Tillerson: U.S. troops staying put in Syria to counter Assad, Iran

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Christopher Sparks, January 18, 2017

The U.S.’s ultimate objectives in Syria include ensuring ISIS is fully defeated, “post-Assad leadership” and preventing Iran from bolstering its position. Therefore, the U.S. will “maintain a military presence” in the country, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Jan. 17.

“A total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore (President Bashar) Assad and continue his brutal treatment against his own people,” Tillerson said in remarks to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson: ‘As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.’ / Getty Images

“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.”

If the U.S. were to withdraw, it would also “provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” Tillerson said. “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.”

Western intelligence officials have said that Iran is constructing a permanent military base in Syria near El-Kiswah, about 14 kilometers (8 miles) south of Damascus and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the border with Israel.

“As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit,” Tillerson said.

In his remarks to the Hoover Institution, Tillerson said the U.S. “desires five key end states for Syria:”

  • First, ISIS and Al Qaida in Syria suffer an enduring defeat, do not present a threat to the homeland, and do not resurface in a new form; that Syria never again serves as a platform or safe haven for terrorists to organize, recruit, finance, train and carry out attacks on American citizens at home or abroad or against our allies.
  • Second, the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime is resolved through a UN-led political process prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership, is functioning as a state.
  • Third, Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, their dreams of a northern arch are denied, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.
  • Fourth, conditions are created so that the refugees and IDPs can begin to safely and voluntarily return to Syria.
  • And fifth, Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

“The Trump administration is implementing a new strategy to achieve these end states,” Tillerson said.

One of the main priorities for the ongoing U.S. military presence in Syria, Tillerson said, is “ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge. Our military mission in Syria will remain conditions-based. We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed Al Qaida in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS. It was that vacuum that allowed ISIS and other terrorist organizations to wreak havoc on the country. And it gave ISIS a safe haven to plan attacks against Americans and our allies. We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria. ISIS presently 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.”

Defeating ISIS “will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their liberated areas,” Tillerson said. “The departure of Assad through the UN-led Geneva process will create the conditions for a durable peace within Syria and security along the borders for Syria’s neighbors.”

Tillerson said “we must persist in Syria to thwart Al Qaida, which still has a substantial presence and base of operations in northwest Syria. As in the years before 9/11, Al Qaida is eager to create a sanctuary to plan and launch attacks on the West. Although ISIS is the terrorist group that has dominated the headlines most in the last few years, Al Qaida is still a grave threat and is looking to reconstitute in new and powerful ways.”

The secretary of state said the U.S. “will continue to work with allies and partners, such as Turkey, to address the terror threat in Idlib and address Turkey’s concern with PKK terrorists elsewhere. Al Qaida is attempting to re-establish a base of operation for itself in Idlib. We are actively developing the best option to neutralize this threat in conjunction with allies and partners.”

Moscow will also be a key player as “the Assad regime clearly looks to Russia as a guarantor of its security,” Tillerson said. “Russia therefore has a meaningful role to play in persuading the Assad regime to engage constructively in the Geneva process. Beyond Russia’s own vote to support UNSCR 2254, President Putin reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to Geneva in his joint statement with President Trump issued from Da Nang, Vietnam last November. The United States and Russia have worked together on the southwest de-escalation area to success, and we have established deconfliction arrangements around the Euphrates River Valley to ensure the safety of our respective forces.

“Russia must now follow through on the commitment our presidents made last November to find an ultimate solution through the UN-led Geneva process. One of the ways Russia can do that is to exert its unique leverage on the Syrian regime, which itself has agreed to participate in the Geneva process. Russia must put new levels of pressure on the regime to not just show up in Geneva but to credibly engage with the UN’s efforts and implement agreed outcomes.”

“And finally, consistent with our values … we must give Syrians a chance to return home and rebuild their lives,” Tillerson said. “The safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees serves the security interests of the United States, our allies, and our partners. To relieve the enormous pressure of refugee flows on the surrounding region and on Europe, conditions must be created for these refugees to safely and voluntarily return home. It will be impossible to ensure stability on one end of the Mediterranean, in Europe, if chaos and injustice prevail on the other end, in Syria.”

Christopher Sparks is a veteran journalist who has worked for metropolitan and community newspapers in New York City, Washington, D.C., upstate New York and Florida. 


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