President Donald Trump on Monday announced that Saudi Arabia "has now agreed to spend the necessary money" for Syria's reconstruction, briefly raising questions about whether the White House had secured additional funding from Riyadh to rebuild the war-ravaged nation.
It turns out that Trump, under fire for suddenly announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria, was highlighting a commitment that the Saudis made several months ago.
@realDonaldTrump: Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States. See? Isn't it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the U.S., that is 5000 miles away. Thanks to Saudi A!
An official at the Saudi embassy in Washington told CNBC that the kingdom has not made any major new financial pledge to Syria since August. That is when the State Department announced that Saudi Arabia had committed $100 million to a fund to stabilize areas of Syria liberated from ISIS militants by a U.S.-led coalition.
"The Kingdom is a major contributor to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, flying the second highest number of sorties against ISIS in Syria, as well as, donating millions of dollars for relief efforts there," a Saudi embassy official told CNBC in an email on Tuesday.
Shortly after Trump decided to pull out of Syria, Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned and Brett McGurk, the U.S. envoy to the international coalition battling ISIS, said he would step down ahead of schedule. Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have condemned the move, saying Trump's assessment that ISIS has been defeated in Syria is premature.
Throughout the weekend and the morning of Christmas Eve, Trump defended his decision on Twitter and tweeted barbs at critics, including Mattis, McGurk and Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Then came the tweet trumpeting the Saudi commitment to rebuild Syria.
"Saudi Arabia has now agreed to spend the necessary money needed to help rebuild Syria, instead of the United States," Trump said. "See? Isn't it nice when immensely wealthy countries help rebuild their neighbors rather than a Great Country, the U.S., that is 5000 miles away. Thanks to Saudi A!"
On Wednesday, the White House clarified that Trump's tweet was not meant to announce a new commitment from Saudi Arabia.
"The United States welcomes the contributions of all Coalition members to the defeat of ISIS in Syria, including strong past contributions from Saudi Arabia," National Security Council spokesman Garrett Marquis said in an email. "As we look to future efforts to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS, including stabilizing areas liberated from ISIS, we will cooperate closely with allies and partners to share the burden of these efforts."
The State Department announced in August it was canceling $230 million in aid earmarked for stabilization and early recovery efforts in northeast Syria. The department said the funds were no longer needed because the administration had secured about $300 million for the same purpose from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other nations, though even that sum would be a fraction of what is needed to rebuild the war-torn nation.
For several years, a U.S.-led coalition has backed Arab rebels in Syria and conducted air strikes to beat back ISIS, which previously controlled large swaths of the country and established the center of its would-be caliphate in Raqqa. The terror group had capitalized on the chaos created by nearly eight years of civil war between the rebels and the Syrian government in Damascus, which is backed by Russia and Iran.
"Stabilization and early recovery programming is critical to ensure ISIS cannot reemerge and use Syria as a base to threaten the people of the region or plot attacks against the international community, the State Department said in a statement announcing the cancellation of stabilization funds in August.
The same day, Trump called the $230 million in proposed U.S. aid "ridiculous." The president had long called on other coalition members to pitch in more money.
@realDonaldTrump: The United States has ended the ridiculous 230 Million Dollar yearly development payment to Syria. Saudi Arabia and other rich countries in the Middle East will start making payments instead of the U.S. I want to develop the U.S., our military and countries that help us!
A United Nations agency says the conflict has cost Syria $388 billion in lost economic output and damage to infrastructure and homes. Syrian President Bashar Assad estimates his country needs $250 billion to $400 billion to rebuild, according to Russia's state-owned Tass news agency.
It remains to be seen who will shoulder the burden of those costs.
The United States insists it will not contribute to the recovery unless the United Nations certifies that political progress is being made in Syria. Meanwhile, Syria has condemned Saudi Arabia's $100 million pledge because it is tied to the kingdom's participation in the U.S.-led military coalition, which Damascus says is illegitimate.
The United States spent about $8.1 billion in humanitarian aid to Syria through August. Saudi Arabia has contributed more than $1 billion in humanitarian assistance to the country, according to the State Department.