US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said Monday that he supported diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the Syria conflict, as America and its partners look beyond the defeat of the ISIS terrorist group in the war-torn nation.
Heading into a week of meetings with Nordic countries and allies across Europe, Mattis said the main question from US allies is: what comes next? And he said the key is to get the peace process on track.
“We’re trying to get this into the diplomatic mode so we can get things sorted out,” said Mattis, who will meet with NATO defense ministers later this week. “and make certain (that) minorities — whoever they are — are not just subject to more of what we’ve seen” under Syrian President Bashar Assad until now.
Speaking to reporters ahead of his arrival for talks in Finland on Monday, Mattis said intelligence assessments -- based primarily on the numbers of jihadists who have surrendered, deserted or been wounded -- showed that "the whole bottom was dropping out" of ISIS.
He said he backed a UN-sponsored effort in Geneva, which has run in parallel to a Russian and Iranian-led process, to reach a diplomatic solution.
The fight against ISIS jihadists in Iraq and Syria is not over, but they have sustained a string of major defeats and lost most of the territory they once held.
US allies are anxious for clear guidance from Washington about its plans in Syria once ISIS is crushed.
Mattis was traveling to Finland to kick off a week of talks with regional allies and NATO partners that will focus on security issues, including ISIS and Russia's increased military assertiveness.
Mattis's Helsinki visit also spotlights the workings of the so-called Northern Group, a little-known forum of 12 European nations that focuses on the continent's military and security challenges, particularly those coming from the east.
The trip "is an opportunity to reiterate that we stand by our friends' democracies, NATO and otherwise in Europe, if any nation including Russia seeks to undermine the rules-based international order," Mattis said.
"We do have a lot of shared values about sovereignty," he added.
Though Finland and Sweden are not NATO members, they cooperate closely with the 28-member alliance.
Moscow frequently sends warplanes into the skies around the Baltics and Europe remains anxious about Russia's military intentions, especially after the 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The Northern Group comprises Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Britain.