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State Department Freezes $200 Million Promised For Syria Fund

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Trump decided to freeze $200 million in funds to stabilize parts of Syria. The money was supposed to go to places controlled by U.S.-backed rebels. This move comes after the president's declaration that the United States is almost done in Syria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're knocking the hell out of ISIS. We'll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take care of it now.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Very soon. Very soon we're coming out.

INSKEEP: For more on U.S. strategy, let's bring in NPR's Tom Bowman, who covers the Pentagon. Tom, thanks for coming by this morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: So has the United States achieved its goals in Syria?

BOWMAN: You know, Steve, it has not. I was over there in February...

INSKEEP: Right.

BOWMAN: ...And the U.S. military officials were telling me it'd take another two to six months to defeat ISIS. A lot of ISIS areas have been removed from Syria - these safe havens. But there's still a lot to do along the Euphrates River as it heads down into Iraq.

INSKEEP: And then I guess we should remember the enemy, as they say, has a vote here. Two to six months is what they hope it will be.

BOWMAN: Right. But the problem is the fight against ISIS has somewhat slowed. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Kurdish rebels are heading up to northwest Syria to fight Turkish troops who are attacking Kurds up in that area. They see them all as being terrorists. So it's sort of treading water at this point against ISIS. The U.S. still has that area along the Euphrates River to clear out of ISIS, but it's going to take longer now because of the rebels leaving the area.

INSKEEP: Leaving the area and going to fight their own battles elsewhere.

BOWMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: But does the United States have commitments to Syrian rebels?

BOWMAN: They do. The Syrian rebels, particularly the Kurdish rebels, are the best fighters against ISIS. They are the ground force against ISIS. And the U.S. is offering advisers and, more importantly, aircraft, air attacks to help in this ISIS fight. And what they would like to see is the Kurds get a seat at the table for a sort of a post-Assad government in Syria. These talks going on in Geneva. So they are supporting them. But again, Turkey is against the Kurds. So that's a problem here.

INSKEEP: Trying to keep all this straight. Post-Assad government - you're reminding us there's a big civil war, which is a separate thing from the battle against ISIS. Bashar al-Assad is a leader who was opposed by the United States at one time. The U.S. has been supporting these rebels up to now. But the aid has been frozen. What does that do to the rebels?

BOWMAN: Well, the rebels right now are, again, fighting the Turks.

INSKEEP: They're fighting in another direction anyway. OK.

BOWMAN: That's right. But that money is needed, the U.S. says, to stabilize this area, to make sure ISIS doesn't return - that the people have no hope, no stabilization. Getting the electricity going back, getting you know, electric substations, water back. And if you remove that money, they're afraid that ISIS will just come back into that area.

INSKEEP: Tom, I just have to ask - if the United States were to get out of Syria in the way President Trump says, is that good for Russia, which has an ally in Bashar al-Assad, who's trying to remain in power?

BOWMAN: It's very good for Russia because they are the top supporter of Assad and also good for Iran, which is also helping out the Assad regime in that area. So one of the reasons the U.S. wants troops to stay is to prevent Iran from gaining more influence in Syria and also Russia to - gaining more influence. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says, basically, we want American troops there to prevent that from happening.

INSKEEP: NPR's Tom Bowman, thanks for coming by.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.