U.S. Will Not Spend $230 Million Allocated to Repair Devastated Syrian Cities

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced Friday that it had decided against spending $230 million earmarked to help stabilize Syria, the United States’ latest step back from a seven-year war that has been largely won by a brutal government and its Russian and Iranian backers.

Administration officials said they would alert Congress that the money, which had already been approved, would not be spent to fix water systems, clear rubble or dig up unexploded mines in Syrian cities and towns that have been devastated by the war.

Those repairs were seen as vital to persuading hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees to return home — people the Trump administration has largely barred from resettling in the United States.

The unspent funds are part of nearly $3 billion in foreign aid — money allocated last year by Congress with broad bipartisan support — that the administration has so far refused to spend and could rescind or send back to the Treasury. In the case of the Syria money, the administration has decided to spend it on other yet-to-be-determined priorities, not return it to the Treasury, officials said.

The languishing billions are a reflection of President Trump’s belief that the rest of the world needs to be weaned off its reliance on aid from the United States.

The decision on the Syria money will disappoint European and Persian Gulf allies, and the dominant position of Russia and Iran in Syria will be strengthened by a reduced American commitment. Pentagon officials have quietly expressed exasperation over the decision, fearing that any failure to stabilize Syria will leave fertile ground for the Islamic State or other extremists to return.

The administration said that the move did not represent any pullback on American goals in Syria, and emphasized that other countries had committed $300 million to the Syrian stabilization effort, including $100 million from Saudi Arabia.

“The president has made clear that we are prepared to remain in Syria until the enduring defeat of ISIS, and we remain focused on ensuring the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxies,” said the State Department’s spokeswoman, Heather Nauert.

The diversion of the money seemed sure to anger Democrats and some Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly because the timing of the announcement, only weeks before the end of the fiscal year, all but ensures that Congress cannot reverse the decision.

“This message of U.S. retreat and abandonment is an embarrassment,” Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement on Friday.

Mr. Menendez has promised to try to stall appointments to the State Department should the administration attempt broad revocations of foreign aid. Such a battle would further hobble the State Department, which has already been weakened by a host of vacancies in top positions and at crucial embassies around the world.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, the United States has gone from calling for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to leave power and providing covert arms and other assistance to rebels fighting him to largely standing on the sidelines while Iran and Russia bolster the Syrian government and position themselves to shape the country’s postwar future.

In recent years, the United States’ focus has been on fighting the Islamic State in eastern Syria, not on affecting the course of the battle between Mr. Assad and the rebels.

The funding in question was intended to help stabilize areas in northern and eastern Syria that have been liberated from the Islamic State. The United States formed an alliance with a Kurdish-led militia to fight the jihadists, who now hold a tiny fraction of the territory they once did.

The effort to defeat the jihadists depended heavily on airstrikes and artillery, which left many communities heavily damaged. In Raqqa, for example, which was once the capital of the jihadists’ so-called caliphate, two-thirds of the buildings were damaged or destroyed, according to local officials.

The city’s two main bridges, crossing the Euphrates River, were destroyed by the United States-led coalition, and to this day, residents must cross the river on shaky barges.

Trump administration officials have long made a distinction between stabilization efforts, which they described as quick fixes to vital infrastructure, and the far more expensive and long-term effort to rebuild, an unpopular prospect among many conservatives.

Iraq asked for $88 billion to rebuild after its war with the Islamic State and got very little. Syria needs billions more, with Raqqa alone needing $5 billion, according to the city’s co-mayor, Ahmed Ibrahim.

Mr. Ibrahim said he was glad to hear that money from gulf countries might soon be coming to eastern Syria “because, at this time, the American support is very bad.”

“The fear after the withdrawal of the support is the probability of a military withdrawal,” he said.

Trump administration officials have long held out the prospect of gathering billions for reconstruction as an incentive for Mr. Assad to participate in a Geneva-based political reconciliation effort, one they hope would eventually lead to his removal from power.

“We have been very clear, as clear as it is possible to be, that there will be no international reconstruction assistance for Syria without the political reconstruction process validated by the United Nations,” David M. Satterfield, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, said Friday in a call with reporters.

But with officials now refusing to spend even the relatively small sums allocated for stabilization, Mr. Assad is unlikely to see suggestions of greater amounts after a political reconciliation as genuine.

The State Department also announced Friday the appointment of James Jeffrey, a veteran diplomat, to serve as a special envoy for Syria. In its early days, the Trump administration sought to eliminate most special envoys, seeing them mostly as window dressing on empty policies.

But Mr. Jeffrey is the second special envoy announced in the past two days. On Thursday, Brian Hook was named as a special envoy for Iran to coordinate yet another policy deeply at odds with European wishes.

Eric S. Edelman, a top Pentagon official under President George W. Bush, said he admired Mr. Jeffrey but predicted that he would preside over a broad American retreat from Syria that would benefit Russia and Iran.

“I don’t think the president or his team have a strategy for how they’re going to deal with Syria or Iran or just about anything else,” Mr. Edelman said.

The United Nations estimated in recent days that the Islamic State still had up to 30,000 members in Syria and Iraq. In a call with reporters on Friday, Brett McGurk, a special envoy for defeating the Islamic State, said the last part of the military campaign against those fighters would soon start, a promise officials have been making for months.

“This mission is ongoing and is not over,” Mr. McGurk said.

Gardiner Harris reported from Washington, and Ben Hubbard from Beirut, Lebanon. Margaret Coker contributed reporting from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.