Tillerson Warns Islamic State Fight Not Over Despite Gains

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the battle against Islamic State isn’t over, urging other members of a coalition aimed at destroying the group to make sure it does not emerge as a threat elsewhere.

Speaking at a gathering in Kuwait of the 74-nation alliance fighting the jihadist group, Tillerson pledged an additional $200 million for stabilizing liberated parts of Syria, and called on other countries to help out there and in Iraq. Islamic State fighters are trying to find haven far from Middle East battlefields, including in Afghanistan and the Philippines, he said.

“Without continued attention and support from coalition members, we risk the return of extremist groups like ISIS in liberated areas in Iraq and Syria, and their spread in new locations,” Tillerson said.

The secretary is on a five-nation trip through the Middle East that poses his most challenging task in office thus far. He will look to ease new tensions around the Syria conflict and assuage allies angered by the Trump administration’s decision to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel.

Later Tuesday, Tillerson will attend a conference aimed at raising money for the reconstruction of Iraq. While the U.S. is expected to announce a $3 billion package through the Export-Import Bank, pledges so far have fallen well short of the $88 billion Iraq says it needs.

Kurdish Fighters

As on past trips, Tillerson’s message has been complicated by President Donald Trump, who tweeted on Feb. 12 that it was time to invest at home after “so stupidly spending $7 trillion in the Middle East.”

Tillerson will fly later Tuesday to Jordan, where leaders are also anxious about a U.S. decision to slash funding for the United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees. Jordan hosts more than 2 million Palestinian refugees, the vast majority of whom get help from the UN Relief and Works Agency.

After that, he’ll head to Lebanon and then Turkey to try to shore up a relationship that’s been increasingly strained by U.S. support for Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Looming in the background is flaring tension between Iran and Israel. At the weekend, the Israeli military struck 12 targets in Syria, including four belonging to Iran, after saying that an Iranian drone penetrated its airspace. An Israeli fighter plane crashed in northern Israel after coming under fire from Syrian anti-aircraft missiles.

Tillerson’s trip will not include a stop in Israel. On Feb. 12, Michael Oren, a senior aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the U.S. is “not in the game” when it comes to Syria. Israel is counting on Russia -- which also maintains troops in the country and is backing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad -- to keep the confrontation with Iran from spiraling into war, he said.

Tillerson rejected that notion at a briefing later Tuesday, saying that coalition forces working to defeat the Islamic State now control about 30 percent of Syria’s territory, including a lot of its oil fields. He said the U.S. is in “very active” discussions with Russia over Syria, where U.S. forces killed scores of Russian mercenaries last week.

“I think in terms of this observation that the U.S. has little leverage or role to play is simply false,” Tillerson said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.