This week, the Trump administration reportedly cancelled a long-running covert program to support vetted Syrian rebels in the war against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. While this move has provoked a small outcry among Assad’s opponents, the development itself is far from surprising. Furthermore, it is incorrect, as some have insisted, to view the cancellation as a gratuitous concession to Russia—adecision like this, which aligns with years of deliberate U.S. strategy and Trump’sown stated goals, cannot be considered a concession. It is almost certainly true that Trump hopes this decision will make Russia more cooperative on ceasefires between the regime and the insurgency. But if that does not happen or if it fails to pacify Syria—a likely outcome—this would not alter an already-dismal strategic situation for the Syrian opposition, one that may well be acceptable to the United States.
The Trump administration’s decision to end this program represents the logical endpoint of years of evolution in U.S. policy. While the effort was conceived under Barack Obama, it was always at odds with America’s broader goals—a tension that Trump has long recognized and is now acting upon.
Obama first authorized the CIA-run covert program, known as “Timber Sycamore,” in early-2013. Since then, it has trained and armed thousands of insurgents who have fought regime forces and extremist groups alike. This support entailed ammunition and small arms, including rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, and valuable anti-tank guided missiles. Critically, it also entailedmoney for salaries, without which commanders could not recruit or retain fighters who would desert or defect to better-resourced extremist groups. Recipients of U.S. aid had already struggled against the Assad regime and jihadist groups.Ending the program, then, means choking off mainstream, non-extremist opposition to Assad in northern Syria where he is already very weak, and potentially in its stronger form in the south.
When Obama began this program, he conceived of it in narrow terms; he never sought to overthrow or even seriously weaken the Assad regime. Rather, he aimed to apply just enough pressure to convince him to accept a political solution, but not enough to risk the regime’s stability (which would presumably leave the United States to fix post-war Syria). It is noteworthy that this reflected U.S. policy at its peak levels of confidence and belligerence against Assad. When Iran and especially Russia entered the war, the Obama administration understood thatpressuring Assad would require escalating the covert rebel program. Obama had no appetite for such an escalation: He knew the risks it entailed, including possible conflict with Russia.
Indeed, the opposite occurred. Russia’s intervention led to an agreement with Jordan, which, with its knowledge of rebel groups across its border, played a central role in supporting the insurgents. Russia agreed to curb fighting in southern Syria, where the U.S.-backed rebels have been most successful. Rebels were instead pressured to fight extremist groups only. Meanwhile, U.S.-backed rebels in northern Syria were overwhelmed by Islamist groups that either destroyed or coopted them, rendering the U.S. role there meaningless. In 2017,U.S.-backed groups have sporadically fought the regime, albeit from a weaker position and with far less support from Washington.
Thus, by the time of Trump’s inauguration, the U.S. covert program, which was never particularly bold to start with, was already a shadow of its former self. For his part, Trump had already made clear he was unenthusiastic about it. In November 2016, he told the Wall Street Journal he was likely to end support for the Syrian rebels, claiming, “We have no idea who these people are,” and suggesting that the United States should focus instead on the Islamic State. Although Trump insisted this vision was the opposite of Obama’s, the latter always shared and expressed these views, even as the intelligence community was conducting its proxy war against Assad.
There is a subtle difference between the two presidents’ views, but they concern Russia rather than the covert program itself or America’s goals in Syria. Trump seems to believe that Russia can end the violence in Syria; by contrast, the Obama administration approached the Russia option with mild and jaded desperation,having eliminated other policy alternatives for ending the war. Trump’sconfidence is likely what pushed him to end support for the rebels who could, after all, have been left on “life support” or held in reserve.
Without U.S. support, the rebels cannot survive continued war against the Assadregime and its allies. This places the fate of opposition-held southern Syria—one of the last areas controlled by nationalist, mainstream groups close to the United States—at the mercy of Russia, which has committed to enforcing a ceasefire there. Even if Russia wanted to force the regime and Iran to respect a ceasefire,Syria belongs to factions who control the ground, which means the Assad regime and Iran-controlled fighters. They will eventually move on southern Syria when the United States grows bored with the problem, post-ISIS, and Russia capitalizes on its display of parity with the United States. A paranoid police state will not tolerate a rebel “cancer” so close to Damascus that might later metastasize into a serious security threat. As for the north, already-outmatched, U.S.-backed insurgents have effectively lost already.
Of course, Timber Sycamore could be replaced with something new. Groups may be reorganized to act as a buffer force for Jordan or even Israel, in addition to a standing anti-jihadist force (provided the regime and its allies are incapable or unwilling to challenge them). Fighters on the U.S. payroll could be folded into the Pentagon’s official counter-ISIS campaign. Unlike the covert proxy war, these actions would at least align with the policies of the Trump administration—and, it must be said, the Obama administration—with their focus on protecting allies, limiting spillover, and fighting extremists. Whether that is a wise approach for the United States is a different matter, but it does offer some coherence, at the cost of those rendered defenseless in opposition areas.
Trump has been criticized for offering Russia, and by extension Iran and Assad, a one-sided concession by ending support for the insurgency. If one accepts his publicly expressed premises, however—that the program has always been a waste of time, that Assad is acceptable because he is fighting ISIS, and that Russia is the key to ending the war—and recognizes that Russia knows neither Trump nor Obama before him cared for the rebel program, then ending it is less conceding than shedding a burden. For Trump, in the best-case scenario Russia will enforce ceasefires in some parts of the country (which still leaves Assad in control of most of “useful Syria”). In the worst-case scenario, Assad and his allies will exploit the rebels’ new weakness to destroy vulnerable groups and take more territory—an outcome both Trump and Obama before him could live with.