The United States signaled on Wednesday an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader US strategy to prevent Islamic State’s resurgence, pave the way diplomatically for the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and curtail Iran’s influence.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a speech at Stanford University, made clear the United States would work diplomatically toward Assad’s exit from power, but called for “patience” - an acknowledgment that Assad has been bolstered by Russia and Iran and is unlikely to leave power immediately.
Tillerson’s urging of patience was the clearest indication yet of Washington’s acknowledgment that Assad’s stronger position in Syria, bolstered by Russia and Iran, meant he would not leave power immediately.
Billed as the Trump administration’s new strategy on Syria, the announcement will prolong the risks and redefine the mission for the US military, which has for years sought to define its operations in Syria along more narrow lines of battling Islamic State and has about 2,000 US ground forces in the country.
While much of the US strategy would focus on diplomatic efforts, Tillerson said:
“But let us be clear: the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” while acknowledging many Americans’ skepticism of military involvement in conflicts abroad, Tillerson said.
US forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian-backed forces in the country, leading to the shoot-down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year, as well as to tensions with Russia.
Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, had previously disclosed elements of the policy but Tillerson’s speech was meant to formalize and clearly define it.
A US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with an opportunity to reinforce its position in Syria, Tillerson said.
As candidate, US President Donald Trump was critical of his predecessors’ military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. As president, Trump had to commit to an open-ended
presence in Afghanistan and, now, Syria.
The transition to what appears to be open-ended stability operations in Syria could leave those US-backed forces vulnerable to shifting alliances, power struggles and miscommunications as Assad’s allies and enemies vie for greater control of post-war Syria.
After nearly seven years of war, hundreds of thousands Syrians killed and a humanitarian disaster, Tillerson asked nations to keep up economic pressure on Assad but provide aid to areas no longer under Islamic State’s control.
“Our expectation is that the desire for a return to normal life and these tools of pressure will help rally the Syrian people and individuals within the regime to compel Assad to step aside,” Tillerson said.
The top US diplomat said Washington would carry out “stabilization initiatives” such as clearing landmines and restoring basic utilities in areas no longer under Islamic State control, while making clear that “‘stabilization’ is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction.But it is essential.”
Tillerson said the United States would “vigorously support” a United Nations process to end the conflict, a so-far stalled process. He called on Russia, a main supporter of Assad, to “put new levels of pressure” on the Syrian government to “credibly engage” with UN peace efforts.
The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria said on Wednesday he had invited the Syrian government and opposition to a special meeting to be held next week in Vienna.
But it was not immediately clear how or why Moscow would heed Washington’s oft-repeated demands.