The State Department will pull back funding it had allocated to rebuild parts of Syria once held by the Islamic State, saying Friday that other countries will now provide $230 million in planned spending.
Most of the U.S. money was first announced in January by then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson to “stabilize” areas such as the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was largely destroyed by U.S. airstrikes and proxy combat on the ground in a major offensive that ousted the Islamic State last year.
The spending was frozen in March, after Tillerson was fired, as part of President Trump’s effort to hasten American withdrawal from Syria and turn more responsibility over to members of the U.S.-led coalition. The administration informed Congress on Friday that the money would be “redirected” away from Syria to other, unspecified areas.
Commitments from other countries already total $300 million, according to State Department officials, including $100 million announced this week by Saudi Arabia.
The funding announcement came as Syria’s dual wars — the civil conflict to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and the separate fight against the Islamic State — have increasingly overlapped and moved into new phases.
Assad, aided by Russia and Iran, has claimed victory over Syrian opposition fighters — once backed by the United States and others — in most of the western two-thirds of the country. Russia has spearheaded an international campaign to declare Assad firmly in power and persuade the rest of the world to solidify the peace by paying to reconstruct the country and repatriate the millions of Syrians who fled the fighting.
The United States, declaring near-victory over the Islamic State in the eastern third of Syria, has said it will spearhead — but not pay for — initial stabilization of the territory it now oversees, including demining and restoration of basic services such as water and electricity.
Long-term reconstruction of the country, devastated by more than seven years of war, is to be overseen by the World Bank and other international financial institutions.
But the administration, along with much of the international community, has said that no reconstruction money will go to Syria until Assad fully participates in United Nations-led negotiations among all Syrians to establish democratic governance there.
At a news conference with Trump following their meeting last month in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin said they had discussed cooperation in Syria. “The task of establishing peace and reconciliation in this country could be the first showcase example of this successful joint work,” Putin said.
But State Department officials said Friday that the United States would not cooperate with Russia until it fully commits to supporting the U.N. effort that has been stalled for many months.
“There is not going to be, by international agreement, reconstruction assistance to Syria unless the U.N. — not Moscow, not Washington, not any other capital, the U.N. — certifies, validates that a credible and irreversible political process is underway,” David M. Satterfield, acting assistant secretary for the Middle East, said Friday.
“That’s the door to getting what we believe the regime, the Russians, very much want, which is international money flowing into the wreckage that is presently Syria,” he said.
The United States and the U.N. have advised refugees — whose presence has caused economic and political upheaval in surrounding countries and in Europe — that it is still not safe to return to once-densely populated parts of western Syria under government control. The administration has additionally demanded that Iran withdraw all of its personnel and assistance to Syria.
Trump’s initial announcement that he expected an early withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria — and the freezing of stabilization funding — sparked widespread concern that the United States was giving up leverage to press for its long-term goals in Syria, including the eventual departure of Assad and end to Iranian influence there, along with the establishment of democratic, nonsectarian governance that would prevent the regrowth of the Islamic State.
Countering the view of critics that ending U.S. stabilization funding will decrease leverage, officials said the United States would remain in control of most of the funding stream from other countries, and work would be done according to a U.S. plan already in place for Raqqa and other areas.
The funding decision “represents the success of our . . . administration’s efforts to execute the president’s direction that we mobilize the international and regional support for the critical stabilization efforts in northeastern Syria,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Friday. “This allows us to free up our tax dollars — U.S. tax dollars to use on other key foreign policy priorities.”
Nauert and other officials who briefed reporters Friday, including Satterfield and Brett McGurk, Trump’s special envoy to the coalition, insisted that, despite Trump’s call for withdrawal, the United States was not leaving Syria anytime soon.
“There should be no doubt as to the position of the president with respect to the broader issue of the U.S. enduring presence in Syria,” Satterfield said. “We’re there for the defeat, the enduring defeat of ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.
Although 99 percent of territory formerly held by the militants has now been retaken, “we still have not launched the final phase to defeat the physical caliphate,” McGurk said. “That is actually being prepared now, and that’ll come at a time of our choosing. But it is coming.”
McGurk described a “very significant military operation, because we have a significant number of ISIS fighters holed up in a final area of the Middle Euphrates Valley. And after that, you have to train local forces to hold the ground, to make sure that the area remains stabilized so ISIS cannot return.”
“So this mission is ongoing,” he said, “and it’s not over.”
Offensives against remaining militants along the Euphrates River south of Raqqa were held up last spring when fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-dominated U.S. proxy against the Islamic State, left their positions to participate in a separate fight against the Turkish military attacking Syrian Kurdish positions in northwestern Syria.
To organize the many moving parts of its engagement on the Syria issue, the State Department has named two new officials with newly created portfolios. James Jeffrey, a retired senior Foreign Service officer, was named Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “representative for Syria engagement,” Nauert said.
“Jeffrey will serve as the secretary’s adviser for and the department’s primary contact on all aspects of the Syria conflict,” although McGurk will remain as Trump’s special envoy to the coalition, she said.
Nauert also said retired Army Col. Joel Rayburn, who has served as senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on the National Security Council staff since the beginning of the administration, had joined the State Department as deputy assistant secretary for Levant Affairs, and “special envoy for Syria.”
Rayburn’s job will apparently focus on removing Iranian influence from Syria and the region, including, Nauert said, “our strong opposition to Hezbollah and the importance of a strong Lebanese government,” as well as “our strong bilateral ties with Jordan.”