Trump ends arms pro­gram to Syria

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - GREG JAFFE AND ADAM EN­TOUS

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.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.