President Donald Trump has elected to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting against the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria according to U.S. officials who spoke to the Washington Post. 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. Preceding the CIA program was a Pentagon-led effort which was criticized by Foreign Policy for costing $500 million without yielding tangible results.
Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia after Trump’s July 7 meeting with Putin at the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany. It may also signal an lack of ability as well as desire by Washington to take steps to remove Assad from power in Syria. Officials told the Washington Post that 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.
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 ending of the CIA program was not a condition of the cease-fire negotiations according to officials.
The “moderate” Syrian rebel groups operating in Syria have long been criticized for their close ties to jihadist groups such as ISIS and al-Nusra. In 2015, Western media finally admitted that there were no longer any “moderate” rebel groups operating in Syria. In January 2017, Representative Tusli Gabbard returned from a visit to Syria to confirm these reports, as well as to reveal that U.S. support was effectively delivering arms to jihadist groups such as al-Nusra, al-Qaida, Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS who are operating inside Syria.