WASHINGTON on Monday sent its strongest statement of support to the Duterte government’s offensive against Islamic State-linked terrorists in Mindanao, saying the United States “proudly stands” with the Philippines, its long-standing treaty ally.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made the statement following reports American troops have been tapped to provide technical assistance to Filipino soldiers battling the Maute terrorist group in Marawi City.
“The United States proudly stands with the Philippines as a longstanding ally, especially as the country confronts challenges associated with terrorism and extremism, including recent attacks in Marawi City and elsewhere,” Tillerson said in a message congratulating the Philippines on the 119th anniversary of the proclamation of its independence from Spain.
“We admire the resilience and strength of the Filipino people in battling adversity and building a more prosperous and secure future,” Tillerson said.
“On this special day, we honor the enduring US-Philippine alliance, built on our shared democratic values, growing commerce, and strong people-to-people ties,” he added.
The battle against the Maute group is on its third week, so far claiming the lives of 58 soldiers and policemen since the terrorists attacked the Muslim-majority city of Marawi on May 22. The siege forced President Rodrigo Duterte to place Mindanao under martial law.
More than 190 terrorists and over 20 civilians have also been killed.
Drone over Marawi
American support in the Marawi offensive is yet another indication that Manila and Washington are turning the page in their bilateral relations, after President Duterte’s tirades last year against the Obama administration over its criticisms of his bloody anti-drug war.
On Sunday, Duterte told reporters in Cagayan de Oro City he was not aware of the US technical support in Marawi, but clarified that he had no problem with the administration of President Donald Trump, who had expressed support for the anti-narcotics drive.
The US Embassy in Manila has confirmed that Americans stationed in Zamboanga City have been helping the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in identifying the location of the Maute fighters. The Reuters news agency has photographed a US drone flying over battle-ravaged Marawi.
US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim declined to go into details, but said military cooperation would continue.
“I think we have stated already that we continue our cooperation and support with the Armed Forces of the Philippines. I don’t think it would be appropriate to go into technical details of what we’re providing but I do think it’s important to note that this cooperation has continued,” Kim told reporters on Monday after Independence Day rites at Rizal Park in Manila.
“All I can say is that this is cooperation that’s continued for some time now. It’s cooperation that’s appreciated by the Philippines’ military. It is cooperation that has continued with the knowledge of the Philippine government and the military obviously,” he added.
‘US response appropriate’
Duterte on Sunday also thanked the US for its support to the Marawi offensive but said he did not appeal for any help.
“I am not aware of that until they arrived. When I declared martial law I gave the power to the Defense department. Di ako nakikialam [I do not interfere],” Duterte said during his visit at Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro City.
Palace spokesman Ernesto Abella said Duterte, through General Order 1, allowed Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and AFP chief General Eduardo Año, as martial law administrator and implementor respectively, to decide on such matters.
“They can take all measures to prevent and suppress all acts of rebellion and lawless violence, including seeking technical assistance from the United States, within the limits prescribed by the Constitution,” he said.
The US and the Philippines have long been defense allies, through the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement. Three years ago, the two countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allowing the rotational presence of American troops in some military bases in the country.
Jay Batongbacal, University of the Philippines law professor, said the US response was appropriate given the nature of its bilateral and defense ties with the Philippines.
“US assistance in Marawi is in line with pre-existing security cooperation arrangements between US and PH, established well before PRRD (President Rodrigo Roa Duterte) came to power,” he said in a text message to The Manila Times.
“The relationship doesn’t have to only involve arms sales, which is an extremely limited view of defense cooperation. Limitation of US support to technical assistance (in practice, probably battlefield reconnaissance and intelligence sharing) is appropriate since this really should be a PH operation,” he added.
Another analyst, Professor Ramon Casiple, said existing agreements between the Philippines and the US justify the involvement of American forces in military operations in Marawi City.
Casiple however said the participation of the US should be limited to intelligence gathering, use of drones and tactical training.
He added that participation of US forces in military operations is not new since they have been providing assistance under the Mutual Defense Treaty and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Casiple said that he sees nothing wrong with the participation of the US military in Marawi.
“This is the first time our military faced an enemy that is equipped with heavy weapons in an urban setting,” he added.
WITH JEFFERSON ANTIPORDA and CATHERINE S. VALENTE