US cuts Syria stabilization funds, but appoints new envoys in apparent balancing act

The State Department announced on Friday that the US was cutting its funding for reconstruction projects in northeast Syria.

 WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) - The State Department announced on Friday that the US was cutting its funding for reconstruction projects in northeast Syria, where the Coalition, working in partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has expelled the Islamic State (IS).

The US announcement follows a Saudi decision to provide $100 million for those projects. The Saudi decision was conveyed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at last month’s anti-IS Coalition meeting in Brussels, on the sidelines of the NATO summit. However, it was announced only on Thursday.

In addition, the United Arab Emirates has pledged $50 million. The two Gulf countries, thus, have compensated for over half the $230 million that the US has eliminated from its own funding, while an additional $150 million has been promised from other countries.

The State Department, thus, appears to have succeeded in finessing President Donald Trump’s desire to terminate US funding for reconstruction in northeast Syria, while maintaining a US commitment to the area, which both the State Department and Pentagon believe is necessary.

At the same time, the State Department announced the appointment of two new officials to handle issues related to the rest of Syria, which, for the past seven years, has been contested between the regime and rebel forces, but which has increasingly fallen under Damascus’ control.

The two new appointments—Amb. James Jeffrey as Pompeo’s Representative for Syria Engagement and Col. Joel Rayburn (US Army, Ret.) as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Levant Affairs and Special Envoy for Syria—are part of a US effort to reinvigorate the UN diplomacy on Syria, known as “the Geneva Process,” as well as contain Iranian influence.

State Department officials, speaking to reporters on Friday, emphasized that the US had a lasting commitment to maintain its presence in northeastern Syria.

“We’re there for the defeat, the enduring defeat of [IS],” Amb. David Satterfield, Acting Assistant Secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, told reporters.

The Pentagon now acknowledges that the IS threat is more serious than it had previously implied. A recently released report from the Defense Department’s Inspector General suggested that some 28,000 to 31,000 IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria—up to 17,000 in Iraq and 14,000 in Syria, although in Syria the majority are thought to be in regime-controlled territory.

Nonetheless, US officials still speak of an imminent “final phase” to drive IS out of the last territory it occupies—in Syria’s Middle Euphrates River Valley.

The latter view led Trump to say in April that the US could pull out of Syria “very soon,” creating uncertainty about the future of the SDF-controlled territory. However, State Department officials on Friday sought to dispel such concerns.

They also announced a new effort to reinvigorate the UN-led “Geneva process” to achieve a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war.

Until now, it had seemed that Moscow had succeeded in creating an alternative diplomatic forum, far more favorable to its allies in Damascus and Tehran, and one which also drew in Ankara with an implicit promise that Turkey could exercise dominant influence in northern Syria, and that the Russian-orchestrated diplomacy had supplanted the Geneva process.

When Kurdistan 24 asked State Department Spokesperson, Heather Nauert, about that on Tuesday, she rejected the notion.

“Nothing is replacing Geneva,” she said. “We see the Geneva process, the UN-led process, as the only viable way forward for a long-term political solution in Syria.”

“Perhaps that process needs to be goosed again,” Nauert added, “but I think you’ll be hearing in the coming days” that “we are doubling down our efforts in supporting that process going forward.”

That was, indeed, the message on Friday, as Nauert affirmed that at the opening of the UN General Assembly in September, Pompeo will be “looking for ways to reinvigorate the Geneva process.”

Jeffrey, the Secretary’s new Representative for Syria Engagement, will be active in that effort, she added.

Retired from the Foreign Service, Jeffrey was ambassador to Turkey from 2008 to 2010 and then ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012. A firm advocate of “one-Iraq,” Jeffrey opposed the Kurdistan independence referendum last September, calling it a “major setback.”

Rayburn, who earlier served as senior director of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon in the National Security Council, will also be engaged on Syrian-related issues at the State Department. His work “will apparently focus” on countering Iranian influence in “Syria and the region,” The Washington Post suggested.