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US cuts Syria stabilization funding

August 18, 2018

Washington has cut funding pledged for stabilization projects in Syria. The Trump administration said increased contributions from coalition partners made the US payment unnecessary.

Syrien US-Truppen im Grenzgebiet zur Türkei
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo/S. George

The Trump administration is withdrawing US funding for stabilization projects in Syria, with officials from the State Department saying the cash is coming from coalition partners.

The State Department said it notified Congress on Friday of the $230 million (€200.9 million) spending cut, originally pledged by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February for Syria programs. Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the cut was authorized by current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and does not include humanitarian aid funds.

"This allows us to free up our tax dollars to use on other key foreign policy priorities," Nauert said.

US President Donald Trump had put a freeze on most of the money after Tillerson's firing in March, threatening to withdraw US forces from Syria. However, the State Department rejected suggestions that the funding cut showed diminished US interest in Syria.

"This decision does not represent any lessening of US commitment to our strategic goals in Syria," Nauert said, adding that the country remained firmly committed to the fight against the "Islamic State" (IS).

"The president has made clear that we are prepared to remain in Syria until the enduring defeat of [IS], and we remain focused on ensuring the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxies," Nauert said.

Read more: Syria blast kills dozens of civilians in Idlib province

The funding cut is the Trump administration's latest financial retreat from Syria. His administration ended funding for stabilization in Syria's northwest in May after elimination most of the IS militants in the region.

The US freed up a small portion of Tillerson's pledge — $6.6 million — in June to continue funding the White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense organization, and the International, Impartial and Independence Mechanism, a United Nations agency that is investigating war crimes committed during Syria's seven-year conflict. But that left hundreds of millions of dollars in limbo that would have been returned to the Treasury Department at the end of September.

Read more: Syrian White Helmet rescuers say thousands of volunteers need help

White Helmet speaks with DW

Coalition contributions

The State Department insisted that the cut will be more than offset by the $300 million pledged by anti-IS coalition partners.

The pledges included $100 million from Saudi Arabia and $50 million from the United Arab Emirates. Australia, Taiwan, Kuwait, Germany, France, Denmark and the European Union also participated, according to Brett McGurk, the special envoy for the anti-IS coalition.

McGurk said the withdrawal of US funds "maintains US leadership of the coalition, which has been a success, but puts the emphasis on burden sharing of coalition partners."

IS has lost about 98 percent of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, McGurk added, saying that preparations for the final phase of the campaign are being made.

"We still have not launched the final phase to defeat the physical caliphate. That is actually being prepared now and will come at a time of our choosing, but it's coming," McGurk said.

Read more: 'Islamic State': Up to 30,000 fighters still in Syria and Iraq, UN says

He said stabilization operations involving basic needs, including the restoration of water and power supplies, are well underway in recaptured areas. For instance, potable water supplies have been restored to all 26 districts of Raqqa, a city in northern Syria which was devastated in the effort to eradicate IS militants.

"We are focused on stabilization, getting people back into their homes," McGurk said.

No reconstruction without talks

However, David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, said the US and other countries would not contribute to Syria's full reconstruction until there was a "credible and irreversible" political process to end the conflict.

"There is not going to be, by international agreement, reconstruction assistance to Syria unless the UN — not Moscow, not Washington, not any other capital — certifies that a credible and irreversible political process is underway," Satterfield said.

Russia and Syria both want international funding to rebuild Syria, Satterfield added. But he questioned whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "stonewalling" the UN peace effort.

Damascus and Moscow have resisted the UN-backed Geneva plan, the result of peace negotiations between Syrian rebels and government forces in 2017, because it has threatened to force Assad from power.

Russia got involved in the Syrian conflict on Assad's behalf in 2015, turning the momentum to the president's forces. Assad also enjoys robust support from Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah.

Washington had long insisted that the Syrian president leave power, but the Trump administration has accepted that Assad could remain until the end of his current seven-year term.

Refugee hardship exceptions

dv/sms (AFP, AP, dpa, Reuters)

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