President Donald Trump froze more than $200 million in funds to aid with recovery efforts in Syria as the White House mulls the broader U.S. participation in the ongoing conflict there, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
The funds have been put on hold, according to U.S. officials, in keeping with an announcement Thursday where Trump said he wanted to pull out of Syria and "let other people take care of it now."
Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson pledged the money at a February meeting of coalition forces in Kuwait, the Journal reported. The freeze comes as fighting against the Islamic State has stalled, according to U.S. officials.
Trump has said he would like other countries, such as Saudi Arabia to bear more of the burden of the fight against the Islamic State and has requested Gulf Arab states to contribute to recovery efforts underway in Syria. Yet some fear an early withdrawal by the U.S. could cause Russia and Iran to overtake the territory.
The State Department invested $200 million last year to aid in rebuilding parts of Syria that have been rocked by fighting, hoping to lure residents back who had fled since the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
The fight in Syria pits the U.S. and allies Israel and Saudi Arabia against Russia and Iran for control of the contested land. Israel's military has continued to bomb Syria and last month shot down an Iranian drone that entered their territory.
Airstrikes led by the U.S. have lessened over the last month as officials admit the Islamic State has not given up any significant territory in several months. Some current and former diplomats as well as military officials warn the Islamic State could use the break in fighting to regroup, leading to fears it could reemerge as a greater threat.
"One of the major implications of terminating this process would be opening up the area to the [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad regime and to Iranian-led Shiite militias, and of course this will instantly set the stage for the return of extremism and terrorism," said Frederic Hof, who worked as an adviser under former President Barack Obama.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said he fears Trump may repeat mistakes by Obama in pulling troops out too soon, enabling the Islamic State to regain a foothold in the region, calling the move "Obama 2.0."
"Trump cannot have a serious Iran strategy if he allows Tehran to win in Syria," Dubowitz said.
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