Making good on President Trump’s stated desire to reduce the U.S. role in Syria, the State Department announced Friday it was eliminating $230 million in funding for “stabilization” projects in the war-ravaged country.
The slack will be made up by donations from other countries who have agreed to provide $300 million, State Department officials told reporters. One-third of that money will come from Saudi Arabia.
“Working with Congress, the State Department will redirect these funds [the $230 million] to support other key foreign policy priorities,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
She said the decision “does not represent any lessening of U.S. commitment to our strategic goals in Syria.”
The Trump administration long ago shifted U.S. goals in Syria away from removing President Bashar Assad and ending the civil war to a more limited, concerted fight against the militant group Islamic State, which had taken over large parts of the country and neighboring Iraq.
Nauert briefed reporters in a conference call along with Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy for the coalition to defeat Islamic State, and David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary of State for the Middle East.
Trump previously cut off aid to some of the militias fighting Assad’s forces and ended stabilization projects in northwest Syria as he attempts to extricate the United States from the 7-year-old multi-sided conflict.
Pentagon officials have argued against beating too hasty a retreat. U.S. forces there, in addition to fighting Islamic State, are working to train and defend Kurdish forces against Turkey, protecting oil fields and keeping tabs on Russian and Iranian groups also in Syria.
“We are doing a lot more militarily in Syria than just fighting [Islamic State], no matter what the Trump administration says,” Robert Ford, who in 2014 departed Syria as Washington’s last ambassador there, said in a podcast for the Middle East Institute, where he is a senior fellow.
Nauert, McGurk and Satterfield, however, contended that the focus was on Islamic State.
McGurk said that Islamic State lost 90% of its conquered territory and has not returned, but that a final offensive to drive out remnants looms.
“We’re remaining in Syria,” McGurk said. “The focus is the enduring defeat of [Islamic State]. … This mission is ongoing and is not over.”
The State Department was spending money on projects in devastated Syrian cities like Raqqah, which Islamic State once claimed as its capital, to make it possible for Syrian civilians to return home, McGurk said. He said potable water had been restored to most of the city and 150,000 refugees had moved back.
Trump has made clear, however, that broader reconstruction will not be Washington’s job. In several public comments, he has said he would let “others take care of the problem.”
Nauert said that neither “needs-based” humanitarian aid nor support for the so-called White Helmets civilian rescue teams — volunteers also known as the Syria Civil Defense — would be affected.
She also announced that Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has appointed retired veteran diplomat James Jeffrey to be a special representative for “Syrian engagement” and retired Army Col. Joel Rayburn, an official with the National Security Council, to be deputy assistant secretary of State for the Levant and and serve as another special envoy for Syria.
Jeffrey, a former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, will focus on the all-but-moribund diplomatic attempt to find a political transition out of Syria’s conflict, through talks in Geneva.
Congressional Democrats, meanwhile, who joined with Republicans to appropriate the $230 million earlier this year, said the administration decision to scuttle it was a shortsighted move with consequences potentially harmful to national security.
“I am dismayed to see President Trump sprinting down the path of abdicating American leadership on the global stage,” said Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.