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Ending US funding for Syria's stabilization brings benefits — and risks

Ending US funding for Syria's stabilization brings benefits — and risks
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Last Friday, the Trump administration informed Congress that it is ending $200 million in funding for stabilization efforts in Syria and shifting these resources to areas of greater need.  This follows a decision in March to freeze this money, pledged by then-Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonTillerson: 'We squandered the best opportunity we had on North Korea' State Department sets up new bureau for cybersecurity and emerging technologies Lawmakers express concern about lack of young people in federal workforce MORE, pending a review of all international assistance. While reassessment of foreign aid is prudent, the public announcement to terminate funding, combined with President TrumpDonald TrumpEx-Trump lawyer Cohen to pen forward for impeachment book Murkowski says it would be 'appropriate' to bar Trump from holding office again Man known as 'QAnon Shaman' asks Trump for pardon after storming Capitol MORE’s statement, “I want to bring our troops home,” risks increasing perceptions of abandonment or retreat. That’s unsettling for U.S. partners and adversaries alike, and warrants closer examination.

To address concerns about a cessation of stabilization efforts in Syria, the administration explained that the elimination of U.S. assistance will be more than offset by an additional $300 million pledged by coalition partners (including a $100 million contribution from Saudi Arabia), and that such burden-sharing initiatives allow the United States to more fully resource other foreign policy priorities.

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The State Department also claimed that these pledges and contributions were in direct response to President Trump’s requests for partners to assume greater responsibility to promote stability in Syria and safeguard military gains achieved against ISIS. In sum, the administration views this as a positive development.

 

Unfortunately, any sense of optimism is negated by Department of Defense estimates that ISIS has between 28,600 and 31,600 fighters in Iraq and Syria. A July 2018 United Nations report contains a similar number of ISIS members (20,000 to 30,000) in these two countries. Moreover, the Pentagon assesses that the terror group is “well-positioned to rebuild and work on enabling its physical caliphate to re-emerge. … ISIS probably is still more capable than al-Qaeda in Iraq at its peak in 2006-2007, when the group had declared an Islamic State and operated under the name Islamic State of Iraq.”

Despite President Trump’s assertion that “we’re knocking the hell out of ISIS,” such sobering assessments raise concerns that his administration risks repeating the mistakes of its predecessor that withdrew combat troops from Iraq in 2011. Even with years of U.S. training, the Iraqi security forces proved woefully unprepared to defend against ISIS attacks, losing control of large portions of the country as a result.

Keenly aware of this recent history, and concerned with preventing the emergence of an ISIS 2.0, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Joseph Votel, argued, “A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us,” to include the military’s role in “stabilizing [Syria], consolidating gains” and “addressing long-term issues of reconstruction” after the defeat of ISIS.  

Such efforts are resource-intensive and time-consuming, but necessary to address the “underlying drivers of terrorism” described in the aforementioned U.N. report. U.S. Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisOvernight Defense: Pentagon watchdog to probe extremism in US military | FBI chief warns of 'online chatter' ahead of inauguration | House conservative bloc opposes Austin waiver Conservative caucus opposes waiver for Biden's Pentagon pick Overnight Defense: National Guard boosts DC presence ahead of inauguration | Lawmakers demand probes into troops' role in Capitol riot | Financial disclosures released for Biden Pentagon nominee MORE and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford share Gen. Votel’s concerns and have offered similar warnings regarding the risks of a premature withdrawal of U.S. combat troops in Syria. Additionally, the continued presence of U.S. troops in Syria provides influence and leverage during political negotiations.

This raises the question of whether President Trump’s public statements and his administration’s actions are part of a larger effort to facilitate a negotiated political outcome in Syria that is increasingly described as a quagmire. If so, the diplomatic process intended to reach an agreement aligned with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 has proven difficult and contentious, with little evidence of progress to date.

The administration’s relationship with some of the key stakeholders is frayed, over competing national interests in Syria, while the recent imposition of U.S. sanctions against Russia and Iran, and tariffs against Turkey have exacerbated these tensions. That said, in a tangible sign of its commitment to diplomacy, the State Department appointed James Jeffrey as the secretary’s representative for Syrian engagement. Jeffrey is a widely respected and experienced retired Foreign Service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq.

The State Department also claims that the decision to terminate funding for stabilization programs “does not represent any lessening of U.S. commitment to our strategic goals in Syria” and that President Trump is “prepared to remain in Syria until the enduring defeat of ISIS.” While this may be an accurate statement, the decision to end these programs, and the president’s previously expressed desire to quickly withdraw combat troops from Syria, send a mixed message to coalition partners such as Israel and Saudi Arabia that favor more concrete signs of a continuing U.S. commitment.

If President Trump is as committed as his administration’s officials and surrogates claim, he should hold a news conference and clearly state that it is U.S. policy to maintain an enduring U.S. military presence and support stabilization efforts in Syria until a political solution to the conflict is realized. As I’ve previously written, the stakes in Syria are high, with no easy choices available to the administration. The situation demands steady U.S. leadership, patience and realistic expectations regarding the final outcome.

James L. Cook is an associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, where he specializes in strategy, military force planning and the Middle East. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, he has served in a variety of command and staff assignments in the United States, Europe and the U.S. Central Command region, most recently in Afghanistan. The views expressed here are his own.