According to U.S. officials, President trump decided to stop the secret CIA program of arming and training moderate Syrian rebels fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad. This long wanted Russia.
This program was a Central element of the policies initiated by the Obama administration in 2013. The aim was to exert pressure on Assad and force him to retreat. But even supporters have questioned its effectiveness because after two years, Russia has deployed its forces in Syria.
Officials said that the phase-out of a secret program reflects the interest of the trump in cooperation with Russia, which considered this programme as an infringement of their interests. The closure of the programme is also a testimony to the limited impact and the desire of Washington to the issue of removing Assad from power.
Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, trump began retaliatory air strikes on Syrian airbase. At that time US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley said that “in any case we do not see peace in the region with the Assad led Syrian government.”
Officials said that trump made the decision to abandon the CIA program almost a month ago, after a meeting with the Director of the CIA Mike Pompeo and national security Advisor to the McMaster, before meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the summit in Germany.
Representatives of the national security Council and CIA declined to comment.
After the meeting, trump and Putin, the US and Russia announced the decision to support a new ceasefire in the South-West of Syria along the Jordanian border, where the long-operate, many of the rebels supported by the CIA. Trump called for a limited cease-fire one of the benefits of a constructive working relationship with Moscow.
The decision on the termination of a secret program of arming the rebels was not a condition of talks on a ceasefire, which has already begun, said U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified program.
Trump’s agreement with Russia was subjected to serious analysis because of the investigations of the Kremlin’s interference in the elections of 2016. The decision about the rebels supported by the CIA, will be welcomed in Moscow, which has focused its firepower on those fighters after the invasion of Syria in 2015.
Some current and former officials supporting this program, considered this step a big concession.
“This is an incredibly important decision,” said the current official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a classified program. “Putin has won in Syria.”
With the end of the CIA program, US involvement in Syria will be reduced to a vigorous air campaign against the “Islamic state” and the programme under the leadership of the Pentagon to train and equip Kurdish rebel forces, which are moving in the strongholds of the “Islamic state” in raqqa and along the valley of the Euphrates river. Long-term strategy of the administration trump after the defeat of the “Islamic state” seems to be focused on the aggregation of a number of regional agreements on cease-fire between the U.S.-backed rebels, the Syrian government and Russia.
Some analysts said that the decision on the termination of the program is likely to lead to the activation of more radical groups inside Syria and undermine the authority of the United States.
“We fall into the trap of Russia,” said Charles Lister, senior research fellow, Middle East Institute, who studies the Syrian resistance movement. “We do moderate resistance more and more vulnerable….We really robs them of all opportunities.”
Others say that this recognition is entrenched the position of Assad in Syria.
“It’s probably the return to reality,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former official of the Obama administration and Program Director of middle East security at the Center for a new American security.
The US intelligence officials say that the military achievements of the rebels in 2015 has provoked a direct military intervention of Russia on the side of the Assad regime. Some US officials and their allies in the region urged President Barack Obama to retaliate, giving the rebels advanced anti-aircraft guns so they could better defend themselves. But Obama refused, citing concern that the United States may be drawn into conflict with Russia.
Senior US officials said that the secret program will be phased in over several months. It is also possible that the support part can be redirected to other missions such as the fight against “Islamic state”, or to ensure that the rebels can still defend against attacks.
“This is the power from which we cannot refuse,” said Goldenberg. “If they stop the aid to the rebels, it would be a huge strategic mistake”.
U.S. officials said that the decision was supported by Jordan, where he trained some of the rebels. And, it seems, the move was part of a larger strategy of the administration trump which will allow you to focus on talks with the Russians about the limited agreements on cease-fire.
Earlier this month, five days before the first ceasefire in the South-West of Syria, trump said that now we are discussing another agreement with Moscow. “We are working on a second ceasefire in a very difficult part of Syria,” said trump. “If we can agree on it, and then a few, then suddenly in Syria will be no more shots.”
Great potential risk of the termination of the CIA program lies in the fact that the United States could lose the ability to block other countries, such as Turkey and the allies in the Persian Gulf, when they are smuggling more sophisticated weapons — including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to the rebels, among whom there are more radical groups.
By the end of the term of the Obama administration, some officials advocated the termination of the CIA program, saying that the rebels will be ineffective without a significant increase in U.S. support. But the program is still supported by most of the best advisers of Obama, who argued that the United States could not abandon its allies and moderate opposition because of the damage it will cause to the US position in the region.
Even those who were skeptical about the long-term value of the programme, considering it as a bargaining chip that could be used to extract concessions from Moscow in negotiations on the future of Syria.
“People have started to think about ending the program, but it can not be done just so,” said a former employee of the White house. “Close [the program] without receiving anything in return, would be stupid.”