In a speech to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University on Wednesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the United States would retain a military presence in Syria for the foreseeable future.
The objective of this presence is to finish smashing the Islamic State, battle al-Qaeda and other terror groups, protect refugees when they return home, and secure dictator Bashar Assad’s transition out of power. His remarks are being taken as the first open-ended commitment of American troops to Syria.
“A total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad to continue his brutal treatment against his own people,” Tillerson said. “A murderer of his own people cannot generate the trust required for long-term stability.”
“A stable, unified and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful,” Tillerson insisted, despite Assad’s apparent secure position in Damascus thanks to support from Russia and Iran.
“Once Assad is gone from power, the United States will gladly encourage the normalization of economic relations between Syria and other nations. This process will take time. But we’re patient in the departure of Assad and in the establishment of new leadership,” he said.
Tillerson warned that “ungoverned spaces, especially in conflict zones” are breeding grounds for terrorism, with al-Qaeda remaining a powerful threat as the Islamic State (ISIS) collapses. He stressed the importance of de-escalating the military conflict, restoring infrastructure for the local populace, and removing dangers such as unexploded landmines and the Syrian regime’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
Putting the Islamic State away remains a top priority for the Trump administration.
“ISIS has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two,” Tillerson vowed. He referenced the Obama administration’s disastrous pullout from Iraq in 2011 and said the Trump administration “would not let history repeat itself.”
“We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011, when a premature departure from Iraq allowed Al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS,” he said. “The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring that ISIS cannot reemerge.”
The secretary also warned that American withdrawal from Syria would “provide Iran with the opportunity to strengthen its own position.”
“As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit,” he said.
Tillerson cast doubt on reports that the United States is working with Kurdish militia groups to form a “border security force” of 30,000 fighters along the Turkish border, a notion that has not been well-received in Turkey.
“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” he insisted, revealing that he personally discussed the issue with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu when they met in Vancouver this week.
Tillerson said he told Cavusoglu that the U.S. was training militia groups to “block ISIS from their escape routes,” not threaten the Turkish border. The Turks have signaled they are ready to begin a significant military offensive against Kurdish groups in northwestern Syria, working in concert with their own Syrian militia allies, and would step up those plans if Washington proceeds with any plan that would strengthen the Kurdish position.
Tillerson envisioned working toward a Syria free of terrorist influences, safe for the return of refugees, and ready for fair elections that would surely remove the Assad family from power.
“This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership. Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform and U.N.-supervised elections. But that change will come,” he promised.
Tillerson’s remarks were immediately condemned by the Syrian government, which said the U.S. military presence in Syria is “an act of aggression and a violation of sovereignty,” as reported by Voice of America News.