Turkey to inherit northwest Syria as U.S. withdraws funding

The United States is to withdraw assistance to northwest Syria, a move that activists and analysts say will empower extremists and give Turkey more leverage in that part of the country.

The U.S. decision came after weeks of discussion among various government agencies in Washington, CBS News reported.

U.S. financial assistance supported efforts to counter violent extremism and strengthen local security, civil society and education in that part of Syria.

The move indicates President Donald Trump’s desire for a swift withdrawal from the war-torn country, observers said.

“The Trump administration believes that it was throwing good money after bad with programming in northwest Syria,” Nicholas Heras, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, told Ahval.

“What the Trump (administration) saw was al Qaeda and other extremist organisations retaining social, political, and military power in that region of Syria, despite years of U.S. programming to establish competitors to the extremists,” he said.

İdlib Sivil Savunma

Most of Idlib province in northwest Syria is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is considered to be the Syrian branch of al Qaeda.

But local beneficiaries of U.S. funding say the move will leave civil society groups at the mercy of extremist elements in northwestern Syria.

“This would immediately create a vacuum in the region where Islamist factions are already getting more powers,” said Ahmed al-Kaddour, director of the Idlib-based Alwan radio station that was receiving U.S. funding.

U.S. State Department officials notified him about the recent decision, he told Ahval.

Trump had previously ordered a review of the $200-million stabilisation funding for Syria.

U.S. officials have said the focus of assistance would be on areas recently liberated from Islamic State (ISIS) by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), where analysts argue the money could be used more effectively.

“With increasing demand for resources in eastern Syria, an actual U.S. zone of control, the Trump team made a rational choice: it decided to throw good money in support of the SDF and the post-ISIS stabilisation mission in eastern Syria and to let Turkey manage the dilemma presented by the extremist groups in northwest Syria,” said Heras.

Analysts and local activists believe the suspension of U.S. assistance would make Turkey by default the largest international donor to local organisations in Idlib and elsewhere in northwest Syria.

“Soon I expect that we will be under Turkey’s mandate,” said the head of a youth group in the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province who declined to be named.

His organisation too was notified about the end to U.S. aid, which has already affected its activities on the ground.

“Now we will have to reduce our staff and activities in order to lower our expenses and also look for new sources of funding,” the Saraqeb-based activist said.

“The Turks are in a process of consolidating the civil society, governance, administration, and the security structures of northwest Syria under Turkish authority,” Heras said.

He said that Turkey does not want competitors in that region, “especially from troublesome NATO allies, as it prepares to hold onto a large area of northwest Syria for the long term.”

“There were nearly 150 organisations in Idlib that benefited from U.S. funding,” said Bahadin Najib, head of We Build, an organisation that focused on capacity building for women and young people in Idlib.

Now most of these organisations, he said, had three hard options: “leave Syria, work with radical armed groups or move to other areas not under Turkish control.”

Turkey maintains a military presence in Idlib through 12 observation posts as part of an agreement among Russia, Turkey and Iran for establishing “de-escalation zones” across Syria.

“Turkey would eventually control civil society too because of its military and economic clout over parts of northern Syria. The Turkish government has been providing funding through selected channels so local Syrian organisations don’t have many options here,” Najib said.

But the Turkish government has already been influencing Syrian civil society groups based in Turkey, including those that do not receive funding from Ankara.

“Most of those organisations can’t work entirely freely, because Turkey has always wanted to pass its political agenda through their work inside Syria,” radio director al Kaddour said.

The move, however, could become a challenge to Turkey as it would be the only major power responsible for dealing with rebels in Idlib, including al Qaeda elements.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Heras said, “should worry a bit because this move also means that the United States will hold Turkey responsible if al Qaeda builds an enduring safe haven in northwest Syria”.

U.S. humanitarian aid for northwest Syria will not be affected by the recent decision, reports said.

According to local sources, nearly 3 million civilians – including many displaced people from other parts of Syria – live in Idlib, making it the largest area still under the control of rebel forces.  

In early April, Trump said he wanted to pull out some 2,000 American troops deployed in Syria “very quickly”. But during a national security meeting that followed the announcement, military advisors were reported to have convinced Trump not to withdraw U.S. troops immediately.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.