WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump, having this week signaled a possible withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, has ordered the State Department to suspend more than $200 million in funds for recovery efforts there while the administration reassesses its role in the conflict, administration officials said Friday.
The freeze on stabilization and humanitarian aid came as two members of the U.S.-led coalition fighting in Syria were killed — one U.S. soldier and one British — and five others were wounded by a bomb in a late-night attack.
The attack took place near Manbij in northern Syria and is believed to have been carried out by ISIS remnants, a senior U.S. military official said.
A statement posted by the U.S. Central Command said “an improvised explosive device” detonated late Thursday. The statement did not reveal the identities of the service members involved or how seriously the survivors were hurt. A statement from the Ministry of Defense in London said that the mission was to counter ISIS fighters.
Coalition forces have been deployed to Syria to fight, alongside Kurdish militia allies, against ISIS. But with that group largely routed, the seven-year-old civil war in Syria has entered a complex and dangerous new phase.
Two U.S. allies, Turkey and the Kurds, who control parts of northern Syria, are fighting each other. And the Kurds and coalition forces are engaged in a tense standoff with the Syrian government, along with its allies — Russia, Iran and Iranian-backed militias.
On Thursday, Trump suggested the U.S. could pull its approximately 2,000 troops out of Syria “very soon.” The comments surprised Defense Department officials who have maintained that some kind of U.S. presence in parts of Syria may be necessary to avoid re-creating the conditions that led to the rise of ISIS — and also to avoid ceding influence in the country to Russia.
“Very soon, we’re coming out,” Trump said during a rally in Ohio. “We’re going to have 100 percent of the caliphate, as they call it — sometimes referred to as ‘land’ — taking it all back quickly, quickly.”
The suspension of funds for recovery efforts in Syria comes as the administration reassesses its role in the conflict there, a State Department official said Friday.
“There will be meetings on this next week,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Obviously, we, State, hope that this decision is reversed.”
A National Security Council official explained the White House’s position: “In line with the president’s guidance, the Department of State continually re-evaluates appropriate assistance levels and how best they might be utilized, which they do on an ongoing basis.”
Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson had committed the aid in February in Kuwait at a meeting of countries that have joined together to defeat ISIS.
Pentagon officials in the past few months have said repeatedly that a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops could leave a void. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that while U.S. forces were no longer in “an offensive effort on the ground,” they continued to play a role.
It was unclear how the death of the U.S. service member in the newest attack would influence Trump’s thinking on a possible U.S. withdrawal.