President Trump has decided to end the CIA-sponsored program to arm Syrian anti-Assad rebels, according to a Washington Post report on Wednesday. The newspaper quotes U.S. officials as saying the decision to wind down the Obama-era program was made almost one month ago after a meeting in the Oval Office with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. As questions swirl about what this means for U.S. policy in Syria, The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel asked former Associate Deputy Director of Operations at the CIA Robert Richer what he sees in this decision, and who benefits the most.
TCB: What are your thoughts on the recent decision by the Trump Administration to cancel the CIA-sponsored program to arm anti- Assad rebels? What does this mean for U.S. policy in Syria?
Robert Richer: What it means is that we’re taking a step back from supporting the opposition and empowering Russia to rule in Syria. Those moderate forces were pretty significant, 30,000-plus fighters who will now be looking for something else to do. They’re not going to go across the border into Jordan or some other country. If they continue to be opposed to Assad, they’re going to either join other rebel groups seeking regime change that primarily receive support from the Gulf states or go against the regime on their own.
This directly undermines any U.S. policy aimed at getting rid of Assad. It’s basically saying that Assad can stay in power.
TCB: What is the benefit of this for the U.S. This clearly serves Russian interests but what does it get the U.S.? Is the Trump Administration trying to cater to Russia in order to win concessions elsewhere?
Richer: This program was funded by some of the Arab Gulf countries as well, so I can’t see a benefit except for the fact that we’re not involved in supporting the opposition. From my optic, the only gain is to placate the Russians. That is not a policy success in my eyes, and it’s not to most of the regional players’ eyes, but maybe in the eyes of this administration – which seems to think Russia is a valid partner – it is a policy success.
TCB: U.S. officials said that the decision had the backing of Jordan, where some of the rebels were trained, and it also appears to be part of a larger Trump Administration strategy that focuses on negotiated ceasefire deals with the Russians. Could that be part of the broader plan, and do you know if this does in fact have Jordan’s backing?
Richer: I think that Jordan and any of the neighboring countries do want to see some kind of brokered peace, an inclusive brokered peace, one where the opposition is represented, the Assad government is represented, and the other involved powers are represented.
I can’t speak for Jordan on this but I can speak to the fact that there has been an effort going on for years to get everyone to the peace table on this. However, now this effort will go forward without an axis of strength – i.e. 3,000-plus opposition fighters who could put pressure on Assad. It has taken a major thorn out of the side of Assad and the Russians. This is a very strange combination of factors. From my optic, I can’t see any good reason to pull a strong asset off the field without getting something up front, and I don’t see the administration getting anything up front out of this move.
TCB: In terms of Russia’s role. How does this affect Russian interest in Syria and the region more broadly?
Richer: It’s a win for Russia, and it expands their influence. Putin has said for several years that those forces [U.S.-backed rebels] were illegal. He supports Assad and he has provided the Syrian military with weapons to attack those opposition forces. We have taken a stand that those opposition forces are legitimate with Gulf support, including the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
We are now telling those allies that we are taking a different approach, which it looks like Russia had a strong hand in. That sends a strong signal to those allies, which is that Russia is a real player now.
To me, the strongest way to put this is that we are no longer the dominant super power in the Middle East. Russia is now a major player at the table with real influence, and this is a major success for them. The Russian papers are going to love this, and so will Putin.
TCB: Last thoughts?
Richer: There is a lot of confusion and lack of understanding on why we would let this happen at this particular time. Generally, you make a move like this when you’re at the table and you’re leveraging a deal, and I don’t see that happening.