Trump ‘ends support’ for Syria rebels

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration has decided to halt the CIA’s covert program to equip and train certain rebel groups fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, two US officials said, a move sought by Assad ally Russia.

The US decision, said one of the officials, was part of an effort by the administration to improve relations with Russia, which along with Iranian-supported groups had largely succeeded in preserving Mr Assad’s Government in the six-year-civil war.

The CIA program began in 2013 as part of efforts by the administration of then-President Barack Obama to overthrow Mr Assad, but produced little success, said the officials, both of whom were familiar with the program and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Washington Post was first to report the program’s suspension on Wednesday. White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the topic at the White House briefing.

The CIA also declined to comment.

The decision was made with National Security Adviser H R McMaster and CIA director Mike Pompeo after they consulted with lower ranking officials and before Mr Trump’s July 7 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Germany. It was not part of US-Russian negotiations on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria, the two officials said.

One of the officials said the US was not making a major concession, given Mr Assad’s grip on power, although not on all of Syria, “but it’s a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia”.

Mr Trump is under intense scrutiny by Congress and a special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Mr Trump’s campaign had ties to the activity. Russia has denied US intelligence agencies’ allegations of Moscow meddling, and Mr Trump has denied collusion between his campaign and Russians.

A downside of the CIA program, one of the officials said, was that some armed and trained rebels defected to Islamic State and other radical groups, and some members of the previous administration favoured abandoning the program.

Before assuming office in January, Mr Trump suggested he could end support for Free Syrian Army groups and give priority to the fight against Islamic State.

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