Three Months After U.S. Freeze, Syrian Recovery Stuck in Limbo

Short on funding, U.S. and European programs designed to help rebuild after the Islamic State are faltering.

U.S. forces near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah on April 28, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. forces near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah on April 28, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images)

Nearly three months after the White House froze roughly $200 million earmarked to help fund recovery in Syria, U.S. and European officials trying to stabilize the country’s north are scrambling to plug the gaps left by the near-complete withdrawal of American assistance.

Critical programs meant to restore power and clean water and to clear land mines out of urban areas have been disrupted, and the much-needed networks of local assistance are melting away without funding. Other countries are reluctant to cover the difference while Washington is missing in action.

All of that has made it more difficult to jump-start the economic recovery needed to restore a sense of normalcy in regions wracked by years of Islamic State occupation and a bitter fight to oust the terrorist group.

“We’re still trying to work through the impacts and figure out what is the priority and what will continue and what will stop,” said a Western official with knowledge of the programs.

The $200 million was originally included in the State Department budget to help restore basic services, including electricity and potable water, and remove rubble from communities ravaged by the yearslong battle to evict the Islamic State from territory it held in Syria.

But the White House became involved after then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touted the aid package at a February meeting of the counter-Islamic State coalition in Kuwait. President Donald Trump bridled at unilaterally investing additional money in Syria — setting the stage for the March freeze. (The State Department later restored $6.6 million in funding for the White Helmets, a Syrian emergency response group that operates nationwide, but the rest of the money remains frozen.)

That has had a chilling effect on Western efforts to undo some of the unprecedented damage suffered by cities such as Raqqa — much of it the result of coalition airstrikes and artillery bombardments.

Infrastructure for many recovery projects, including urban rubble clearing, had been put in place months earlier but have been difficult to sustain without dedicated financial support. A demining program to clear recently liberated cities has proceeded in fits and starts and, after the freeze, was forced to shut down briefly before securing additional funding from several European governments.

But the lack of U.S. participation is having a broader knock-on effect on other potential contributors.

“There are a number of programs for stabilization in northern Syria that the Americans used to organize, and other countries are looking to contribute to, but they’re reluctant to do so without the U.S. in the lead,” the Western official said.

The financial uncertainties created by high-level intransigence have also made it difficult to sustain networks of local supporters and employees integral to many stabilization projects.

“There are networks of local people willing to work with the U.S. and [Syrian Democratic Forces]. But when these freezes happen, these networks begin to disintegrate,” said Nicholas Heras of the Center for a New American Security.

“I’d call it an attrition of influence,” he said. “Even when a project gets cleared and funding comes through, if the network that was built has been dispersed, then you can’t get to work.”

The fallout from the U.S. freeze is just the culmination of months of uneven management in post-conflict Syria. Even before Trump’s March decision, U.S. efforts to stabilize heavily damaged cities and towns had come under fire for their slow response to the massive destruction wrought during the campaign to defeat the Islamic State.

“People are very upset in Raqqa because everything is destroyed and there is no help,” said Fabrice Balanche, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who visited the region this year. “They say, ‘You came here to expel [the Islamic State], you destroyed everything, and you don’t rebuild anything and you don’t help us.’”

At the time, the only visible U.S. forces in the area, Balanche said, were American special operators who — because of security concerns — were only able to meet infrequently with local councils. This lack of a broader U.S. presence, especially officials who could come to grips with the economic carnage, has hamstrung the U.S. response.

“It’s shouldn’t be the military’s job to understand the socio-economic situation of the population,” Balanche said. “If you don’t have good information on the ground, the policymakers don’t understand the real situation.”

And that, according to Heras, Balanche, and officials familiar with the programs under threat, can ultimately be traced back to the lack of clear, high-level direction from the administration about how to put Syria back together again.

“If you had a clearly defined policy, U.S. and coalition implementers and local Syrians could get a hell of a lot done. But it really starts at the top,” Heras said. “Now, though, they turn the tap on, then they turn it off, then they turn it on.”

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @Rhys_Dubin

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