On Wednesday, US officials told the Washington Post (WP) and Reuters that Trump has decided to put an end to the covert CIA plan which began arming and training the so-called moderate Syrian rebels in 2013.
Authorized by President Barack Obama, the secret Timber Sycamore weapons supply and training initiative has served as the backbone of Washington’s strategy to topple the Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Two US officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity with Reuters, said the covert CIA scheme has produced little results.
The Washington Post meanwhile claimed, based on their sources, that Trump’s reported intention to stop arming the rebels is the American president’s way of finding common ground with Russia on Syria.
Moscow has always warned against arming the so-called moderate rebel groups in Syria, pointing out that weapons supplied to them often fall into the hands of jihadist groups such as Jabhat al Nusra and Islamic State.
“Of course it’s been a tremendous waste of money … to train rebels who immediately turned weapons over and joined Al-Nusra [Front] or Al-Qaeda,” Rick Sterling, an investigative journalist and member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, told RT.
“The money in the training that the CIA has provided has primarily helped Al-Qaeda,” Sterling said. He described Trump’s decision was a positive step, but added it is likely “to come under attack now, and the decision may be undermined or sabotaged.”
Trump’s decision to end the CIA program was reportedly taken in consultation with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster ahead of his meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg earlier this month. During that meeting, on the sidelines of the G20 summit, Trump and Putin reached a ceasefire agreement for southwest Syria.
The scrapping of the CIA’s Timber Sycamore program was not a precondition for the ceasefire negotiations, the US officials insisted.
Without sharing the details of the program’s demise, the unnamed US officials claimed that Timber Sycamore would be phased out over a period of months. The WP report also said the decision to end the operation is being supported by the Jordanians, where some of the CIA training has been taken place.
Varied US arms and training strategies to bolster rebel groups in Syria under the Obama administration have been notoriously underwhelming. In 2015, General Lloyd Austin, CENTCOM commander at the time, told Congress that only four or five of US-trained fighters have gone to Syria of the 5,000 the Pentagon envisaged.
Earlier that year, the then Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee Carter that less than 1 percent of the pool of 7,000 Syrian volunteers for the US-funded train-and-equip program had made it through the vetting process.
“As of July 3,  we are currently training about 60 fighters,” Carter said. “I can look out at your faces and you have the same reaction I do, which is that that's an awfully small number.”
The Reuters report notes that the US will continue to support select Syrian rebel groups with airstrikes and guidance as part of a separate effort.
The White House declined to comment on the reports at their daily briefing. The CIA has also refused to comment when reached out to by Reuters.
In February, Reuters reported that the US had frozen the CIA-run program after rebels in northwest Syria came under major attack by Islamists. The alleged suspension of the program, which included salaries, training, ammunition, had nothing to do with Trump replacing Barack Obama as president, two US officials familiar with the CIA program told Reuters at the time.
The CIA declined to comment on the reported freeze, while officials in Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia – the other three countries funneling support to Syrian anti-government rebels – also refused to discuss the matter.