STATE DEPARTMENT - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has outlined plans for the U.S. to remain engaged in Syria, both diplomatically and militarily, long after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.
Tillerson gave a major policy speech Wednesday on the way forward for the U.S. in Syria at an event at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California. He listed a number of reasons why it is crucial for the U.S. to remain in the troubled country, including preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State and al-Qaida terrorist groups.
"ISIS has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two," Tillerson said, using an acronym for the militant group.
"We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria," he said, referring to what he described as mistakes made by the Obama administration in withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely from Iraq and failing to stabilize Libya after NATO airstrikes that led to the ousting of the late President Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.
Reasons to remain engaged
Tillerson said there are also other reasons for the U.S. to remain engaged in Syria.
"A total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would help [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad. A stable, unified and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful. Continued U.S. presence to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their own liberated areas."
Tillerson told former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who asked him questions at the event, that the lives of Syrian civilians are still at stake:
"The priority right now in Syria is to stop people being killed," he said, adding they are still being killed by the thousands. He called Syrian President Assad a brutal murderer of his own people who can never provide long-term stability.
Tillerson said the main goals of U.S stabilization efforts in Syria are to create the conditions for Syrian refugees to return to the country, to curb Iranian influence in the region and to pave the way for U.N.-supervised elections aimed at securing new leadership in Damascus.
The Wilson Center's Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert and a former adviser to a number of secretaries of state, told VOA he sees a number of similarities between the policy outlined by Tillerson and Obama administration policy on Syria.
"Here’s how they’re same: other-worldly goals without the will or capacity to achieve them … [an insistence on] no nation-building," Miller said.
He said the Trump administration’s policy differs from the previous administration in that Tillerson is advocating staying in Syria for a very long time, with 2,000 U.S military personnel and fewer than 20 Foreign Service Officers.
UN-backed Geneva process
Tillerson’s plan relies on the U.N.-backed Geneva process aimed at brokering a political solution to the civil war in Syria. United Nations special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced Wednesday that the U.N. would host the Syrian government and opposition for peace talks in Vienna next weekend.
The meeting is scheduled for Jan. 25-26 and will focus largely on constitutional issues, a statement released by de Mistura said.
"The special envoy looks forward to the participation of both delegations in this special meeting. He expects that delegations will be coming to Vienna prepared for substantive engagement with him and his team with a specific focus on the constitutional basket of the agenda towards the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2254," the statement read, referring to a 2015 resolution demanding an end to attacks against civilian targets.
The scheduled talks will occur days before a slated peace congress in Russia aimed at finding a settlement to the six-year civil war.
In the statement announcing the Vienna talks, de Mistura also reiterated the U.N. position that "any political initiative by international actors should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the United Nations-facilitated Geneva political process and the full implementation of resolution 2254."
Over 340,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes in Syria since war broke out in 2011.
Esha Sarai contributed to this report.