When President Donald Trump said on Twitter this weekend that the United States had ended “the ridiculous” $230 million in civilian funds it provides for Syria, he seemed keen to emphasize the savings to the U.S. He did not add that the United States will continue spending billions of dollars in the country to fight ISIS.
The United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria. Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the U.S. I want to develop the U.S., our military and countries that help us!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 18, 2018
The stabilization funds—for projects like irrigation and demining—could have helped the U.S. preserve an element of its influence in the high-stakes diplomatic game being played out in Syria. Russia, Iran, and the Kurds are battling to maintain their gains in the country; Turkey is working to ensure the Kurds lose theirs; and Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are invested in ensuring that Iran doesn’t emerge dominant in yet another Arab state. Russia, for example, is reportedly stepping up its aid and reconstruction efforts now that its ally Bashar al-Assad has regained control over much of the country.
And it’s Assad’s near-victory that makes U.S. involvement in civilian reconstruction a fraught proposition—implying as it does American support on de facto behalf of a regime the U.S. has twice bombed for using chemical weapons against civilians. Announcing the withdrawal of aid on Friday, the State Department spokeswoman emphasized that its mission in Syria was counterterrorism, not reconstruction, and that the Saudis would pick up the funding slack. In a conference call with reporters on Friday, State Department officials said the amount of U.S. funding withdrawn had already been offset by $300 million in contributions from U.S. allies, including Saudi Arabia. Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said on the call: “The entire reason that the United States is involved in Syria is … for the defeat of ISIS.” (The U.S. is still providing humanitarian assistance to Syria, with nearly $8 billion spent since the conflict started in 2011.)