U.S. Should Not Walk Away From Syria

This piece, authored by Hardin Lang and Daryl Grisgraber, originally appeared in the U.S. News and World Report. 

Even after more than seven years of civil war, the situation in parts of Syria can get worse – and this time, a shift in American policy will be to blame.

At the end of March, the Trump administration suspended $200 million in recovery assistance for Syria, pending a policy review. In May, the administration then froze funding for civil defense and other efforts in the northwest of the country. Now is the time to reverse these decisions. As the administration’s policy review drags on, efforts to stabilize communities are grinding to a halt. A failure to turn this aid back on will jeopardize fragile progress in northeast Syria and leave civilians in the northwest to fend for themselves in the crossfire.

Let’s review the bidding: During the past few years, the U.S. military worked with local Kurdish forces and Sunni Arab fighters to drive the Islamic State group out of large swaths of territory in northeast Syria. Tens of thousands of Syrians are still displaced across the northeast. Cities like Raqqa – the former capital of the Islamic State group – were largely destroyed by the fighting. Much of what remains is riddled with IEDs planted by the terrorist group before it surrendered the city. Communities emerging from conflict are now struggling to recover. The United States has spent more than $100 million to help with this recovery – a fraction of the $18.5 billion it has spent on the military effort against the Islamic State group in both Iraq and Syria.

In April, we visited Raqqa and other towns across northeast Syria and met with local authorities, humanitarians and displaced people. We arrived immediately after President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would freeze funding and pull U.S. forces out of the area. Everyone we spoke with was deeply concerned that an abrupt withdrawal would create a vacuum that the Assad regime, a regional power or even remnants of the Islamic State group would seek to fill. The result would be to plunge the area back into conflict. Indeed, President al-Assad on May 31 announced that he would be prepared to use force to take control of the newly stable Kurdish-run areas in the northeast.

In northwest Syria, the U.S. has cut funding for the White Helmets, the group of some 3,000 civilian volunteers who pull their fellow Syrians out of the wreckage left by Assad’s barrel bombs. They have saved tens of thousands of lives over the course of the conflict. The United States has provided one-third of the budget for the White Helmets, so a long-term cut will run deep. As one White Helmet observed, it will have a “serious impact on our ability to provide the same intensity and quality of services that we currently provide to civilians.” In other words, more Syrians will die.

U.S. officials have suggested that money could be redirected from the White Helmets and northwest Syria to help extend stabilization operations in the northeast. This would be like stealing from Peter to pay Paul. The total amount of funds available to help communities recover would still fall far short of what is required to even maintain the progress that has been made. The State Department has already indicated that removing mines in Raqqa is, in the end, “a Syrian problem that is in need of a Syrian solution.” But what was the point of liberating the city from the Islamic State group if we are no longer willing to help make it safe for human habitation?

The Trump administration’s desire to have other partners, including the Gulf States, share the burden does not preclude targeted investments in the stability of areas liberated from the Islamic State group. Cutting back on that support will dramatically reduce the already inadequate aid available to Syrians. It will also set an unfortunate example for other donors, many of whom track U.S. priorities in their own foreign assistance decision making.

In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress that a decision on the $200 million in funding will be made soon. That decision needs to be made now. If the United States decides Syria is not worth its attention, it will not be long before others follow suit. And it will be Syrian civilians who are once again left to pay an even higher price for the world’s shortsightedness.