Tillerson Vows U.S. Forces to Stay in Syria to Counter Iran

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson vowed the U.S. military will stay in war-torn Syria for the foreseeable future to counter Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Iran, even as he urged patience in waiting out Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In a speech at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in California on Wednesday, Tillerson called for closer cooperation with Russia to avoid conflict in “de-escalation zones.” He also offered financial aid and diplomatic assistance in “liberated areas” to help rebuild parts of Syria shattered by almost seven years of civil war.

Tillerson Vows U.S. Forces to Stay in Syria to Counter Iran

“Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform and UN-supervised elections,” Tillerson said, adding that Assad’s eventual departure was inevitable. “Our military mission in Syria will remain conditions-based, and focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge.”

The speech offered the clearest articulation of the Trump administration’s determination to maintain a U.S. presence in Syria, where Assad has managed to consolidate his grip after Russia’s military intervention on his behalf in 2015. According to a Pentagon estimate in December, the U.S. has about 2,000 troops in Syria as well as a diplomatic presence in cities such as Kobani. Despite that, Washington has seen discussions over Syria’s future overtaken by a Russian-led effort that has largely sidelined Western powers.

Contrary to the U.S. position, Russia has indicated Assad may stay in power and criticized the U.S. for seeking “regime change.” Moscow’s envoy to Syria last month said he saw no reason why Assad “shouldn’t or wouldn’t run for another presidential term.”

Tillerson Vows U.S. Forces to Stay in Syria to Counter Iran

Nevertheless, Tillerson said the overarching goal for the U.S. is to make progress toward a vote in which Syrians at home and overseas would usher in a “post-Assad” government to rebuild.

Tillerson portrayed U.S. policy toward Syria as a break from former President Barack Obama’s approach. He called the U.S. military’s withdrawal from neighboring Iraq a mistake.

“We cannot repeat the mistake of 2011,” Tillerson said. “A premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually become ISIS.”

Nation-Building

While Tillerson insisted that the U.S. wouldn’t get into the business of nation-building in Syria, he promised “stabilization initiatives in liberated areas,” such as help restoring basic services and getting rid of mines and other explosives left from the civil war. The International Monetary Fund has estimated the total cost of Syrian reconstruction at $200 billion.

“We will discourage economic relationships between the Assad regime and any other country,” Tillerson said. “Once Assad is gone from power, the United States will gladly encourage the normalization of economic relationships between Syria and other nations.”

Iran Focus

Tillerson singled out Iran for criticism several times, saying that “through its position in Syria, Iran is in a stronger position to extend its track record of attacking U.S. interests, allies and personnel in the region. It is spending billions of dollars a year to prop up Assad and wage proxy wars at the expense of supporting its own people.”

“Diminishing” Iran’s influence in Syria is a key goal for U.S. policy in Syria, Tillerson said.

Tillerson praised Turkey’s contribution to the fight against Islamic State. Relations have been strained over U.S. support for Kurdish fighters who joined the battle against Islamic State along the Turkey-Syria border. Turkey views them as terrorists, and says the Kurds are seeking to carve out an autonomous territory along its border. The tension escalated this week after the U.S. promised to help the Syrian Kurds create a new border-security force.

Turkey is threatening imminent military action, although its latest warnings have been directed at Kurdish fighters in northwestern Syria and not in the northeast where U.S. troops are embedded with them. In a statement late Wednesday, the National Security Council in Ankara said that Turkey “will not allow the formation of a terror army at its Syria border and will take every measure to prevent it.’’ The council also expressed “sadness” that a NATO ally has declared Kurdish forces to be partners and provided them with arms.

Tillerson sought to address the Turkish concerns, saying that any interim deal “must be truly representative and must not threaten any neighboring states.”

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