U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said that U.S. troops will remain in Syria indefinitely not just to fight militants but also to counter the power of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally Iran.
In a speech on January 17 announcing the first-ever open-ended commitment of U.S. troops to the war-battered Mediterranean country, Tillerson stressed that the mission of the U.S. military centers on destroying the Islamic State extremist group and preventing its return.
But he said another U.S. goal is to create the conditions of stability needed for leaders to emerge who can replace Assad, who he described as a "murderer," and also eject Assad's Iranian military advisers and fighters from the country.
"A total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad to continue his brutal treatment against his own people," Tillerson told an audience at Stanford University.
"A murderer of his own people cannot generate the trust required for long-term stability," he said.
"U.S. disengagement from Syria would also provide Iran with the opportunity to further strengthen its own position in Syria," he said.
"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," he said. "A stable, unified, and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful."
The United States has deployed around 2,000 ground troops to Syria and its warplanes patrol over the east of the country, hunting remnants of IS, which was largely routed from the country last year.
In ousting IS from its self-proclaimed capital, Raqqa, and other areas of northeastern Syria last year, the United States worked with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia dominated by Kurdish fighters.
Washington is now helping the militia create a 30,000-strong force to secure Syria's borders with Iraq and Turkey and prevent the militants from returning, in a move opposed by Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Syria.
In deciding to keep troops in Syria, Tillerson insisted that Washington is not being dragged into the nearly seven-year-long Syrian civil war as a combatant. It is also not seeking violent "regime change" or contemplating a long-term nation-building mission, he said.
Instead, he argued that the U.S. role will be to provide stability to allow a UN-led peace process to resume and find a Syrian-led alternative to Assad's rule while weaning the Syrian government off its reliance on Iranian advisers and aid.
"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," Tillerson said.
Despite saying the United States is not interested in "nation-building" in Syria, Tillerson said the United States must not repeat the "mistake" he said it made in leaving Iraq.
U.S. troops completed a withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, eight years after they toppled Saddam Hussein's rule, only to return in much smaller numbers in 2014 to fight IS, which in 2014 seized large swathes of territory in both Iraq and Syria.
"We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011, when a premature departure from Iraq allowed Al-Qaeda in Iraq to survive and eventually morph into ISIS," Tillerson said.
"The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring that ISIS cannot reemerge," he said.
Tillerson said free, transparent elections in which the Syrian diaspora participates "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," he 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.
With reporting by AFP, dpa, Reuters, and AP