Although the Obama Administration has proclaimed its intention to “pivot” toward Asia, Secretary of State John Kerry has been forced to pivot back to the Middle East in advance of his forthcoming trip to Asia.
Kerry was originally slated to travel to South Korea, Japan, and China following the April 10–11 G-8 foreign ministers’ meeting in London, but he now has added stops in Turkey, Israel, and the West Bank at the beginning of the trip.
This will be Kerry’s third trip to the Middle East since becoming Secretary of State on February 1. The deteriorating situation in Syria will be a major focus of this trip, as it was on his previous trips. It is sure to be the prime issue that he discusses in Turkey, his first stop.
Turkey is concerned about the growing flood of refugees that is spilling over its border from Syria. Tensions are growing along all of Syria’s borders, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has accused Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of lying about the Syrian rebellion. Syria has also warned Jordan that it is “playing with fire” by aiding the Syrian opposition, and Jordan has doubled the number of its troops deployed along the border.
Kerry is also expected to try to bolster ties between Turkey and Israel, which improved after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Ankara’s demand for an apology for the deaths of nine Turkish activists who violently challenged Israel’s arms embargo on Hamas-controlled Gaza as part of a “peace flotilla” in 2010. Erdogan has delayed full normalization of bilateral relations until Israel agrees to pay compensation for the deaths and relax its embargo on Gaza.
Kerry also hopes to revive the long-stalled Israeli–Palestinian peace talks and is reportedly considering confidence-building measures that each side can take to ease the path to new talks. But this is likely to take considerable time and effort.
Palestinians in the West Bank are currently staging violent demonstrations over the death of a prominent prisoner, whipped up by incitement by Palestinian Authority officials who charge that he was denied medical treatment for cancer, despite Israeli assertions that he made several hospital visits. Two Palestinians were killed earlier this week by Israeli soldiers who were attacked by rioters armed with Molotov cocktails.
Israel has also been targeted by at least four rockets fired by Palestinian militants in Gaza. Israel responded with a retaliatory air strike, its first since the establishment of a cease-fire last November.
If Kerry is committed to tamping down tensions and reviving peace talks through some form of shuttle talks, as he has suggested, then he will need to devote substantial time and energy to this goal. He will also need to devote time to Syria, the destabilizing spillover of the “Arab Spring,” and the long-simmering crisis over Iran’s nuclear program.
Despite the Obama Administration’s professed desire to pivot toward Asia, Kerry is likely to find much of his time focused on the volatile Middle East.