President Trump has decided to end a CIA program to arm rebels in Syria, according to a new report.
U.S. support for rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar Assad was a bipartisan, if controversial, plank of American policy in the country as recently as last fall. Former President Barack Obama began the shipments in 2013 and a GOP-led Congress eased restrictions on the program in 2016. But Russia and Turkey, a NATO ally, have accused the United States of backing terrorist groups.
"Officials said the phasing out of the secret program reflects Trump's interest in finding ways to work with Russia, which saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests," according to the Washington Post, which first reported the move. "The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington's limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power."
Russia has denounced U.S. support for the rebel groups throughout the civil war, accusing the U.S. of commiting a "hostile act" and claiming that the Obama team was trying to block a Trump-led rapprochement with Russia.
"Overall, it appears that the Authorization Act has been adopted by the outgoing Obama administration...to create problems for the incoming Trump administration and complicate its relations on the international stage, as well as to force it to adopt an anti-Russia policy," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in December. "We hope the new administration will be more sagacious."
Trump's decision to end might irritate the lawmakers who voted for the 2016 defense bill, however. Senate Intelligence Committee member James Lankford, R-Okla., for instance, recently praised U.S. intelligence efforts in Syria, albeit without naming any specific covert programs.
"The past few days of travel in the Middle East were another reminder that the United States of America has the best military and intelligence professionals in the world," Lankford said in May. "We must work with allies in the region to destroy terrorist groups before they can bring additional terrorist strikes on Americans."
The revelation follows a pair of meetings between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The first meeting coincided with the announcement of a cease-fire in southern Syria, brokered by the U.S., Russia, and Jordan. The details of the second meeting, which was not announced publicly by the White House, are unknown; the presidents were attended only by a Russian translator. The decision predated the meeting, however.
"It's probably a nod to reality," said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official, noting how Russia and Assad have a strong position in Syria.
The details of the decision to end the program — how it will be implemented, which groups exactly will lose access to resources — aren't clear. The policy change "will not affect a separate Pentagon-led effort" to defeat the Islamic State in Syria according to the report.
That suggests it might not pay dividends in the relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is chiefly angry about U.S. support for Syrian Kurds in the fight against ISIS. Turkey believes the Syrian Kurds are affiliated with a group of Turkish separatists that have been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department.
"They give support to terrorist groups including [ISIS and the Syrian Kurds]," Erdogan said in December. "It's very clear. We have confirmed evidence, with pictures, photos and videos."
Relatively moderate rebel groups and Kurdish fighters have been the main U.S. proxies in the fight against ISIS and to prevent Russia and Iran from controlling critical swathes of Syrian territory that could be used to threaten Israel.
"This is a force that we can't afford to completely abandon," Goldenberg told the Post. "If they are ending the aid to the rebels altogether, then that is a huge strategic mistake."