WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump has decided to halt the CIA’s years-long covert program to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels battling the regime of the nation’s president Bashar al-Assad. Russia had long pushed the United States to end the program.
The phasing out of the secret program was reported by The Washington Post Wednesday. Officials told the newspaper that ending the operation reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia.
The program was a key component begun by the Obama administration in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to relinquish power. But even its supporters have questioned its usefulness since Moscow sent forces in Syria two years later.
Russia long saw the anti-Assad program as an assault on its interests. Ending the plan, in addition to appeasing Russian President Vladimir Putin, is also an acknowledgment of the United States’ limited ability to remove Assad from power.
Russia launched its military campaign in Syria with a stated goal of fighting the Islamic State group, but it faced criticism after targeting rebel fighters, including those backed by the United States.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the reported end of the program and said she did not know if it was discussed during a pair of conversations — including one just revealed Tuesday — that Trump had with Putin at an international summit earlier this month.
The CIA declined comment on the report.
The White House had previously condemned Assad, and just three months ago Trump launched dozens of airstrikes against a Syrian air base after the United States accused the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons on its own people.
After the Trump-Putin meeting, the United States and Russia announced an agreement to back a new cease-fire in southwest Syria, where many of the CIA-supported rebels have worked.
Trump made the decision nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with national security adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, according to the newspaper. And officials told The Washington Post that the move to end the program to arm the anti-Assad rebels was not a condition of the cease-fire.
The U.S. military will continue leading a coalition of forces conducting airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and neighboring Iraq. It will also continue arming and training other Syrian rebel groups, including the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is largely made up of Kurdish fighters and currently taking part in a campaign to oust Islamic State from its de facto capital of Raqqa.
Turkey, which has battled a Kurdish insurgency for three decades, sharply opposes the United States providing weapons to the SDF, while the U.S.-led coalition has said those arms will be returned after the Raqqa mission is complete.
The Voice of America contributed to this report.