The US government has frozen funding for a range of civil society projects in Syria, including the search and rescue group known as the White Helmets, in a move that highlights the struggle within the Trump administration over what role the US should have in stabilizing the country.
Other groups have been told that funding may end as soon as July, when current contracts end.
The cutoff of funds to the White Helmets was first reported Thursday by CBS News.
Raed al-Saleh, the head of the White Helmets, told BuzzFeed News on Friday that while the group received funds this week, he expects the end of US funding and that that "will give terrorist organizations" a way to remain influential with the local population.
“When the [US] coalition came to these areas, they said that we came to provide services instead of those provided by the terrorist organizations," he said. “So it should be a logical alternative [to] not leave the people to terrorist organizations, Russians or Iranians.”
The head of the Committee for the Restoration of Stability in Aleppo, which runs reconstruction efforts in that northern Syrian province, told BuzzFeed News that the US funding freeze has stopped several planned projects in their tracks and that others will stop once their contracts run out.
“The fight against ISIS does not depend solely on military fighting. ISIS has influenced the inhabitants of the territories they occupied for four years,” said Munzer al-Salal, the chair of the group. “Therefore, the cessation of support will [make] ISIS more popular among the local population and make them wish that it returns to their areas.”
He said he had been told by US officials that approval of new projects had been suspended — something a State Department official confirmed Friday. The official said the department is “actively reviewing” current assistance programs in Syria at Trump’s request in March to freeze a $200 million pledge the US had made to programs in Syria, including funding for the White Helmets. But the official said the Trump administration expects the group to be able to continue its work with funding from other sources.
The White Helmets, officially known as the Syria Civil Defense, have been a frequent target of Kremlin-backed Russian media, which have accused the group of staging chemical weapons attacks to discredit the Syrian government and its allies.
Al-Saleh and al-Salal's concerns echo those of many current and former US officials in the wake of Trump’s request to withdraw $200 million from stabilization efforts.
Since the US-led coalition’s success driving ISIS out of its strongholds, the Pentagon has touted reconstruction efforts to thwart the comeback of what Defense Secretary Jim Mattis calls “ISIS 2.0” — a scenario the US is more than familiar with after 17 years in Afghanistan and Iraq.
With no appetite to repeat the intensive nation-building efforts of the past, the US has focused on helping to restore basic services — running water, electricity, and clearing housing — that they hope will strengthen local governments and civil society. Defense officials have pointed out that Syria has a skilled, educated workforce that can handle much of the reconstruction efforts on its own.
“It’s…about removing the conditions that lead to things like insurgency, that lead to instability,” Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who heads US Central Command, said on a visit to Raqqa in January while touring the city’s reconstruction efforts. “So, from a military standpoint we’re very keen to make sure that the follow-through in our operations is completed as effectively as the military operation.”
Last month, Trump set off alarm bells at the Pentagon when he suddenly announced that he wanted to bring US troops home from Syria. The US military — and the State Department under ousted secretary of state Rex Tillerson — had signaled a long-term stay in Syria to prevent an ISIS comeback.
Trump reluctantly agreed to give the Pentagon more time to defeat remaining pockets of ISIS fighters, but has reportedly said the US has only six months to finish the mission and get out, warning that he did not want to hear in October that they needed more time.
Already, militants have used distractions and breaks in the fighting to regroup in other areas. Last month, military officials acknowledged that ISIS fighters were on the rebound in some parts of Syria and revised their estimate of how much territory the group had lost from 98% to 90%.
The consensus among Pentagon, State, and development officials has been that clearing rubble, restoring essential services, and training local partners is an investment to make sure ISIS does not reappear — and avoid committing the US to another drawn-out, expensive engagement in the future.
“The White Helmets are doing everything that we want our local partners to do,” Frances Brown, who served on the National Security Council under both the Obama and Trump administrations before joining the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told BuzzFeed News.
“They’re doing the heavy lifting, they’re putting their lives on the line and taking on the burden so that Americans don’t have to do the civil defense work they’re doing,” she said. “When we hear 'stabilization' we associate it with massive nation building projects, that’s not what is going on. This is going toward de-mining, literally clearing the rubble, electricity, sanitation and other basic projects to help Syrians return to their cities instead of staying in neighboring countries.”
Although they are internationally acclaimed for their emergency search and rescue work in the aftermath of airstrikes, the White Helmets also have multiple clearance teams working on de-mining urban areas so it is safe for inhabitants to return.
In the larger picture, the $200 million is “a tiny amount of funding that would have tremendous multiplier effects in terms of security interests,” Brown said. And it helps the Trump administration’s objective of convincing allies and partners to put more of their own resources on the line.
“The president has been very clear about burden sharing, but by giving a moderate amount of commitment and putting skin in the game we can convince others to do the same,” Brown said.
International organizations are also grappling with the legal tangle of how to plan for these projects in a country without a centralized government. Many international agencies won't come into Syria to undertake the necessary extensive reconstruction efforts unless President Bashar al-Assad asks them to.
“Part of the reason why we have difficulty … in Syria is that we do not have the support, we do not have a centralized government that can orchestrate this, or can give permission for this,” Votel said in January. “It’s my understanding the United Nations and many of the organizations will not come in here unless they do have the permission of the centralized government, and they don’t have that.”
Many international aid organizations have found themselves stuck between the urge to organize recovery efforts and putting firm conditions on their assistance. Aid officials told BuzzFeed News that leaving reconstruction up to Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies means sacrificing a focus on human rights, democracy, and gender equality.