Kerry Middle East Trip: Palestine is a Side Trip, the Real Focus is Syria

Much of the media coverage of Secretary of State John Kerry's current round of trips to the Middle East has focused on his half-hearted attempts to kick-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But it's highly likely that the real purpose of his trip has little to do with peace and a lot to do with war: specifically, the war in Syria.

It's true that Kerry made a perfunctory visit to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. But aside from some vague neoliberal investment talk, he offered little in the way of solutions to the conflict (such as insisting the Israelis freeze settlement construction.) Given these facts, Kerry's pronouncement that the talks with Netanyahu and Abbas have been "very constructive" sounds rather unconvincing.

Much more significant is the time Kerry has spent in Israel, Turkey, and Jordan. And more significant still is Kerry's meeting with Syrian rebel leaders in London. Since Syria is at the "top of the agenda" at the G8 meeting in London, there's little doubt what Kerry is talking to Turkey and Jordan about.

Viewed through this lens, it starts to make sense that Obama made it a priority to stabalize relations between Turkey and Israel during his visit to Israel last month. Turkey, Israel and Jordan are all crucial to regional security, and as the situation in Syria continues to spiral out of control, it's important that Israel and Turkey can work together.

The U.S., of course, is intimately involved in the Syrian conflict and has been helping to arm the rebels since early 2012, despite nonsensical media claims that Obama blocked arms shipments to the rebels. Given that Syria produces over 400,000 barrels of oil a day, it makes sense that the U.S. is interested in the fate of the country, and by helping the rebels now, U.S. leaders likely hope that they will have easy access to that oil when Assad eventually falls. 

But for now, Syria remains in a quagmire. As large numbers of Syrian refugees pour into Turkey and Jordan, the U.S. must coordinate with these countries if it hopes to maintain its influence in the region. Washington is unlikely to be able to rely on Hezbollah in Lebanon for much help in negotiating the tricky waters of the situation. 

And Kerry, of course, also has to figure out something to do with Iran. If Israel unilaterally attacks, the U.S. will be dragged into war as well, despite a complete lack of evidence that Iran is actually preparing a nuclear weapon. 

Although the media is focusing on Kerry's (subdued) role in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, this is clearly not the focus of his Middle East trips. From Kerry's perspective, there are more pressing issues in the region at the moment.