During his confirmation hearing earlier this week, President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for secretary of state articulated his strategy for defeating ISIS in Syria — and it sounded very similar to what the Obama administration has been doing since the terror group established itself in the country.
Former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee that he thinks the US should focus on wiping out the terrorist group ISIS in Syria before figuring out what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The civil war in Syria has been raging on for almost six years as rebels — some of whom are Islamic terrorists — fight to oust Assad, whose brutal regime has been responsible for more civilian deaths than any terror group in the country.
“We’ve had two competing priorities in Syria under this administration: ‘Bashar al-Assad must go’ and the defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson said. “And the truth of the matter is, carrying both of those out simultaneously is extremely difficult because at times they conflict with one another.”
He continued: “The clear priority is to defeat ISIS. We defeat ISIS, we at least create some level of stability in Syria which then lets us deal with the next priority of what is going to be the exit of Bashar al-Assad.”
But while the Obama administration has indeed called for Assad to step down, the US has not made his ouster a priority. And when President Barack Obama had the chance to act on a red line he set forth in 2012, he ended up deciding not to take military action against Assad.
The clear priority for the US in Syria over the past few years has always been defeating ISIS.
“I don’t see any big daylight between what Tillerson said and what Obama’s administration has been doing,” Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale University who was the US ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, told Business Insider.
Ford noted that for the last two and a half years of US involvement in Syria, “it’s been abundantly clear that the Islamic State is the heavy priority and not the Assad government.”
Many Syria experts say this is misguided because ISIS’ presence in Syria is fostered by Assad’s continued hold on power.
“The key problems we face center on the effects of Assad regime mass homicide: a recruiting bonanza for Islamist extremists, spillover effects that embolden Russia and hurt allies, and the signature humanitarian abomination (to date) of the 21st century,” Fred Hof, a former special adviser for transition in Syria under Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, told Business Insider in an email.
“This is why a strategy that separates Assad and ISIS would be doomed to failure,” he added. “Assad and ISIS are joined at the hip.”
The Assad regime theoretically fights ISIS, and vice versa, but the real targets for destruction in Syria are the moderate rebel groups whose primary goal is to oust Assad.
Assad knows that ISIS and Al Qaeda-backed groups in Syria will never be able to rule the country legitimately because the West will never work with them. Therefore, the real threat to Assad come from the rebels whom the West could in theory support.
Because of this dynamic, the Assad regime and its allies aren’t going to completely wipe out radical extremist groups as long as moderate rebels are still fighting.
But extremist groups are still fighting the Assad regime, and because they are often better equipped than other rebel groups, Syrians who are desperate to oust Assad join up out of practicality. Assad’s regime also allowed ISIS to grow and prosper in the first place.
“The connection between Assad’s atrocities against mainly Sunni Arab civilians and the ability of ISIS and other Islamist extremists to recruit and prosper is well-established,” said Hof, who is now the director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.
Hof continued: “What’s been lacking is a strategy that recognises and acts upon the linkage — the symbiotic relationship — between a murderous Assad regime and the extremist groups it has helped spawn.”
Ford said the solution to the crisis in Syria has to be both military and political.
“A lot of experts would say Assad’s government itself has created a lot of the conditions that spur recruitment into Islamic terrorist groups,” he said. “The problem is not so much military as it is political having to do with grievances against a brutal, repressive government.”
Ford said he think it has “always made more sense to prioritise Assad over the Islamic State.”
One victor in the Syrian civil war has been Russia, a country that has been increasingly hostile to the US. Russia entered the fray in Syria in 2015 to support the Assad regime. Since then, the Russian military has helped the regime win a series of victories against anti-Assad rebels.
While Russia initially said it was intervening in Syria to fight ISIS, it has become clear that bolstering the Assad regime is its real priority.
Tillerson himself noted that the Syrian civil war “has provided a convenient open door for Russia to now establish a presence in the Middle East, a region that it has long been absent from.”
Iran, another country that is no friend to the US, has also been exerting its influence in Syria to support Assad.
Tillerson also insisted that the US must have a plan for who would replace Assad if he were to be forced from power.
“We need to answer the question, what comes next? What is going to be the government structure in Syria, and can we have any influence over that or not?” Tillerson asked.
Hof disagreed with this sentiment.
“Although it is troubling to assign stabilizing qualities to a mass murderer, the issue of who ultimately replaces Assad is a bit of a red herring: he has all-but-destroyed a state and there has been no American effort to overthrow him,” he said. “Besides, did the world agonize in 1945 over who would replace Hitler?”
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