Rex Tillerson signaled a long commitment to military action in Syria and, ultimately, to regime change. “Assad’s regime is corrupt, and his methods of governance and economic development have increasingly excluded certain ethnic and religious groups,” the Secretary of State said. “Such oppression cannot persist forever.”
Tillerson made the case for a long-term military presence in the country, saying that a premature withdrawal would have dire consequences. “Total withdrawal would restore Assad and continue brutal treatment of his own people,” Tillerson said.
U.S. goals in the region, according to the Secretary, are total defat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, creating the conditions necessary for a return of Syrian refugees, and countering Iranian influence. Those conditions would ultimately lead to U.N.-supervised elections aimed at producing new leadership in Syria.
The statements were a marked departure from statements Tillerson made last year, when he seemed to imply that the U.S. had no position on the future of Assad. The “longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people,” Assad said at the time.
The comments seemed to draw the ire of the Russian government. In comments to the press yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “Rex Tillerson has said many times that the only goal, the only reason [for the U.S. to be in Syria] is to defeat [ISIS]. Now, they have even more far-reaching plans, and we’ll have to keep that in mind and try to find ways that would prevent [them] from undercutting the sovereignty of the Syrian state.”
Russia is Syria’s biggest benefactor and most powerful ally.