The United States is examining its next steps in the campaign to defeat Islamic State militants and stabilize the refugee crisis with regional allies, as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarks on trips to Turkey and NATO headquarters this week. The top U.S. diplomat will press NATO allies to demonstrate a clear path to increase defense spending, in his first meeting with counterparts from this security bloc.
U.S.-led forces are increasing their campaign to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State militants. Stabilizing areas where militants have fled and allowing refugees to return home is high on the agenda for the U.S. and its anti-Islamic State coalition partners.
In Turkey, Tillerson will try to build on progress from last week’s meeting of coalition partners in Washington.
“While a more defined course of action in Syria is still coming together, I can say the United States will increase our pressure on ISIS and al-Qaida, and will work to establish interim zones of stability through cease-fires to allow refugees to go home,” he said, using a common acronym for Islamic State, which is also known as ISIL and Daesh.
But it could be a tall order, according to Middle East expert Daniel Serwer.
“The Turks would like to have safe zones; they have been proposing them for years,” he said. “But they are, in fact, extraordinarily difficult to create, and to defend, and to maintain.”
Days before Tillerson’s first meeting with NATO foreign ministers, Tillerson met with his counterparts from the Baltic states. They expressed confidence in Washington’s support for NATO.
“We’re passing what we consider very important messages of the need to develop transatlantic security and economic links, so it was, overall, a very good introductory meeting,” Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told VOA’s Ukrainian Service.
After Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea, NATO agreed to send troops to Lithuania and to Estonia, Latvia and Poland, in a move to deter potential Russian aggression.
“I wouldn’t say the military presence is insignificant,” Estonian Foreign Minister Sven Misker told VOA’s Russian Service. “These are very well-trained, well-equipped forces. But when you look at the numbers, the presence is slightly modest compared to what Russia has in place on the other side of the border. So it shouldn’t be viewed as escalatory in any way … but I think it’s sufficient to make Russia change its calculus. It makes clear to Russia that they should not launch a provocation and think that they can do it with impunity.”
Tillerson is going to the NATO talks before he goes to Moscow, a move that ends the controversy over his earlier decision to skip the event.
“[NATO allies] want the commitment by Tillerson to maintain sanctions [on Russia for its actions] on Ukraine; they want a commitment from Tillerson that his president isn’t going to sell out the alliance to the Russians,” Serwer said.
Tillerson will make it clear that it is no longer sustainable for the United States to maintain a disproportionate share of NATO’s defense spending. He also will consult with allies about their shared commitment to improve security in Ukraine and the need for NATO to push Russia to end aggression against its neighbors.
NATO member states have until 2024 to meet a shared pledge to contribute 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense.
Estonia is the only Baltic nation to spend 2 percent of the GDP for defense purposes. Lithuania and Latvia have pledged to reach that level by 2018.
This report was produced in collaboration with VOA’s Russian and Ukrainian services.