Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday called on Russia to do more to bring peace to Syria, and suggested that Moscow and Washington could cooperate on establishing no-fly zones in the war-torn Arab country.
In the unusual statement, Tillerson also insisted that America’s top priority in Syria remains defeating the Islamic State terrorist network and that the future of the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad, who is engaged in a civil war with rebel factions, must be decided through a political settlement.
The usually laconic Tillerson’s lengthy statement came just days before President Donald Trump is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering in Germany. Tillerson appeared to be trying to influence those talks ahead of time, despite deeply troubled U.S.-Russian relations. Tillerson’s statement also followed a report that he had told the U.N. chief that Assad’s fate was in Russia’s hands.
“The United States is prepared to explore the possibility of establishing with Russia joint mechanisms for ensuring stability, including no-fly zones, on the ground cease-fire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian assistance,” said Tillerson, who will join Trump at the G-20. “If our two countries work together to establish stability on the ground, it will lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria’s political future.”
Tillerson warned the Syrian regime, which is backed by Iran as well as Russia, against taking advantage of America’s limited focus by moving into areas freed from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“Actors in Syria must remember that our fight is with ISIS,” Tillerson said. “We call upon all parties, including the Syrian government and its allies, Syrian opposition forces, and Coalition forces carrying out the battle to defeat ISIS, to avoid conflict with one another and adhere to agreed geographical boundaries for military de-confliction and protocols for de-escalation.”
He added: “The United States believes Russia, as a guarantor of the Assad regime and an early entrant into the Syrian conflict, has a responsibility to ensure that the needs of the Syrian people are met and that no faction in Syria illegitimately retakes or occupies areas liberated from ISIS’ or other terrorist groups’ control.”
The Trump administration has grappled with a strategy on how to deal with Syria once the Islamic State is pushed out of its territory there. America’s successful military campaign so far against the terrorist group — which involves partnering with local forces — has suddenly given new space to Assad’s forces and those of Iran and Russia to operate. That has led to clashes with the United States; in one case, the U.S. shot down a Syrian government aircraft.
Trump’s meeting with Putin is expected to cover a range of issues beyond Syria, including Moscow’s designs on Ukraine. It is not yet clear whether Trump will raise another sensitive issue: U.S. intelligence agencies’ suspicions that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump win. The U.S. president has in the past downplayed those allegations.