U.S. to withdraw assistance from northwest Syria: U.S. officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration will withdraw assistance from northwest Syria dominated by Islamist factions and focus recovery efforts on areas where U.S.-led forces have retaken territory from Islamic State in the northeast, U.S. officials with knowledge of the decision said on Friday.

CBS, which first reported the story, said tens of millions of dollars will be cut from previous U.S.-backed efforts in the northwest, including projects for “countering violent extremism, supporting independent society and independent media, strengthening education, and advocating for community policing.”

U.S. officials told Reuters that humanitarian assistance would not be affected in the northwest around Idlib province, which is the largest chunk of Syrian territory held by insurgent factions, including al Qaeda’s former affiliate in the Syrian war.

“U.S. assistance for programs in northwest Syria are being freed up to provide potential increased support for priorities in northeast Syria,” a State Department official told Reuters.

A second official said the administration believed it wanted to move the assistance to areas where the U.S. had more control.

President Donald Trump in March froze more than $200 million in funds for recovery efforts in Syria while his administration reassesses Washington’s role in the Syrian conflict. The review is still under way, one U.S. official said.

Trump said in March that it was time for the United States to leave Syria, following allied victories against Islamic State militants. About 2,000 U.S. troops are deployed in Syria.

In April, however, Trump deepened U.S. involvement by ordering missile strikes against Syria in response to a poison gas attack that killed dozens of people.

A third U.S. official said the cuts in the northwest would take place over a period of months.

“The danger is a repeat of what the president criticized about Iraq - leaving a vacuum where the violence can get worse and extremists can exploit that,” the official added.

The Pentagon has estimated that Islamic State has lost about 98 percent of the territory it held in Iraq and Syria, U.S. military officials have warned that the militants could regain the freed areas quickly unless they are stabilized.

Reporting by Lesley Wroughton, John Walcott, Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sandra Maler and Kim Coghill