Perpetual war: Tillerson says US troops will stay in Syria indefinitely, renews calls for regime change
ISIS has largely been military defeated, and the war in Syria has been winding down. But just when it looked like peace could be imminent, the United States has poured fuel on the fire of war.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has confirmed that US troops will remain in Syria for the indefinite future, even after ISIS is defeated. He has also reaffirmed the Donald Trump administration’s commitment to regime change in Damascus, and called for the international community to economically suffocate the Syrian government into submission.
Tillerson made these remarks at a moment when US ally Turkey has launched a new phase in its war on Syria. The United States has fueled both sides of this sub-conflict, standing by NATO member Turkey while also collaborating with the Kurdish-majority forces that Turkey is attacking. This has only further destabilized an already unstable country.
In a landmark speech on US policy in Syria, at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute on January 17, Secretary of State Tillerson said the US military presence in Syria will continue indefinitely in order to stop the Syrian government from re-establishing control over areas that were liberated from ISIS and in an attempt to weaken Iran.
Tillerson likewise revealed — in remarks that were largely ignored in corporate media reports — that the US plans to refuse to provide reconstruction assistance to areas under the control of the Syrian government. Tillerson called on countries throughout the world to break economic relations with the Syrian government and use punitive economic measures to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to step down.
The secretary of state said the United States will instead support local forces in order to undermine the control of the Syrian government over its country. He requested that the international community does the same.
Mere days after Tillerson’s speech, the Turkey military launched an attack on the Kurdish-majority town of Afrin in northern Syria. Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to crush the Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG), whom he demonized as “terrorists.”
The US has played both sides in this conflict. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-majority coalition led primarily by the YPG, has received support from the US in its fight against ISIS. But Washington has likewise stood beside Turkey, emphasizing Ankara’s role as a key member of NATO.
That US troops will remain in Syria indefinitely is not exactly surprising. In August 2017, a spokesperson for the SDF told Reuters that the political forces in northern Syria and the US will have military agreements “for decades to come.”
But for years, former president Barack Obama had repeatedly insisted that there would would be no US boots on the ground in Syria. He later sent hundreds of US soldiers and special operations forces to the country.
Today, there are reportedly some 2,000 US troops in Syria, along with an unknown number of military contractors.
Secretary of State Tillerson’s admission marks the first official confirmation of this policy, which will extend the war in Syria indefinitely.
Renewed Calls for Regime Change in Syria
Rex Tillerson’s Hoover Institute speech sounded indistinguishable from the rhetoric of regime change lobbyists. It demonstrates that the Trump administration has fully embraced bipartisan foreign policy orthodoxy on Syria, even after Donald Trump campaigned — albeit inconsistently — in 2016 on the promise that he would change US foreign policy.
In fact, Tillerson’s speech was followed by a discussion with former George W. Bush-era secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who applauded Tillerson’s rhetoric on “America’s values” and his call for regime change in Syria.
Tillerson propagated numerous myths about the war in Syria in his speech. He even falsely implied that the US did not intervene in the conflict, claiming “U.S. inaction emboldened the regime.”
“It is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria,” Tillerson maintained. “The United States will continue to remain engaged as a means to protect our own national security interest.”
“We understand that some Americans are skeptical of continued involvement in Syria and question the benefits of maintaining a presence in such a troubled country,” the secretary of state conceded. “However, it is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria.”
Tillerson repeatedly stated that Bashar al-Assad must step down, maintaining, “A stable, unified, and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful.” He also defended the Trump administration’s April 2017 missile attack on a Syrian airfield, which Tillerson noted destroyed 20 percent of the Syrian air force.
At the top of the list of goals for the US military presence in Syria, Tillerson continued, is preventing the Syrian government from retaking areas that were liberated from ISIS. “A total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad,” the secretary of state said.
Call for Global Economic Isolation of Syria
Secretary of State Tillerson’s speech was full of contradictions. He claimed the US is committed to keeping Syria unified as a country, but then also said the US is supporting “local civil authorities” in place of the internationally recognized Syrian government, adding, “Our military presence is backed by State Department and USAID teams who are already working with local authorities to help liberated peoples stabilize their own communities.”
One of the most significant moments in Tillerson’s speech, which was not highlighted in many media reports, was his call for the international community to economically isolate in the Syrian government:
The United States, the EU, and regional partners will not provide international reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime. We ask all stakeholders in Syria’s future to do the same. We will discourage economic relationships between the Assad regime and any other country. Instead, we will encourage international assistance to rebuild areas the global coalition and its local partners have liberated from ISIS. Once Assad is gone from power, the United States will gladly encourage the normalization of economic relationships between Syria and other nations. The United States calls on all nations to exercise discipline in economically pressuring Assad and rebuilding Syria after a political transition. Our expectation is that the desire for a return to normal life and these tools of pressure will help rally the Syrian people and individuals within the regime to compel Assad to step aside.
Countering Iran is also a significant reason for the continued US military presence, Tillerson said. “U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” he warned. The secretary of state described Syria as “a client state of Iran” and added that US forces will remain in Syria until “Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, their dreams of a northern arch are denied.”
Tillerson furthermore argued that the US military would remain in the region in order to prevent ISIS from re-emerging and in order to weaken al-Qaeda. US general Brett McGurk, who led the coalition to counter the Islamic State, has acknowledged that Syria is the home to “al-Qaeda’s largest formal affiliate in history,” Jabhat al-Nusra.
What Tillerson did not once address is the key role the US and its allies played in fueling al-Qaeda and ISIS in Syria. Early in the war, the US government knew that the Syrian opposition was dominated by ruthlessly violent, hyper-sectarian Islamist extremists, but the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey spent billions of dollars arming and training rebels, many of whom were collaborated with, were linked to, or defected to ISIS and al-Qaeda.