Hours after Rex Tillerson made his case for an indefinite US troop presence in Syria, the secretary of state walked to the back of his plane and took a question from a BuzzFeed News reporter: Did he just commit the United States to a new multi-front war in the Middle East?
The question arose after Tillerson delivered a sweeping speech at Stanford University on Wednesday in which he linked the need for a lasting US troop presence in Syria to a broader goal of rolling back the influence of Iran and thwarting Bashar al-Assad’s capacity to commit mass atrocities. The speech seemed to dismiss the days when candidate Donald Trump demanded that the US focus exclusively on ISIS as opposed to the ouster of Assad.
“It is crucial to our national interest to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria,” Tillerson said during his speech. “U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran a golden opportunity to further strengthen its own position in Syria.”
Tillerson, it seemed, was moving the goal posts to include a more ambitious standoff with Iran and the Assad regime, a strategy long sought by informal advisors to the Trump administration such as John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, and Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that promotes confrontation with Iran.
With ISIS terrorists dispelled to a small corner of territory along the Iraq-Syria border, Tillerson said the United States must now confront the fact that Iran has vastly expanded its position in Syria.
“We must ensure that the resolution of this conflict does not put Iran closer to its great goal of controlling the region,” Tillerson said.
This new goal did not seem to fit the “America First” vision outlined by candidate Donald Trump who repeatedly said “what we should do is focus on ISIS.”
“We should not be focusing on Syria,” Trump said in October 2016. “You’re going to end up in World War III over Syria if we listen to Hillary Clinton."
When confronted with this contradiction during a rare press availability on his Boeing 757 flying following his speech, Tillerson tried to lower expectations about the likelihood of direct fighting between US forces and Iranian and Syrian government troops and militias.
“We’ve been very clear that we’re not there to in any way engage with the regime, we’re not there to engage with Iran,” said Tillerson, almost shouting so he could be heard over the white noise of his plane flying between California and Andrews Air Force Base.
“We’re there to defeat ISIS. If our forces are attacked by others, then we clearly have the authority and the right to defend ourselves,” he said.
He insisted that his speech was “not inconsistent with what President Trump’s made the priority.”
“The troops are there to ensure we have an enduring defeat of ISIS,” he said.
But Tillerson also declared in his speech that “reducing and expelling malicious Iranian influence from Syria” is a top priority.
How the US can achieve that without directly confronting either Assad or his Iranian allies remains unclear. The US currently has about 2,000 troops in Syria, far too few to provide a counterweight to the thousands of Iranians who’ve been rallied to support Assad. (By some estimates, there are 125,000 Iranian-backed forces in Syria.) And by declaring ending Iran’s influence as an explicit goal of US foreign policy in Syria, he may be imperiling US troops, a prospect that has long-worried US military officials, who remember the lethality of Iranian-origin explosives on US forces who fought in Iraq a decade ago.
But Tillerson said he remembers the lessons of Iraq all too well, and that the paramount lesson is that a precipitous withdrawal of US forces could allow terrorist groups like ISIS to return.
“One of the huge mistakes made in Iraq was we left too quickly, and that’s what caused al Qaeda to reemerge, it’s what caused it to morph into ISIS,” Tillerson said during the interview. “In fact, we’re already seeing sleeper cells of ISIS, we’re already seeing other elements of ISIS trying to reconstitute. So the message is our military presence is still about defeating ISIS and ensuring that it’s an enduring defeat.”
But the problems facing Syria may be even more complex than in Iraq.
The number of internally displaced people fleeing fighting in Idlib province, for instance, has doubled in the last week to more than 200,000 people.
But the top US diplomat appeared to have no workable plan to resolve the presence in that north central Syrian province of al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters. The US and Russia have not reached an agreement on the subject, he said.
“We have no agreement on de-escalation around Idlib province because of it being such a complicated area,” he said, responding to an ABC News reporter also on the plane. “We have offered, but we’ve not had any engagement on that.”
Tillerson said the main US challenge in Idlib was “dealing with the presence” of jihadist militants such as al Qaeda and the Nusrah Front who are “intermingled with the population.”
Tillerson said the US offered to coordinate and share intelligence with Russia, which has intervened on the side of Assad, “but we’ve not made a lot of progress in coming to any kind of agreement of coordinating in Idlib with Russia.”
Another brewing problem is Turkey’s escalating threats to target Kurdish militants in northern Syria. Those fighters are part of the People’s Protection Units or YPG, a group allied to the United States and closely affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Turkey considers a foremost enemy
Turkish tanks and personnel have gathered in the border region and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has threatened to invade as early as this week, referring to reports of a US-trained “border force” as “an army of terrorists” that threaten Turkey’s national security.
Tillerson blamed the escalation of tensions on a miscommunication about what the US is doing in the border region and acknowledged that the US owes Turkey an “explanation.”
He explained that the US is not training a border security force but merely ensuring that “local elements” are providing security to liberated areas.
“It was not properly described and it’s unfortunate,” he said. “We understand why they reacted the way they did.”