Donald Trump is reported to have ordered the State Department to freeze over $200 million in funds earmarked for recovery efforts in Syria, amid growing signs that the US president wants to disengage from the country.
The report in the The Wall Street Journal, later confirmed by White House officials, followed a declaration by Trump that the US would be quitting Syria “very soon.” In off-the-cuff remarks during a speech to supporters in Ohio on Thursday, the president said: “Let the other people take care of it now. We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”
Trump ordered the spending freeze after reading a news report that said the US had committed the funds for recovery efforts in Syria. The $200 million in funding was announced by departing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in February at a meeting in Kuwait of the global coalition against Daesh.
Officials said Trump’s aside in his speech was not a slip, but that for several weeks he had been pushing back against the idea of a long or medium term US commitment to stabilizing eastern Syria, where the US has more than 2,000 military personnel.
Oubai Shahbandar, a Syrian-American analyst and fellow at the New America Foundation’s International Security Program, told Arab News: “US policy in Syria, unfortunately, remains rudderless and ill-defined. President Trump needs to decide if US policy in Syria will evolve beyond a short-sighted objective of partnering with the YPG to fight Daesh, or if the US is prepared to work with regional and local Sunni allies to defeat Daesh and counter Iranian militants.
“Otherwise, the US military presence in Syria — as it stands today — makes little to no sense without an over-arching strategic objective.”
Meanwhile, Turkey warned France on Saturday against increasing its military presence in Syria, which it said would be “an invasion,” as tension between Paris and Ankara remained high.
Temperatures were raised on Thursday after French President Emmanuel Macron met a delegation of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made up of Kurdish and Arab fighters.
Kurdish officials said afterward that France was planning to send new troops to Manbij, the northern Syrian town held by the Kurdish YPG militia. Paris denied the claim.
“If France takes any steps regarding its military presence in northern Syria, this would be an illegitimate step that would go against international law, and, in fact, it would be an invasion,” Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said, according to an AFP report.
“Especially if they intend to support terror group elements or give direct or indirect protection with armed forces, this would be a really calamitous step.”
Inside Syria, the Assad regime said on Saturday it had regained most of the towns and villages in the former opposition enclave of Eastern Ghouta, and was pressing its military operations in the last bastion of Douma.
Douma’s fall would seal the opposition’s worst defeat since 2016, driving them from their last big stronghold near the capital, and would also carry potent symbolism. The town was the main center of street protests in the Damascus suburbs against Bashar Assad’s rule that ignited the conflict seven years ago.