Trump hands Putin gift, cancels Support for Syrian Rebels

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Greg Jaffe and Adam Entous at WaPo report that Trump cancelled the CIA program to support the remnants of the Free Syrian Army a month ago. The decision was made in a meeting of Trump with CIA director Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser H. R. McMasters, and came just before Trump met (twice) with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G20 summit.

Ever since Russia intervened in Syria in fall of 2015, its Aerospace forces have given support to the Syrian Arab Army in a bid to roll back and defeat the armed opposition, especially in the northwest of the country. The totalitarian regime of Bashar al-Assad, the Baath Party, has a key vulnerability. The capital is in the south of the country and is supplied by the port of Latakia in the northwest. If the rebels could cut Latakia off from Damascus or could just take Latakia, they could starve the capital of arms and staples and overthrow the regime.

The Russians forestalled any such scenario by pushing Nusra and other militants out of Latakia province, forcing them out of Hama, Homs and East Aleppo, and bottling them up in the rural backwater of Idlib province.

Still, the Syrian Arab Army is small and stretched thin. The small and not very important CIA program was enough to keep some of the rebel groups going in ways that proved an irritant to the Baath government and to Russian strategic planners. They would much prefer that the US stopped supporting the rebels in any way. For one thing, withdrawal of Washington’s backing would be a huge blow to the flagging morale of the opposition.

Trump campaigned on handing Syria over to Russia, and at least with regard to the country’s northwest and deep south, he has followed through.

The cancellation of the CIA program does not affect the Department of Defense effort in the northeast of Syria, which has formed the Syrian Democratic Forces, mainly leftist Kurds fighting ISIL.

Al-Akhbar (leftist, Beirut) wonders if this move will have an effect on the rivalry between US-backed rebels in the southeast near the Jordanian border where the US has a small base. That base is aimed at ISIL to its north but also at Iran and Iranian logistics for supplying Hizbullah. It could be that US troops will now be evacuated from this southeast pocket which would be a victory for Iran more than for Russia.

The Central Intelligence Agency was ordered to begin the program in 2013 by President Barack Obama. It involved vetting opposition guerrilla groups to make sure they did not have links to al-Qaeda or ISIL. The CIA identified some 40 such groups. It appears to have sent them money and light arms through Saudi Arabia’s ministry of intelligence. As a result, probably some groups, like the Army of Islam (Jaysh al-Islam), were included in the vetted category even though their discourse was that of Salafi holy warriors who desired to wipe out the Alawite Shiites. Saudi Arabia follows the militantly puritan Wahhabi form of Islam that hates Shiites the way the devil hates holy water. Having the Saudis be the pass-through for the CIA aid thus allowed Salafi extremists to receive some of it. Other groups appear to have been Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, whom the Saudis could not have been eager to help. (The Saudis like fundamentalist Salafis but hate fundamentalist Muslim Brethren with a passion).

Although these groups were “vetted” for contacts with al-Qaeda, some of them occasionally formed battlefield alliances with the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Many of these remnants of the Free Syrian Army appear to have been small and to have controlled two valleys and a hill each. The most effective fighters in the opposition continued to be extremists, whether Nusra or its forrmal ally, the Freemen of the Levant.

The Free Syrian Army and the more radical groups have in any case been decisively defeated, with Russian help. The only reason given for continued US backing of a lost cause was to maintain some leverage to force Bashar al-Assad from office. But al-Assad won’t be forced out as long as he has Iranian and Russian support, so that wasn’t going to happen. The US program was just prolonging the violence in some northern provinces.

The Syrian regime appears to hope that without lukewarm US backing for some of the rebels, the civil war will died down quickly. They are misreading the situation and blaming the victim. But for the moment, they have won.

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Related video:

WaPo: “Trump is shutting down a secret CIA program in Syria”

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13 Responses

  1. This sounds a sensible decision, whatever benefit there might have seemed to be ignored the fact that arming rebel groups to fight a common enemy too often results in them turning against you when the immediate task is accomplished. I recall the aftermath in Malaya where the British had supplied communist terrorists groups with weapons and liaison officers against the Japanese only to find them turn against them, often killing the officers, when that war ended. I was a young officer still battling them in 1955 when, not infrequently, we would find original weapons beautifully maintained and still in use against us.

  2. Trump is kissing Putin’s ass behind the scenes and not in the bestiality way.

    Whatever Mr. Putin has on Trump or members of his family it is very potent.

    There is much danger in this.

  3. Thanks for this article. It marks another milestone in Assad’s comeback. (Not long ago the Obama administration was confidently predicting Assad’s downfall.)

    Russia’s decision to side with Assad changed the American calculation. Trump’s deference to other authoritarian rulers changes it even more.

    The biggest burden is on the FSA and the other local resistance groups like the Kurdish SDF. What will happen now to the Kurdish enclave the USA was backing? And what happens to the Syrian and Kurdish rebels on the front line?

  4. The Geneva Conventions have a subsection on mercenaries. It is debatable whether some of the rebels would meet the definition of mercenaries, but others that were a part of these groups would meet the very stringent definition of a mercenary as detailed in the Geneva Convention. Consequently, support for these groups is illegal as per Geneva Conventions.

  5. This is going to seem a little random, but it’s apropos of Trump’s predilection for making gratuitous gifts to the wrong people:

    The New York Times ran a story today (July 20) about Trump lifting (with nothing given in return) of penalties Harley Davidson incurred for running a VW-like scam of programing its motorcycles’ emissions controls to give false readings when tested.

    The penalties were imposed (and accepted by Harley Davidson) for the same kind of cheating that got VW into major trouble all around the world. And Donald Trump just made them go away.

  6. Anon, arming the rebels to attack a sovereign nation is also against pretty much everything the UN stands for.

    • While I agree completely, the spirit of the UN charter has been now completely eviscerated by the invasion of Iraq, Afghanistan and the intervention in Libya. Article 2 of the UN charter establishes the general spirit of what you are suggesting, but, unfortunately, people have reinterpreted the remaining portions of the UN charter in such egregious ways as to render Article 2 moot.

      Specifically, Article 51 (self-defense clause) has been reinterpreted in such awful ways to allow for completely disproportionate use of force against sovereign states, when the argument for self-defense is not even there. The point is that even if one is begrudgingly forced to accept this completely bogus argument that Saudi Arabia and Turkey have the right to self-defense through Article 51, they are still prohibited from arming rebel groups in Syria. So, if one believes water boarding is illegal through the Geneva Conventions, then one is forced to admit that arming these rebel groups was likewise illegal (under any circumstances): there is absolutely no ambiguity on the matter.

  7. Trump will serve up the leftist Kurds to be devoured by Turkey as a Thanksgiving feast for Erdogan while “trumpeting” about achieving “Piece” in the Middle East in a give-away of Palestinian West Bank claims in a sham agreement recognized primarily by Trump, Natenyahu and the Saudi Monarchy. Coming soon for your holiday entertainment…

  8. Where will the Free Syrian Army gang go? Over to the DoD program? Is this really a consolidation and coordination of two similar kind of programs albeit with different clientele? The CIA seems to gravitate toward more extreme elements, for those of us who remember the Mujahadeen. But beyond the headlines and lamenting of the Post, walnut shells have been moved around

  9. To quote from the article:
    “The only reason given for continued US backing of a lost cause was to maintain some leverage to force Bashar al-Assad from office. But al-Assad won’t be forced out as long as he has Iranian and Russian support, so that wasn’t going to happen. The US program was just prolonging the violence in some northern provinces.”

    The main victims of the Syrian war were the Syrian people, who saw much of their country destroyed, with millions made refugees. What they needed most was an end to the war. Now, that may be possible. Trump has actually done a good thing here, whether he intended to or not.

  10. The headline of this article is silly, as if the important thing were a pissing contest between Putin and Trump. Far more important is the interests of the people of Syria, and the interests of the people of Russia and of the U.S. Further war in Syria does not benefit any of us. It is time to stop distracting ourselves with “palace intrigue” and start paying attention to issues that really matter, which includes stopping these endless wars.

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