The U.S. approach to the Syrian Civil War has always involved a degree of doublespeak. While publicly stating that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, the Obama administration and the U.S. military never openly backed anti-Assad rebel groups. U.S. support for those rebel groups instead fell to the CIA—covert action to train and equip rebels directly and indirect funneling of weapons and funds via U.S. regional allies like Jordan. Today, the Washington Post reports that President Trump has cancelled that program:
President Trump has decided to end the CIA’s covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the government of Bashar al-Assad, a move long sought by Russia, according to U.S. officials.
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.
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. The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.
The optics here are not good, to say the least. Leaving the merits aside for a moment, the timing of the president’s decision to terminate this program—a decision which can only redound to the benefit of the Assad regime and its Russian backers—at the precise moment that the Administration is embroiled in scandal over its relationship with Russia, and for which the U.S. received no concessions from Assad or the Russians, is baffling. And the hits to the United States’ reputation—to be abandoning proxies fighting for their lives—should not be underestimated.
The President’s desire to end support to anti-Assad rebels is long-held, which might seem to mitigate the Russia issue. Except that his views on the matter are clearly driven by his desire to work more closely with the Russians. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal shortly after the election, then President-Elect Trump said:
“My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria. … Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.”
As early as 2014, before even declaring his candidacy, Trump believed that the “moderate” rebels were indistinguishable from ISIS:
The so-called ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels pledged their allegiance to ISIS after Obama’s address. We should not be arming them!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 12, 2014
As a factual matter, this is not correct. “Moderate” is a poor choice of words for groups that include Islamists and which are no ones’ idea of secular, America-loving liberal democrats. But U.S. backed groups like the Free Syrian Army—Southern Front (FSA-SF) are not extremists and are not ISIS. The notion that all rebels are terrorists was already in use by Assad’s supporters before the Russian intervention in 2015, and has since become a staple of Russian apologetics for Assad, who has been far and away the deadliest actor in the conflict.
It’s also worth distinguishing this covert program from some of the infamous failures of the Obama Administration. We wrote in 2015 about the disastrous effort to create, ex nihilo, an Arab anti-ISIS force that would not openly oppose Assad that cost $500 million and produced “four or five” fighters. That debacle was eventually resolved by the decision to back the Kurds, who are the only indigenous force that is anti-ISIS but not anti-Assad.
Rather, this program covertly backed groups like the FSA-SF and other vetted groups, arming them with U.S. made TOW missiles that have been used to deadly effect against regime tanks and armored vehicles that the rebels have otherwise had difficult countering.
That effort was made in coordination with regional partners like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and (very discreetly) Israel. Those partners are unlikely to be pleased by this decision. While the Post story cites unnamed Administration officials as saying that the decision to cancel the program had Jordanian backing, color us incredibly skeptical. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu very publicly stated that he is opposed to the ceasefire in southwest Syria negotiated between President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. His opposition to the ceasefire is arguably the first major break between the Administration and Israel. Netanyahu rightly notes that such a ceasefire will be largely be to the benefit of Iran and Hezbollah who will gain greater freedom of movement along Israel’s northern border. U.S. Sunni allies in the region have likewise been among the most aggressive opponents of Assad. President Obama’s unwillingness to confront Assad was one of the major causes of the rift between the Obama Administration and allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Those regional allies have also pushed the U.S. to consider backing more radical rebel groups. Without U.S. support for any rebels, no matter how “moderate” they may be, it would be easy to imagine Saudi Arabia and Qatar amping up the funding for out-and-out extremists.
Moreover, it’s difficult to see how this decision helps us leverage our position in Syria. President Trump has said, optimistically, that he wants to negotiate ceasefires with Putin all over the country. In a press conference in France last week the President said:
So by having some communication and dialogue, we were able to have this ceasefire, and it’s going to go on for a while. And, frankly, we’re working on a second ceasefire in a very rough part of Syria. And if we get that and a few more, all of a sudden you’re going to have no bullets being fired in Syria. And that would be a wonderful thing.
In a war that has cost half a million lives and produced millions of refugees, that would be a wonderful thing from a humanitarian perspective. But U.S. support for these rebel groups is the primary American leverage to get them to agree to a ceasefire. There was already widespread skepticism about the meaningfulness of this latest ceasefire agreement given the lack of involvement from forces on the ground. It’s difficult to see how cutting off U.S. ties with the rebels will help the U.S. to mediate a resolution to the conflict.
There are good reasons to rethink U.S. commitments in Syria. In eastern Syria, especially, the Administration would do well to decide on its priorities and either make guaranteed, long-term commitments to groups like the SDF or look for ways to reduce U.S. exposure. The anti-Assad rebels, at this point, have no realistic hope of winning the conflict, but they can and do serve the interests of the U.S. and its regional partners in thwarting the ambitions of both more radical groups and the Assad regime and its partners Iran and Hezbollah. In that sense they are a low cost way to put pressure on U.S. adversaries while binding America closer to vital allies like Israel and Jordan.
While there is certainly a case to be made that the Administration should regard Syria with the realistic recognition that Assad has won, the President’s stated reasons for ending support for the rebels has little to do with that. And he couldn’t have picked a worse time to make un-earned concessions to Russia.