US military to maintain indefinite presence in Syria, Tillerson says

US military to maintain indefinite presence in Syria, Tillerson says
Thu Jan 18, 2018 09:36:13

(The Guardian)

The US intends to maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria, not only to fight Isis and al-Qaida but also to provide a bulwark against "Iranian influence", ensure the departure of the "Assad regime" and create conditions for the return of refugees, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said on Wednesday.

The new Syria policy, outlined by Tillerson in a speech at Stanford University, represents a significant expansion of US aims in the country, which the Trump administration had previously restricted to counter-terrorism throughout its first year in office.

It had been unclear for some time how a strictly limited counter-terrorism role squared with Trump’s stated goal of containing Iranian influence, or how it would give the US clout at negotiations over Syria’s political future.

Tillerson’s speech suggested that as Russia drew down its military presence, the US would expand its own. How far it is ready to risk troops and invest resources in the policy remains far from clear.

Tillerson’s comments came as the number of internal refugees fleeing fighting in Idlib has more than doubled in the last week, to 212,000 people, in an escalating humanitarian crisis that officials have warned could spur a new migration wave.

In his Stanford speech, Tillerson laid out five US goals in Syria: the defeat of Isis and al-Qaida, a UN-brokered resolution for Syria that involved Bashar al-Assad’s departure, a curb on Iran, conditions for the safe return of refugees, and the complete elimination of remaining chemical weapons.

While the focus of US military effort thus far has been on Isis, Tillerson warned: “Al-Qaida is still a grave threat and is looking to reconstitute in new and powerful ways.

“Additionally, a total withdrawal of US personnel at this time would restore "Assad" [the Syrian government] and continue his brutal treatment of his own people,” the secretary of state continued. The Trump administration has vacillated on whether regime change had be part of any political process. In this speech, Tillerson signalled the US would insist on "Assad’s departure".

“A murderer of his own people cannot generate the support required for long-term stability,” he said. “A stable, unified and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful.”

Tillerson also made clear for the first time that one of the objectives of a sustained military presence would be to disrupt what the US, Israel and their allies see as an Iranian strategy to control a large swath of the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Lebanon, in which Syria is key.

“US disengagement from Syria would 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. As a destabilised nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.”

Although he denied that the US was about to embark once more on nation-building, Tillerson acknowledged that as long as Syrian refugees did not feel safe enough to go home, the Syrian conflict would continue to destabilise the Middle East and Europe. Thus, the US presence would also be geared to creating the conditions for safe return.

“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,” Tillerson said.

The US plan will be passed to Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of a chemical weapons conference in Paris next Tuesday. The statement of intent appears aimed at re-establishing US leverage in political talks and pushing Damascus to the table. 

The UN’s special Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, announced he is convening two days of talks between the [Syrian government] and opposition in Vienna on Thursday and Friday next week, in a move designed to test the willingness of the Syrian government delegation to negotiate. In a statement, Mistura said he expected both sides to have “substantive engagement” with him.

The planned UN talks next week are designed as an assertion of the primacy of the UN in the peace process and a pointed warning to Russia not to think that it can run an alternative peace track through its proposed national dialogue conference in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

(Photo: ABC)

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