Now the covert CIA program training and arming Syrian rebels to fight the government of Bashar al-Assad has been ended by President Trump, U.S. officials tell the Washington Post.
The decision to phase out the Obama-era program was reportedly made by Trump during a White House meeting last month with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
“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 Post states. “The shuttering of the program is also an acknowledgment of Washington’s limited leverage and desire to remove Assad from power.”
The move by Trump, officials said, will not end a similar Pentagon program backing rebel fighters against the Islamic State. Some of the CIA-backed rebels may also be redirected to the Pentagon effort as well.
Trump’s decision was followed by the recent announcement of a cease-fire in southwest Syria with Russia. Trump also stated earlier this month the potential for a second cease-fire in the region.
“We are working on the second cease-fire in a very rough part of Syria,” Trump said. “If we get that and a few more, all of a sudden we are going to have no bullets being fired in Syria.”
The new policy appears to conflict with recent statements made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. In April Tillerson asserted that he saw “no role” for Assad in a future Syria while Haley that same month said the administration does not see the possibility of peace with the Syrian leader still in power.
While some officials speaking to the Post decried Trump’s decision, arguing it empowered Russia over the US in the region, the CIA program proved highly-controversial since its inception given countless reports revealing so-called “moderate rebels” jihadi ties.
In September 2015 a group of US-backed rebels known as Division 30 were found to have handed their weapons over to Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jahbat al-Nusra only one week after entering the country.
The Free Syrian Army, a group funded and armed by the Obama administration, admitted in 2014 to fighting alongside numerous terrorist organizations in Syria including the Islamic State.
“We are collaborating with the Islamic State and the Nusra Front by attacking the Syrian Army’s gatherings in… Qalamoun,” Bassel Idriss, commander of an FSA-run rebel brigade, said. “Let’s face it: The Nusra Front is the biggest power present right now in Qalamoun and we as FSA would collaborate on any mission they launch as long as it coincides with our values.”
Several factions of the FSA including Ahl Al Athar, Ibin al-Qa’im and Aisha were also reported to have pledge their allegiance to the terror group as well.
Agence France-Presse reported in 2014 that moderate rebel groups backed by the White House even went as far as to sign a non-aggression pact with the Islamic State in order to focus their efforts against the Assad government.
In May of 2015 a declassified government document obtained by conservative watchdog Judicial Watch also revealed the Obama administration moved forward with support for Salafist groups despite predicting it would lead to the rise of an entity like the Islamic State.
“[T]he Pentagon foresaw the likely rise of the ‘Islamic State’ as a direct consequence of this strategy, and warned that it could destabilize Iraq,” journalist Nafeez Ahmed wrote. “Despite anticipating that Western, Gulf state and Turkish support for the ‘Syrian opposition’ — which included al-Qaeda in Iraq — could lead to the emergence of an ‘Islamic State’ in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the document provides no indication of any decision to reverse the policy of support to the Syrian rebels. On the contrary, the emergence of an al-Qaeda affiliated ‘Salafist Principality’ as a result is described as a strategic opportunity to isolate Assad.”
Michael T. Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency director for the Obama administration – who resigned as national security adviser for the Trump administration this year – stated during an interview with Al Jazeera in 2015 that the Obama administration made a “willful decision” to support terrorist groups in the fight against Assad.
“I think it was a decision. I think it was a willful decision,” Flynn said.