US Secretary of State also meets Syrian opposition negotiators during his visit to Jordan. Tillerson says he hopes to have talks about how to work cooperatively to lessen threats to Turkey when he visits Ankara this week.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi after their joint news conference conference in Amman, Jordan February 14, 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi after their joint news conference conference in Amman, Jordan February 14, 2018. (Reuters)

The United States's work on a new Middle East peace plan is "fairly well advanced", Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday, though he provided no details on an initiative which comes amid deep Palestinian scepticism about US intentions.

Tillerson, who was speaking during a visit to Jordan to sign a five-year $6.4 billion aid package that extends US support to a key Arab ally, said President Donald Trump would decide when to announce the peace plan.

The United States infuriated even its Arab allies in December when Trump recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and initiated the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv. 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he would not cooperate with the United States in its efforts as a mediator.

"I have seen the (administration's peace) plan... It’s been under development for a number of months. I have consulted with them on the plan, identified areas that we feel need further work. I will say it’s fairly well advanced..." Tillerson said.

There has been little detail on the plan so far. 

Officials told Reuters in December it would deal with all major issues, including Jerusalem, borders, security, the future of Jewish settlements on occupied land and the fate of Palestinian refugees, and would also urge Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to provide significant financial support to the Palestinians.

The plan is being crafted by a team led by Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, and US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, both of whom have travelled to key regional capitals since the Trump administration came to office.

Palestinians have grown increasingly concerned that any plan Trump unveils will shortchange them, a fear exacerbated by his move on Jerusalem, which upended decades of US policy that the status of the ancient city must be decided in negotiations.

Jerusalem is home to sites holy to Muslims, Jews and Christians.

US-Turkey relations

Tillerson is also expected this week to visit Turkey, with which US ties have become badly strained over Washington's support for the YPG in Syria.

The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK which is regarded as a terror group by the US, EU, NATO and Turkey, and has waged a bloody campaign against the Turkish state for more than three decades.

Tillerson said Washington had to "find a way to continue to work in the same direction."

The US secretary of state added that he hopes to have talks about how to work cooperatively to lessen threats to Turkey.

Meeting with Syrian opposition 

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also met on Wednesday, the Syrian opposition negotiators in Jordan Wednesday for closed-door talks in the wake of a January peace summit hosted by regime backer Russia.

The opposition and Kurdish groups had boycotted the congress, held just days after a ninth round of United Nations-led talks in Vienna failed to yield progress towards ending Syria's devastating conflict.

The West views Russia's Syria peace efforts with suspicion, concerned that Moscow is seeking to sideline the UN process.

But the US acting assistant secretary of state, David Satterfield, said Wednesday, that the fallout had been limited.

"We got, in the end, a communique which validated the UN role," Satterfield said before Tillerson's meeting in Amman. "So this game, this theatre that was Sochi... finally came out in a way that did no damage."

'Iran to withdraw from Syria'

Tillerson also voiced concern over recent escalations between Iran and Israel in Syria, urging Tehran to withdraw all its forces from the latter.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi attend a news conference in Amman, Jordan February 14, 2018
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi attend a news conference in Amman, Jordan February 14, 2018 (Reuters)

Citing Iran's influence on Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Tillerson said the US supported a “free and independent” Lebanon in which all military forces remained under the control of the government.

Responding to the comments, a senior Iranian official, Ali Akbar Velayati, said Iran's military presence in Syria was legitimate and based on an invitation from Damascus. He called on US forces to leave Syria. 

Jordanian concerns

Jordanian King Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites, making Amman particularly sensitive to any changes of status there. The king has warned that Trump's decision could undermine stability and fuel radicalism.

Jordanian foreign minister Ayman al Safadi reiterated on Wednesday that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was the "only solution we believe can work".

The Trump administration has said it would back a two-state solution if the parties agreed to it.

Trump had threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that backed a UN resolution calling for Washington to reverse its Jerusalem decision. Jordan backed the resolution.

But the Trump administration has courted King Abdullah, a moderate pro-Western Arab leader whose kingdom has long upheld US interests in a turbulent region.

On Wednesday Tillerson met the king at his personal residence where the two emphasised strong US-Jordanian ties.

Commenting on the memorandum of understanding signed for $6.375 billion in aid on Wednesday, the US State Department said, "(It) highlights the pivotal role Jordan plays in helping foster and safeguard regional stability and supports US objectives such as the global campaign to defeat ISIS (Daesh), counter-terrorism cooperation, and economic development."

Conflicts in neighbouring Syria and Iraq have damaged Jordan's economy, forcing it to borrow heavily from external and domestic sources. 

Jordan has been an important part of the US-led coalition battling Daesh in Iraq and Syria.

Financial aid to Jordan increased by $275 million

Despite the cut in UNRWA funds, Tillerson and Safadi signed an aid agreement in Amman on Wednesday.

The agreement pledges to boost aid to Jordan by more than one billion US dollars over the next five years, in spite of Trump's repeated threats to punish countries that don't agree with US policy in the Middle East.

Jordan voted in December to condemn the US for recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, and it criticised Washington for withholding Palestinian refugee funds.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi signed an aid agreement in Amman on Wednesday, February 14, 2018.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi signed an aid agreement in Amman on Wednesday, February 14, 2018. (Reuters)

But US officials say the administration will give Jordan $1.275 billion annually until 2022. That's $275 million more than the current level.

The first such deal between the two since Trump took office as president, it commits the US to providing at least $750 million a year in economic support and $350 million in military aid.

Jordan is one of the world's largest recipients of American aid, having received over $20 billion since 1951.

The kingdom also relies heavily on aid from the European Union and Saudi Arabia.

Its economy has been battered by the conflicts in neighbouring Iraq and Syria and its public debt stands at around $35 billion.

The United States has separately provided nearly $1.1 billion in humanitarian aid to support Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies