By Lesley Wroughton and Yara Bayoumy
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday the United States would set up “interim zones of stability” to help refugees return home in the next phase of the fight against Islamic State and al Qaeda.
The top U.S. diplomat did not make clear where these zones were to be set up. He was addressing a meeting of 68 countries gathered in Washington to discuss the fight to defeat Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
“The United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al Qaeda 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 U.S. military involvement in Syria and mark a major departure from President Barack Obama’s more cautious approach. Asked about Tillerson’s remarks, Colonel Joe Scrocca said the U.S. military had not yet received any direction to establish any kind of “zones”.
Increased U.S. 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.
Islamic State has been losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, with three separate forces, backed by the United States, Turkey and Russia, advancing on the group’s Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa.
A Pentagon-led preliminary plan to defeat Islamic State was delivered to the White House last month. It could lead to relaxing some of the former Obama administration’s policy restrictions, like limits on troop numbers.
U.S. defense officials said on Wednesday the U.S.-led coalition has airlifted Syrian rebel forces in an operation near the Syrian town of Tabqa in Raqqa province.
“I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the United States’ number one goal in the region,” Tillerson said, adding that recent military wins in Iraq and Syria had swung momentum in the coalition’s favor.
“As a coalition we are not in the business of nation building or reconstruction,” he said, adding that resources should be focused on preventing the resurgence of ISIS and equipping war-torn communities to rebuild.
ISLAMIC STATE OUTNUMBERED
Wednesday’s event was the first meeting of the international coalition since the election of Trump, who has pledged to make the fight against Islamic State a priority. He vowed in January to set up safe zones in Syria for refugees.
Tillerson called on coalition partners to make good on financial pledges to help secure and rebuild areas where Islamic State fighters have been pushed out. The coalition expects to raise about $2 billion for humanitarian assistance, stabilization and demining in Iraq and Syria for 2017.
Iraqi government forces, backed by the U.S.-led international coalition, retook several Iraqi cities from Islamic State 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 Islamic State and outlined Iraq’s progress in the fight.
He said Iraq was now at the stage of “destroying” Islamic State, 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.
The State Department said Tillerson would also use the meeting as an occasion to meet NATO allies after it emerged this week that he would miss his first scheduled meeting with NATO foreign ministers next month in Brussels.
The news unsettled European allies who worried it reopened questions about Trump’s commitment to the alliance. The State Department said on Tuesday Tillerson has proposed new dates for a NATO meeting.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Writing by Yara Bayoumy and Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Alistair Bell)