The Press

Putin gets ‘a win’ in Syria from Trump

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UNITED STATES/SYRIA: President Donald Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert programme to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to US officials.

The programme 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 programme reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad programme as an assault on its interests. The end of the programme is also an acknowledg­ment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.

Just three months ago, after the US accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliator­y air strikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, United Nations 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 programme 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 US and Russia announced an agreement to back a new ceasefire 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 programme to arm the anti-Assad rebels was not a condition of the ceasefire negotiatio­ns, which were already well underway, said US officials.

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 programme 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 programme. ‘‘Putin won in Syria.’’

– Washington Post

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