Tillerson Tries To Keep Focus On ISIS As Syria Meltdown Continues

  • During his first stop on a five-day Mideast tour, Rex Tillerson told the coalition to defeat ISIS the fight is far from over
  • Tillerson pledged $200 million for post-ISIS stabilization in Syria and asked coalition partners for rebuilding funds for Iraq
  • Tillerson’s call for a renewed focus on ISIS comes as the Syrian civil war is breaking into multiple proxy battles, with potential U.S. enemies on multiple fronts

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday urged international partners to keep up the pressure on the Islamic State, warning that the terror group remains a threat despite its loss of territory in its former Mideast strongholds.

Speaking in Kuwait at a gathering of the 74-member coalition to defeat ISIS, Tillerson said the war against ISIS is far from over, even in Iraq and Syria. He pledged $200 million for stabilization operations in Syria and asked for coalition partners to pitch in their own funding for rebuilding efforts there and in Iraq.

“Without continued attention and support from coalition members, we risk the return of extremist groups like ISIS in liberated areas in Iraq and Syria, and their spread in new locations,” Tillerson said, referring to the spread of ISIS “franchises” to Afghanistan and the Philippines, among other countries.

The call for a renewed focus on ISIS comes as the U.S. is confronting a worsening situation in Syria, where no less than five foreign governments are fighting proxy battles within the country’s broader civil war. Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel have all introduced forces into Syria for their own reasons of national interest, none of which involve supporting Washington’s core mission to defeat ISIS.

Tillerson’s stop in Kuwait is the first in a five-nation tour through the Middle East, where he will attempt to ease tensions among regional countries over the Syrian conflict. His final stop will be Thursday in Turkey, which sees U.S. support for Kurdish militia in Syria as a grave national security threat.

Washington has acknowledged Ankara’s concerns over the presence of well-armed Kurdish fighters positioned just over Turkey’s southern border. But Tillerson said Tuesday the fight against ISIS should take precedence in the near term because the group retains the ability to disrupt the region.

“The end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson said, according to The Washington Post. “ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe.”

“We will continue to be completely transparent with Turkey about our efforts in Syria to defeat ISIS, and we stand by our NATO ally in its counterterrorism efforts,” he went on to say.


A looming confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria also is commanding Washington’s attention. Over the weekend, Israeli air forces exchanged fire with Iranian-backed Syrian air defenses after Iran reportedly flew a drone into Israeli air space.

Jerusalem has said it will not tolerate an Iranian military build up in southern Syria, which borders the Israeli-held Golan Heights. Further Iranian movement near Israel’s borders could trigger a direct confrontation with both Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah, which would likely spark another regional war into which the U.S. would be drawn.

Complicating the picture is Russia’s involvement in the conflict, which includes not only declared air and artillery support for Assad’s army, but an unknown number of Russian mercenaries embedded with Syrian forces. Last week, the U.S. retaliated against an attempted assault against a Syrian Democratic Forces base with a massive strike on pro-Assad forces. The strike may have killed as many as 200 Russian military contractors, in an unprecedented exchange of fire between the two most powerful countries fighting in Syria. (RELATED: The US Military Is Now Fighting Russian Mercenaries In Syria)

The welter of self-interested military activity shows that, for Syria’s neighbors and benefactors, the U.S.-led mission against ISIS a secondary concern. Despite that messy reality, Tillerson says Washington can still shape the outcome in Syria to its own interests.

“I think in terms of this observation that the U.S. has little leverage or role to play is simply false,” Tillerson said at a briefing Tuesday, according to Bloomberg.

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