Middle East

Anti-Daesh office stays as Trump pushes to exit Syria

In this Saturday, March 31, 2018 file photo, Syrian boys, right, sit on a pickup truck as they travel next to a U.S. vehicle, on a road leading to the tense front line with Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)

WASHINGTON: The State Department unit overseeing the fight against Daesh (ISIS) will stay in business for at least six more months, reversing an administration plan for the unit’s imminent downgrade even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with a speedy U.S. exit from Syria. A plan initiated by Rex Tillerson before he was fired as secretary of state in March would have folded the office of the special envoy to the global coalition into the department’s counterterrorism bureau as early as spring, officials said.

Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, canceled the plan this month, and the office will stay an independent entity until at least December, when there will be a new review, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the plan publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The office reports directly to the secretary of state and the president, and the planned shift would have undercut its status and the priority of its mission. It could have led to staffing and budget cuts as well as the departure of special envoy Brett McGurk. He is now expected to remain in his job at least through the end of the year.

Still, the officials said Trump’s intent to reduce the U.S. military and civilian stabilization presence in Syria has not changed and is, in fact, accelerating. The State Department has ended all funding for stabilization programs in Syria’s northwest.

Daesh militants have been almost entirely eliminated from the region, which is controlled by a hodgepodge of other extremist groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government forces.

At least some of the U.S. money for those projects is expected to be redirected Syria’s northeast where Daesh fighters remain, the officials said.

The conflicting moves of retaining McGurk’s office while pulling out of the northwest illustrate how the administration is being pulled in different directions by Trump’s two competing interests: extricating the U.S. from messy Mideast conflicts and delivering a permanent defeat to Daesh. Trump has said the U.S. will be withdrawing from Syria “like very soon.”

In late March, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies tried to dissuade him from pulling troops out immediately, warning there was a risk Daesh would manage to regroup. Trump relented slightly but told aides they had only five months or six months to finish off Daesh and get out.

The U.S. announced in September 2014 that it was forming a coalition of nations to defeat the nascent extremist group that had taken over vast swaths of Iraq and Syria. Days later, President Barack Obama named retired Marine Gen. John Allen the first special presidential envoy for the coalition. McGurk, his deputy, replaced him in 2015.

Almost four years later, Daesh no longer controls territory in Iraq, though U.S. officials say its ideology remains a threat there. The final vestiges of the self-proclaimed “caliphate” are in Syria, where civil war has made it far trickier to wrest the militants from the few pockets of territory they still control.

Yet, as Trump’s administration eyes an exit as soon as Daesh is vanquished, the broader situation in Syria is not getting any better as far as American interests are concerned.

Assad’s forces are making inroads against the opposition and now control roads between Syria’s three main cities for the first time since the war broke out in 2011. Moscow is solidifying its influence, even hosting Assad for a surprise visit Thursday to Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. And an outbreak of direct fighting between Israel and Iranian forces based in Syria has catalyzed concerns about Tehran’s involvement in Syria and the potential for a broader regional conflict.

“Hopefully, Syria will start to stabilize,” Trump said last week as he met with NATO’s secretary-general at the White House.

Nevertheless, there are no signs that Trump is backing away from his determination to limit U.S. involvement to the narrow task of defeating Daesh, leaving to others the longer-term challenges of stabilizing the country, restoring basic services and resolving the civil war.

A $200 million pledge Tillerson made in February for stabilization programs in Syria remains on hold on Trump’s orders and is under review. Tillerson, who had advocated for maintaining the U.S. presence, was fired shortly after he made the pledge at a conference in Kuwait.

Then the administration this month decided to halt funding U.S. military and reconstruction programs in the Syrian northwest, the officials said. Pending the results of the overall review, the canceled money is expected to be shifted to programs in northeast Syria, where U.S. troops are still battling Daesh, and civilian teams from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development are working in newly liberated areas.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 22, 2018, on page 9.

Recommended





Advertisement

Comments

Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

Alert: If you are facing problems with posting comments, please note that you must verify your email with Disqus prior to posting a comment. follow this link to make sure your account meets the requirements. (http://bit.ly/vDisqus)

comments powered by Disqus

Advertisement

FOLLOW THIS ARTICLE

Interested in knowing more about this story?

Click here