MEMRI July 10, 2017 Special Dispatch No.7000
Former U.S. Ambassador To Syria Robert Ford: What Rex Tillerson Didnít Say
About Syria Reminds Me Of Obama
In an article published by the London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, titled
"What Tillerson Didnít Say Reminds Me of Obama," former U.S. Ambassador to
Syria Robert Ford assesses the Syria policy of the Trump administration
based on a July 5, 2017 statement by State Secretary Rex Tillerson.
In this statement, Tillerson said: "First, parties in Syria must ensure
stability on the ground. If we do not achieve stability in Syria, our
progress in defeating ISIS may be undone. Secondly, parties must work
through a political process to achieve a settlement that charts a way
forward for the Syrian people. Lastly, Russia has a special responsibility
to assist in these efforts.... Actors in Syria must remember that our fight
is with ISIS. 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
"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 re-takes or occupies areas liberated from ISIS' or other
terrorist groups' control...
"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 ceasefire observers, and coordinated delivery of humanitarian
assistance. 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
Ford remarks that this statement makes it clear that the Trump
administration, just like the Obama administration, is not fighting Assad or
Iran in Syria, but is focusing its efforts on defeating ISIS. He adds that,
in charging Russia to ensure "that no faction in Syria illegitimately
retakes or occupies areas liberated from ISIS," Tillerson is presumably
urging Russia to restrain the Assad regime and keep it from retaking ISIS
areas captured by the U.S.-supported rebels. However, Ford notes that this
policy is problematic, for if Assad is the sovereign in Syria, his retaking
of any territory in the country would be legitimate in terms of
Ford notes further that, in outlining the U.S. vision for Syria's future,
Tillerson did not say Assad must step down or that Iran and the various
foreign militias must depart Syria. Moreover, he did not say what the U.S.
plans to do in Syria, except for fighting ISIS and beginning discussions
with Russia about de-escalation, humanitarian aid and no-fly zones.
Tillerson only implied that the U.S. should not be expected to take any part
in reconstructing Syria or in the political efforts to reach a settlement
there, while stressing that it is Russia Ė rather than the U.S. Ė that has a
"special responsibility" to help with these processes. Ford concludes by
stating that this, too, reminds him of the Obama administration.
The following is the article, as published on the English online edition of
Robert Ford (image: english.aawsat.com)
"The July 5 statement from American Secretary of State Tillerson about Syria
was the most detailed statement of the Trump administrationís goals in
Syria. The Trump administration is often hard to understand, but this July 5
statement follows a cabinet-level meeting at the White House about Syria on
June 30 so it should reflect consensus between the State Department, the
National Security Council and the Defense Department.
Tillerson mentioned ISIS nine times and emphasized that the American effort
in Syria is against ISIS. The implicit meaning is clear: Tillerson called
the Syrian government a 'regime' but Washington is fighting neither Assad
nor Iran in Syria. Indeed, Tillerson urged the Syrian opposition to focus
efforts against ISIS, not against Assad. Here Tillersonís policy reminds me
of the Obama administration which insisted in 2014 that the American
military would train and equip only Syrian opposition fighters against ISIS
who pledged not to use their training and weapons against Assad. Few Syrian
fighters accepted the American demand, and the 2014 effort ended in a major
embarrassment. In 2017, however, the Free Syrian Army is exhausted by
attrition and endless, useless internal battles. More Syrian opposition
fighters in the end may accept the American demand to fight ISIS only.
Indeed, some now are joining the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight
"The American viewpoint is that two elements are vital to destroying ISIS.
First, ISISí remaining territories must be captured. Second, there must be
stability in Syria; without stability ISIS could, he warned, rise again.
After six years of fighting in Syria it is hard to imagine stability, so
what is Tillerson thinking about?
"We can see some specific points that Washington sees as key to stability.
First, Tillersonís statement mentioned Russia eight times and emphasized
that Russia has special responsibilities in Syria. Tillerson said Russia
must prevent any Syrian faction from 'illegitimately' recapturing territory
liberated from ISIS or other terrorist groupsí control. This is the most
peculiar part of the Tillerson statement. He apparently is demanding Russia
preventing more attacks by Syrian government forces against the
American-supported SDF, dominated by the Syrian Kurdish PYD party and its
YPG militia, that are attacking Raqqah now and may even try to take parts of
Deir az-Zour province in far eastern Syria.
"The Americans shot down on June 18 a Syrian air force fighter that was
attacking the SDF near Raqqah; three times the Americans have bombed Syrian
and Iranian-backed militias approaching Syrian Arab opposition forces in
southeastern Syria. However, the Syrian government, even if it is repugnant,
is acknowledged by the United Nations to be the legitimate government in
Syria and so its retaking any territory inside Syria would be legitimate in
terms of international law.
"Tillerson listed other elements of stability. Washington, he said, would
discuss with Russia establishing no-fly zones, de-confliction areas,
deployment of ceasefire observers and faster delivery of humanitarian aid.
This will please Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Russians after
the last round of Astana talks had announced four ďde-escalationĒ zones, and
so the American vision of stability in Syria is clearer: in the short term,
Syria is de facto partitioned into at least four zones: first, a Syrian
government zone that includes the major cities in western Syria; second, a
zone in northeastern Syria dominated by the Syrian Kurdish PYD that includes
Raqqah; third, Idlib in northwestern Syria where perhaps Russian and Turkish
soldiers will deploy, and finally, a small zone in southwestern Syria near
the Golan Heights and the Jordanian border.
"Tillerson didnít mention Syriaís reconstruction. Instead, he said that
Russia had a responsibility to ensure that the ďspecial needs of the Syria
people are met.Ē Tillersonís implicit message is simple: donít ask the
Americans to help with reconstruction. This message will not please Lavrov,
but it fits closely with candidate Donald Trumpís insistence during the
presidential campaign last year that the United States should stop trying to
fix foreign countries.
Tillerson only briefly mentioned Syria in the long term. He said there
should be a political process to achieve a settlement to design Syriaís
future. He didnít say Assad must step aside. He didnít say foreign militias
must depart Syria. He didnít even mention the word Geneva. Instead, he said
Russia Ė not America Ė has a special responsibility to help with the
political process, whatever it will be.
"There are two big issues Tillerson left out of his statement. First, he
avoided the word ďIranĒ, as if Iran has no forces there and will not
influence stability. It is possible the June 30 meeting at the White House
didnít reach a final conclusion about what to say about Iran in Syria.
Second, Tillerson listed many things for Russia to do but he avoided giving
a list of what the United States would do except for fighting ISIS and
beginning discussions with Russia about de-escalation, humanitarian aid and
no-fly zones. Am I being too cynical to say that also reminds me of the
 For the statement, see www.state.gov, July 5, 2017.
 English.aawsat.com, July 8, 2017.
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