Defeating the Islamic State is the top U.S. priority in the Middle East, but other countries will be expected to contribute more to stabilize Iraq and Syria once the militants are expelled, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday.
“The United States will do its part,” he said, speaking at the State Department at the start of a two-day strategy session of more than 60 countries and international organizations in the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State. “But circumstances on the ground require more from all of you. I ask each country to examine how it can best support stabilization efforts.”
Although President Trump said during the election campaign that he had a “secret” plan to defeat the Islamic State, Tillerson’s remarks suggested that the Trump administration strategy closely mirrors the approach of former president Barack Obama.
Both have centered on the extensive use of airstrikes and support for local allies on the ground. Other aspects include stopping foreign fighters from entering the battle zone or establishing outposts elsewhere; addressing humanitarian needs and stabilizing liberated areas; and blocking recruitment via social media.
Obama also emphasized stopping terrorist financing, a goal that Tillerson indicated had been addressed in depth.
“To me, this is very similar,” said Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders. “It’s important that the new administration supports that.”
To the extent that a revised Pentagon plan presented to Trump last month differs, it calls for a significant increase in U.S. trainers and advisers in Syria who will operate closer to the front lines in the upcoming offensive to seize the militants’ Syrian capital of Raqqa, and more decision-making on the ground.
U.S. Special Operations and conventional forces will operate Apache helicopters and wield artillery batteries in the offensive, U.S. officials said, and provide equipment to a joint Syrian force of Arabs and Kurds.
Tillerson said “defeating ISIS is the United States’ number one goal in the region,” using an acronym for the Islamic State. But he stressed that after putting what he said was three-quarters of the military resources toward expelling Islamic State forces from Iraq and Syria, the United States would look to others to pick up a larger share of an estimated $2 billion needed for stabilization and reconstruction this year.
The session signals that the new administration intends to maintain leadership of a sprawling diplomatic effort that Obama began in 2014 against the Islamic State, despite Trump’s characterizing his predecessor’s strategy as weak and ineffectual.
The gathering coincided with the first anniversary of terrorist attacks in Brussels. While the ministers met, news broke of what British police called a terrorist attack in London.
Four people were killed and at least 40 injured when a man ran down pedestrians with a vehicle and fatally stabbed a policeman near the gates of Britain’s Parliament. The assailant was shot and killed by police. The attack was not immediately claimed by the Islamic State.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said he had been expecting “some further clarity from the United States” on the upcoming Raqqa offensive, and on how the city will be stabilized and governed after the Islamic State is ejected.
“I was hoping for more specifics” from the Trump administration, he said of the gathering. While France understood that the administration was still getting organized, “we’ve been asking . . . for a couple of weeks,” Ayrault said.
He said he had warned his U.S. interlocutors that it was important to deal with “all aspects” of the Syrian crisis, not just the military situation. The Americans also need “a clear idea” of what they expect from Russia — which Trump has said could work together with the coalition on counterterrorism tasks — and how much pressure Moscow will put on Iran to end Syria’s six-year civil war.
Russia is not a member of the diplomatic coalition, although it is a dominant military presence in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Diplomats attending the meeting have warned against leaving a vacuum in Syria akin to that in Libya after the NATO-led campaign there in 2011.
At the conference, Tillerson said the coalition will seek to establish “interim zones of stability” in Iraq and Syria and allow refugees to return home safely.
Rather than the “safe zones” protected by U.S. air cover that the Syrian opposition and some allies have long demanded for civilians besieged by Syrian and Russian bombing in the separate civil war against Assad, Tillerson’s “interim zones of stability” refer to areas cleared of Islamic State fighters by the coalition and Turkey.
The Turkish military, with some assistance from rebels, the United States and Russia, has pushed the Islamic State from a zone of several thousand square miles inside Syria along the Turkish border. Turkey has declared this a “safe zone,” and indicated that it may begin sending Syrian refugees back inside. Other areas in Syria, participating in a partly successful cease-fire between Assad and the rebels, orchestrated by Russia, Turkey and Iran, are now also considered “safe.”
In areas being cleared of the Islamic State by the coalition in both Syria and Iraq, the United States plans to install interim local governance during an upcoming “stability phase.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.