How Trump Made It a Little Easier For Assad to Stay in Power

Even as the U.S. has bombed the Syrian leader’s forces, the president has stopped aiding one campaign against him.

Syrian rebels near a rebel-controlled base southwest of Deraa, near the border with Jordan (Alaa Faqir / Reuters )

The Trump administration  is ending the CIA’s covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels, The Washington Post is reporting Wednesday, a move that could be viewed as a concession to Russia, an acknowledgment of the program’s limited efficacy, as well as a tacit admission the U.S. has limited capacity to bring about political change in Syria.

President Trump has long viewed Syria as the place where the U.S. and Russia can find common ground in fighting ISIS and other extremist groups. The two countries are on opposite sides of the more than six-year-long civil war: Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad and the U.S. backs a coalition of rebel groups opposed to him. Both sides say they are fighting ISIS and groups like it. Although Trump ordered strikes inside Syria in April after Assad used chemical weapons on civilians, and the U.S. military has stepped up action against Assad’s forces, including near the area where the CIA trains its allies in the rebellion, the U.S. maintains its main target in Syria is ISIS.

The Post said Trump had decided to end the CIA program before his July 7 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. After that meeting, the two sides announced a cease-fire in southwest Syria, near the border with Jordan. That's the region, the Post said Wednesday, where the CIA trains moderate rebels. The newspaper added that the end of the CIA's program was not a precondition for the cease-fire agreement. The cease-fire deal, however, was apparently worked out in advance of the July 7 meeting; indeed Jordan, which was not at the G20, announced in Amman almost immediately that it would, along with Russia and the U.S., monitor the Syrian cease-fire, raising questions of when Trump took his decision on the CIA program. The Post did not provide an exact date.

Trump’s relationship with Russia has been the subject of much scrutiny since his election after it emerged that Russia had interfered with the 2016 presidential election on his behalf. U.S. intelligence agencies say, however, that while the interference occurred, it’s not clear if it was successful. Still, investigators are scrutinizing contacts Trump’s campaign aides had with Russia, as well as meetings Donald Trump Jr., his son; Jared Kushner, his son-in-law; and Paul Manafort, his campaign chair, had with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have information damaging to Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival in last year’s election. Scrutiny of the president’s action only increased Tuesday when it emerged that Trump met with Putin, with only the Russian leader’s translator present, hours after their publicized meeting in Hamburg. The White House called the encounter “brief” though news reports said it lasted an hour. No details of what was discussed were forthcoming.

Still, it’s not clear the CIA’s program, which Russia had strongly opposed, was working. The Obama administration introduced the plan in 2013 to add pressure on Assad to step down. But the Syrian leader, who at one point looked like he would go the way of other Arab dictators ousted following the Arab Spring, is now, in the wake of Russia’s military intervention at his behest two years ago, more in control of Syria than at any point since the civil war began. Many of the rebel groups are now engaged in UN-mediated talks with Assad’s government; ISIS is on the verge of being wiped out inside the country; and while calls for Assad’s ouster remain, it is clear that there’s no momentum to make that happen.

The decision to end the Obama administration’s CIA program, which the Post said would be phased out over a period of months, doesn’t change the Pentagon’s effort to train fighters opposed to ISIS. That effort will continue. But the volte-face suggests just how difficult it has been for the U.S. to get the kind of results it has wanted in Syria. The Obama administration’s efforts to train rebels was marked by embarrassment: In 2015, it announced the Pentagon would end its $580 million program to train and equip rebels fighting ISIS and instead give the fighters arms and equipment directly. (The Defense Department has since launched a “revamped” training program.) That change in plan came after a general acknowledged that the program had succeeded in training “four or five” rebels.