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Trump admin seeks to zero out Syria stabilization fund

Posted at 5:59 PM, Mar 13, 2019

With the Syrian Civil War entering its ninth year this month, the Trump administration is proposing to zero out all new US funding for stabilization efforts in the country.

This move comes as the administration is pressing allies to step up their commitment to the ongoing crisis both militarily and financially and as the US is pulling most of its troops out of the country.

Members of Congress from both parties, some of whom are re-introducing legislation this week that would prevent taxpayer dollars from going to reconstruction in any areas in Syria controlled by Assad, are calling this a mistake that strengthens the Assad regime and hurts efforts to defeat ISIS.

"It is a dangerous decision," Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania, one of the sponsors of the No Assistance for Assad Act, said. "It ends up essentially signaling a green light to this mass murderer that he and his awful allies, like the Iranian regime, will be able to just do carte blanche whatever they want."

Boyle points out the plan, which is contained in the administration's State Department budget proposal, would hurt efforts to secure the release of American citizens being detained in Syria.

As of last summer, the US had spent a total of $90 million in northeast Syria on counter-ISIS stabilization efforts, according to the former anti-ISIS envoy, Brett McGurk. That money had been spent on projects including efforts to get clean water running, supporting schools so that students can return, clearing extensive rubble and demining areas so they are livable for returning Syrians.

The State Department did not reply when asked for an update on those figures.

Despite this budget proposal, the State Department says that the US remains committed to peace and stability in Syria. They also claimed that there is some money available from previous years in the Relief and Recovery Fund that could possibly be used in Syria, though they did not detail how much.

"US policy priorities in Syria remain unchanged," said a State Department spokesperson. "We are committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS and al Qaeda, a political solution to the Syrian conflict in line with United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2254, and the removal of all Iranian-led forces in Syria."

Critics say plan undermines fight against ISIS

But members of Congress and experts argue the plan undermines efforts to defeat ISIS.

"I consider the war on terror to be generational and it is not gonna be a fight that is just only done by military. There is a military component, but it is also giving people hope and opportunity. And, you know, spending a few hundred million dollars to help stabilize a region to help give people some hope is far cheaper than, you know, releasing missiles, which we are going to have to do, and bombs, which we are going to have to do," Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said, adding "it is a bad move."

More than $325 million in stabilization funds was raised last year by the 15 members of the coalition to defeat ISIS, including $100 million from Saudi Arabia and $50 million from the United Arab Emirates. That is enough to ensure the continuation of ongoing stabilization projects, for now. That money was raised after the US pressed countries to step up their contributions.

Critics suggest out that the proposal to eliminate the US contribution will anger allies who had been asked to share the burden.

There have been signals that the Trump administration was headed in this direction of curtailing US spending in Syria. Last summer the State Department announced that it would not be using $230 million that had been appropriated for stabilization efforts in the country. The decision came just weeks before the end of the fiscal year, which prevented Congress from taking meaningful action to reverse the decision.

It has never been a secret that President Donald Trump wanted to exit Syria -- both militarily and financially. Throughout his time on the campaign trail he promised he would withdraw US troops from the country.

Yet lawmakers and allies were stunned and outraged in December of last year when Trump suddenly declared that the US troops would be exiting the country within a matter of months, shortly after a phone call with Turkish President Erdogan.

At the time, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said he was worried that Trump's comments on a withdrawal from Syria were counterproductive to the mission.

"My concern, by the statements made by President Trump, is that you set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we're fighting. You make people we're trying to help wonder about us. And as they get bolder, the people we're trying to help are going to get more uncertain," he said.

Later Graham said he felt better because the administration was "slowing things down in a smart way." The administration does appear to be slowing down that withdrawal but the ultimate goal of removing most US troops from Syria remains intact.

Members of Congress hoping to pressure admin

Members of Congress are hoping to put pressure on the administration when it comes to financially supporting stabilization efforts in Syria. The Syria Caucus was created last year, co-chaired by Kinzinger and Boyle, in an effort to continue putting a spotlight on the country -- especially in the aftermath of the withdrawal decision.

"President Trump's decision on Assad -- it has been all over the map," Boyle said.

The congressman said that on Syria the White House has swung from no involvement, to military strikes, to a unilateral decision to withdraw, to keeping a residual force there. He says the Syria caucus "is especially vital when we are dealing with a President who has absolutely no strategy when it comes to Syria. And so often is shifting his positions."

But there are constraints on what Congress can do, especially when it comes to stabilization efforts in Syria. Kinzinger says that he and others will press to put money towards stabilization in Syria, despite it not being a part of the White House's proposed budget, but without the administration expressing an appetite to put money to use it's unclear just how productive their efforts will be.