Rex Tillerson's plan for fighting ISIS has same fatal flaw as President Obama's strategy

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.

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Counselor to the President: Kellyanne Conway

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Veterans Affairs Secretary: David Shulkin

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Transportation secretary: Elaine Chao

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Energy secretary: Rick Perry

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Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

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Secretary of Defense: Retired Marine General James Mattis

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Chief of staff: Reince Priebus

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Chief strategist: Steve Bannon

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Attorney General: Senator Jeff Sessions

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Director of the CIA: Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo

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Deputy national security adviser: K.T. McFarland

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White House counsel: Donald McGahn

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Ambassador to the United Nations: South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley

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Education secretary: Betsy DeVos

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Commerce secretary: Wilbur Ross

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Homeland security secretary: General John Kelly

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Housing and urban development secretary: Ben Carson

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Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency: Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt

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Health and human services secretary: Tom Price

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Department of Homeland Security: Retired General John Kelly

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Secretary of agriculture: Sonny Perdue

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"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.

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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."

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A view is seen of streets in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A view of streets in Falluja, Iraq, June 26, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Destroyed buildings from clashes are seen on the outskirt of Falluja, Iraq, June 20, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Houses are pictured in Falluja, Iraq, June 26, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Damaged mosque is seen in Falluja, Iraq, after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, June 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
A view of a street in Falluja, Iraq, after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, June 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad
Members of Iraqi government forces celebrate on a street in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of Iraqi counterterrorism forces walks with his weapon in Falluja, Iraq, June 26, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A member of the Iraqi counterterrorism forces stands by an Islamic State militants weapons factory in Falluja, Iraq, June 23, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A member of the Iraqi security forces looks at explosives abandoned by Islamic State militants at a school in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Rocket-propelled grenades left behind by Islamic State militants are seen at a school, following clashes in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A book belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Burnt out prison cells belonging to Islamic State militants are seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A burnt out prison cell belonging to Islamic State militants is seen in Falluja after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, Iraq, June 27, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
Members of the Shi'ite Badr Organisation inspect a factory abandoned by Islamic State militants, in Falluja, Iraq, June 25, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
A member of the Iraqi security forces tears up a signboard of the Islamic State militants in Falluja, Iraq, after government forces recaptured the city from Islamic State militants, June 30, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Saad TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Iraqi counterterrorism forces pose for a picture in Falluja, Iraq, June 26, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fighter from the Iraqi Shi'ite Badr Organization holds his rifle in an underground tunnel built by Islamic State fighters on the outskirts of Falluja, Iraq, May 28, 2016. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani
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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.

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Hof continued: "What's been lacking is a strategy that recognizes 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 prioritize 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.

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Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

(REUTERS/Mike Stone)

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

(REUTERS/Alexsey Druginyn/RIA Novosti/Pool)

Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

(Jason Reed / Reuters)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

(REUTERS/Michael Fiala)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

(REUTERS/Daniel Kramer/File Photo)

WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

(Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

(Photographer: F. Carter Smith/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

(Photo by Abby Brack/Getty Images)

Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

(Photo by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

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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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