US withdrawing aid from northwest Syria

The United States is withdrawing assistance from northwest Syria as the Trump administration reviews hundreds of millions of dollars in stabilization aid to Syria, a State Department official has told CNN.

The withdrawal of assistance comes as the US-led military coalition battles the remaining elements of ISIS in the Middle Euphrates River Valley along the Syrian border of Iraq.

“Two-hundred million dollars of stabilization assistance for Syria is currently under review at the request of the President,” the official said in a statement to CNN. “Distinct from that amount, U.S. assistance for programs in northwest Syria are being freed up to provide potential increased support for priorities in northeast Syria, as will be determined by the outcome of the ongoing assistance review, including the D-ISIS campaign and stabilization efforts.”

While the US-led coalition has cleared the country’s northwestern region of ISIS, al Qaeda-linked groups such as the Nusra Front still maintain a foothold there, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has been consolidating gains in territory there that it had lost to rebel forces, raising questions about what the US withdrawal of aid will mean for Syria’s future.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly said it is time for Arab allies in the region to take responsibility for Syria in order to allow the United States to focus on priorities on the home front. But there is concern that a withdrawal of US development and reconstruction aid could curtail American influence to reach an outcome in line with longer-term US interests.

The development ultimately could benefit “the Russians and other actors in that region, like the Iranians,” by allowing them more influence in the long-term, said retired Air Force Col. Cedric Leighton, a CNN military analyst.

The lack of US involvement in northwest Syria could also give terrorist groups like the Nusra Front a base from which to mount terror operations and exploit the volatile political situation to their benefit, Leighton said.

CBS News first reported the withdrawal of the aid.

The move to review stabilization efforts across Syria could also complicate the effort to assist in the country’s reconstruction and any related leverage over a political solution to the civil war.

“It is clear that Russia’s interests in Syria are Russia’s interest and not those of the wider international community,” Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees US military operations across the Middle East as head of US Central Command, told a congressional committee earlier this year.

Trump said last month he was eyeing a conclusion of the US military campaign in Syria, where about 2,000 troops are working to finish off the remaining elements of ISIS.

Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford have both warned against a hasty withdrawal from Syria like the 2011 pull-out from Iraq that helped create the conditions that allowed ISIS to take over a sizable portion of the country in 2014.

There is also concern about how US military allies on the ground in Syria, who were instrumental in reclaiming ISIS-held territory, would view a precipitous withdrawal of US investment in Syria.

Such a move would “reverberate for decades to come that the United States is not a trusted partner,” Leighton said, adding that US commitments in the region could be seen as temporary, thereby “limiting the ability of the United States to project power” in the region going forward.