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.
Just three months ago, after the United States accused Assad of using chemical weapons, Trump launched retaliatory airstrikes against a Syrian air base. At the time, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, said that “in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”
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.
Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the CIA declined to comment.
After the Trump-Putin meeting, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to back a new cease-fire in southwest Syria, along the Jordanian border, where many of the CIA-backed rebels have long operated. Trump described the limited cease-fire deal as one of the benefits of a constructive working relationship with Moscow.