MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
The State Department says it is not pulling back from Syria or the fight against ISIS, but it is pulling back some money - $230 million, that is. The Trump administration says it is getting other countries to make up the difference as it works to reinstate services in devastated areas that were once controlled by ISIS. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump has been making clear he wants out of Syria and wants others to take care of rebuilding Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the self-proclaimed ISIS caliphate. The aid money now being cut has been on hold for much of this year. State Department officials say, to make up for it, they managed to get $300 million in commitments from other coalition partners, a third of that from Saudi Arabia.
It's not clear how much control the U.S. will have over those funds, though U.S. envoy Brett McGurk says the money will allow the U.S. to continue to restore basic services in the devastated city of Raqqa, where he recently visited.
BRETT MCGURK: We have a small State Department team on the ground working hand in glove with a small U.S. military team. It's working. It's sustainable. And thanks to these generous coalition contributions, we're actually going to be able to increase some of what we had planned to do over the coming months.
KELEMEN: For now, the U.S. is restoring water and demining in a city that remains in ruins. Clearing the rubble and rebuilding Raqqa is a far larger task, but that's something that will be put off until the war in Syria ends. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is beefing up his diplomatic team to work on that. He's brought in a former ambassador to Iraq, James Jeffrey, to be what he's calling his representative for Syria engagement. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert in a conference call described the job this way.
HEATHER NAUERT: Given all the countries and the issues involved, from terrorism to refugees, these matters obviously cut across geographic bureaus. And therefore, this requires a high level of coordination. Jeffrey's a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service, with extensive Middle Eastern and conflict zone experience, who is being called upon once again to serve his country.
KELEMEN: Nauert says the $230 million that the U.S. is cutting from Syria will be used elsewhere. She's not commenting on reports that the Office of Budget and Management may soon take back a few billion dollars in foreign assistance. Concerns about that broke out in the open at a Senate hearing yesterday, where Democrat Robert Menendez suggested the administration was trying to make an end run around Congress.
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ROBERT MENENDEZ: I hear that the administration is sending a rescissions package, which potentially would be a devastating blow to the State Department and USAID. And if it does so and does so in a time frame in which Congress, under the law, cannot act, which I think would be illegal to do, that will have consequences.
KELEMEN: As for the aid cut for Syria, Menendez calls it short-sighted and a sign that the Trump administration is abdicating its leadership and, quote, "rolling out the red carpet" for Iran and Russia, which backed the Syrian regime, to fill in the vacuum. He says the fight against ISIS is not complete until communities and local leaders are resilient enough to prevent the return of the terrorist group. State Department officials insist that the U.S. remains committed to the, quote, "enduring defeat of ISIS." Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.