Weapon sup­ply cut

White House end­ing covert CIA pro­gram, a move sought by Moscow

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By 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. off icials.

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 se­cret 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 in its 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 be­fore 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 cease-fire 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 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.”

With the end of the CIA pro­gram, U.S. in­volve­ment in Syria now con­sists of a vig­or­ous air cam­paign against the Is­lamic State and a Pen­tagon-run train-and-equip pro­gram in sup­port of the largely Kur­dish rebel force that is ad­vanc­ing on Is­lamic State strongholds in Raqqa and along the Euphrates River val­ley. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s long-term strat­egy, af­ter the de­feat of the Is­lamic State, ap­pears to be fo­cused on stitch­ing to­gether a se­ries of re­gional cease-fire deals among the U.S.-backed rebels, the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment and Rus­sia.

Some an­a­lysts said the de­ci­sion was likely to em­power more rad­i­cal groups in­side Syria and dam­age the cred­i­bil­ity of the United States.

“We are fall­ing into a Rus­sian trap,” said Charles Lis­ter, a se­nior fel­low at the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute, who fo­cuses on the Syr­ian re­sis­tance.

“We are mak­ing the mod­er­ate re­sis­tance more and more vul­ner­a­ble . ... We are re­ally cut­ting them off at the neck.”

Others said it was recog­ni­tion of As­sad’s en­trenched po­si­tion in Syria.

“It’s prob­a­bly a nod to re­al­ity,” said Ilan Gold­en­berg, a former Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial and di­rec­tor of the Mid­dle East Se­cu­rity Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity.

U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials say bat­tle­field gains by rebels in 2015 prompted Rus­sia’s di­rect mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion on the side of the As­sad regime.

A Syr­ian rebel fighter fires a weapon in Ain Terma, a rebel strong­hold east of Da­m­as­cus, on Mon­day. In re­cent weeks, Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces have been heav­ily bom­bard­ing Ain Terma. Ab­dul­monam Eassa, AFP/Getty Im­ages

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