Tillerson Pledges Long-term US Military Engagement in Syria

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, shakes hands with U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura before their meeting on Oct. 26, 2017, in Geneva.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left, shakes hands with U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura before their meeting on Oct. 26, 2017, in Geneva.

 

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has outlined plans for the U.S. to remain engaged in Syria, both diplomatically and militarily, long after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State.

Tillerson gave a major policy speech Wednesday on the way forward for the U.S. in Syria at an event at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University in California. He listed a number of reasons why it is crucial for the U.S. to remain in the troubled country, including preventing a resurgence of the Islamic State and al-Qaida terrorist groups.

"ISIS has one foot in the grave, and by maintaining an American military presence in Syria until the full and complete defeat of ISIS is achieved, it will soon have two," Tillerson said, using an acronym for the militant group.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., Jan. 17, 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., Jan. 17, 2018.

"We cannot allow history to repeat itself in Syria," he said, referring to what he described as mistakes made by the Obama administration in withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely from Iraq and failing to stabilize Libya after NATO airstrikes that led to the ousting of the late President Moammar Gadhafi in Libya.

Reasons to remain engaged

Tillerson said there are also other reasons for the U.S. to remain engaged in Syria.

"A total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would help [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad. A stable, unified and independent Syria ultimately requires post-Assad leadership in order to be successful. Continued U.S. presence to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance of their own liberated areas."

Tillerson told former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, who asked him questions at the event, that the lives of Syrian civilians are still at stake:

"The priority right now in Syria is to stop people being killed," he said, adding they are still being killed by the thousands. He called Syrian President Assad a brutal murderer of his own people who can never provide long-term stability.

Tillerson said the main goals of U.S stabilization efforts in Syria are to create the conditions for Syrian refugees to return to the country, to curb Iranian influence in the region and to pave the way for U.N.-supervised elections aimed at securing new leadership in Damascus.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice speak to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., Jan. 17, 2018.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, right, and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice speak to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., Jan. 17, 2018.

The Wilson Center's Aaron David Miller, a Middle East expert and a former adviser to a number of secretaries of state, told VOA he sees a number of similarities between the policy outlined by Tillerson and Obama administration policy on Syria.

"Here’s how they’re same: other-worldly goals without the will or capacity to achieve them … [an insistence on] no nation-building," Miller said.

He said the Trump administration’s policy differs from the previous administration in that Tillerson is advocating staying in Syria for a very long time, with 2,000 U.S military personnel and fewer than 20 Foreign Service Officers.

UN-backed Geneva process

Tillerson’s plan relies on the U.N.-backed Geneva process aimed at brokering a political solution to the civil war in Syria. United Nations special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura announced Wednesday that the U.N. would host the Syrian government and opposition for peace talks in Vienna next weekend.

The meeting is scheduled for Jan. 25-26 and will focus largely on constitutional issues, a statement released by de Mistura said.

"The special envoy looks forward to the participation of both delegations in this special meeting. He expects that delegations will be coming to Vienna prepared for substantive engagement with him and his team with a specific focus on the constitutional basket of the agenda towards the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2254," the statement read, referring to a 2015 resolution demanding an end to attacks against civilian targets.

FILE - U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura gives a press conference closing a round of Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations offices in Geneva, Dec. 14, 2017.
FILE - U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura gives a press conference closing a round of Syria peace talks at the European headquarters of the United Nations offices in Geneva, Dec. 14, 2017.

The scheduled talks will occur days before a slated peace congress in Russia aimed at finding a settlement to the six-year civil war.

In the statement announcing the Vienna talks, de Mistura also reiterated the U.N. position that "any political initiative by international actors should be assessed by its ability to contribute to and support the United Nations-facilitated Geneva political process and the full implementation of resolution 2254."

Over 340,000 people have been killed and millions driven from their homes in Syria since war broke out in 2011.

Tillerson in London Next Week, Hopes to Visit New Embassy

FILE - U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Jan. 16, 2018.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference during the Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on Security and Stability on the Korean Peninsula in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, Jan. 16, 2018.

 

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday he would make a one-day visit to Britain next week where he hoped to visit the new U.S. embassy.

Speaking to reporters while flying back to Washington from a visit to the United States’ West Coast, Tillerson did not make clear if he would formally open the building.

Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump canceled a trip to London to open the embassy scheduled for next month, saying he did not want to endorse a bad deal agreed to by the Obama administration to sell the old one for “peanuts.”

FILE - The new United States embassy building is seen during a press preview near the River Thames in London, Dec. 13, 2017
FILE - The new United States embassy building is seen during a press preview near the River Thames in London, Dec. 13, 2017

Asked whether he agreed with Trump that the new embassy was in an inferior location and if the move had been a mistake, Tillerson said: “That’s a decision that’s already been taken, so I don’t think we need to revisit it.”

Asked if he planned to inaugurate the new embassy, Tillerson said: “On any trip, I try to make a visit to the mission, have a town hall meeting, opportunity to engage with our local folks.”

He said he had discussed his London agenda with British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who had been “loading it up” and added: “We don’t have the details yet, but I hope to get by the embassy.”

The cancellation of Trump’s trip was a further blow to relations between Britain and the United States, for long the closest of allies. More than a year into his presidency, Trump has yet to visit London, with many Britons vowing to protest against a man they see as crude, volatile and opposed to their values on a range of issues.

Tillerson rejected the suggestion that Trump might see Britain as less useful now that it is embroiled in Brexit and other political issues.

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Jan. 16, 2018.
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Jan. 16, 2018.

“No, not at all,” he said. “I mean, we still have the special relationship with the British people. As you know, President Trump was supportive of the UK’s exit from the EU. He still thinks that was the right decision for them.

“Britain needs to focus on those Brexit negotiations right now, which is really important to them, and I think the president realizes that’s where Prime Minister May really needs to focus her attention, working through, you know, the negotiation around the exit.”

The decision to move the U.S. embassy from Grosvenor Square in the upmarket Mayfair area of London to a site on the south bank of the Thames was agreed in 2008 under President George W. Bush.

Americans Celebrate Slain Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.

Martin Luther King Jr. acknowledges the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial for his "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963.

 

Americans on Monday celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring a man who embodied the U.S. civil rights movement and who understood that the success of the movement depended on its nonviolent principles.

Every year on the third Monday in January, Americans honor the slain civil rights leader who in the 1950s and 1960s organized nonviolent protests against Southern segregation, the struggle for black equality and voting rights.

U.S. President Donald Trump marked the holiday largely out of public view at his private golf resort in Florida. He dedicated his weekly address to the country, released on Monday, to King.

"Dr. King's dream is our dream. It is the American dream," Trump said.

Two of King's children publicity criticized Trump in speeches on Monday, following accusations last week that he described immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as coming from "s---hole countries." Trump also reportedly expressed a preference for immigrants from countries such as Norway.

In Washington, King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, said, "When a president insists that our nation needs more citizens from white states like Norway, I don't even think we need to spend any time even talking about what it says and what it is.'' He added, "We got to find a way to work on this man's heart.''

King's daughter, Rev. Bernice King, told a service at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church "we cannot allow the nations of the world to embrace the words that come from our president as a reflection of the true spirit of America."

Since the alleged remarks, Trump has been widely condemned as a racist — an accusation he has denied.

"I am the least racist person you will ever interview," Trump said, responding to a reporter's question Sunday at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

Before he left Washington for Florida on Friday, Trump praised King's “peaceful crusade for justice and equality.”

Many around the country spend the holiday commemorating King's tireless work to end racism by participating in community service projects. The U.S. Congress honored that community spirit in 1994 by designating the King holiday as a national day of service.

President Donald Trump paid tribute to King during a ceremony in Washington Friday, praising his “peaceful crusade for justice and equality.”

Push for change

King rose to prominence in the mid-1950s when as a young preacher he led the successful drive to desegregate public buses in Montgomery, Alabama, forcing the city to end its practice of segregating black passengers.

By August 1963, the push for equality had grown significantly across the country and 250,000 people, both black and white, traveled to the nation's capital to participate on the March on Washington. The protest was peaceful with no arrests.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd of some 3,000 persons, April 30, 1966, in Kelly Ingram Park on the last day of his three-day whistle-stop tour of Alabama.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd of some 3,000 persons, April 30, 1966, in Kelly Ingram Park on the last day of his three-day whistle-stop tour of Alabama.

King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech launched what had been a mostly black Southern movement into a nationwide civil rights campaign.

In one memorable line, King said he hoped “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Nonviolent movement

King understood that a key to success for the civil rights movement was a strategy of nonviolent protests, which he championed as an alternative to armed uprising. King has said he was inspired by the teachings of Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi.

Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Alabama, April 12, 1963.
Rev. Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr., are taken by a policeman as they led a line of demonstrators into the business section of Birmingham, Alabama, April 12, 1963.

The movement was tested in places like Birmingham, Alabama, where police used attack dogs and fire hoses to disperse protesting school children and in Selma, Alabama, where a 1965 march is remembered as “Bloody Sunday” because police attacked protesters.

Televised footage of violence against civil rights demonstrators sparked a wave of sympathetic public opinion.

Struggle to maintain non-violence

Just weeks after the large and peaceful March on Washington, tragedy hit Birmingham when a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church during Sunday school classes. Four young girls were killed and 23 others injured.

Some blacks wanted to retaliate, including members of the revolutionary group known as the Black Panthers.

However, the steady and peaceful nonviolent movement held its course and came to a crescendo in 1964, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act outlawing racial segregation in public places and King won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Photograph of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., with other civil rights leaders in Washington, DC, August 6, 1965.
Photograph of President Lyndon Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., with other civil rights leaders in Washington, DC, August 6, 1965.

The following year, the Voting Rights Act banned practices that were used to keep blacks from participating in elections.

King’s own life ended in violence when he was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers.

King, who was 39 years old when he died, gave a speech the night before his death that foreshadowed his assassination.

“And I have seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get there,” he said.

Campaign for recognition

Four days after King’s assassination, a congressman proposed a federal holiday honoring King. However, it took more than 15 years for that to happen.

In 1979, after 10 years of petitions from millions of citizens, lawmakers held an official hearing to discuss the idea of a King holiday. That first initiative failed, with many opponents questioning whether King deserved the same respect as George Washington, the nation’s first president who is honored with a federal holiday.

In 1983, Congress officially discussed the King holiday again, this time passing the measure by the end of the year. Republican President Ronald Reagan signed the measure into law, saying that although he and King did not share political philosophies, they shared “a deep belief in freedom and justice under God.”

MLK Day Marked by Trump Criticism, Pledges to Fight Racism

Val Scott holds up a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. during a march to mark the birthday of the slain civil rights leader in San Francisco, Jan. 15, 2018.

Val Scott holds up a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. during a march to mark the birthday of the slain civil rights leader in San Francisco, Jan. 15, 2018.

 

Martin Luther King Jr.'s children and the pastor of an Atlanta church where he preached decried disparaging remarks President Donald Trump is said to have made about African countries, while protests between Haitian immigrants and Trump supporters broke out near the president's Florida resort Monday, the official federal holiday honoring King.

At gatherings across the nation, activists, residents and teachers honored the late civil rights leader on what would have been his 89th birthday and ahead of the 50th anniversary of his assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation marked Martin Luther King Jr. Day with events aimed at coming to terms with its own history of slavery and by welcoming descendants of former slaves into the tribe.

People protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's recent comments and tough stand on immigration near the Southern Boulevard bridge to Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, Florida, Jan. 15, 2018.
People protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's recent comments and tough stand on immigration near the Southern Boulevard bridge to Palm Beach near Mar-a-Lago, Florida, Jan. 15, 2018.

Trump marked his first King holiday as president buffeted by claims that during a meeting with senators on immigration last week, he used a vulgarity to describe African countries and questioned the need to allow more Haitians into the U.S. He also is said to have asked why the country couldn't have more immigrants from nations like Norway.

In Washington, King's eldest son, Martin Luther King III, criticized Trump, saying, "When a president insists that our nation needs more citizens from white states like Norway, I don't even think we need to spend any time even talking about what it says and what it is."

He added, "We got to find a way to work on this man's heart."

In Atlanta, King's daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, told hundreds of people who packed the pews of the Ebenezer Baptist Church that they "cannot allow the nations of the world to embrace the words that come from our president as a reflection of the true spirit of America."

"We are one people, one nation, one blood, one destiny. ... All of civilization and humanity originated from the soils of Africa," Bernice King said. "Our collective voice in this hour must always be louder than the one who sometimes does not reflect the legacy of my father."

Church pastor the Rev. Raphael Warnock also took issue with Trump's campaign slogan to "Make America Great Again."

Warnock said he thinks America "is already great ... in large measure because of Africa and African people."

Trump protesters, supporters

Down the street from Trump's Mar-a-Lago retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday, Trump protesters and supporters yelled at each other from opposing corners. Trump was staying at the resort for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. Video posted by WPEC-TV showed several hundred pro-Haiti demonstrators yelling from one side of the street Monday while waving Haitian flags. The Haitians and their supporters shouted "Our country is not a s---hole," referring to comments the president reportedly made. Trump has said that is not the language he used.

Police stand guard as protesters and supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather near Mar-a-Lago, Florida, Jan. 15, 2018.
Police stand guard as protesters and supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump gather near Mar-a-Lago, Florida, Jan. 15, 2018.

The smaller pro-Trump contingent waved American flags and campaign posters and yelled "Trump is making America great again." One man could be seen telling the Haitians to leave the country. Police kept the sides apart.

Cherokee Nation

The Cherokee Nation tribe — one of the country's largest — marked the King holiday on Monday with calls to service and by confronting its slave-owning past. A federal court ruled last year that the descendants of former slaves, known as Freedmen, had the same rights to tribal citizenship, voting, health care and housing as blood-line Cherokees.

"The time is now to deal with it and talk about it," said Cherokee Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. "It's been a positive thing for our country to reconcile that during Dr. King's era, and it's going to be a positive thing for Cherokees to talk about that history as part of reconciling our history with slavery."

One descendant of Freedmen, Rodslen Brown-King, said her mother was able to vote as a Cherokee for the first and only time recently. Other relatives died before getting the benefits that come with tribal citizenship, including a 34-year-old nephew with stomach cancer, she said.

"He was waiting on this decision," said Brown-King, of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma. "It's just a lot of struggle, a lot of up and down trauma in our lives. It's exciting to know we are coming together and moving forward in this."

Trump: 'I am Not a Racist'

President Donald Trump, accompanied by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., speaks to members of the media as they arrive for a dinner at Trump International Golf Club in in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018.

President Donald Trump, accompanied by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., speaks to members of the media as they arrive for a dinner at Trump International Golf Club in in West Palm Beach, Fla., Sunday, Jan. 14, 2018.

 

President Donald Trump denied he is a racist Sunday, three days after he reportedly referred to immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa as coming from "s---hole" countries."

"I am the least racist person you will ever interview," Trump responded to a reporter's question at his Mar-a-Lago Florida resort.

According to some in the room during a White House meeting on immigration, Trump asked why the U.S. is letting in immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and Africa and said he wanted more from countries such as Norway. He also apparently said he wants to exclude Haiti from an immigration reform deal.

While the White House never denied Trump used an obscenity to talk about immigrants of color, the president denied it.

"Never said anything derogatory about Haiti," he later tweeted. "Made up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians. Probably should record future meetings - unfortunately no trust."

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who was at the Oval Office meeting, claimed the president made the derogatory term.

Trump's denial was supported in separate appearances on Sunday news programs by Republican senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia.

"I didn't hear it, and I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was," Cotton said on CBS's Face the Nation.

Perdue was on ABC television and flatly denied Trump said it.

Demonstrators urging the Democratic Party to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA) rally outside the office of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in Los Angeles, Jan. 3, 2018.
Demonstrators urging the Democratic Party to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA) rally outside the office of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein in Los Angeles, Jan. 3, 2018.

Trump also told reporters in Florida late Sunday he is still going to try to make a deal on DACA, the program that protects young immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

The president tweeted earlier Sunday that DACA is "probably dead"

"Honestly, I don't think Democrats want to make a deal," he told reporters.

DACA is at the center of the debate between the White House and Congress on a bill to fund the government and avoid a shutdown at the end of this week.

Trump is tying an extension of DACA to funding for a wall along the U.S. - Mexican border.

Many Democrats want extending DACA to be a separate issue from building a wall -- something they oppose anyway.

The president's reportedly harsh comments about Africa and Haiti angered Democrats and were also condemned by a number of Republicans -- throwing some doubt on Congress' willingness to make an immigration deal with the White House at this time.

Trump signed an executive order ending DACA, but gave Congress until March 5 to come up with a solution for the 800,000 young immigrants affected by the program.

Many came to the U.S. as babies and toddlers illegally with their families, but this is the only country they know. They work, go to school, pay taxes, and have served in the U.S. military.

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