U.S. Is Working With Russia to Prevent a New War In Syria, Tillerson Says

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Tuesday the White House is looking to prevent another uptick in violence between the Syrian government and rebel groups once the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) is defeated, and it may need Russia's help to do so.

Tillerson made the comments while laying out the State Department's strategy in Syria, where more than six years of war have ravaged the country and attracted international powers supporting various factions. The U.S. and its Kurdish allies, in addition to the Russia-backed Syrian military, have managed to largely defeat ISIS, but tensions have risen between the two factions, as well as among other insurgents and jihadi movements that have been trying to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government since 2011.

With ISIS on the ropes, Tillerson expressed his desire to ultimately achieve peace by cooperating with Russia to address the tensions that led to Syria's bloody conflict in the first place.

Related: Russian military could force the U.S. out of Syria, Army official says

"What we are hoping to avoid is the outbreak of a civil war, because you know what we really have is two conflicts in Syria: the war against ISIS and the civil war that created the conditions for ISIS to emerge," Tillerson told reporters. "Again we're working closely with Russia and other parties to see if we can agree on a path forward on how to stabilize Syria in the post-ISIS world."

RTX34I6K A Syrian national flag flutters as Qasioun mountain is seen in the background from Damascus on April 7. As forces supported by the U.S. and Russia defeat ISIS across Syria, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is seeking Moscow's help to prevent a new conflict. Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Tillerson is an outspoken opponent of Assad, who has been accused of egregious human rights abuses by the West and considers the U.S. military presence illegal in his country. Tillerson said Tuesday that he did not believe the Syrian strongman should have a role in the nation's future and that the U.S. wished to achieve a "unified Syria" with a new constitution and free and fair elections, according to BuzzFeed News. Russia, however, has defended Assad and his government, leading to tense and sometimes violent confrontations in recent months between belligerents supported by Washington and Moscow.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a majority-Kurd alliance of Arabs and ethnic minorities, and the Syrian military, supported by Russia and Iran, are actively involved in separate campaigns to dislodge ISIS from the swaths of territory it seized in 2014. The two sides have established themselves as the primary players in a potential political solution in Syria, but pockets of the country remain under control of other Syrian opposition groups.

The U.S. has cut assistance to rebel groups fighting Assad but continues to advocate the Syrian leader's political removal. The task has become increasingly difficult as pro-government forces re-establish control over most of the country, paving the way for increased Russian military presence in the west and the proliferation of Iran-backed, mostly Shiite Muslim militias in the southeast. Tillerson said Tuesday that Iran "must leave and go home," according to The Washington Post.

RTX3C1WV A map shows changes in territory held by ISIS in its de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, between July 6 and July 20. The U.S.-backed, mostly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces have taken nearly half the city from the jihadis as the Syrian military conducts a separate anti-ISIS campaign, supported by Russia and Iran, on the city's outskirts. Institute for the Study of War/Maps4News/Reuters

With Assad attempting to re-secure control over the entire country, Kurds demanding greater autonomy, rebels calling for regime change and the persistent threat of jihadis staging deadly attacks across the nation, the U.S. and Russia have sought greater cooperation. (The powers were able to establish a cease-fire last month between the Syrian military and rebels battling in the southwest.) Tillerson reiterated U.S. support for the ongoing peace talks in Geneva, which parallel Russia-sponsored talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, but said that conditions had not yet been established for a greater, unified U.S.-Russia policy alignment on the conflict.

Noting the damaged state of relations between Washington and Moscow, Tillerson said he would meet with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, in Manila, the Philippines, this weekend, Reuters reported. The meeting is set to take place amid a diplomatic spat between the two countries and just ahead of a major summit to be held by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.