President Donald Trump will end the CIA program authorized by his predecessor in 2013 to arm Syrian rebel groups against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
The decision comes just more than three months after Trump ordered the US Navy to launch dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield that Assad had used to carry out a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.
But the termination of the often-troubled program reflects what is currently one of his biggest priorities: improving relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"This is a momentous decision," a current official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert program, told The Post. "Putin won in Syria."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, known for his hawkish views toward Russia, tweeted that "if true – and I hope it’s not – it would be a complete capitulation to Assad, Russia, and Iran."
He continued: "If true, big loss for: 1) Syrians who have been relentlessly attacked by Assad 2) Our Arab partners 3) US standing in the Middle East."
The Pentagon is still backing Syrian rebels fighting ISIS. But Trump decided to end the CIA program more than a month ago after consulting with national security adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, US officials told The Post. The decision was made ahead of Trump's meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit in Germany on July 7, where they spoke for more than two hours. They spoke again for nearly an hour at a private dinner that evening.
Trump and Putin agreed during the meeting on a new ceasefire plan for Syria, which has entered its sixth year of civil war. But the ceasefire was not predicated on the US ending the CIA program, officials said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Ned Price, a former CIA officer who served as senior director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, declined to comment on any purportedly covert intelligence programs. But he said the Post report "raises serious questions about what the administration may have furtively given away in return" for the "limited and fragile ceasefire" achieved with Putin in southern Syria.
"It also fits a broader pattern," Price said. 'The White House appears content to kowtow to Moscow on any number of fronts — including in Syria, where, with each passing day, this administration appears to harbor fewer objections to the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad, a murderous dictator who continues to slaughter his own people."
The Kremlin condemned what it called US "aggression against a foreign state" after Trump ordered the cruise missile strikes, saying they broke international law. Russia then redirected a ship armed with cruise missiles to the eastern Mediterranean and vowed to bolster its air defenses at Syrian air bases.
"Washington's step will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties," Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said at the time.
Even amid Russia's threats, military and national-security experts broadly agreed that the strikes were a good move. But they also said the attack was largely symbolic — a focused strike on a narrow target — and wouldn't complicate the Assad regime's ability to carry out large-scale massacres in the future.
It is unclear whether the CIA program complicated that ability in any way, and some say any hope that it would work ended when Russia intervened on behalf of Assad in September 2015. But ending the program will make the "moderate resistance more and more vulnerable," Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The Post.
It could also make Russia's work defending the Assad regime much easier. The Daily Beast reported last year that a CIA-backed anti-Assad militia had killed at least one senior Russian military official, raising questions about whether the US was becoming mired in another proxy war.
Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center and former special adviser for transition in Syria, said that while the CIA program was "never sufficient," it was "not entirely useless," either. And its termination raises questions about what the US will get from Russia in return for such a big concession.
"It was never sufficient, and it was a bad substitute for American seriousness in getting Assad to do what Obama told him to do: step aside," Hof said. "Still, the program was not entirely useless. This is why the Russians want it ended. If indeed it's ending, then the operational question is what does the United States get from Moscow for ending it?
"If, for example, Russia has agreed to ground the Assad air force permanently and itself refrain from targeting civilian neighborhoods, that would be something of value," Hof added. "But if this aid is being terminated in the hope of stimulating good will and good behavior from the Kremlin, it's a sure loser."
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