Rep. Mark Meadows (R., N.C.), one of President Trump's staunchest allies in Congress, worked behind the scenes to try to persuade Trump not to cancel $230 million in aid to help Syrian citizens rebuild their communities struggling to recover from Islamic State rule, according to a congressional letter Meadow signed earlier this month.
The State Department, following White House orders, earlier this month permanently canceled the $230 million in stabilization assistance Congress already appropriated for Syria's northeastern region, where 2,200 U.S. troops are deployed to help ensure ISIS remains defeated and residents who had fled can safely return to the area.
The State Department said other countries in the region were going to start footing the bill for the demining and rebuilding efforts, starting with a $100 million contribution from Saudi Arabia. However, critics of the move doubt the full funding will materialize.
Trump, who has repeatedly said he wants to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, in a tweet after the announcement bragged about ending the "ridiculous" $230 million payment to Syria.
"Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the U.S.," he said. "I want to develop the U.S., our military and the countries that help us!"
The decision to cut the aid follows through on Trump's campaign promises to pull the country back from foreign entanglements, but Meadows and other key lawmakers have warned that it is short-sighted in Syria and leaves an influence vacuum for Russia and Iran to exploit.
As the Trump administration was weighing whether to cut the stabilization aid earlier this month, Meadows, who chairs the conservative House Freedom Caucus, penned a private letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Signed by nine other members, the letter urged Trump to continue the funding "to help clear rubble, restore basic services such as water and electricity, support local governance, and promote independent media."
"U.S.-backed stabilization initiatives have helped civilians build an alternative to the violence of both the Assad regime and violent extremists," the lawmakers wrote.
"Syria's stability is essential to the long-term security of the U.S. and our regional allies," they continued. "The fight against al Qaeda and ISIS is not over. Investing in these programs now is a far less expensive approach than addressing these radical threats with possible military force in the months and years to come."
While the lawmakers said they back the Trump administration's goal of sharing the rebuilding burden with U.S. allies, they said they were concerned that an interruption of the U.S. assistance would compound the suffering of Syrian civilians and give an advantage to "al Qaeda, ISIS, and their sympathizers, who have actively sought to undermine the same work the United States is now voluntarily defending."
Those who signed the letter include: Republican Reps. Steve Stivers of Ohio, Steve Chabot of Ohio, Alex Mooney of West Virginia, and Carlos Curbelo of Florida, as well as Democratic Reps. Eliot Engel of New York, the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs panel, Ted Deutch of Florida, Nita Lowey of New York, Thomas Suozzi of New York, and Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has spent years advocating for more U.S. military and humanitarian assistance for Syrian rebels, has publicly decried the decision to pull aid to Syria. Graham has said the policy shift is predicated on the notion that Russia is interested in the United Nations peace process and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will cooperate if the United States withholds money.
Graham has called the process "absolutely naïve" because Russia is only interested in an Assad military victory, not helping Syrian civilians.
However, the Trump administration is far more likely to listen to a push from Meadows, who has come to the president's defense in the Russia probe and just Tuesday interrupted his August House recess to interview a Justice Department official who Trump has accused of blatant bias against him.
"Syrians whose lives have been destroyed by this conflict are faced with an impossible choice: Be subjected to the inhumanity of the Assad regime and its Iranian backers or to savage exploitation of ISIS and al-Qaeda," said Jameson Cunningham, spokesman for Americans for a Free Syria, a nonprofit advocacy group.
"Mark Meadows and his colleagues know that offering the Syrian people another way—grounded in human rights and democracy—is important for the long-term security of the United States," he added.
The lawmakers, as well as several humanitarian groups, have expressed concern about the freeze on U.S. aid to northwest Syria, particularly in Idlib, a city which has become a safe haven for al Qaeda affiliates even as it remains a home to 2 million innocent civilians. The city is home to Radio Fresh, an independent radio station that broadcasts inside Syria, founded by a Syrian journalist and activist.
With few independent journalists operating in Syria, the station has played a key role in disseminating on-the-ground footage about the Assad regime's shelling of civilians and attacks by ISIS and other extremist groups, which have been picked up by the international press.
In late June, Radio Fresh’s founder Raed Fares penned a Washington Post op-ed arguing that the State Department recent defunding of the station is jeopardizing a critical information lifeline for liberated areas of Syria and helping ISIS militants, which have raided its office several times. The Assad regime also has twice attacked Radio Fresh’s offices. Several employees, including the founder, have been abducted, tortured, and harassed.
While the Trump administration claims victory over ISIS in Syria, Fares says the terrorists and their ideology are still there and have been regrouping.
"In my hometown of Kefranbel, I've seen with my own eyes how al-Qaeda linked terrorists' groups that were once scattered by U.S.-backed forces are regrouping and recruiting fearful and disenfranchised youth," Fares wrote. "Without groups like Radio Fresh to provide alternative messages, another generation will take up arms to found the Islamic State's second or third editions."