US military to maintain open-ended presence in Syria, Tillerson says

US secretary of state says forces will remain in country in push against Isis, Bashar al-Assad and Iranian influence

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 also appeared to row back on reports that Washington is working to establish a 30,000-strong border security force in northern Syria with the involvement of Kurdish militias – a plan that incensed Turkey.

“That entire situation has been misportrayed, misdescribed, some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson said, telling reporters he had met Turkey’s foreign minister in Vancouver on Tuesday to clarify the issue.

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 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 regime 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.

Meanwhile, new UN figures showed that tens of thousands of people have continued to flee a government assault on Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province.

The number of internal refugees escaping more than doubled in a week from 99,000 to 212,000, amid the bombardment of civilian centers, including several hospitals, schools and civil defense rescue centers.

The latest report by the UN’s office for the coordination of human affairs shows that the majority of people fleeing the fighting have taken refuge in Dana, a district just across the border from Turkey, with nearly 60,000 people seeking shelter there.

Turkey’s prime minister, Binali Yildirim, warned at the weekend that the bombing campaign in Idlib could be the catalyst for a “new wave of migration”, a prospect that will alarm European countries that negotiated a deal with Ankara to limit the number of people fleeing to Europe through the Aegean Sea from Turkey.

Activists said the bombing of towns and villages in Idlib continued into Wednesday.


Julian Borger in Washington, Patrick Wintour in London and Kareem Shaheen in Istanbul

The GuardianTramp

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