Tillerson meets with Aliyev, US recognizes Azerbaijan's strategic role

Wed 12 July 2017 | 14:05 GMT

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev met on the sidelines of 22nd World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul, July 10.

The United States reiterated its support for the Southern Gas Corridor project on Sunday during a meeting between US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, on the sidelines of the 22nd World Petroleum Congress currently being held in Istanbul, according to Caspian News.

Tillerson met with Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev on Monday, where the two sides discussed the settlement of the long-standing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, amongst other issues.

Azerbaijan’s leaders are roiling from a deadly incident that took place along the line of contact on July 4, in Azerbaijan’s southwestern Fuzuli district, where a two-year-old girl and her grandmother were killed due to mortar fire by Armenian troops. In what was another violation of a standing ceasefire agreement by Armenia, the incident also resulted in a woman being hospitalized after receiving severe shrapnel wounds.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert expressed "deep concern" over the ceasefire violations, and extended "heartfelt condolences to the families of those victims.”

Monday’s meeting between Tillerson and Aliyev is seen as an important step for Azerbaijan as it tries to expand its bilateral relationship with the US under the six-month-old Trump administration.

"President Donald Trump's government is new. That is why his policy [towards Azerbaijan] has not been concretely defined just yet, and so there is a need for such meetings,” Azerbaijani political expert Ilgar Valizada told Caspian News, referring to the US Secretary of State’s meeting with Aliyev. “Rex Tillerson is a prominent figure, so this meeting was very important [for Azerbaijan].”

Prior to taking the helm at the State Department, Tillerson was the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil from 2006 to 2016, a point that helps brandish his credentials as America’s top diplomat in the eyes of leaders whose economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas exports.

The Southern Gas Corridor has become a central feature in the relationships between Azerbaijan and the European Union – and by extension, its western ally, the US – as the mega-project will deliver Caspian Sea gas to European markets via a network of three pipelines that traverse six countries and stretch over 3,500 kilometers.

The South Caucasus Pipeline (Azerbaijan, Georgia), the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP; Turkey) and the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP; Greece, Albania, and Italy) will bring natural gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz gas field at a total cost of about $45 billion. To date, 70 percent of TANAP and 42 percent of the TAP project has been implemented.

During Monday’s meeting, Tillerson also recognized Azerbaijan's contribution to peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan, as well as the role it plays in transportation logistics in the region.

Azerbaijan is one of the few Muslim-majority countries that supported the coalition against terrorism and sent peacekeeping forces to Iraq and Afghanistan to contribute to those efforts. In addition, Azerbaijan is a critical supply point for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. As a non-NATO ally, Azerbaijan has actively participated in various NATO-led military operations, including the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

In 2002, Azerbaijan first sent troops to Afghanistan, where it currently maintains a peacekeeping mission of more than 90 servicemen, including medical officers and members of the explosive ordnance disposal unit. Azerbaijan also supported the United States in “Operation Iraqi Freedom”, allowing the U.S. to use its air bases and deploy peacekeeping forces that participated in the Iraq War.

On Monday, during a conference in Washington headlined “Silk Road, Security, and Development in the Caspian Region,” Azerbaijan's Ambassador to the US Elin Suleymanov credited US involvement in the region with spurring economic development since Azerbaijan gained independence from the USSR in 1991.

“I have some optimism about this administration and the Caspian region, Caucasus and the Central Asia region,” said Luke Coffey, Director of Foreign Policy at The Heritage Foundation, during the conference.
“Because we have people at the top who understand this region and especially its energy potential. Rex Tillerson with his business background understands these issues, General Mattis, former head of central command which has Central Asia portfolio knows the region as well. I am optimistic on this front. What I would like to see is the same political enthusiasm from the very top of the White House for projects like the SGC.” Coffey added.


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