SDF avoids fight with Trump over budget cut

The Trump administration's proposed 2021 budget would diminish the SDF's ability to effectively fight IS, but the coalition is unlikely to protest the steep cuts out of fear of angering Trump.

al-monitor A US armored vehicle drives past a billboard for the Syrian Kurdish Women's Protection Units (YPJ) during a patrol, Qahtaniyah, Syria, Oct. 31, 2019.  Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Feb 20, 2020

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are unlikely to protest a steep Pentagon budget cut for fear over angering US President Donald Trump, according to sources familiar with the matter.

This month’s Trump administration request would cut military assistance by $100 million from last year’s Pentagon budget request, a move that experts say could degrade the Kurdish-led unit’s ability to fight the Islamic State (IS) and hold thousands of detainees.

“I don’t think they will say anything publicly because they do not want to anger Trump and have him decide just to withdraw out of spite,” a former senior administration official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor. “It will impact everything, including their ability to hold prisoners.”

Despite the cut, the Pentagon aims to use the money to grow the number of US-vetted Syrian opposition fighters to more than 10,000 troops by next year, according to Defense Department budget documents. The fresh units will conduct “surgical raids and clearance operations” against IS, hold checkpoints and protect oil fields. 

Part of the money will also help the so-called Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra boost its force levels to 500, standing abreast an Iranian supply line in southwestern Syria at the US-held Al-Tanf garrison.

Two Kurdish sources asked by Al-Monitor about the cut said they hadn’t heard about it. When questioned about the SDF funding at a Pentagon press briefing last week, acting Defense Department Comptroller Elaine McCusker said the US budget to aid Syrian opposition forces was “the same as last year,” though the administration requested $300 million for the Kurdish group to fight IS.

Congress cut $100 million from that figure in an appropriations reduction in December after Trump signed the Defense Department’s annual authorization that requested a higher figure. It wasn’t immediately clear why the Pentagon had decided to trim the military aid, though the agency slashed funding for the SDF by $200 million from the previous year in its budget for fiscal year 2020. “It’s not uncommon for amounts in appropriations bills to differ from authorizing legislation such as the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act),” said Evan Hollander, the communications director for the House Appropriations panel’s Democratic majority. But congressional aides did not make clear the reason for the change in funding.

The Defense Intelligence Agency told the joint inspector general for the US-led fight against IS in Syria that the militant group’s online claims indicated it had picked up its rate of attacks by 20% to 66 attacks per month, following Turkey’s Oct. 9 incursion into Syria.

Yet the Kurdish-led group has been wary of taking on Washington over the cut, with leaders such as Gen. Mazlum Kobane remaining quiet in days following the move. Given the Trump administration’s track record of asking US allies such as Germany, Japan and South Korea to pay more for housing thousands of American forces based in those countries, the Syrian opposition forces may be worried about stronger retribution from the White House.

“Nobody wants to be bullied by Trump,” an SDF-linked source told Al-Monitor. “If I were them and I complained about it, I might be afraid that Trump would say ‘it’s our money, you should be thankful for [it] and do not demand more.'” 

The Trump administration’s 2021 budget request would also zero out a $250 million fund under the defeat-IS heading previously given to countries on Syria’s border, according to documents released last week. The move could impact the ability of nations such as Jordan to defend against external terror threats.

Meanwhile, the United States has picked back up the pace of counterterrorism operations against IS in Syria, US Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie told The Washington Post in January. But the four-star Marine commander publicly admitted he frankly did not know “how long we’re going to be here.”

But even while the future of the mission in Syria faces uncertainty, the Pentagon is facing scrutiny for improper care of weapons going out into the field. In an audit released today, the Defense Department’s inspector general said the special operations joint task force for the US-led defeat-IS mission failed to properly account for nearly $716 million in American taxpayer-funded weapons for the Syrian opposition.

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