Syrian Rebels Alarmed By Reports Covert CIA Aid Will End
By Nazih Osseiran – FT
Syrian rebels reliant on US help in their battle against Bashar al-Assad’s regime have reacted with dismay and disbelief to reports that President Donald Trump is to end a covert CIA programme to arm and train opposition forces.
Many say they were not informed of any changes to the policy introduced by Barack Obama in 2013 as part of efforts to put pressure on the Syrian president and bring about a political settlement. Mr Assad’s main backer, Russia, has long pushed for the US to end support.
According to a report first published by the Washington Post, Mr Trump decided last month to end funding for the CIA programme. Rebels say their CIA interlocutors have not confirmed any change, and political opposition figures who met US officials earlier this week say they, too, were given no hint of any change. The White House has not confirmed its cancellation of the programme.
“Until now, nothing is confirmed. There have been no changes on the ground. When we spoke to the concerned parties [in the operations room] they were also surprised at the news,” said Hassan Hamadeh, commander of the rebel group Division 101. “Co-ordination is on going, and everything has been happening normally.”
One rebel commander, who asked not to be named, said US support had been waning for months, but noted that the rebels were given their salaries as normal last month. He said rebel commanders had been given no warning by US officials. They said they were waiting to see what happens in the coming days when funding is likely to be disbursed for the following month. Still he believed the decision was final. “The CIA’s role is done,” the rebel commander said.
An opposition figure who works closely with the US State Department said US officials had hinted in a meeting this week that the Trump administration would be rolling out a new vision for Washington’s Syria policy in the coming months.
Many in the opposition speculated that the decision was not taken last month, as reported, but more recently during Mr Trump’s meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit this month. US officials who spoke to the Post said the decision had been taken well before that meeting.
“We can’t know for sure what happened, or when, but this is clearly an American effort to improve their relations with Russia,” the rebel commander said.
Since Mr Trump came to office, his policy on Syria has shifted several times. He began his presidency vowing to end support for the opposition, but then became the first western government to bomb Mr Assad in response to a chemical weapons attack. This boosted opposition hopes he would turn out to be a more forceful figure against the Syrian government than his predecessor, Barack Obama.
The programme, funded by international intelligence agencies from western countries, Gulf states, and Turkey, had long been fraught by rebel rivalries and feuds between donor states. The CIA funding for rebel groups fed into two internationally backed operations rooms that supported an array of rebel groups seen as ideological moderates — one based in Jordan to help rebels in the south, and one based in Turkey to funnel aid to rebels in the north.
Many observers and even rebels themselves criticised the programme for turning a blind eye to its funding ending up with jihadis. Rebels who received support would return to volatile territories in Syria, only to be pressured by an al-Qaeda-linked jihadi group to hand over a cut. “Frankly so much of the weapons and ammunition were going to [Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate] that it’s probably a good thing,” a third opposition figure said.
For all the criticism of the US support, one of the rebel commanders said losing it would push Syria further toward Islamists or Mr Assad. “I don’t want the Americans to leave, because this means Syria has been surrendered — on one side, to the Turks and the Muslim Brotherhood groups it supports in Syria, and on the other side, to Russia and the regime.”