In what may be one of the most significant foreign policy decisions of his first year in office, Trump is shutting down the CIA's covert program to arm rebels fighting the Syrian government. This would constitute a monumental shift in terms of US priorities in Syria which throughout most of the 6-year long war have focused on removing Bashar al-Assad. The Washington Post reports:
Officials said Trump made the decision to scrap the CIA program nearly a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of a July 7 meeting in Germany with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The move is consistent with signals coming out of the White House over the past months, as well as in keeping with Trump's early campaign promises that he would seek to wind down the war in Syria by making ISIS the only objective, and not the removal of Assad. There have been additional hints at willingness to work closer with Russia in a strategic anti-terror partnership in Syria. Secretary of State Tillerson's said in an April interview with ABC News, as well several weeks ago, that Assad's fate would be up for the Syrian people to decide, adding that:
In that regard, we are hopeful that we can work with Russia and use their influence to achieve areas of stabilization throughout Syria and create the conditions for a political process through Geneva in which we can engage all of the parties on the way forward, and it is through that political process that we believe the Syrian people will lawfully be able to decide the fate of Bashar al-Assad.
Image via Syrian opposition social media/ The Blaze
Tillerson has made similar remarks throughout the summer. But there were at times contradictory statements being issued from other areas of the administration, especially the State Department and ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who often continued to reiterate the "Assad must go" line - a policy put in place when Obama first uttered those words all the way back in summer of 2011. The divergent statements left pundits confused as to what America's future role in Syria would look like. The Trump administration has from the start faced an uphill battle against hawks and neocons in D.C. regarding Syria, who are already accusing the president of appeasing Assad and "falling into the Russia trap."
After the al-Qaeda linked Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham accused Assad and Russia of committing the April 4th chemical attack against civilians in Khan Shaykhun, immense pressure was ramped up on Trump to attack and remove Assad. According to an investigative report by Seymour Hersh, Trump's national security team presented the president with multiple plans after the murky incident in which Russia, Syria, and the al-Qaeda affiliate traded blame. Trump reportedly shot down the military's "decapitation" plan right away (removal of Assad), but opted for what many saw as his merely "symbolic" strike on Shayrat air base southeast of Homs.
Meanwhile, many analysts have for years pointed to the CIA covert operation, called Timber Sycamore, as really nothing more than a replay of 'Operation Cyclone' - the 1980's CIA program to arm Afghan and Arab mujahideen fighters against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. That secretive years long operation resulted in an unprecedented rise in international Islamic terrorism, the installation of the radical Taliban government in Afghanistan, the rise of al-Qaeda itself, and the 9/11 attacks. On Syria, pro-regime change hawks have tended to downplay the size and impact of the CIA's Syria weapons program, but a recent investigation by a prominent national security reporter concluded the following:
A declassified October 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency report revealed that the shipment in late August 2012 had included 500 sniper rifles, 100 RPG (rocket propelled grenade launchers) along with 300 RPG rounds and 400 howitzers. Each arms shipment encompassed as many as ten shipping containers, it reported, each of which held about 48,000 pounds of cargo. That suggests a total payload of up to 250 tons of weapons per shipment. Even if the CIA had organized only one shipment per month, the arms shipments would have totaled 2,750 tons of arms bound ultimately for Syria from October 2011 through August 2012. More likely it was a multiple of that figure.
The program originated under Obama and its details were unknown to the general public and even to many in Congress. The Washington Post reported in 2015 (based on Snowden documents) that it was “one the agency’s largest covert operations, with a budget approaching $1 billion a year” (one-fifteenth of the CIA’s total budget according to the leaked documents).
Yesterday we published sections from a 2016 whistle blower report recently unearthed from a restricted access special forces online platform in which Green Berets and other elite operatives slammed what they called a CIA jihadist training program in Syria. US military eyewitnesses testified that:
Many [US military trainers overseen by CIA officers] are actively sabotaging the programs by stalling and doing nothing, knowing that the supposedly secular rebels they are expected to train are actually al-Nusra terrorists.
Indeed Trump himself, while on the campaign trail decried the Obama White House's covert activities in Syria, even tweeting a declassified Pentagon document pointing to both Obama's and Secretary of State Hillary's role in empowering terrorists in order to overthrow Assad.
In prior years, long before he began campaigning, Trump had consistently revealed his thinking on Syria. In 2013 he referenced the armed opposition in Syria as "radical jihadi Islamists who are murdering Christians" at a time when news of the CIA's program was slowly breaking, and questioned, "why would we ever fight with [alongside] them?"
Today's news of shutting down the CIA program comes on the heels of a new Syria-Russia-US ceasefire deal in southwest Syria in what's seen as a broader policy of deescalation in Syria. All attempts at de-escalation in Syria have been widely panned by the neo-con lobby in Congress, headed by John McCain and various other warhawk politicians, whose Military-Industrial Complex donors realize that the surest way to a sliding stock price for an weapons-maker is through peace.