U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conveyed strong resolve regarding the Trump administration's commitment to rebuilding war-battered Syria and removing nuclear weapons from North Korea during a speech Wednesday morning at Stanford University before a crowd of about 300 to 400 people.
But Tillerson also made clear that reaching those goals won't be possible through military means alone.
The 69th secretary of state, who spoke at Hoover Institution and later sat for a one-on-one interview with Stanford Graduate School of Business Professor Condoleezza Rice, a former secretary of state, said diplomacy would be necessary in both cases.
Syria, the focus of his words, could not be stabilized without President Bashar al-Assad's removal, he said.
"For nearly 50 years the Syrian people have suffered," he said, calling the Assad regime "malignant." Since the 2011 uprising against religious and ethnic oppression, which started as peaceful demonstrations, Assad has used bullets and jail sentences against his own people, Tillerson said.
"Since that time, the story of Syria has been one of a humanitarian catastrophe," he said.
More than 5.4 million Syrians are refugees, half a million are dead and 6.1 million are displaced within the country, he said. Whole cities have been destroyed.
Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in 2013. In April 2017, the Trump administration responded to Assad's use of Sarin, a nerve agent, with cruise missile strikes, which wiped out 28 percent of Assad's air force, he said. The U.S. conducted the bombing to reduce further chemical attacks against civilians, he said.
"The United States takes chemical weapons seriously, and we cannot stand idly by and allow their use to become regularized," he said.
Tillerson gave a historical overview of the Syrian conflict and spoke about the continued threats posed by terrorist organizations. The Islamic State group was formed out of the conflict between opposing factions in Iraq and Syria. Assad aided the Islamic State by turning a blind eye to its growth and activities, he said.
The U.S. increased military action, and with its allies has largely wrested with the caliphate created by Islamic State, gaining control of about half the country, he said.
Three factors define Syria today, he said. The Islamic State is mostly, but not completely, removed from Syria; Assad controls about half of the nation's area and population; and there is a continued threat against stability in Syria principally caused by Iran, which has proxy forces in Syria, he said.
The unresolved plight of millions of refugees and internally displaced people remains a humanitarian crisis, he said. He blamed the continued lack of security and lack of a legitimate government as the reasons for the continued displacement of people.
"There is no way to effectively facilitate a large-scale safe and voluntary return of refugees without a political solution," he said.
"Syria remains a source of severe strategic threats and a major challenge for our diplomacy. But the United States will continue to remain engaged as a means to protect our own security interests," he said.
Tillerson laid out five key "end states" for Syria: defeating the Islamic State and al-Qaida and ensuring they don't resurface in another form, making sure Syria never again serves as a platform for terrorists; resolving the underlying conflict between the Syrian people and the Assad regime through the United Nations Security Council with the goal of establishing a stable, unified post-Assad Syria; diminishing Iran's influence in Syria, which seeks to destabilize neighboring countries; creating conditions so that refugees and displaced persons can begin to safely and voluntarily return to Syria; and making Syria free of weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical agents.
Tillerson said the Trump administration is implementing a new strategy to achieve these goals, including increased diplomacy "on the heels of our own military successes," adding stabilization initiatives and having a new emphasis on political solutions.
"But let us be clear. The United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring that ISIS cannot re-emerge," he said. "We cannot make the same mistakes that were made in 2011 when our premature departure from Iraq allowed al-Qaida in Iraq to eventually morph into ISIS," he said.
Tillerson sees a "meaningful role" for Russia in stabilizing Syria, and the U.S. has been working with Russia and neighboring Jordan to de-escalate military conflict through a cease-fire. Russia has backed the Assad regime and could exert new leverage, he said.
"The U.S. needs Russia and Jordan to help stabilize areas if refugees are to return safely and voluntarily to Syria," he said. In 2017, stabilization efforts have resulted in the return home of an estimated 715,000 Syrians, including 50,000 from abroad, he said.
But signaling that there could be no place for Assad, he added that the U.S. will not provide reconstruction assistance to any area that Assad controls.
Tillerson said the U.S. would help build a possible political path that respects the will of the Syrian people and allows for religious freedoms and mutual respect. He also called out a continued alliance with Turkey in fighting terrorism.
Rice asked about the role of American values toward helping other countries -- "values not associated with the Trump administration," she said.
Tillerson said the first most important value is "the right to life," then liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Pointing to Syria, he again noted the need for a stable country that protects the right to life before the other two can be pursued.
In consideration of the president's recent threats to cut off aid to some countries and to diminish some aid programs, the U.S. is expecting other nations to be accountable for some of the aid to needier countries, particularly those with economies that are better off than the U.S., he said.
"We will do our part, but he (the president) has created very high expectations for others," he said.
During the sit-down discussion with Rice, Tillerson said the U.S. would not accept a nuclearized North Korea. But he also emphasized a desire to push for diplomacy over a military strategy. Diplomacy between the U.S. and North Korea began last February in what he called a "peaceful pressure campaign."
He is waiting for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to decide to talk. "He knows how to reach me," Tillerson said.
But he wants Kim to know that "Secretary (Jim) Mattis has a very strong military option behind him when we negotiate," he said.
Increasingly tough sanctions are now seeming to have an effect, he added. He said 100 North Korean fishing boats have drifted into Japanese waters, and many crews have died.
"They were sent in the winter because there is a food shortage to fish, but they were not given enough fuel to get back," he said.
Tillerson said the sanctions would now have more success than in the past because other nations, including China, are now on board.
"We've never had a sanctions regime as comprehensive as this one, including support from China. We've never been as unified as we are to this threat. We are committed as an international community to a denuclearized North Korea," he told Rice.
Russia, he said, is still the wild card when it comes to pressuring North Korea. China, which for more than 50 years saw North Korea as an asset, now understands it is a liability and that an unstable Korean Peninsula could have a direct impact on China, he said.
Rice asked how Tillerson views the recent overture between North and South Korea to march together at the Winter Olympics in Seoul next month. Tillerson said it might be an early ice breaker for future negotiations. But he cautioned that Kim could also be engaging in "a charm offensive" meant to try to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States.
Rice asked Tillerson how he views President Trump's use of social media. It "was barely born when I was secretary -- thank God," said Rice, who was met with laughter from the crowd.
Tillerson said Trump has "used social media as a great tool used to great effect by bypassing traditional means of communication."
He doesn't know when Trump is going to send out his tweets, he noted.
Tillerson doesn't use social media. He relies instead on after-the-fact staff printouts of Trump's tweets, which he reads. He has learned to accept Trump's social media activities, he said. He does not think they are substantively different from policy, he added.
The president's choice of social media as his chief form of communication isn't likely to change Tillerson's own habits, however.
"I will probably go to my grave without a social media account," he said.