BEIRUT • United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has committed America to an indefinite military presence in Syria, citing a range of policy goals that extend far beyond the defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as conditions for troops to go home.
But a crisis unfolding on the Syria-Turkey border that threatens to embroil the US military in a wider regional conflict underscored how hard it will be for the relatively small US presence in Syria to influence the outcome of the conflict there.
Speaking in a major Syria-policy address hosted at Stanford University by the Hoover Institution on Wednesday, Mr Tillerson listed vanquishing Al-Qaeda, ousting Iran and securing a peace settlement that excludes President Bashar Assad as among the goals of a continued presence in Syria of about 2,000 American troops. They are currently in a Kurdish-controlled corner of north-eastern Syria.
Mr Tillerson said the experience of the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which was followed by the rise of ISIS and the US military's return to the region, necessitated an open-ended US presence in Syria to prevent a revival of ISIS.
But he also indicated that one of the biggest challenges of the post-ISIS era is Iran's enhanced role. With ISIS now beaten back into a small pocket of territory along the Iraq-Syria border, the US has to address the reality that Iran's support for Mr Assad has given Teheran a vastly expanded reach, he said.
Squeezing Iran will, therefore, be one of the foremost goals of the continued US troop presence in Syria. "Syria remains a source of severe strategic problems and a major challenge for our diplomacy," Mr Tillerson said. "But the United States will continue to remain engaged."
One of the starkest illustrations of the risks of the entanglement is unfolding now, as Turkey escalates threats to attack the Kurdish enclaves of Afrin and Manbij in northern Syria. The area is controlled by Kurdish fighters from the People's Protection Units, or YPG, who are allied to the US but did not directly participate in the fight against ISIS.
They are closely tied to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is waging war against Nato member and US ally Turkey.
The latest threat from Turkey was triggered by US plans to train a 30,000-strong border force to protect the Kurdish-controlled area of north-eastern Syria. Turkey regards such a force as a threat to its national security and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to wage war on Syria's Kurds. Turkish troops have massed in the border region, and Mr Erdogan has said an invasion could occur this week.
Mr Tillerson on Wednesday denied that the US had any intention of building the border force, saying the issue had been "misportrayed".
He said he had met Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Vancouver on Tuesday to clarify the issue. But Mr Cavusoglu yesterday said Turkey intended to intervene in Syria, adding that it was still distrustful of the US.
WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS