PALO ALTO, Calif. — Arguing that the Trump White House will not repeat “mistakes” of past administrations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson vowed that the United States "will maintain a military presence in Syria" until it can “ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS” as a political and military force in the region.
“We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011, when a premature departure from Iraq” allowed ISIS and other organizations to “wreak havoc” and gain a safe haven in the country, Tillerson told an invited audience of about 150 academics and invited guests at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, who included former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and George Shultz.
In a public address on Trump administration foreign policy, Tillerson delivered a strong defense of White House policies in the region, and asserted that in his first year in office, Trump’s leadership has already delivered a serious blow to ISIS and other terrorist organizations in the war-torn country.
Without specifically naming them, the secretary of state said that in sharp contrast to past administrations — whose actions he said “emboldened” Syrian President Bassar al-Assad and ISIS — Trump has taken “decisive action” to accelerate gains being made in Syria and Iraq and to defeat the terrorist organization and its allies.
By contrast, the president has directed aggressive operations “to achieve decisive results quickly,’’ and gave his military leaders “more freedom” to direct actions that would lead to ISIS defeat. As a result, he said, ISIS has lost its physical caliphate of Raqqa, and “and approximately 3.2 million Syrians and 4.5 million Iraqis have been freed from the tyranny of ISIS.”
Former Obama officials say Trump inherited an anti-ISIS machine that was gathering momentum in the closing months of Barack Obama’s presidency.
Acknowledging the skepticism of many Americans toward continued involvement in Syria, Tillerson argued it is “vital for the U.S. to remain engaged” to completely wipe out any ungovernable spaces” which may become “breeding grounds for ISIS.”
ISIS fighters still exist, he warned, though he vowed that “we and our allies will hunt them down, or kill them or capture them.”
Tillerson did not specify how many U.S. troops are in Syria, though the figure is believed to be in the low thousands — most of them Special Forces. As a candidate, Trump warned about deep U.S. entanglement in Syria, a goal that conflicts with keeping up the fight against ISIS.
Trump officials have also said they are determined to counter expanding Iranian influence in postwar Syria.
The secretary of state later sat down with Rice for an on-stage conversation, where he acknowledged that Trump’s Twitter habits have presented him with somewhat of a diplomatic challenge. "I don't even have a Twitter account so I can follow his tweeting — so my staff has to print his tweets out,’’ he acknowledged. But It's "not a bad system because… by the time I find out about it. ... I already have the early reactions. [So it's a matter of] how do we take that, and now use it?"
In response to Rice’s questions about North Korea, Tillerson said that the U.S. is “highly motivated” and “committed to a denuclearized North Korea, and we're going to stay on that until we achieve it."
A key focus of U.S. diplomatic efforts, he said, are about unifying “the international community around the sanctions campaign,” which has been "extraordinarily effective,” Tillerson said. "They are feeling the bite of these sanctions."
He added: "We've been waiting for Kim [Jong Un] to decide he wants to talk..he knows how to reach me if he wants to talk, but he's got to tell me he wants to talk. I'm not going to chase him."
Tillerson, who has had an often tense relationship with Trump, has long been the subject of rumors that he would quit or be ousted. But earlier this month he told CNN that he intends to stay in his post through 2018.
Michael Crowley contributed to this report.