Proposed White House budget cuts undermine Syria strike objectives
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While the potential government shutdown is drawing headlines this week, President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget should be raising even more eyebrows. Simply put: Trump’s proposed radical cuts to foreign aid would worsen the Syrian crisis and undermine the foreign policy goals that the administration has tried to advance through its recent military strikes.

Statements from the administration tied its April 7 strikes against a Syrian airbase to new foreign policy objectives: to loosen Assad’s grip on power and to protect civilians from violence. White House press secretary Sean Spicer commented that the administration was “instantaneously moved to action” by the photos of victims of the chemical attack in Idlib, Syria.


Trump asserted that “No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that “steps [were] underway” to remove Assad from office.


Yet Trump’s proposed budget for the 2018 financial year would derail these objectives. The budget would cut 28 percent from the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and cut more than 30 percent from the United Nations. These cuts would have profound consequences on the Syrian crisis that the Trump administration may not have anticipated.

First, the cuts would have dire consequences for Syrian civilians as the humanitarian infrastructure providing critical assistance would be threatened. As a cornerstone for a complex network of United Nations agencies, civil society organizations, development agencies, and international monetary agencies, U.S. leadership and funding are central to international aid responses.

The administration’s foreign aid cuts would significantly weaken humanitarian operations in Syria and surrounding countries, and limit UN agencies’ capacity to respond to the immediate needs of Syrian refugees. Many vulnerable populations inside Syria would be cut off from life-saving assistance such as medical treatment, as under-funded agencies would be unable to reach them.

For example, in early April, World Health Organization Regional Director Dr. Michael Thieren warned that funding shortages for his agency will result in more than 13 million people inside Syria being denied basic health care and roughly 5 million being denied life-saving emergency care, after receiving only 6 percent of its required funding for 2017. His concern over the “consequences of the international community underfunding the humanitarian health response in Syria” illustrate the disastrous consequences of the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts for civilians in Syria.  

Second, the cuts would critically wound U.S. allies in the region that are already struggling to provide for the Syrian refugees living in their borders. Prior to the Trump administration, the U.S. invested nearly $6.5 billion in humanitarian assistance to Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, and Turkey.

The administration’s proposed cuts would directly undermine these countries and hinder their ability to provide basic services for millions of refugees. These host countries would be forced to fill the gap by redirecting money from domestic programs that support local host communities. In turn, this could heighten social tensions and grievances within local host communities and might even lead to outbreaks of violence.

Finally, the cuts could lead to even worse and more expensive problems down the road. For example, sharp cuts in international funding to UN agencies in 2015 fueled widespread refugee migration to Europe. The World Food Program, receiving less than 25 percent of its required funding, was forced to reduce food assistance to Syrian refugees across the region, and 440,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan were cut off entirely from its assistance.

Refugees, seeing no other option, then migrated to Europe, resulting in a crisis that has threatened the security and stability of key U.S. allies like France and Germany. Similarly, drastic cuts to foreign aid might appeal to Trump’s base in the short term, but could have unintended consequences for U.S. national security.

At the end of the day, routine humanitarian assistance to Syrian refugees is far cheaper than funding a large-emergency response when the crisis worsens. In Rwanda, the international community invested nearly $5 billion in humanitarian aid following the 1994 genocides, whereas the cost of preventing the genocide was estimated at just $500 million — one-tenth of that amount. Failing to fund routine healthcare programs for Syrian refugees now could result in the outbreak and spread of communicable disease and renewed waves of Syrian migration to Europe — a much more expensive problem to address.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts would have a devastating effect on vulnerable Syrian communities, the UN agencies that serve them, and the regional neighbors that host them — all of which would undermine the administration’s stated aims to protect the Syrian people and weaken Assad’s hold on power. These aims require a stable, healthy Syrian population to manage a government transition, reconcile local communities, and rebuild the country after the war. Without sustained foreign aid, those objectives cannot be met.

Jesse Marks is a Scoville Fellow at the nonpartisan Stimson Center and a former David L. Boren Scholar to Jordan. Follow Jesse on Twitter at JesCMarks.

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