Tillerson: Defeating ISIS is US's top goal in the Middle East

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Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Wednesday the United States would set up "interim zones of stability" to help refugees return home in the next phase of the fight against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria and Iraq.

Addressing top officials from an global coalition of 68 nations battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Tillerson did not elaborate on where the United States planned to set up these safety zones.

Wednesday's meeting at the State Department in Washington, D.C., saw 68 countries and organizations discuss how best to contain the terrorism threat from ISIS and al Qaeda. "We must continue to keep our focus on the most urgent matter at hand".

ISIL has been losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, with three separate forces, backed by the United States, Turkey and Russian Federation, advancing on the group's Syrian stronghold city of Raqqa.

He offered no details, but said the United States is "working to tailor a similar approach specific to the challenges in Syria" and that it would be "a more refined approach" that it "is still coming together".

President Trump used to tout his secret plan to defeat ISIS on the campaign trail, but officials gathered for this week's meeting say they have yet to see it. At least one country participating in the meeting, France, voiced frustration that Tillerson and other USA officials had not offered specifics.

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They also are preparing for the group's defeat by lining up humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. The strategy is complicated in Syria, where a partnership with Kurdish forces has prompted hard discussions with Turkey, which sees the militants as a national security threat.

A senior Arab diplomat said the day's meeting was being seen as more of "a briefing" than an unveiling of any plan - and that there clearly isn't one in place yet.

US President Donald Trump has ordered his generals to come up with an accelerated strategy to "eradicate" the group's so-called caliphate, and allied ministers are keen to hear more.

Tillerson said the flow of foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq was down 90 percent over the past year. Tillerson said the strategy was working well in Iraq, adding that the alliance was looking at a similar approach in Syria. Unlike in Iraq, where Baghdad is a state actor that the USA military has chosen to work by, with and through to take the fight to ISIS, the United States refuses to formally work with Damascus. The Pentagon said it provided an airlift for Syrian fighters taking part in an offensive underway in Tabqa, west of Raqqa.

"Overall, the number of ISIS fighters has been reduced by half". "A successful stabilization phase will set the stage for a successful normalization phase", the United States diplomat said. "We must ensure that our respective nations' precious and limited resources are devoted to preventing the resurgence of ISIS and equipping the war-torn communities to take the lead in rebuilding their institutions and returning to stability".

"I recognize there are many pressing challenges in the Middle East, but defeating ISIS is the United States number one goal in the region", Tillerson said. But he said other nations, particularly those which have faced IS or IS-inspired attacks, must contribute more militarily or financially.

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