President Donald Trump is reportedly ending a covert CIA program to arm and train Syrian rebel forces that dates back to 2013.
According to a report by the Washington Post, the president made the decision almost a month ago in an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.
The Post frames this as a huge victory for Russia, citing the decision as an aspect of “Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests.” The Post notes that Russia targeted some of these Syrian fighters with airstrikes when it intervened in the Syrian civil war and quotes an unnamed “current official” who bluntly declared, “Putin won in Syria.”
However, the same report notes that even supporters of the CIA program have “questioned its efficacy,” admits U.S. leverage against the Assad regime has grown “limited,” concedes that ending the program was not a condition for the cease-fire agreement Trump reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and notes that Jordan supports Trump’s decision.
Even a former Obama administration official, Ilan Goldenberg, described Trump’s decision as “probably a nod to reality.” However, he added that ending all support for the Syrian rebels would be a “huge strategic mistake.” Pentagon programs to assist rebel forces are said to remain in effect, including a plan Trump approved in May to arm the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.
The Washington Post piece quotes some American intelligence officials who say it was President Barack Obama’s failure to respond to Russian intervention against increasingly successful rebel forces in 2015 that set the stage for Assad’s eventual triumph.
The Obama administration also gave up on some high-profile efforts to train and equip a proxy force in Syria, most notably a $500 million effort that ended in absolute disaster and became a laughingstock across the Middle East.
The Washington Post also fails to mention that a distressing number of the weapons shipped by the CIA to Syrian rebels under Obama ended up in the hands of black marketeers and terrorists. Some of those weapons were used to kill Americans. The ability of the U.S. government to “vet” Syrian rebels and keep American equipment away from terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, has long been questioned.
Sometimes the rebels Obama provided with weapons openly threw in their lot with al-Qaeda and its Nusra Front franchise because they had the best chance of defeating the Syrian military and its allies.
Spicing up reports of this decision with dark insinuations about Trump’s ties with Russia does not conceal the cold truth that regime change in Syria is very unlikely, and it was President Barack Obama who made it that way – not that much enthusiasm for plunging the United States into Syria’s civil war, and possibly ending up in combat against Russian and Iranian forces, could be found in any corner of the political spectrum.
Even the cynical notion of arming unsavory Syrian insurgents against Assad and letting them bleed each other out proved to be a disaster because it led to a humanitarian horror show and a flood of refugees that may have changed Europe forever. Those who insinuate Trump is doing Vladimir Putin’s bidding by ending the CIA program to arm Syrian rebels should be prepared to explain their strategy for achieving something other than a bloody stalemate, civilian slaughter, and an endless flow of refugees. Clearly, no one associated with Barack Obama had any such strategy.