Trump ends covert CIA program and puts Syria's rebels in jeopardy

July 20, 2017, 2:09pm

President Trump’s decision to wind down a covert CIA program that had trained and equipped anti-regime Syrian rebels all but guarantees that Syrian President Bashar Assad will remain in power and leaves the fate of the rebels under a cloud, according to analysts.

But many feel that while the end of such support is a win for Russia and Syria, it was high time to stop a program where supposedly vetted moderate groups fighting alongside jihadi groups, and U.S. weapons often ending up in the hands of extremists.

“This program was not standing up any truly independent actor that could take over Syria in the long run,” Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told VICE News. “It was very ad hoc, and some of the groups that received support were often allied with al-Qaeda or other jihadi groups in Syria.”

Rebels cut off

Trump made the decision to scrap the beleaguered program – a fixture of U.S. strategy in Syria since 2013 – following a meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster in June, ahead of a July 7 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Washington Post reported Wednesday.

It’s not yet clear how vulnerable this will leave rebel groups who had received support through the program, Haid Haid, a Syrian columnist and non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, told VICE News.

Details of support provided under the secret program are murky, but it’s known that many of the vetted groups also received support from U.S. partners in the region such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar under the terms of the program.

“We don’t know whether other partners who were channelling their support through the CIA program will also terminate their support, or will they try to find other ways to channel that support,” said Haid. “The answer to that question will determine how much trouble they’ll find themselves in.”

“Pandering to Russian priorities”

Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told VICE News that Trump’s decision represented the “final nail in the coffin” for the program, and ultimately reflected “the U.S.’s pandering to Russian priorities in trying to settle this conflict.”

The anti-Assad forces, long an issue for both Russia and the Syrian president, would’ve been an obstacle to Moscow and Washington’s joint efforts to implement a ceasefire in southwest Syria, a region where the rebels have been most active. The agreement to create de-escalation zones in the southwest, announced following the July 7 Trump-Putin meeting at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, has been hailed by Trump as a positive start to the tentative new cooperation with Russia in the conflict.

U.S. officials have said the shuttering of the train-and-equip program was not a pre-condition for ceasefire negotiations. But one unnamed U.S. official speaking to the Washington Post described the closure of the program as “a momentous decision.” “Putin won in Syria,” said the official.

But Joscelyn said that while the decision had “been framed as something that is appeasing Russia, I think there were probably many other reasons to be concerned about this program and to stop this flow of arms.”

Concerns about vetting

While there was a clear moral case for attempting to help rebels in toppling Assad, he said, the chaotic nature of the Syrian battlefield – which saw supposedly moderate groups fighting alongside jihadis under the banner of the Free Syrian Army – meant there were concerns about the program throughout the U.S. government even prior to the Trump presidency. The covert support program, he said, was “a mess,” which had allowed for U.S. anti-tank missiles to find their way into the hands of jihadi groups.

He cited the example of the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a Salafist militia active in Aleppo that had received CIA support but later joined forces with al-Qaeda offshoot the Al Nusra Front. In July 2016, footage emerged of al-Zenki fighters beheading a boy.

“Al-Zenki was whitewashed. People pretended it was an acceptable partner in the fight against Assad,” he said. “There needs to be a clear-eyed assessment of who received U.S. support and who actually benefited in Syria.”

Khatib said the decision to wind down the program also reflected it had been a strategic failure. Right from the start, the U.S. supplied anti-Assad rebels with “just enough support to be able to continue to fight the regime but not enough to be able to defeat them,” she said.

“The U.S. thought that in doing so it could push both sides toward a negotiation.” That belief proved misguided, particularly once Russia entered the conflict in support of Assad in 2015, dramatically changing the balance of power.

Senior U.S. officials have said that the covert program will be phased out over a number of months. Separate U.S. efforts to train, arm, and support other Syrian groups involved in anti-ISIS operations will continue.