U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday committed the United States to an indefinite military presence in Syria, citing a range of policy goals that extend far beyond the defeat of the Islamic State as conditions for American troops to go home, The Washington Post reports.
Speaking in a major Syria-policy address hosted at Stanford University by the Hoover Institution, Tillerson listed vanquishing al-Qaeda, ousting Iran and securing a peace settlement that excludes President Bashar al-Assad among the goals of a continued presence in Syria of about 2,000 American troops currently deployed in a Kurdish-controlled corner of northeastern Syria.
His comments represented the most comprehensive and ambitious articulation of Washington’s often-contradictory policy in Syria since President Trump took office a year ago, and they underline the extent to which the war against ISIS has inevitably also entangled the U.S. in the region’s other conflicts.
The U.S. troops in northeastern Syria were initially deployed during the Obama presidency to aid local Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State. Their presence now appears to be evolving into a wider regional policy aimed, among its goals, at fulfilling the Trump administration’s promises to get tough on Iran.
“U.S. disengagement from Syria would also provide Iran with the opportunity to further strengthen its own position in Syria. 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,” he said.
Tillerson said the experience of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which was followed by the rise of the Islamic State and the U.S. military’s return to the region, necessitated an open-ended U.S. presence in Syria to prevent a revival of the Islamic State.
“We cannot repeat the mistake of 2011, where a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually become ISIS,” Tillerson said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
But he also indicated that one of the biggest challenges of the post-Islamic State era is Iran’s enhanced role. With the Islamic State now beaten back into a small pocket of territory along the Iraq-Syria border, the United States has to address the reality that Iran’s support for Assad in Syria has given Tehran a vastly expanded reach, he said.
“Continued strategic threats to the U.S. other than ISIS persist. I am referring principally to Iran. Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops; supporting Lebanese Hezbollah; and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is in a stronger position to extend its track record of attacking U.S. interests, allies and personnel in the region,” he said.
Squeezing Iran will, therefore, be one of the foremost goals of the continued U.S. troop presence in Syria, he said, acknowledging that the project will be difficult.