The CIA program to train and arm moderate rebels was never going to tip the balance in Syria’s civil war. At best, it was a lifeline to a shrinking constituency in a conflict dominated by the regime and Russia on one side, and Islamist groups on the other.
But now, according to the Washington Post, the program will be phased out altogether. And the symbolism of that means more than the decision itself.
It’s a further indication that the Trump administration sees no point in opposing Russia in Syria – and an acknowledgment that the US has limited leverage in a conflict where President Bashar al-Assad is in a stronger position than five years ago.
It’s also a message to groups that look to Washington for help that they are ultimately dispensable. Critics of the decision says it sends a message to US allies in the region that Washington is a fair-weather friend.
One of those critics, Republican Senator Lindsay Graham tweeted in response to the reports: “If this is true, a big loss for: 1) Syrians who have been relentlessly attacked by Assad 2) Our Arab partners 3) US standing in the Middle East.”
The decision itself is however not that surprising. When running for president, Trump repeatedly rejected any entanglement in Syria beyond striking ISIS. Of moderate rebels, he has said: “We have no idea who these people are.”
The CIA program, based in Jordan, never reached a critical mass because it was never meant to. It was a bargaining chip devised by the Obama administration in 2013 to keep moderate groups “in the game” but which never provided the sort of resources that would help them win.
The then Defense Secretary Ashton Carter admitted that, as of July 2015, the US was “training about 60 fighters,” which he called “an awfully small number.”
Russia, by contrast, played to win when it entered the conflict in the autumn of 2015 with blistering airpower. When the coalition around the regime encountered problems, it doubled down – invariably with brutal and devastating consequences, as witnessed in Aleppo and Idlib.
In essence, the opposing sides were fighting to very different rules.
The CIA program was hobbled by strict vetting, born of an anxiety that fighters might subsequently join Islamist groups or commit human rights abuses. The training was basic; the weapons provided no match for the regime, nor were they comparable with what Islamist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra were obtaining.
Since the program began, the middle ground in Syria has shrunk still further. The US – under Presidents Obama and Trump – has focused on supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to drive ISIS out of its northern Syrian strongholds. The UN-sponsored Syrian peace process has atrophied.
A policy still in the making
The timing of the decision suggests the Trump administration’s policy on Syria is still evolving – and not always in a straight direction.
In a few short months, the US has used cruise missiles against a regime airfield, downed a regime jet near Raqqa, and targeted pro-regime militias in the east.
It has also built up a US presence on the ground along the Syria-Iraq border (where it continues to support a small group of moderate rebels) as a buffer against Iranian influence.
But at the same time it has agreed with Moscow on the establishment of a de-confliction zone in southern Syria (one that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained “empowers Iran”) and talked of establishing another such zone.
It has also blown hot and cold about Assad’s future. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said in April: “In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”
But at the G20 summit earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was more circumspect.
“How Assad leaves is yet to be determined,” Tillerson told reporters in Germany. “There will be a transition away from the Assad family.”
The Washington Post, citing unnamed sources, reports that the President decided to abandon the program before the Hamburg summit, where he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed Syria at length.
The Kremlin says the issue of US funding for Syrian rebels did not come up at that meeting. But critics see recent events as acquiescence by the US to Russian and Iranian dominance in Syria – and they ask what the administration has won in return.
The US military continues to provide important support – both on the ground and in the air – for the SDF in the north. But those US-backed fighters now battling against ISIS in the alleyways of Raqqa may wonder what the long-term future holds for them.