Tillerson: U.S. ‘Will Maintain a Military Presence in Syria’

The U.S. will keep troops in Syria indefinitely, “focused on ensuring that ISIS cannot re-emerge,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared in an address to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution on Wednesday. Tillerson swiped at the Iraqi Parliament-compelled decision in 2011 to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq as a “mistake” that the Trump administration was committed to avoiding, calling the Syria deployment “conditions-based,” a euphemism for indefinite. Yet the 2,000 troops currently in Syria will have more than a lasting eradication of ISIS as their mission. Tillerson said a persistent objective of U.S. Syria policy would be to prevent Iran from using the country as part of its “northern arch” grand strategy, although he did not lay out how. And in committing the U.S. to pursuing a much-thwarted political process to end the grueling civil war – envisioning a “stable, unified independent Syria under a post-[President Bashar] Assad leadership” as Washington’s desired endstate – Tillerson said a U.S. military presence which has only once attacked Assad was necessary for his downfall. “A total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad,” Tillerson said. The U.S. has neither a United Nations nor a congressional mandate for its presence in Syria, yet faces minimal political or international pressure for ending it.

—Spencer Ackerman