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US signals open-ended military presence in Syria

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson describes broad policy on combating IS and developing political transition in Syria
Tillerson, in a speech at Stanford University, calls for 'patience' on Assad's departure (Reuters)

The United States on Wednesday signalled an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader strategy to prevent the Islamic State (IS) group's resurgence, pave the way diplomatically for the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and curtail Iran's influence.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a speech at Stanford University, called for "patience" on Assad's departure - the clearest indication yet of an acknowledgement that Russia and Iran have bolstered Assad and that he is unlikely to leave power immediately.

"But let us be clear, the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge," Tillerson said, while using a different acronym for IS.

Trump administration officials, including Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, had previously disclosed elements of the policy, but Tillerson's speech was meant to formalise and clearly define it.

A US disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with an opportunity to reinforce its position in Syria, Tillerson said.

After almost seven years of war, hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and a humanitarian disaster, Tillerson asked nations to keep up economic pressure on Assad but provide aid to areas no longer under IS control.
Tillerson said free, transparent elections in which the Syrian diaspora participate "will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership," Tillerson said.

"Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform and UN-supervised elections. But that change will come," he said.

Syrian opposition member Hadi al-Bahra welcomed Tillerson’s announcement but called for more clarity.

“This is the first time Washington has said clearly it has US interests in Syria that it is ready to defend,” Bahra told Reuters.

However, he said, more clarity is needed on how Washington will force the implementation of the political process and how it “will force the Assad regime into accepting a political settlement that leads to establishing a safe and neutral environment that leads to a transition through free and fair elections".

James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who served as a deputy national security adviser to President George W Bush, said that while Tillerson set down the broad parameters of a first comprehensive US strategy for Syria, he left major questions unanswered.

“It’s full of holes like Swiss cheese, but before we just had the holes,” said Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Key questions that Tillerson left unaddressed, he continued, include how long Assad should remain in power and whether he would play a role in any political transition.

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