WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is ending funding for Syria stabilization projects as it moves to extricate the U.S. from the conflict, citing increased contributions from anti-Islamic State coalition partners.
U.S. officials said the administration notified Congress on Friday that it would not spend some million that had been planned for Syria programs and would instead shift that money to other areas. Nearly all of that money, initially pledged by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February, had been on hold and under review since he was fired in March. A small fraction of that amount was released in June.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized discuss the changes publicly before a formal announcement, expected later Friday.
They said the cut will be more than offset by an additional million pledged by coalition partners, including million that Saudi Arabia announced it had contributed late Thursday. The State Department immediately welcomed the Saudi contribution, which is intended to help revitalize communities liberated from the Islamic State group like Raqqa.
Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the contribution followed the request from President Donald Trump for partners “to share the burden of promoting stability in Syria to safeguard the military gains” achieved against IS and to secure its defeat.
“Many coalition partners have made pledges and contributions in recent months and the United States appreciates all partners who have stepped up to support this critical effort,” she said.
Still, the U.S. move is a sign the administration is heeding Trump’s demand to end U.S. involvement in Syria and reduce its commitment there.
In a bid to reassure its partners in the coalition against IS as well as opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad, officials said the administration is appointing veteran diplomatic troubleshooter, James Jeffrey, to be a special envoy for Syria.
Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, Iraq and Albania who also served as a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, will hold the title of “special representative for Syrian engagement” and will report to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Jeffrey, who retired in 2012, also holds the highest rank in the U.S. Foreign Service: career ambassador.
Yet Friday’s funding cut is the latest Trump administration retreat from Syria. In May, the State Department announced that it had ended all funding for stabilization programs in Syria’s northwest. IS militants have been almost entirely eliminated from that region, which is controlled by a hodgepodge of other extremist groups and government forces.
In June, the administration freed up a small portion — .6 million — of the million that Tillerson had pledged in order to continue funding for the White Helmets, a Syrian civil defense organization, and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, a U.N. agency that is investigating war crimes committed during the conflict.
That left .4 million in limbo that would have had to have been returned to the Treasury Department on Sept. 30 at the end of this budget year if it had remained unspent.
Last month, the U.S. helped to organize the evacuation through Israel of White Helmet workers from Syria’s south, where Assad’s Russian-backed forces launched a new offensive despite a de-escalation agreement between Washington and Moscow.