WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday (March 22) the United States would set up"interim zones of stability" to help refugees return home in the next phase of the fight against Islamic State and al Qaeda.
The top US diplomat did not make clear where these zones were to be set up. He was addressing a meeting of 68 countries gathered in Washington to discuss the fight to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"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," Tillerson told the gathering at the State Department, where the former oil executive was hosting his first major diplomatic event.
Although it was unclear how the zones would work, creating any safe havens could ratchet up US military involvement in Syria and mark a major departure from President Barack Obama's more cautious approach.
Increased US or allied air power would be required if President Donald Trump chooses to enforce 'no fly' restrictions, and ground forces might also be needed to protect civilians in those areas.
Islamic State has been losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, with three separate forces, backed by the United States, Turkey and Russia, advancing on the group's Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa.
A Pentagon-led preliminary plan to defeat ISIS was delivered to the White House last month. It could lead to relaxing some of the former Obama administration's policy restrictions, like limits on troop numbers.
US defense officials said on Wednesday the US-led coalition has airlifted Syrian rebel forces in an operation near the Syrian town of Tabqa in Raqqa province.
"Hard-fought victories in Iraq and Syria have swung the momentum in our coalition's favour, but we must increase the intensity of our efforts to solidify our gains in the next phase of the counter-ISIS fight," Tillerson said.
"Degradation of ISIS is not the end goal, we must defeat ISIS."
ISLAMIC STATE OUTNUMBERED
Wednesday's event was the first meeting of the international coalition since the election of Trump, who has pledged to make the fight against Islamic State a priority. He vowed in January to set up safe zones in Syria for refugees.
Tillerson called on coalition partners to make good on financial pledges to help secure and rebuild areas where ISIS fighters have been pushed out. The coalition expects to raise about US$2 billion for humanitarian assistance, stabilisation and demining in Iraq and Syria for 2017.
Iraqi government forces, backed by the US-led international coalition, retook several Iraqi cities from ISIS last year and have liberated eastern Mosul.
While the jihadist group is overwhelmingly outnumbered by Iraqi forces, it has been using suicide car bombs and snipers to defend its remaining strongholds.
Speaking to the same meeting, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called for unity in the region to combat Islamic State and outlined Iraq's progress in the fight.
He said Iraq was now at the stage of "destroying" Islamic State, not just "containing" it.
The State Department said Tillerson would also use the meeting as an occasion to meet Nato allies after it emerged this week that he would miss his first scheduled meeting with Nato foreign ministers next month in Brussels.
The news unsettled European allies who worried it reopened questions about Trump's commitment to the alliance. The State Department said on Tuesday Tillerson has proposed new dates for a Nato meeting.