Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State. Photo: Kristoffer Tripplaar/AP
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The defeat of ISIS will be the new US administration’s priority in the Middle East and their strategy includes reaffirming America’s alliance with Syrian Kurds, said President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for the position of top diplomat, who advocated reengagement with Turkey at the same time.
“Defeating ISIS must be our foremost priority in the Middle East,” said Rex Tillerson on Wednesday at the senate confirmation hearing assessing his nomination to the post of Secretary of State.
He described Syrian Kurds as “our greatest allies” and said the US must “recommit to the Syrian Kurds that we intend to continue to support you with the capability to continue the advance on Raqqa and then build coalition forces that can contain ISIS if it attempts to move into other parts of the country.”
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) are the largest force in the diverse coalition Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are the US’ key allies on the ground in northern Syria and are fighting to rout ISIS from their self-proclaimed capital of Raqqa.
The US is supporting the SDF with air power, advice, and training. They are also providing military equipment to the Syrian Arab Coalition, another of the forces fighting under the SDF flag.
Tillerson’s comments on the Kurdish forces came in response to a question from the Republican Senator for Wyoming, John Barrasso, who asked how Tillerson envisioned restoring America’s position in the world, since, he claimed, it is not as respected internationally as previously.
The presumptive secretary of state said the US has to reengage with friends and allies, fulfilling any existing commitments and agreements that are already in place. “It means projecting the strength of our US military might, but hopefully not having to use it,” he added.
The US has repeatedly stood by its Kurdish and SDF allies, despite strong objections from fellow NATO member Turkey, who has labelled the YPG, and therefore the SDF, a terrorist organization with links to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
The SDF issued a statement on Tuesday stressing that they are a Syrian force and have no ties with the PKK. “We are a Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen and Assyrian force from Syria under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces. We affirm that we are not part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as claimed by some regional countries,” reads the statement released by the SDF on social media.
The US military’s Central Command (CENTCOM) tweeted the SDF’s statement, quickly attracting the ire of Turkey. “Is this a joke or @CENTCOM has lost their senses?” asked Ibrahim Kalin, Turkey’s presidential spokesperson on Twitter.
Tillerson, in his hearing, appears to be continuing the current administration’s policy of trying to balance their relationship with the Kurds and Turkey. Current State Department statements have been aimed at keeping the two allies from firing on each other and the guns pointed at ISIS – the common enemy.
Tillerson advocated reengaging with Turkey in order to ensure the US has a voice in Syria’s future, noting that Turkey, along with Russia, Syria, and Iran were dictating how things were playing out in Syria, where the US had been sidelined.
“We have to reengage with the president of Turkey, a longstanding NATO ally. He got pretty nervous about the situation and turned to who next was available and turned to Russia. That is not a sustainable ally. You’re sustainable alliance is with the United States of America, so the first step is that reengagement and reinforce what had been longstanding commitments to stability in this part of the world.”