This will be the “undisclosed meeting” story of today. Via the Washington Post:
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.
Outside of the inflammatory “long sought by Russia” language everything here is true and has been inevitable since at least late 2015.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the quaint little regional war that Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Samantha Power fomented in Syria during the “Arab Spring” with the idea of overthrowing Bashar Assad was as chuckleheaded an idea to come out of any administration since Bay of Pigs. What had started out as war on the cheap mutated into a very ugly and protracted war and a humanitarian nightmare that is still in full swing.
Regime change has not been our policy in Syria since at least January 2016. There is ample evidence the decision was made earlier but it was fait accompli once Russia and Iran intervened on Assad’s behalf in a major way. In the Geneva talks in 2015/2016, the Obama administration accepted the Russian position that Assad did not have to leave and could stay until a “transition” at some unspecified point in the future. Once regime change stopped being US policy there was no reason, moral or legal or ethical, to continue to arm anti-Assad rebels.
Back in March, the Trump administration formally said regime change was not our goal in Syria:
The White House on Friday backed top aides’ comments that the United States is not now focused on making Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leave power, saying the U.S. focus is on defeating Islamic State militants.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley on Thursday drew criticism for playing down a long-standing U.S. goal of persuading Assad to leave power to help end the six-year-long Syrian civil war.
Back to the WaPo:
Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The CIA’s program was not a rousing success. Significant portions of the US trained/supported force ended up joining one of the al-Qaeda-lite organizations because they were more successful. CIA trained groups often engaged in combat against DOD trained groups.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, some officials advocated ending the CIA program, arguing that the rebels would be ineffective without a major escalation in U.S. support. But the program still had the support of a majority of top Obama advisers, who argued that the United States couldn’t abandon its allies on the ground and give up on the moderate opposition because of the damage that it would do to U.S. standing in the region.
Even those who were skeptical about the program’s long-term value, viewed it as a key bargaining chip that could be used to wring concessions from Moscow in negotiations over Syria’s future.
“People began thinking about ending the program, but it was not something you’d do for free,” said a former White House official. “To give [the program] away without getting anything in return would be foolish.”
This is only a half-truth. Our move away from regime change was driven by the Susan Rice-Ben Rhodes brain trust that was giving stuff to Russia and to Iran in exchange for the nuclear deal. What happened was they kept the anti-Assad forces in the field but supported them at a level that made them no threat to anyone.
This does not mean the end of support for the anti-Assad rebels. They are mostly funded/supported by Turkey and Saudi Arabia. And the Department of Defense program that is focused on ISIS will remain.
In short, this is a correct decision and one that has been obvious since the last administration. But if you want the media top line:
Wow. This is big news. Trump is ending the CIA covert mission to arm syrian rebels against Assad. https://t.co/pcOeMTuqJf Putin wanted this
— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) July 19, 2017
Sure, Putin may have wanted it but that doesn’t mean it was wrong. It is morally bankrupt and strategic folly to keep recruiting and arming troops and sending them into battle when you have already abandoned the reason for the fight and their only purpose is as bargaining chips.