Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday indicated that America will maintain an indefinite military presence in Syria to fight terrorist groups, stand up to Iran’s growing influence and pave the way for an end to the regime of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
Tillerson’s remarks were the clearest enunciation yet by a Trump administration official of U.S. plans in Syria. They were especially striking in their open-ended commitment given that President Donald Trump campaigned on a desire to extricate the U.S. from messy wars in the Muslim world.
Tillerson, speaking in California at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said the Trump administration won’t repeat the error former President Barack Obama made in withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, only to have to send them back later to help fight the Islamic State terrorist network.
“We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011,” Tillerson said to an audience that included former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz, noting that the Islamic State and other terrorist groups were able to “wreak havoc” after the U.S. withdrawal.
Tillerson defended Trump’s policies in the Middle East, arguing that the still-young administration had delivered serious blows to the Islamic State, which has lost much of the territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria.
Trump has green-lighted aggressive operations “to achieve decisive results quickly” and given his military commanders more freedom in their moves against the Islamic State, Tillerson said. He said an estimated 3.2 million Syrians and 4.5 million Iraqis have been freed from its “tyranny.”
Tillerson allowed that while “some Americans are skeptical of continued involvement in Syria,” he argued it is “vital for the U.S. to remain engaged” to completely wipe out any ungovernable spaces” which may become “breeding grounds for ISIS,” another name for the Islamic State.
Former Obama administration officials say Trump inherited an anti-ISIS machine that was gathering momentum in the closing months of Obama’s presidency.
Tillerson made it clear that, in Syria, America’s top priority remains battling the Islamic State and other terrorist groups. He gave no sign that the U.S. plans to militarily intervene in the Syrian civil war, in which insurgent groups have tried to battle forces loyal to Assad, who has been aided militarily by Russia and Iran.
But he also insisted that the United States wants to see Assad fall from power and suggested that ongoing U.S. presence in the country will serve as a check on a dictator known for brutality, including the use of chemical weapons. Tillerson acknowledged that the end of the Assad regime may be far off and require a political process including elections, but he asked people for “patience.”
“This process will take time,” he said. “Responsible change will not (be) immediate as some hoped for … but that change will come.”
He also spoke out several times against Iran, which has taken advantage of its alliance with Assad and vacuums in parts of Syria to expand its influence in the region. The Iranian presence poses a threat to U.S. ally Israel, Tillerson noted.
Tillerson did not specify how many U.S. troops are in Syria, though the figure is believed to be in the low thousands — most of them Special Operations.
As a candidate, Trump warned against deep U.S. entanglement in Syria, a goal that conflicts with his desire to keep up the fight against the Islamic State. Since taking office, Trump has also agreed to keep a U.S. presence in Afghanistan despite strong reservations about U.S. goals there.
Tillerson later sat down with Rice for an on-stage conversation, in which he admitted that Trump’s frequent use of Twitter has presented him with diplomatic challenges.
“I don’t even have a Twitter account so I can follow his tweeting — so my staff has to print his tweets out,” Tillerson said. He added that the system works well for him because by the time he finds out about the tweet, he’s already learned about some of the reactions to the tweet and can figure out how to respond to both.
Tillerson also said the United States is “highly motivated” and “committed to a denuclearized North Korea, and we’re going to stay on that until we achieve it.” The U.S. will keep pushing other countries to place diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea to bring it to the table for talks, he added.
“They are feeling the bite of these sanctions,” Tillerson said, adding that the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, “knows how to reach me if he wants to talk, but he’s got to tell me he wants to talk. I’m not going to chase him.”