The Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria

Rex W. Tillerson
Secretary of State
Hoover Institute at Stanford University
January 17, 2018

SECRETARY TILLERSON: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much.Well, good morning. And I really, really appreciate this opportunity to swing down to Stanford while I was out on the West Coast and particularly to address this group. And I want to thank Stanford and the Hoover Institution and the international studies group for allowing me to speak to you this morning. I have familiarity with the Hoover Institution; I’ve spoken at some of their events in the past in my prior life, and it has consistently produced great, principled scholarship that makes the calls for representative government, private enterprise, and protecting the American way of life right at the center of your activities, and very important topics that we spend our time on.

And in that regard, you certainly have a true advocate in your ranks: my friend, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, who – I don’t know if she takes responsibility for this situation she got me into or not, but I – (laughter) – I hold her partially accountable anyway. And – but I appreciate Condi’s advice and counsel. When you arrive at the Secretary of State’s desk, I was looking for the how-to manual; there wasn’t one there. So she’s been a great source of help and inspiration to me.

And I also want to acknowledge the other co-host, one of our nation’s most dedicated and gifted public servants, certainly of the 20th century: former Secretary George Shultz. And George and I have known each other a long time as well, and I’m a great admirer of his work as well.

I’ve just come from a ministerial meeting in Vancouver, in which a number of nations discussed how to better implement our maximum pressure campaign against North Korea. The United States and our allies are and continue to be united in continuing this campaign until North Korea takes meaningful steps toward denuclearization. We all agreed – all of us – that we will not accept a nuclear-armed North Korea.

From Vancouver I made a quick swing down here to California. And I appreciated Dr. Rice’s help in arranging this for me on somewhat short notice. There are some people back in Washington that are suspicious I’m escaping the bad weather today to just come down here, but I am delighted to be here.

The topic and the subject of my remarks today is to talk with you about the way forward for the United States in Syria.

I’m going to start by giving you a kind of a broad historical and political context for what are some very difficult situations facing the Syrian people, and they raise concerns for all of the international powers as well.

Then I want to describe why it is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict, and assist the Syrian people as they chart a course to achieve a new political future.

And then lastly, I want to detail the steps this administration is taking to achieve a stable, unified, and independent Syria, free of terrorist threats and free of weapons of mass destruction.

Then, as indicated, Dr. Rice and I will have a little conversation.

For nearly 50 years, the Syrian people have suffered under the dictatorship of Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar al-Assad. The nature of the Assad regime, like that of its sponsor Iran, is malignant. It has promoted state terror. It has empowered groups that kill American soldiers, such as al-Qaida. It has backed Hizballah and Hamas. And it has violently suppressed political opposition. Bashar al-Assad’s grand strategy, to the extent he has one beyond his own survival, includes hosting some of the most radical terrorist elements in the region and using them to destabilize his neighbors. Assad’s regime is corrupt, and his methods of governance and economic development have increasingly excluded certain ethnic and religious groups. His human rights record is notorious the world over.

Such oppression cannot persist forever. And over the years, latent anger built up within the country, and many Syrians rose up and opposed Assad’s rule. Within the days of what began as peaceful demonstrations that swept Syria in 2011, Assad and his regime responded to his own people with bullets and jail sentences.

Since that time, the story of Syria has been one of a humanitarian catastrophe. Up to half a million Syrians have died. Over 5.4 million Syrians are refugees, and 6.1 million are internally displaced persons, or IDPs. And as a result of conflict between regime and opposition forces, whole cities have been destroyed. It will take years to rebuild an entire nation.

Previous American efforts to halt the conflict have been ineffective. When Assad used chemical weapons on his own people in 2013, in defiance of an American red line threat to retaliate, U.S. inaction emboldened the regime to further disregard civilian lives. In April of last year, the Trump administration responded to Assad’s use of sarin nerve agent on civilians with cruise missile strikes that destroyed 20 percent of Assad’s air force. We did this to degrade the Syrian military’s ability to conduct further chemical weapons attacks, to protect innocent civilians, and to dissuade the Syrian regime from further use or proliferation of chemical weapons. The United States takes chemical weapons threats seriously, and we cannot stand idly by and allow their use to become regularized. We will continue to seek accountability and justice for the victims of that attack.

In 2012, the Assad regime military forces began to struggle badly against armed opposition. The regime was soon bolstered through the assistance of Iranian-backed fighting forces. But despite this help, by August of 2015, Syrian rebel forces had made substantial progress against Assad’s regime. Fearing for his own survival, Assad then appealed to Russia, his longtime ally, for help. Russia intervened to save the regime, largely by providing increased air power, intelligence, and arms support.

In December of 2016, the key city of Aleppo fell to the regime after a brutal campaign that essentially destroyed that city, which had a population over two million people before the war. This symbolized the regime’s ruthless determination to regain momentum in the conflict. It also led to – Assad to wrongly think that he would maintain power without addressing the Syrian regime’s – the Syrian people’s legitimate grievances.

The civil war in Syria was horrific in and of itself. But Syria was thrown into an even greater state of turmoil with the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. This was an aspiring terror-state inside the borders of Iraq and Syria. The conflict between the regime and various opposition groups fighting to change Assad’s grip on power created the conditions for the rapid expansion of ISIS in 2013 and 2014. ISIS originally emerged from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq, a group Assad had covertly backed. Evidence suggests Assad also abetted ISIS by releasing known terrorists from Syrian prisons and turning a blind eye to ISIS’s growth. ISIS exploited the instability and lack of centralized authority in Syria to set up what it falsely claimed was a “caliphate,” with the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Eventually, ISIS expanded to possess at its height a territory – an amount of territory roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom, and a significant fighting force. Flush with cash from looted banks and in control of oil fields in Syria and Iraq, ISIS had all the elements to sustain itself and carry out attacks on the U.S. homeland and those of our allies. The establishment of a radical terror-state attracted thousands of jihadists from over 100 countries, and motivated other terrorists around the world to commit attacks where they live.

In the wake of the rise of ISIS, millions fled their homes, villages, and cities to escape the brutal regime’s ethnic cleansing, resulting in massive refugee flows into the neighboring countries and as far as Europe and Scandinavia. By the middle of 2014, ISIS had a stable base of operations in Syria and significant revenue streams to fund, plan, inspire, and direct attacks against targets in the West and against our regional allies. It was using Syria to build chemical weapons for use against our partners. Recognizing the destructive power of a strengthening terrorist organization, America focused on a military defeat of ISIS. In spite of the threat ISIS posed in Syria, Assad focused instead on fighting the Syrian opposition, even with Iranian and Russian military support at his back.

The Trump administration’s counterterrorism policy is quite simple. It is to protect Americans at home and abroad from attacks by terrorists. Central to this policy is to deny terrorist and terrorist organizations the opportunity to organize, raise money, recruit fighters, train, plan, and execute attacks.

When he took office, President Trump took decisive action to accelerate the gains that were being made in Syria and Iraq. He directed Secretary of Defense Mattis to present within 30 days a new plan for defeating ISIS. The President quickly approved that plan. He directed a pace of operations that would achieve decisive results quickly, delegating greater authority to American commanders in the field, and he gave our military leaders more freedom to determine and apply the tactics that would best lead to ISIS’s defeat. Today, nearly all territory in Iraq and Syria once controlled by ISIS, or approximately 98 percent of all of that once United Kingdom-sized territory, has been liberated, and ISIS has not been able to regain one foot of that ground. ISIS’s physical “caliphate” of Raqqa is destroyed. The liberated capital of the caliphate no longer serves as a magnet for those hoping to build a terrorist empire. Approximately 3.2 million Syrians and 4.5 million Iraqis have been freed from the tyranny of ISIS. Over 3 million internally displaced Iraqis are now back home, and Mosul, the caliphate’s second capital city in Iraq and one of Iraq’s largest cities, is completely clear of ISIS. In Iraq, for the first time since the beginning of the crisis in December of 2013, there are more Iraqis going home than there are that are still displaced.

As we survey Syria today, we see the big picture, a situation characterized by principally three factors:

ISIS is substantially, but not completely defeated.

The Assad regime controls about half of Syria’s territory and its population.

And continued strategic threats to the U.S. from not just ISIS and al-Qaida, but from others persist. And this threat I’m referring to is principally Iran.

As part of its strategy to create a northern arch, stretching from Iran to Lebanon and the Mediterranean, Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops; supporting Lebanese Hizballah; and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is positioning to continue attacking U.S. interests, our allies, and personnel in the region. It is spending billions of dollars a year to prop up Assad and wage proxy wars at the expense of supporting its own people.

Additionally, the unresolved plight of millions of Syrian refugees and IDPs remains a humanitarian crisis. The catastrophic state of affairs is directly related to the continued lack of security and legitimate governance in Syria itself. Assad has gassed his own people, he has barrel bombed entire villages and urban neighborhoods, and repeatedly undermined any chance for a peaceful resolution of political differences. Those abuses continue to this day, as seen in recent civilian casualties in East Ghouta and Idlib Governance[1]. There is no way to effectively facilitate a large-scale safe and voluntary return of refugees without a political solution.

In short, Syria remains a source of severe strategic threats, and a major challenge for our diplomacy.

But the United States will continue to remain engaged as a means to protect our own national security interest.

The United States desires five key end states for Syria:

First, ISIS and al-Qaida in Syria suffer an enduring defeat, do not present a threat to the homeland, and do not resurface in a new form; that Syria never again serves as a platform or safe haven for terrorists to organize, recruit, finance, train and carry out attacks on American citizens at home or abroad or against our allies.

Second, the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime is resolved through a UN-led political process prescribed in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and a stable, unified, independent Syria, under post-Assad leadership, is functioning as a state.

Third, Iranian influence in Syria is diminished, their dreams of a northern arch are denied, and Syria’s neighbors are secure from all threats emanating from Syria.

Fourth, conditions are created so that the refugees and IDPs can begin to safely and voluntarily return to Syria.

And fifth, Syria is free of weapons of mass destruction.

The Trump administration is implementing a new strategy to achieve these end states. This process largely entails increased diplomatic action on the heels of our ongoing military successes. Our diplomatic efforts will be characterized by stabilization initiatives and a new emphasis on the political solution to the Syrian conflict.

But let us be clear: The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge. Our military mission in Syria will remain conditions-based. We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when a premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS. It was that vacuum that allowed ISIS and other terrorist organizations to wreak havoc on the country. And it gave ISIS a safe haven to plan attacks against Americans and our allies. We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria. ISIS presently has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two.

We understand that some Americans are skeptical of continued involvement in Syria and question the benefits of maintaining a presence in such a troubled country.

However, it is vital for the United States to remain engaged in Syria for several reasons: Ungoverned spaces, especially in conflict zones, are breeding grounds for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The fight against ISIS is not over. There are bands of ISIS fighters who are already beginning to wage an insurgency. We and our allies will hunt them down and kill them or capture them.

Similarly, we must persist in Syria to thwart al-Qaida, which still has a substantial presence and base of operations in northwest Syria. As in the years before 9/11, al-Qaida is eager to create a sanctuary to plan and launch attacks on the West. Although ISIS is the terrorist group that has dominated the headlines most in the last few years, al-Qaida is still a grave threat and is looking to reconstitute in new and powerful ways.

Additionally, a total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad and continue his brutal treatment against his own people. A murderer of his own people cannot generate the trust required for long-term stability. A stable, unified, and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful. Continued U.S. presence to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their liberated areas. The departure of Assad through the UN-led Geneva process will create the conditions for a durable peace within Syria and security along the borders for Syria’s neighbors.

U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria. As we have seen from Iran’s proxy wars and public announcements, Iran seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel. As a destabilized nation and one bordering Israel, Syria presents an opportunity that Iran is all too eager to exploit.

And finally, consistent with our values, America has the opportunity to help a people which has suffered greatly. We must give Syrians a chance to return home and rebuild their lives. The safe and voluntary return of Syrian refugees serves the security interests of the United States, our allies, and our partners. To relieve the enormous pressure of refugee flows on the surrounding region and on Europe, conditions must be created for these refugees to safely and voluntarily return home. It will be impossible to ensure stability on one end of the Mediterranean, in Europe, if chaos and injustice prevail on the other end, in Syria.

The United States, along with its allies and partners, will undertake the following steps to bring stability and peace to Syria:

First, stabilization initiatives in liberated areas are essential to making sure that life can return to normal and ISIS does not re-emerge. Stabilization initiatives consist of essential measures such as clearing unexploded land mines left behind by ISIS, allowing hospitals to reopen, restoring water and electricity services, and getting boys and girls back in school. The approach has proved successful in Iraq, where millions of Iraqis have returned to their homes. In Syria, however, unlike in Iraq, we do not have a national government partner for stabilization efforts, so we must work with others. As such, there is a great deal of difficulty to them. Since May, the United States has deployed additional diplomats to the affected areas in Syria, working with the United Nations, our partners in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and various nongovernmental organizations.

Our work to help local and regional authorities provide services to liberated areas builds trust between local populations and local leaders who are returning. Terrorists thrive under conditions that allow them to peddle their warped and hateful messages to vulnerable people in conflict-stricken areas. Our stabilization efforts will help those people turn away from the prospect of terrorism and toward integration in their local communities.

We must be clear: “Stabilization” is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction. But it is essential. No party in the Syrian conflict is capable of victory or stabilizing the country via military means alone. Our military presence is backed by State Department and USAID teams who are already working with local authorities to help liberated peoples stabilize their own communities.

Simultaneous with stabilization efforts, de-escalating the overall conflict is also a critical step to creating the conditions for a post-Assad political settlement. Since July, the United States has worked with Russia and Jordan to establish the de-escalation area in the southwest part of Syria. It has achieved a ceasefire, ended indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations, and with some few exceptions, has thus far held up well. The agreement in the southwest also addresses Israel’s security by requiring Iranian-backed militias, most notably Hizballah, to move away from Israel’s border. We need Russia to continue to work with the United States and Jordan to enforce this de-escalation area. If it does, the resulting cessation of regime-opposition hostilities will allow for the safe delivery of humanitarian aid, create the conditions for the safe and voluntary return of IDPs and refugees, and provide the Syrian people the security to start rebuilding areas scarred by conflict. Our efforts have been – have helped refugees and IDPs return into the southwest de-escalation areas from where they had taken refuge in Jordan, and overall, an estimated 715,000 Syrians in total, including 50,000 Syrians from abroad, returned to their homes in 2017. These early but positive trends can increase through the continuation of de-escalation efforts not just in the southwest, but elsewhere.

On counterterrorism, we will continue to work with allies and partners, such as Turkey, to address the terror threat in Idlib and address Turkey’s concern with PKK terrorists elsewhere. Al-Qaida is attempting to re-establish a base of operation for itself in Idlib. We are actively developing the best option to neutralize this threat in conjunction with allies and partners.

The United States is vigorously supporting UN efforts to achieve the political solution under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This is the political framework for peace and stability in a unified Syria which has already been agreed upon by members of the UN Security Council. Specifically, we will work through what is known as the Geneva process, supporting UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura in his efforts.

The Assad regime clearly looks to Russia as a guarantor of its security. Russia therefore has a meaningful role to play in persuading the Assad regime to engage constructively in the Geneva process. Beyond Russia’s own vote to support UNSCR 2254, President Putin reaffirmed Russia’s commitment to Geneva in his joint statement with President Trump issued from Da Nang, Vietnam last November. The United States and Russia have worked together on the southwest de-escalation area to success, and we have established deconfliction arrangements around the Euphrates River Valley to ensure the safety of our respective forces.

Russia must now follow through on the commitment our presidents made last November to find an ultimate solution through the UN-led Geneva process. One of the ways Russia can do that is to exert its unique leverage on the Syrian regime, which itself has agreed to participate in the Geneva process. Russia must put new levels of pressure on the regime to not just show up in Geneva but to credibly engage with the UN’s efforts and implement agreed outcomes.

The United States, the EU, and regional partners will not provide international reconstruction assistance to any area under control of the Assad regime. We ask all stakeholders in Syria’s future to do the same. We will discourage economic relationships between the Assad regime and any other country. Instead, we will encourage international assistance to rebuild areas the global coalition and its local partners have liberated from ISIS. Once Assad is gone from power, the United States will gladly encourage the normalization of economic relationships between Syria and other nations. The United States calls on all nations to exercise discipline in economically pressuring Assad and rebuilding Syria after a political transition. Our expectation is that the desire for a return to normal life and these tools of pressure will help rally the Syrian people and individuals within the regime to compel Assad to step aside.

UNSCR 2254 also calls for UN-supervised free elections in Syria. The United States believes that free and transparent elections, to include the participation of the Syrian diaspora who have been displaced – all those who were forced to flee the conflict – 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. Responsible change may not come as immediate as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform, UN-supervised elections – but that change will come.

The United States recognizes and honors the great sacrifices the Syrian Democratic Forces have made in liberating Syrians from ISIS, but its victories on the battlefield do not solve the challenge of local governance and representation for people of eastern and northern Syria. Interim local political arrangements that give voice to all groups and ethnicities supportive of Syria’s broader political transition must emerge with international support. Any interim arrangements must be truly representative and must not threaten any of Syria’s neighboring states. Similarly, the voices of Syrians from these regions must be heard in Geneva and in the broader discussion about Syria’s future.

On these points, the United States hears and takes seriously the concerns of our NATO ally Turkey. We recognize the humanitarian contributions and military sacrifices Turkey has made towards defeating ISIS, towards their support of millions of Syrian refugees, and stabilizing areas of Syria it has helped liberate. We must have Turkey’s close cooperation in achieving a new future for Syria that ensures security for Syria’s neighbors.

Finally, reducing and expelling malicious Iranian influence from Syria depends on a democratic Syria. For many years, Syria under Bashar al-Assad has been a client state of Iran. A Syrian central government that is not under the control of Assad will have new legitimacy to assert its authority over the country. The reassertion of national sovereignty by a new government, along with de-escalation efforts and new flows of international aid, will lower violence, set better conditions for stability, and speed up the departure of foreign fighters.

We recognize Syria presents many complexities. Our proposed solutions will not be easy to achieve. But it is necessary to proceed in these ways for the sake of our security and that of our allies. We will not repeat mistakes of the past in Iraq, nor will we repeat the mistakes made in Libya.

Well-intentioned military interventions independent of stabilization and political strategies give rise to a host of adverse, unintended consequences. For this reason, we seek to de-escalate the civil war in Syria, work for peace, and encourage all parties to head to the negotiating table. Continued fighting will likely lead to worsened humanitarian conditions, more chaos, and increased regional military intervention in Syria. Our focus is to build a positive political path forward that honors the will of the Syrian people and sustains the unity and territorial integrity of Syria.

As with almost all of our foreign policy challenges, the steps for achieving our objectives cannot be undertaken alone. We will continue to work closely with allies and partners. In suffering many terrorist attacks over the past few years, our allies in Europe have sadly experienced firsthand what groups like ISIS and al-Qaida are capable of. We need allies and partners to support our strategy in order to permanently mitigate the risk to security posed by these terrorist organizations and others.

And finally, the Syrian people have endured seven years of unimaginable chaos and hardship. They need help. A new course of action is a preferable alternative to more years of wishful thinking. A stable, unified, independent Syria will serve the national security interests of the United States, its allies, and our partners. If that reality can come to pass, it will be a victory for all, and it will support the ability of the Syrian people to pursue their own God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you for your kind attention, and I look forward to our discussion. (Applause).