In case you’ve forgotten, there’s still a brutal civil war raging in Syria. And a couple of days ago, President Trump handed Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and his Russian patron Vladimir Putin, a sweet little gift.
Trump administration officials acknowledged Wednesday that a covert program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels would be discontinued. The program was put in place in 2013 by Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, and while its effectiveness has been in question, Putin, in particular, has long sought to see the initiative killed.
That helps Assad, and by extension, helps Putin. As I’ve written before, the Russian president has a deep interest in seeing the Assad regime retain power, and has been willing to facilitate or commit all manner of war crimes and civilian atrocities to see that through.
Back in October 2015, right after Russian warplanes began flying combat missions in Syria, I argued that Putin’s tactic of targeting air strikes against anti-Assad rebels, especially those backed by the United States, while scrupulously avoiding hitting Islamic State targets, reflected a strategy of clearing the field so that the rest of the world would have to choose between a Syria controlled by Assad, or one dominated by ISIS.
This strategy scored a major victory in December 2016, when Syrian government forces, supported by indiscriminate bombing by Russian warplanes, succeeded in retaking the city of Aleppo from the same moderate rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, and other outside powers opposed to both Assad and ISIS.
And now, by killing the US program to arm and train these moderate forces, President Trump has delivered yet another victory to Assad and Putin.
This was all fairly predictable. Recall that just a month after Trump was elected, Assad in an interview with Syrian state television, referred to him as his “natural ally”:
Trump’s statements were clear during his campaign in relation to fighting terrorism, non-intervention against states in order to depose governments, as the United States has been doing for decades. This is good, but this depends on Trump’s will to carry on with this approach, and his ability to do that. We know that there are powerful lobbies in the United States which stood against Trump and they will exert their utmost pressure, when he is in office, to push him towards retracting what he said in this area and in other areas as well. Otherwise, he will have a confrontation with these lobbies in the Congress, in the Senate, in the media, and in the industrial lobbies which gain from wars, like what happened in Iraq and Yemen recently. That’s why if Trump was able to overcome all these obstacles and really act against terrorism, I believe that he will be our natural ally.
For their part, Syria’s moderate rebels were understandably taken by surprise. Even if the effectiveness of US support had been swamped by the efforts of Russia (and Iran) to militarily prop up the Assad regime, the rebels still didn’t expect to be so unceremoniously hung out to dry:
“The program played an important role in organizing and supporting the rebels,” said Lt. Col. Ahmed al-Saud, who commands the Division 13 rebel group in Idlib province.
He said that “this won’t affect our fight against the regime, the Islamic State or Nusra,” which is the former name of Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate. But he also expressed disbelief that the United States would end its support.
“I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said. “America is a superpower. It won’t just retreat like that.”
Oh yeah? Watch us.