US President Donald Trump has decided to end a secret CIA operation to support Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad, US media reported. The decision is an acknowledgement of the situation on the ground.
US President Donald Trump has decided to end a CIA program to arm and train so-called moderate Syrian rebels, in a seeming acknowledgement that a years-long covert program would fail to dislodge Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or bring the regime to the negotiating table.
The Washington Post and the New York Times reported on the decision, citing US officials.
Trump reportedly made the decision to shut down the training program a month ago after consulting National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump had foreshadowed the decision, repeatedly criticizing US backing of rebels during the 2016 presidential campaign for fueling Islamic extremism.
Former US President Barack Obama started the covert CIA program in 2013, backing so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in southern and northern-western Syria that the administration deemed to be moderate.
Run in coordination with Jordan, Gulf Arab states and Turkey, the CIA program gave the United States influence on the ground and, importantly, some sway over its regional allies’ policies in Syria.
But the goal of toppling Assad with no apparent successor in place to ensure stability afterwards was always questionable. Backing dozens of fractious rebel factions brought with it the risk that weapons and money would end up in the hands of extremists.
Key rebel backers, Turkey and Gulf Arab states, also poured in money and weapons to their own preferred groups.
A separate $500-million Pentagon train-and-equip program in 2015 to create a 5,000 strong rebel force highlighted the challenges and dangers of assembling fighters to take on the “Islamic State” (IS).
That program ended up with defections and attacks by al Qaeda jihadists on the US-backed force, which lost its weapons before disbanding with less than a dozen fighters in the same year.
US focused on IS
The Syrian conflict, now in its sixth year, has morphed into complex civil war with a dizzying array of armed actors and fronts-within-fronts that has drawn in more than a dozen international and regional powers.
The United States has increasingly focused its attention more on defeating IS in Iraq and Syria than toppling Assad. Ending the CIA program will not impact the US-led fight against IS.
Over the past two years, the US military has found common cause with the Syrian Kurds as its preferred partner on the ground to fight IS in northeastern Syria.