President Trump has shut down America’s covert program to arm and train Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Trump decided to terminate the secret CIA program nearly a month ago, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. The program had, since 2013, provided training, salaries, and weaponry to “vetted” rebel factions waging war on the Assad regime.
America has definitively ended its commitment to regime change in Syria—half-hearted though it was.
Trump’s decision is, on some level, an admission of defeat. But it is also a concession to reality, and an acknowledgement that America’s covert military program in Syria was misconceived from the start.
The covert arms program was going to end—this was inevitable, even if its precise timing was a surprise, and its execution appears haphazard. By the time Trump took office, the program no longer made sense, if it ever did. The United States couldn’t just keep fueling a war that had no definable end and feeding a rebel host body from which al-Qaeda could suck blood.
The program was intended to build a moderate rebel force that could apply serious enough military pressure on the regime to force Assad to step aside as part of a negotiated political settlement. But the latter part of that objective, a compelled transition, was always fantasy. As for the “moderate rebel force,” for the last several years much of America’s support has gone to “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) factions that have functioned as battlefield auxiliaries and weapons farms for larger Islamist and jihadist factions, including Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate.
The problem with the program, which was reportedly running the CIA nearly a billion dollars a year, was not that it was under resourced or “insufficient in scale.” The problem was that its logic was wrong and out of sync with the basic dynamics of the insurgency.
Now it’s over—America’s covert war in Syria is finished. And with regime change behind us, it’s time to look forward. Washington has to think about how we can responsibly let these people down and, in real terms, actually save some Syrian civilians.
The rationale for the arms program was, from early on, muddled. It wasn’t supposed to make rebels win outright. But if the CIA had intended for Syria’s rebels to overrun Damascus, at least that would have made a sort of sense. Total rebel victory would have been ugly and impossible to control, but also, as a plan, it would have been achievable and comprehensible. There’s a fairly clear cause-and-effect logic from truckloads of weapons to massacres and chaos—which some people might call “victory,” I suppose. But instead, the U.S. government tried to use a remotely managed proxy war to force an extremely delicate, negotiated political resolution. It was an elaborate, Rube Goldbergian military-political project that could never work.
In any case, a political solution that removed Assad was never a real possibility. There was never any indication, at any point in the war, that the regime was willing to negotiate its own demise.
But the covert program’s theory of the case also fell apart when when it became clear that the armed opposition—which was supposed to extract political concessions from the regime—was increasingly permeated by sectarian extremists and de-linked from the civilian interlocutors with which the regime was meant to compromise.
In Syria’s south, Jordan’s tight border controls and its hands-on management of the rebellion successfully marginalized and weakened jihadist factions, even if it couldn’t entirely eliminate them.
But it was the north that was the revolution’s center of gravity, and it was in the north that things got totally out of control. Turkey’s laissez faire approach to its border and the north’s armed insurgency broadly allowed jihadists to infiltrate the northern opposition early on, to an extent that was later impossible to reverse. First, the Islamic State burst out of the opposition’s chest, seizing the resource-rich eastern half of their territory. Then what was left was increasingly dominated by Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front and other hardliners, with CIA-backed FSA nationalists left to swim in their wake.
By last year—arguably earlier—CIA-backed northern rebels were mostly backfilling for either the Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham, an Islamist movement-opposition faction and Nusra’s erstwhile ally. U.S.-backed factions had to put their weapons stocks and supply lines under Islamists’ protection, or to pay jihadists a portion of their material support as a sort of toll. (Some also just sold ammunition on the local black market.) And when the Nusra Front—now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham—got hungry, it pillaged these smaller factions. It seized their storehouses, often without a fight, and then showed off their U.S.-supplied weapons in glossy photo releases.
It was a 2015 offensive jointly led by the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham—with the CIA-backed FSA reduced to providing indirect fire support—that seems to have originally provoked Russia in intervening in Syria later that year. As Nusra and Ahrar have fought for total control of the north over the past few days, it’s telling that FSA factions have mostly been absent. In the north, the Islamists are the elephants; the FSA is the grass.
The idea that the U.S. covert arms program in north Syria and CIA-backed FSA factions were somehow a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front was a fiction.
The idea that the U.S. covert arms program in north Syria and CIA-backed FSA factions were somehow a bulwark against al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front was a fiction. Northern FSA were not competing with the Nusra Front. The program was fueling an insurgency in which Nusra had firmly ensconced itself and from which Nusra was drawing strength.
The covert program was premised on a regime change logic that didn’t make sense and of which, in latter years, the United States was no longer really convinced. As counterterrorism became America’s main, overriding policy priority in Syria, Washington pursued counterterrorism aims mainly through overt means: its air campaign, its support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, and its parallel train-and-equip program for Arab forces.
The covert Syria program did not help with counterterrorism. And rather, by indirectly feeding the Nusra Front, it arguably hurt.
By 2017, the best, most compelling argument for continuing the covert arms program was defensive. In the mountainous rebel north—home to more than two million residents, including almost a million vulnerable displaced people—CIA-furnished anti-tank weaponry would have been key to deterring a ground offensive by the regime and its allies.
But to what end? It was apparently impossible to uproot the Nusra Front from within the northwest—certainly, CIA beneficiaries whose entire raison d’etre was fighting the Assad regime would not try it. And Turkey was unwilling to mount a full-scale intervention against Nusra, Turkish officials told me. Continuing with the covert program, then, meant sponsoring the ongoing defense of a jihadist safe haven.
In any case, the suspense is over. The United States is out.
There’s been a lot of doomsaying about what the end of the covert program will mean. I don’t buy it—or most of it, at least.
One fear has been that, absent the United States’ convening power and direction, regional states and other opposition backers will start doing destructive things without American supervision. The covert program was originally established in 2013—in part to give Washington a veto on which arms were provided, and to corral opposition backers who had been unilaterally and indiscriminately spreading around money and weapons, including to jihadists.
This concern strikes me as overblown. The United States played a key logistical role in the covert program’s weapons pipeline, sourcing arms from eastern Europe. It’s not obvious that anyone else can take America’s place; in America’s absence, the arms program as a whole seems likely to suffer.
Moreover, it’s not clear many opposition backers will be willing to continue with this or a similar effort absent America’s political cover and leading role. Opposition sponsors—including most of the Gulf states—are exhausted, if not checked out on the opposition entirely. Saudi Arabia, preoccupied now with its war in Yemen, is no longer seriously invested in regime change in Syria. Turkey has also give up on regime change, instead preferring to negotiate with Russia over de-escalation and pursue its narrow national security ends. Qatar has been a rogue actor, participating in the joint arms program but also independently supporting Islamist factions in partnership with Turkey. But, as Qatar’s dispute with Saudi and the United Arab Emirates drags on, its standing internationally and with the United States specifically is precarious. Donald Trump is already telling fundraisers that Qatar funds terrorism—if Qatar decides this is the opportune moment to go all-in on the Nusra Front, well, that’s its prerogative.
Another concern about ending the covert arms program has been that, without foreign support to sustain the FSA, rebels would migrate en masse from the FSA to the Nusra Front and other jihadist factions. This likewise seems exaggerated.
It’s true that the shuttering of the covert program will basically mean the end of what’s left of the “FSA,” at least in the northwest. These factions likely have enough cash and weapons stores to go on for a few months, but not much longer. But it’s not a sure thing that these rebels will migrate to hard-edge jihadist factions that many of them find extreme and alarming, as opposed to just abandoning the battlefield. And it’s not clear that the jihadists actually want to absorb large numbers of new fighters, or that they have the resources. The Nusra Front’s financials are not transparent and public, but locals have told me the group is cash-poor—that’s why it’s been hunting for new, extractive revenue streams.
The end of the covert arms program is likely to weaken the Nusra Front, not strengthen it.
The end of the covert arms program is likely to weaken the Nusra Front, not strengthen it. The Nusra Front has succeeded as the tip of the spear for the northern insurgency—but to succeed, it needs the shaft of the broader armed opposition behind it.
That doesn’t mean the northern opposition will suddenly disappear, however. The existing Qatari funding channel to Ahrar al-Sham and several other factions could continue. And both the Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham have sufficiently diverse portfolios of local commercial holdings and revenue streams that they can survive—or they could have, if Nusra didn’t seem on track to just kill Ahrar first. But in any case, the northern rebellion will be substantially reduced.
The south is different. In the southwest, the United States, Russia, and Jordan have just negotiated a de-escalation that should leave rebel areas mostly intact and keep Iranian proxy factions away from the Jordanian and Israeli borders. There are compelling, non-regime change reasons to pursue this de-escalation arrangement, primarily related to the security and stability of America’s regional allies. An abrupt halt to U.S. support would risk unbalancing this deal, but I was told by a southern commander that sections of the southern arms program would be repurposed and continue. In what form and to what end was unclear—potentially oriented more directly toward counter-Islamic State operations, or toward defending U.S. allies’ borders.
I argued previously that the covert arms program should not be abandoned unilaterally, and that its end should be bartered for Russian guarantees for several enclaves outside regime control: the south, the Turkish-occupied Aleppo countryside, and the Kurdish northeast.
That doesn’t seem to have happened, which is not good.
Officials told the Washington Post the move to end the covert arms program “reflects Trump’s interest in finding ways to work with Russia.” But Russia already wanted to work with the United States in Syria, as evidenced by the nascent de-escalation in the south. I can’t imagine any promising new horizons for cooperation with Russia—or the Assad regime—that will open up because America made this unilateral, soft-headed concession.
Still, even without a more solid, reciprocal agreement, the areas I identified as defensible already enjoy at least some international protection. That protection could be formalized and lent some permanence. The United States ought to continue to invest in these areas and in locking in stabilizing, de-escalatory arrangements that meaningfully reduce violence. The success of this latest agreement in the south is still uncertain and contingent, but it merits a serious, good-faith effort by Washington. Washington should do what it can to adjust or replace the covert program in the south in a way that serves useful non-regime change objectives, but also keeps rebels vital enough to defend themselves and doesn’t sabotage the newly brokered deal.
In Syria’s northwest, it’s tough to put an optimistic spin on this. Rebels and civilians are in for a bad time. The United States should wind down the covert program in the north responsibly, in coordination with its regional allies and Syrian partners. I would argue Washington should continue an overt State Department program that has operated in parallel to the covert CIA program and that has provided non-lethal support to the same rebel factions, including rations with which rebels supported their families. This support is how these rebels feed their kids. Keeping it going is literally the least we can do. America’s open-handed humanitarian support for the northwest’s civilians should also continue for as long as it’s needed.
But the United States and its allies also need to do some serious contingency planning for a northwest that in its current state is, realistically, unsustainable. The world will not indefinitely tolerate a northwest that is a Nusra-dominated jihadist haven. There are some longshot solutions that can be tried in the meantime, including a Hail Mary play by Ahrar al-Sham to expel the Nusra Front from northern Idlib and establish a Turkish-sponsored, internationally tolerable safe zone. These probably won’t work, and opposition backers should not plan on the basis that they’ll work. Eventually, an assault by the Assad regime and its allies is coming, and millions of civilians will be in its path.
As I’ve argued before, opposition backers need to work with Turkey to ensure Turkey is ready, willing, and able to absorb large numbers of new refugees fleeing an advancing regime. Turkey already hosts three million refugees—it’s totally understandable that it doesn’t want more. But unless it wants to close its border and let hundreds of thousands of desperate, would-be refugees crash against it like a wave, Turkey needs to be more flexible. The United States and its allies should be encouraging that flexibility through any means available—funds, technical assistance, whatever it takes.
Even if America has disengaged from Syria’s central civil war, the conflict won’t stop, and the civilians we’ve supported will be in real peril.
Washington ought to re-center its Syria policy on humanitarian, life-saving objectives, for the sake of American interests and Syrians’ well-being. Because even if America has disengaged from Syria’s central civil war, the conflict won’t stop, and the civilians we’ve supported will be in real peril. Now it’s time to own up to our responsibilities to these people and try to save who we can.