US Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson offered a peek into the incoming Donald Trump administration's Middle East policy during his confirmation hearing at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
At the hearing, which will determine if Trump's nominee will be approved or rejected for high office, Tillerson read out a statement and answered questions for over four hours on US foreign relations.
Tillerson listed US concerns in the Middle East, including relations with Turkey, Syria and a resurgent Russia. His priority however was the "defeat" of Daesh in the region and "asserting" US leadership on the global stage.
Tillerson, a former CEO of oil giant Exxon, criticised the outgoing Obama administration, in particular its failure to act on "red lines" it imposed in Syria which left a power vacuum for others to exploit. President Barack Obama was perceived to have allowed Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad to get away with using chemical weapons against his own people.
While conceding that Russia poses a "dangerous threat", pointing to its invasion of the Ukraine and its support for Syrian forces that "brutally violates the laws of war" he singled out "radical Islam" as the number one problem.
Tillerson's comments on "radical Islam" would be seen as a major shift, at least in tone, from the Obama administration, which avoided religious designation of terrorist groups. Tillerson stated: "Radical Islam is not a new ideology…it is a hateful, deadly and an illegitimate expression of the Islamic faith."
He went further and labelled "other agents" besides Daesh, such as Al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and certain elements within Iran, as additional threats to the United States.
A big chunk of the hearing focused on Russia, with the nominee calling Moscow an "unfriendly adversary" but stopping short of labelling President Vladimir Putin a war criminal for his role in Syria.
Even when pushed by members of the committee to admit that Russia violated the rules of war and conducted war crimes in Aleppo, Tillerson refrained from supporting the view saying "these are very serious charges and I do not have the information to make such a conclusion."
Tillerson was less concerned about stopping Russia in its tracks than with defeating the "threat of terrorism", even while Russia threatens to continue its displacement of the US in the Middle East as the dominant force and continues to worry its NATO allies.
Trump's candidate for Washington's most senior diplomat also appeared open to exploring cooperation with Putin against "radical Islam" saying: "When cooperation with Russia is based on common interests, it is possible [to reduce] the global threat of terrorism."
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.
He was also keen to emphasize that the incoming administration would not pursue "competing priorities" of ousting the Assad regime and defeating Daesh at the same time, reaffirming that the first would have to wait until the defeat of the extremist group in Syria.
On Iran, Tillerson embraced a more hawkish tone, 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."
Tillerson made no mention of repealing the controversial Iran nuclear deal signed in 2015 but insisted: "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."
The bigger picture that the former CEO and engineer tried to emphasise was to rebuild Washington's relations which he described as "building pathways to new partnerships and strengthen old bonds which have frayed," mentioning Turkey specifically, and most important of all restoring US credibility and dominance in the region.
It was not clear if Tillerson had cleared doubts about his cosy relations with Russia, an image partly formed by his strong business ties with the country.
His cautious tone and singling out "radical Islam" as the biggest threat while Russia is expanding its sphere of influence at the US' expense may be sufficient for his detractors to dismiss him as a suitable candidate for the very important role of US Secretary of State.