The Trump administration recently ended CIA arms support for anti-Assad rebels in Syria. The covert program, launched by former President Barack Obama in 2013 to pressure Assad to step down, armed and trained select rebel groups.
The decision was made after President Donald Trump met with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and came shortly before Trump’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit on July 7th, 2017.
Many view this move as a symbolic gesture to improve U.S. relations with Russia. To expand, Al Jazeera reporter, Heidi Zhou-Castro, said that the CIA program was never intended to have a large scope or impact, and was made even more insignificant when Russia entered the Syrian conflict in 2015 in support of the Assad regime. Al Jazeera also reported that most of the groups supported by the program have been defeated.
However, some CIA-trained rebels defected to join ISIS and other extremist movements. For this reason, some members of the Obama administration were also in favour of ending the program. Nonetheless, Zhou-Castro went on to say, the program was allowed to continue in order “to maintain it as a bargaining tool in future negotiations with Russia.”
Trump has said he wants to shift all U.S. efforts in Syria to focus on combating ISIS. One U.S. official claimed that ending the CIA arms program was not a major concession, however, another told the Post that “Putin won in Syria.” All sides agree this move indicates President Trump is trying to create closer ties with Putin.
The Trump administration is currently under heavy scrutiny for its ties with Russia, and an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is ongoing.
With that said, it is important to note that two days after the G20 Summit, a U.S. and Russia-brokered truce took effect in three provinces of southern Syria. While the end of the weapons program was reportedly not a condition of the peace negotiations, Syria’s National Reconciliation Minister, Ali Haidar, had this to say to Reuters: “All these steps are the start to solving the Syrian crisis, and without that there is no solution.”
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch reports that over 400,000 people have died in the six-year Syrian conflict, over 11 million have been displaced, and all sides involved in the conflict are implicated in widespread human rights violations. As well, over 100,000 people have been detained or disappeared, largely at the hands of government forces. Anti-Assad rebel groups have also been involved in attacks on civilians, blocking humanitarian aid, using child soldiers, and torture.
Thus, while the end of CIA support for anti-Assad rebels signals a shift in US priorities, it is unclear whether it will have any impact on creating lasting peace in Syria.
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