WASHINGTON • Defeating ISIS is the top US goal in the Middle East, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said yesterday at a gathering of the 68-member global coalition to defeat the terrorist group.
"I recognise there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) is the United States' No. 1 goal in the region," he said in prepared remarks for the opening of the coalition's two-day meeting in Washington.
He added: "When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand."
The coalition was formed by former president Barack Obama in an effort to eliminate the threat from the terrorist group. It is one of the few initiatives started by the previous administration that President Donald Trump has retained unchanged, even keeping in place its coordinator Brett McGurk.
Mr Tillerson also said the US will increase pressure on ISIS and Al-Qaeda, and work to set up "interim zones of stability" to help refugees return home in the next phase of the battle to defeat the groups. But he did not elaborate on where the US planned to set up these safety zones.
"The United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and Al-Qaeda and will work to establish interim zones of stability, through ceasefires, to allow refugees to return home," he told the meeting at the State Department.
The meeting is the first of the international coalition since Iraqi government forces, backed by the US-led international coalition, retook several Iraqi cities from ISIS last year and liberated eastern Mosul.
While the militant group is overwhelmingly outnumbered by Iraqi forces, it has been using suicide car bombs and snipers to defend its remaining strongholds.
Officials from nations, including Iraq and Britain, in Washington for the coalition meeting may be hoping for at least some hints of Mr Trump's promised new strategy to defeat ISIS.
Mr Trump said during his presidential campaign that he had a "secret" plan to defeat the terrorist group, and later said he would give his generals 30 days to offer their own solution.
While Defence Secretary James Mattis has made recommendations to Mr Trump on what the administration is calling an "accelerated" campaign against the group, no decisions have been disclosed.
Mr Tillerson's remarks suggested the broad approach would remain unchanged for now. The coalition will continue to fight along five tracks spelt out by the previous administration - a military campaign, targeting foreign terrorist fighters, supporting counter-terrorism financing, stabilising areas freed from the group, and countering its messaging.
Mr Tillerson said the coalition's goal was the "regional elimination of ISIS through military force".
Discussions at the meeting yesterday were also expected to focus on how to help Mosul rebuild and ways to tackle ISIS operations in Libya and elsewhere.
In Syria, the US-led coalition has been working with an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias. Its current focus is to encircle and ultimately recapture Raqqa - ISIS' base of operations in Syria.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported by Russia and Iran, has said he saw scope for cooperation with Mr Trump, although he has dismissed the US-backed military campaign against ISIS in Syria as "only a few raids".
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who met Mr Trump in Washington on Monday, said he had won assurances of more US support in the war against ISIS.
A White House statement after the meeting said both Mr Trump and Mr Abadi agreed that "terrorism cannot be defeated by military might alone", and the two leaders called for deepening commercial ties.