DES MOINES, Iowa — U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green said his agency is not sure whether its programs in Northeast Syria are still operational in the wake of a Turkish invasion.
“It’s very hard for any of us to get accurate information from the ground right now, understandably. We will do humanitarian assistance, as we have for years, whenever conditions allow us to, whenever it’s safe and secure,” Green told Devex in an interview. “I just can’t tell you with any specificity. I’m not trying to dodge the question, I actually just don’t know because of the status at any given time.”
USAID is looking for new options in nonpermissive environments. One of them involves training development professionals to work alongside military special forces.
The agency has had some staff in the country, but it is impossible to verify conditions on the ground because the situation is changing “almost by the hour,” he said. Turkish troops moved across the border into Syria earlier this week following the withdrawal of U.S. forces ordered by President Donald Trump.
“We work primarily through partners. We do have a few partners, but as you might imagine they’ve been on the edge. Many have withdrawn,” Green said. “Some have withdrawn to the South. But they have to be in a safe setting.”
U.S. military presence near the border had been a deterrent for a Turkish attack on an area of Syria controlled by U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers to be terrorists. The Kurdish army did the bulk of the ground fighting on behalf of a U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group in Northeast Syria, and members of Congress from both parties have decried Trump’s decision to abandon them. They say the U.S. is betraying an ally as well as providing an opening for the Islamic State group to regain strength and territory it lost to the Kurds.
USAID Acting Spokesperson Pooja Jhunjhunwala confirmed to Devex that agency personnel are no longer in Syria.
“Staff from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) originally based in Syria have redeployed out of the country, but continue to work on the U.S. Government’s response to the humanitarian disaster in Syria,” Jhunjhunwala said via email. “Organizations funded by USAID continue to provide life-saving assistance in Syria as the security situation allows.”
Trump has defended his move to remove U.S troops, and on Wednesday said that Turkey’s offensive against the Kurds “has nothing to do with us,” but imposed sanctions on the country as fighting continues. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are set to travel to Turkey for a Thursday meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to urge restraint.
Since U.S. forces withdrew and Turkish troops began attacking the Kurds in Northeast Syria, aid groups have warned of dire humanitarian consequences. According to the International Rescue Committee, an estimated 200,000 people have fled their homes because of the fighting, and U.N. agencies have reported civilian casualties on both sides of the Syria-Turkey border. There have also been news reports that prisoners at a camp for Islamic State group detainees, who had been guarded by the Kurds, have escaped.
Jhunjhunwala said USAID’s Disaster-Assistance Response Team is in close contact with United Nations and NGO partners that are still operating in Northeast Syria, and “is monitoring the situation.”