After four years of arming rebels in Syria, President Trump has terminated the CIA’s secret arms program. Established during the Obama administration in 2013, the program launched after the former president faced constant pressure to stand up against the Assad regime. Early proponents of arming Syrian rebels included figures such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as well as former CIA Director David Petraeus.
The program, known as “Timber Sycamore,” formed a partnership between the CIA and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to supply weapons and money to rebel fighters in Syria at a cost of billions of dollars. These fighters would not contest radical groups such as the Islamic State, but instead, would target the Syrian Armed Forces (a separate Pentagon initiative focused on funding groups to fight the Islamic State).
After years of operation, the program has only exacerbated the conflict. The Syrian Civil War began in 2011, and now in its sixth year, has been absolutely devastating to the Syrian people. Nearly 500,000 people have been killed by both government and rebel forces, and over ten million Syrians (about sixty percent of the population) have been displaced.
Foreign intervention has turned the conflict from a civil war into a proxy war between Sunni nations and the west, and Shia nations and Russia. The former has allied themselves with the rebels and the latter with the Syrian government. Salafist rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam receive enthusiastic support from the Saudi government, and both groups have cooperated with al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. In May of 2016, Ahrar al-Sham sieged a majority Alawite (a branch of Shia Islam and the religion of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) town, brutally killing nineteen civilians. Jaysh al-Islam has been reported to throw civilians in cages and use them as human shields. There have also even been reports of CIA-backed “moderate” rebel groups selling U.S weapons to al-Nusra as well as the Islamic State. In fact, as Syrian opposition leader Abu Ahmad recalls: “The CIA knew about this… It was the price of doing business.”
Yet, the president’s decision to ax the program was not safe from scrutiny. Former Senior Advisor to the President David Axelrod insinuated that President Trump’s decision provided further evidence of collusion between President Donald Trump and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the elimination of the program a “capitulation to Assad, Russia, and Iran.” Furthermore, Max Boot, a proud neoconservative commentator who enthusiastically supported U.S-led regime change in Iraq and in 2013 pushed for a U.S-led “bombing campaign” in Iran, said, “Trump is serving Russia’s interests.”
So far there have been seven UN sponsored attempts to reach a peaceful resolution in Syria. The last attempt occurred between July 10th to July 15th with little success. However, in early July, a ceasefire was agreed upon in southern Syria, and in spite of some violations, the agreement seems to be enduring. The next UN sponsored attempt for peace is scheduled for some time in September. Regarding the upcoming talks, UN Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura stated, “We will see whether by that time the international momentum … may be able to actually push all sides to finally sit in the same room and start talking about substance.”
Meanwhile, President Trump has agreed to arm Kurdish forces in Syria to defeat the Islamic State in the city of Raqqa. Raqqa, which currently serves as the Islamic State’s de facto capital, has been occupied by the Islamic State since 2013.