Tillerson: Defeating ISIS 'first priority' in Syria

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in an interview clip released Saturday that the United States' first priority in Syria is to take out the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

"It's important that we keep our priorities straight, and we believe that the first priority is the defeat of ISIS," Tillerson said in an interview on CBS's "Face the Nation," set to air on Sunday.

"By defeating ISIS and removing their caliphate from their control, we’ve now eliminated at least or minimized a particular threat not just to the United States, but to the whole stability in the region," he continued.

"Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria," he added.

ADVERTISEMENT
Tillerson said that any political solution to the ongoing civil war in Syria will require the cooperation of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, as well as Russia, a fierce backer of Assad.

"Clearly, that requires the participation of the regime with the support of their allies," Tillerson said. "We’re hopeful that Russia will choose to play a constructive role in supporting ceasefires through their own Astana talks, but also, ultimately, through Geneva."

"If we can achieve ceasefires in zones of stabilization in Syria, then I believe – we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process."

Tillerson's comments on the role of Assad have shifted in recent days.

On Thursday, ahead of U.S. strikes on a regime air base in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack, Tillerson said "Assad’s role in the future is uncertain, clearly, and with the acts that he has taken, it would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people."

That followed him saying last week that the "longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people."

The secretary of State's latest comments follow a tumultuous week in relations between the U.S. and Russia over Syria.

President Trump on Thursday ordered a missile strike on a Syrian military air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in northern Syria this week that killed more than 70 civilians. The Assad regime is believed to be responsible for the attack.

Russia responded furiously to the U.S. strike, calling it an act of "aggression" and accusing the U.S. of violating international law.

Tillerson spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by phone on Saturday, during which Lavrov told Tillerson that the U.S. attack "plays into the hands of extremists," according to a Russian Foreign Ministry statement.