaos in Syria will no doubt be on Tillerson’s agenda in Turkey and Egypt, but he will also visit Lebanon for talks with senior leaders ahead of general elections set for May 6.

Tillerson will meet with Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri.

“The secretary’s visit will emphasize US support for the Lebanese people and the Lebanese Armed Forces,” Nauert said.

In November, Israel complained that its concerns were not taken into account as the US, Russia and Jordan brokered a ceasefire in the Syrian Golan Heights. Officials said the pact did not go far enough in making sure Iranian or Hezbollah forces could not entrench themselves near the 1973 buffer zone between Israel and Syria on the strategic plateau.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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