Trump ends arms program to Syria
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.
The program was a central plank of a policy begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to step aside, but even its backers have questioned its efficacy since Russia deployed forces in Syria two years later.
Officials said the phasing out of the program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.
Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”
Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment.
After the Trump-Putin meeting, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to back a new cease-fire in southwest Syria, along the Jordanian border, where many of the CIA-backed rebels have long operated. Trump described the limited ceasefire deal as one of the benefits of a constructive working relationship with Moscow.
The move to end the secret program to arm the anti-Assad rebels was not a condition of the cease-fire negotiations, which were already well underway, said U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the secret program.
Trump’s dealings with Russia have been under heavy scrutiny because of the investigations into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election. The decision on the CIA-backed rebels will be welcomed by Moscow, which focused its firepower on those fighters after it intervened in Syria in 2015. Some current and former officials who support the program cast the move as a major concession.
“This is a momentous decision,” said a current official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert program. “Putin won in Syria.”
The decision will not affect a separate Pentagon-led effort to work with U.S.-backed Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State. The CIA-backed rebels were part of the larger moderate opposition.
Senior U.S. officials said the covert program would be phased out over a period of months. It is also possible that some of the support could be redirected to other missions, such as fighting the Islamic State or making sure that the rebels can still defend themselves from attacks, the officials said.
U.S. officials said the decision had the backing of Jordan, where some of the rebels were trained, and appeared to be part of a larger Trump administration strategy to focus on negotiating limited cease-fire deals with the Russians.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, some officials advocated ending the CIA program, arguing that the rebels would be ineffective without a major escalation in U.S. support. But the program still had the support of a majority of top Obama advisers, who argued that the United States couldn’t abandon its allies on the ground and give up on the moderate opposition because of the damage that it would do to U.S. standing in the region.
Even those who were skeptical about the program’s longterm value viewed it as a key bargaining chip that could be used to wring concessions from Moscow in negotiations over Syria’s future.
“People began thinking about ending the program, but it was not something you’d do for free,” said a former White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “To give [the program] away without getting anything in return would be foolish.”