Trump freeze on Syria aid seen as win for Iran, Rus­sia

$200 mil­lion pack­age was a Tiller­son pri­or­ity

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Led­yard King

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Pres­i­dent Trump is mov­ing to put Syria in his rearview mir­ror.

Trump told union work­ers in Ohio on Thurs­day that he wants to pull U.S. troops out of Syria “very soon.” Then on Fri­day, he di­rected the State De­part­ment to freeze some $200 mil­lion in re­cov­ery aid for the coun­try, which is in the sev­enth year of a bru­tal civil war, ac­cord­ing to The Wall Street Jour­nal.

Both moves fol­low Trump’s de­ci­sion in July to end a covert CIA pro­gram un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to train mod­er­ate rebels to fight Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, mark­ing an end of U.S. ef­forts to re­move the dic­ta­tor.

At the time, he tweeted that the pay­ments to Syr­ian rebels are “mas­sive, dan­ger­ous, and waste­ful.”

Fri­day’s move to hold off on the $200 mil­lion pay­ment for re­cov­ery is the lat­est in­di­ca­tion Trump, who cam­paigned on an “Amer­ica first” agenda, is re­assess­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary and for­eign aid role in the Mid­dle East and else­where.

“We’ll be com­ing out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other peo­ple take care of it now,” Trump said. “We’re go­ing to get back to our coun­try, where we be­long, where we want to be.”

An es­ti­mated 2,000 U.S. troops are sta­tioned in Syria. An Amer­i­can and a Bri­tish ser­vice­men were killed by a road­side bomb at­tack there, U.S. and Bri­tish of­fi­cials said Fri­day.

The aid pack­age was a pri­or­ity of now-fired Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son, who had em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of a strong Amer­i­can pres­ence in Syria as a way to sta­bi­lize the re­gion and keep Is­lamic State-backed ter­ror­ists from re­gain­ing strength.

A U.S. exit from Syria would be seen as a vic­tory not just for As­sad but for his al­lies Rus­sia and Iran.

“If the U.S. were to with­draw, it seems to me the Rus­sians would have a free hand” in Syria and the forces “fight­ing As­sad would be weak­ened,” In­gela Stent, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Eurasian, Rus­sian and East Euro­pean Stud­ies at Ge­orge­town Uni­ver­sity, told CNN on Fri­day.

Tiller­son ex­pressed con­cerns about Iran in a Jan­uary speech.

“U.S. dis­en­gage­ment from Syria would pro­vide Iran the op­por­tu­nity to fur­ther strengthen its po­si­tion in Syria,” he said. “Iran seeks dom­i­nance in the Mid­dle East and the de­struc­tion of our ally, Is­rael. As a desta­bi­lized na­tion and one bor­der­ing Is­rael, Syria presents an op­por­tu­nity that Iran is all too ea­ger to ex­ploit.”

PABLO MARTINEZ MON­SI­VAIS/AP

Pres­i­dent Trump speaks in Rich­field, Ohio, Thurs­day.

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