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Why the U.S. strategy of arming Syrian rebels didn’t work

July 20, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
A covert CIA program created under the Obama administration to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels to put pressure on the Assad regime will soon end, The Washington Post first reported Wednesday. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Faysal Itani of the Atlantic Council about how this policy change will affect Syria’s future and the country's relationship with the U.S.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A CIA program to aid Syrian rebels fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad will soon be ended by the Trump administration.

Hari Sreenivasan has that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It was a covert program, started in 2013 under President Obama, in the hopes of forcing Assad from power. The news that President Trump would end the operation was first reported by The Washington Post yesterday.

Joining me now for what impact this will have on the conflict in Syria is Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

First, let’s talk about what this means, what the strategy is behind this move.

FAYSAL ITANI, Atlantic Council: Well, this is something — this is a campaign, a strategy that’s actually been rolled back for a long time.

Initially, it started as — under the Obama administration as a tool to put pressure on the Assad regime, military pressure, to get them to negotiate. That didn’t work. When the Russians came into Syria in 2015, the stakes became really too high and the risks became too high for the administration to keep on pushing with a proxy war program like this.

So, this is basically a rollback of that, and an indication that we have entered a whole different phase of the war.

HARI SREENIVASAN: We have seen the Trump administration repeatedly say, our focus is on defeating ISIS.

Does this move help in the fight against ISIS?

FAYSAL ITANI: Not so much.

It doesn’t have any immediate benefit on the fight against ISIS. But I think what the president was saying and thinking was that we don’t want anything to potentially distract or sort of siphon resources away from the fight against ISIS, so why are we doing this thing? Why do we have this program? We’re fighting Assad. Why should we be fighting Assad?

So, I think it’s really a question just eliminating other agendas and keeping one agenda alone. And I do think that some of these people who have been on the U.S. payroll for a long time, and they’re armed, they will be deployed against jihadi groups in Southern Syria, not all of them, but some of them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The rebels that are affected by this particular operation seem to be in the area that is right now holding tentatively under a cease-fire, right?

FAYSAL ITANI: Yes, absolutely.

And I think it’s no coincidence that this cease-fire relies on Russian goodwill and Russian intention of actually restraining the regime for breaking that cease-fire. And in return for that, I think you see part of the calculation is that we’re offering this concession.

We’re showing the Russians that we are serious about no longer escalating militarily against the regime. And this is a sign of our goodwill and our commitment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Has the strategy of funding, at least in terms of arms, these rebel groups, has that worked?

FAYSAL ITANI: No, because it was never of a sufficient scale or magnitude or quality that would really present a strategic threat to the regime, sufficient military threat to the regime.

The regime understood that fairly well, when we got slightly — a couple of years into the conflict, really. And the point is that it was never meant to put so much pressure on the regime that it would collapse. It was meant to sort of put just enough that it would bring Bashar al-Assad to the negotiating table.

And I think, obviously, that wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does this change that equation? Is Bashar al-Assad happier now that there is officially a de-escalation, at least in terms of support of arms against the people that he’s against?

FAYSAL ITANI: I think this is definitely good news to him.

It’s something, though, that had been happening for a while. But now that it’s about to become — I think this is why there is a leak — going to become official U.S. policy, then, yes, he certainly knows that he’s in the clear, insofar as there is a U.S. intention to pose a military threat to him.

And without the United States backing one or more of these groups in Syria, there really isn’t any way to pose a serious threat to the regime, given that Russia and Iran are fighting on his side.

HARI SREENIVASAN: There’s the political dimension to it. The Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain said, even while he’s recuperating — I want to read part of his quote — “If these reports are true, the administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin. Making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and shortsighted.”

FAYSAL ITANI: I think what Senator McCain is really saying is, he doesn’t agree with the policy of leaving Bashar al-Assad alone, and focusing only on ISIS, and letting the Russians dictate the way that that plays out in terms of cease-fires.

If you decided that that’s the course, this is not really a concession. This is actually what our strategy is. It’s only a concession if what our intention is, is actually to wrest some sort of other concession out of the regime or out of Russia.

And I don’t think that is the case. I think we’re really just kind of hoping that the Russians will deliver on the cease-fire agreements. And, well, let’s see if that happens. I’m very skeptical, but let’s see.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Well, what about the aggressions that have happened on the parts of the Assad regime and the Russians, in sometimes their indiscriminate bombing of innocent civilians and so forth?

If we decide to de-escalate this, does this decrease our voice at the table?

FAYSAL ITANI: Yes, I think our voice at the table started decreasing when we failed to respond to chemical weapons attacks on August 2013, failed to respond to the Russian entry and the subsequent escalation.

I think all the parties really on the other side have already sort of taken measure of us and understood what our commitments are and what they aren’t, and that we don’t have the stomach for a fight against Bashar al-Assad or even the stomach for sort of stopping these sort of atrocities that you’re talking about.

So, these will continue until they’re no longer needed. And then you will see one opposition area after the other come under regime control. And, definitely, yes, there is nothing standing in the way anymore in, for example, Southern Syria.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Faysal Itani, thanks so much.

FAYSAL ITANI: Thank you.

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