Trump ending support to Syrian opposition may be short-sighted
US officials told the Washington Post that US President Donald Trump has decided to end the CIA’s programme aiding Syrian nationalist-oriented rebels in their struggle against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Undoubtedly, the Free Syrian Army groups supported by the CIA were alarmed that the US leadership may no longer be interested in the fight against the Assad dictatorship. Yet, what is likely of more concern for these groups, which often fight on multiple fronts against different actors (Assad, the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda-linked forces) — is where they will have to go next for support.
The CIA covert programme started in 2013 under US President Barack Obama’s administration to provide training and assistance to what the US government labelled moderate Syrian opposition factions. The aim of the programme is to undermine Assad’s military capabilities to a level that forces him to the negotiating table.
The programme failed to achieve its goal, thanks to the Russian and Iranian military support that has kept the Assad regime in place. The CIA programme has also been seen as ineffective for many reasons, including the lack of efficient, advanced weapons and the conflicting agendas of regional powers.
Still, it kept the nationalist-oriented, non-extremist rebels alive in many parts of Syria. With this programme ending, the Syrian mainstream opposition is left in limbo with very few options.
Once Russia entered the Syrian war with military force in 2015, the question of reaching a settlement to the war that guarantees a transition of power started to fade, as did the prospects of the CIA programme. While Moscow provided substantial military support to the Assad regime, the opposition was at a point where it could no longer militarily challenge Damascus nor be able to drive the regime towards meaningful negotiations.
The CIA-run programme, therefore, was a test as to whether the United States — under the Obama administration at that time — would enlarge it to maintain American leverage and sustain the opposition’s resistance. Obama chose to not escalate the programme, fearing a confrontation with Russia and Iran.
Aside from whether a Russian- American agreement led to the end of the CIA programme, signs of what the future entails for CIA-supported Free Syrian Army groups suggest a dramatic change to the dynamics of the war in Syria.
In the north, the rebels are already overwhelmed, with jihadist and extremist groups dominating the scene. With these groups no longer receiving funding, their options no longer relate to their nationalist cause. The fighters of these groups would need to decide whether to face persecution by extremists or join a jihadist or Islamist group.
Turkey may offer support to these groups but that would require them to be part of the overall Turkish agenda in the north, which may not serve their national interests. Various metrics point to rebel-held northern Syria being much easier to conquer for Assad and his allies than ever before. The future of Syria’s rebel-held north will be largely dependent on what the Russians and the Turks agree upon.
As for the south, where Free Syrian groups are in much stronger positions, the future remains vague. Russia recently reached an agreement with the United States and Jordan on establishing a de-escalation zone where the fight between the Assad regime and the opposition would freeze. Jordan will push the southern front forces to only counter ISIS.
It is uncertain whether another funding channel will emerge from the United States, Jordan or any other ally so that the rebels can take the fight to ISIS and tighten their positions.
Islamist groups in the south could reorganise and bolster their influence among dissatisfied, abandoned nationalists. Given the south’s strategic location near regime-held Damascus and its significance as the area that initially sparked the 2011 revolution, Assad forces would likely move to destabilise the southern front, despite the de-escalation agreement.
The CIA covert programme has long been ineffective but at least it sustained Free Syrian Army rebels enough to survive throughout the years of war. The goal of the CIA programme may have needed to change from fighting Assad to force him to negotiate, to one that signifies the importance of nationalist rebels and the need to sustain their existence.
The Trump administration may think that halting the programme may make the Russians more cooperative but pushing nationalist groups towards extremism or Islamism would in no way serve the interests of the United States or its regional allies. Continuing Obama’s short-sighted doctrine of avoiding escalation would only cause the United States to lose more leverage with Syria and the region sliding towards never ending instability.