BEIRUT – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday committed the United States to an indefinite military presence in Syria, citing a series of political objectives that go beyond the defeat of the Islamic State as conditions for troops Americans go.
But a crisis unfolding on the Syrian-Turkish border that threatens to involve the US military in a wider regional conflict underscored how difficult it will be for the relatively small US presence in Syria to influence the outcome of the conflict there.
Speaking at an important Syrian policy speech hosted at Stanford University by the Hoover Institution, Tillerson mentioned defeating al-Qaeda, overthrowing Iran and securing a peace agreement that excludes President Bashar al-Assad as one of the objectives of a continuing presence in Syria of around 2,000 US troops currently deployed in a corner controlled by the Kurds in northeastern Syria.
His comments represent the most comprehensive and ambitious articulation of Washington's often-contradictory policy in Syria since President Trump took office a year ago, and underscore to what extent the war against the Islamic State has inevitably entangled states as well. United in other conflicts in the region.
US troops in northeastern Syria were initially deployed during the Obama presidency to assist local Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State. Its presence now seems to be evolving towards a broader regional policy aimed, among its objectives, at fulfilling the Trump administration's promises to toughen Iran.
Tillerson said the experience of the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which was followed by the rise of the Islamic State and the return of the US military. UU to the region they required an unlimited presence of the United States in Syria to prevent a rebirth of the Islamic State.
"We can not repeat the error of 2011, in which there was a premature departure Iraq allowed al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually become ISIS," said Tillerson, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
But he also indicated that one of the greatest challenges of the post-Islamic State era is Iran's reinforced role. . Now that the Islamic State has been defeated in a small portion 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 broad scope. , He said.
Strategic threats to the United States that are not ISIS continue. I refer mainly to Iran, "he said." Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards; supporting Lebanese Hezbollah; and importing forces of power from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places. Through its position in Syria, Iran is in a stronger position to extend its record of attacking US interests, allies and personnel. UU In the region.
Squeezing Iran will, therefore, be one of the main objectives of the continued presence of US troops in Syria, he said, acknowledging that the project will be difficult.
"Syria continues to be a source of serious strategic problems and a major challenge to our diplomacy," Tillerson said. "But the United States will remain committed."
One of the sharpest illustrations of the risks of the entanglement is unfolding now, as Turkey intensifies threats to attack the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.
The area is controlled by Kurdish combatants of the People's Protection Units, or YPG, who are allied to the United States but did not participate directly in the fight against the Islamic State. They are closely linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is waging a war against the NATO member and US ally, Turkey.
Turkey's latest threat was sparked by US military plans to train a 30,000-strong border force in the Kurdish-controlled area in northeastern Syria. Turkey considers that such a force is a threat to its national security. By saying that the force would represent "an army of terrorists", the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, promised to wage a war against the Kurds of Syria. Tanks and Turkish troops have been concentrated in the border region, and Erdogan has said an invasion could take place this week.
The United States would not feel obliged to defend the Afrin area because it was not included in the war against the Islamic State, according to statements by US officials in recent days.
"We do not consider them part of our Defeat ISIS operations, which is what we are doing there, and we do not support them" with training and advisory programs, a Pentagon spokesperson, Marine Corps Commander Adrian Rankine- Galloway, told Turkish state agency Anadolu in comments confirmed in an email on Wednesday.
"We are not involved with them at all," he said. "The groups we support are exclusively involved in operations contrary to Daesh," he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The announcement of the border force, which has exposed contradictions between the policies of the State Department and the Pentagon in the region, unleashed one of the worst crises in years in the already tight relationship between Turkey and the United States.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters Wednesday after meeting with Tillerson in Vancouver, Canada, that any resulting damage to Turkey's ties with the United States could be irreparable.
"Such a development would irreversibly damage Turkish-American relations," Anadolu Agency quoted Cavusoglu as saying.
Morello reported from Vancouver. Heba Habib in Stockholm and Erin Cunningham and Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul contributed.