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Opinion: 'Trump's decision to stop supporting Syria's rebels seals their fate'

The US is largely content to fall in line behind Putin’s Assad-centric vision for Syria, writes Aaron Noonan.

Aaron Noonan Middle East analyst

LAST WEEK, IT was reported that United States President Donald Trump had decided to suspend the CIA programme to arm and train rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

In a tweet several days later, Trump confirmed both the existence of the covert operation, and his decision to end it.

Codenamed “Timber Sycamore”, the programme began in earnest in 2013, and was a central tenet of Barack Obama’s policy to oust the embattled Syrian president in favour of the moderate uprising that was born out of the ill-fated Arab Spring. Operated out of secret centres in southern Turkey and Jordan, the programme initially garnered widespread support from both domestic intelligence heads and their Arab counterparts.

US distancing itself from Syria’s problems

However, the United States was fearful of becoming embroiled in another war from which it could not extract itself. Obama therefore had narrow objectives for Syria and Timber Sycamore worked at a diminished capacity to its potential.

Despite supplying hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons and supplies to anti-Assad CIA-vetted rebel groups, the administration worried that it would “own” the problem of post-revolution Syria if its sponsored rebels toppled Assad outright, and so only supplied them enough to hopefully force Assad to accept a political solution.

As the introduction of Iranian-backed militias and Russian airstrikes made it clear that Assad would be unlikely to accept anything other than total victory, the administration’s position on Assad’s removal softened. The programme began to lose favour, further accelerated by reports that some weapons supplied had fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda and ISIS associated rebel groups and rogue Jordanian intelligence agents.

What the programme involved

At its height, the programme, in conjunction with Saudi Arabia, provided ammunition and small arms, such as rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47s. Additionally, it provided both training and salaries for rebel fighters, who, as wartime conditions worsened, were at risk of defecting to more extremist groups for better pay.

Perhaps the most recognisable weapon associated with the supply mission is the American-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile. The weapon has been supplied to several dozen Free Syrian Army associated groups, but due to the immense fluidity of rebel group associations, the weapon has seen some groups supplied adopt a more extremist position as the war progresses.

Most notable among these is Nour al-Din al-Zenki (NDZ) an initially moderate group who received the missiles, before joining al-Qaeda associated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in January of this year. Reflecting the fluctuating alliances, NDZ broke ties with HTS last week due to rebel infighting in the Idlib governorate.

A concession to Putin?

President Trump’s decision to end the programme came after the G20 summit, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin at least twice.

The end of the programme is a large concession to Putin, but is also the culmination of years of half-baked Syria policy, that began with Obama, of framing the conflict in purely counter-terrorist anti-ISIS terms and avoided tackling the much messier problem of Assad.

For Putin, the train and equip mission was a thorn in his side, as he backs Assad with airstrikes and has proffered the view that all anti-Assad groups are “terrorists”, yet also wants to avoid direct conflict with the United States. Now, with the moderate opposition already severely weakened by pro-Assad militia and Russian airstrikes on one side, and the extremist groups which are now subsuming it on the other, Trump’s decision to no longer support them all but seals their fate.

Timber Sycamore was arguably on its way to being defunct even before Trump took office, but his decision to end the programme entirely shows that the US is largely content to fall in line behind Putin’s Assad-centric vision for Syria.

Aaron Noonan is a Middle East analyst from Ireland, focusing on Syria, Iraq and Western military engagement in the region. He tweets at @custerdome and also has a blog.

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About the author:

Aaron Noonan  / Middle East analyst

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