Washington: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday the US would set up “interim zones of stability” to help refugees return home in the next phase of the fight against ISIS and al Qaida in Syria and Iraq.
The top US diplomat did not make clear where these zones were to be set up. He was addressing a meeting of 68 countries and organisations gathered in Washington to discuss accelerating the battle against ISIS.
“The US will increase pressure on ISIS and al Qaida 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.
Asked about Tillerson‘s remarks, coalition spokesman Colonel Joseph Scrocca said the US military had not yet received direction to establish any kind of “zones”.
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.
A final statement at the end of the meeting did not mention the possibility of safe zones.
ISIS has been losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, with three separate forces, backed by the US, Turkey and Russia, advancing on the group’s Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa.
US defence 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.
“I recognise there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the US’s number one goal in the region,” Tillerson said.
“As a coalition we are not in the business of nation building or reconstruction,” he said, adding that resources should be focussed on preventing the resurgence of ISIS and equipping war-torn communities to rebuild.
Wednesday’s event was the first meeting of the coalition since the election of Trump, who has pledged to make the fight against ISIS a priority.
Tillerson called on coalition partners to make good on financial pledges to secure and rebuild areas where ISIS has been pushed out. The coalition has pledged more than $2 billion in assistance for Iraq and Syria in 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 ISIS and outlined Iraq’s progress in the fight.
He said Iraq was now at the stage of “destroying” ISIS, not just “containing” it. Recounting a Tuesday conversation with the Iraqi leader, senator Lindsey Graham said Abadi believed reconstruction of Anbar province as well as Mosul in Nineveh province would cost about $50 billion.