If Trump pulls aid out of Syria, we’ll have created Iraq 2.0


One of the reasons Iraq is still so unstable is the decision by the United States to dismiss the civil service when it toppled Saddam Hussein. Local government and services fell apart, essential public employees fled, and that left a perfect vacuum for extremist groups to exploit. 

If the U.S. cuts off funding for aid to local communities inside Syria — as President Trump has threatened — we will make the same mistake twice. 

{mosads}The U.S. has been supporting communities loyal to the Syrian opposition and cut off by the Syrian government, mostly in northern Syria, since 2012. (I should know — I led the team in Turkey until 2016.) Our funding helps keep important local officials on the job — experienced Syrians who keep the power on, run the sewers, clean the streets — so they don’t give up and flee Syria.

We help them with stipends, because the government in Damascus cut off their salaries, and help fund the equipment they need to do their jobs, such as garbage trucks, generators, water tanks and fire trucks. We help teachers, doctors and local police with small stipends, supplies and equipment too.

When peace returns to Syria, these important local officials will still be on the job, ready to reconnect their communities to the national systems they belonged to before the war, to support the long process of reuniting Syria.

Without U.S. and some of our allies’ support, these important local officials would have fled Syria by now, to seek refuge in Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan, like millions of others. It is in everyone’s interest to keep them on the job, paid something and well equipped, to help put Syria back together again someday and deny ungoverned space for ISIS and other extremist groups.

The $200 million currently on hold would keep this important U.S.-led initiative alive at a critical time, when the Syrian conflict appears to be coming to an end. Other donor countries have joined the effort, notably the UK, the Netherlands and Denmark, and other countries are contributing to a trust fund based in Jordan that helps the same communities. Stopping this small amount of funding means jeopardizing this important initiative at the worst possible time.

Syria’s neighbors have long supported this initiative because it keeps some of the most essential Syrians in Syria. If Syrian communities keep functioning, fewer people flee and become refugees. It is in our interest too, lest ISIS move back in to some of these areas in the absence of local government.

Of course, the Syrian government and its supporters, Russia and Iran, oppose the aid, because it sustains communities that they are trying to bomb into submission and surrender. But I know from my own experience that none of the aid President Trump threatened supports the rebel fighters. It is all for local civilian officials that provide essential local services, helps the sick and wounded and keeps the children in school.

President Trump may worry about the price tag for rebuilding Syria once the war ends. He is right to be concerned. The cost will be enormous and I do not think the U.S. should play a major role. The old adage — you broke it, you fix it — seems to apply to the Syria conflict. Let Syria, Russia and Iran pay the many billions it will take to fix what they broke. The $200 million investment in local communities that is under review at the National Security Council keeps the most essential services in place now and for the future, to keep even more Syrians from fleeing today and to help prevent the collapse of communities in the future.

I hope the interagency panel reviewing the president’s proposal remembers what happened in Iraq, reviews the success of our support to Syria’s local communities and continues this small but strategic initiative.

Mark Ward is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer who led the U.S. team that provided aid to Syria from Turkey from 2012-16. He now teaches at the University of Washington.

Tags Donald Trump Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Middle East Politics of Syria Refugees of the Syrian Civil War Syria Syrian civil war Terrorism

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