The Trump administration revealed it had canceled a CIA program to provide Syrian rebels with arms and training in July, and I’ll give you three guesses as to how the story got framed. If you went with “misleading insinuations over Russia,” you are correct. The Washington Post, which broke the news, ran with the headline: “Trump ends covert CIA program to arm anti-Assad rebels in Syria, a move sought by Moscow.” An anonymous quote in the story — “Putin won in Syria” — got traction online, in print and on TV.
It was a sloppy conflation: Policy that coincides with Moscow’s aims is not the same as policy meant to serve Moscow. In this case, there’s no evidence that President Trump was acting under the thrall of Vladimir Putin. More likely the president axed the CIA initiative because — as many of us have been warning since long before Russia sent its military to Syria — it wasn’t working. Additionally, it constituted an unwise intervention in the Syrian civil war, which holds little interest and no good options for the United States.
From the start, American weapons shipments had a curious habit of ending up in the hands of al-Qaida and Islamic State fighters. Among numerous examples, the Pentagon admitted in 2015 that U.S.-trained Syrian rebels had voluntarily forked over their American-provided equipment, including half a dozen pickups, to the al-Qaida offshoot Nusra Front. Islamic State soldiers have been documented running around with our anti-tank missiles. Even early on, when training and arms efforts were being carried out through the Saudis and Qataris, one U.S. official admitted, “The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it.” More recently, even Charles Lister, an ardent supporter of the Syrian rebellion, has estimated that 10 percent to 15 percent of American equipment was lost to al-Qaida and Islamic State.
The problem is that trying to tease out a “moderate rebel” from the extremists has become devilishly difficult. The power amassed by the Nusra Front as late as 2012 was enough to guarantee that Syrian democrats needed the jihadists to help them beat the Assad regime. And so alliances of convenience were made, many of the moderate groups became more extreme (sometimes gradually, sometimes with alarming immediacy), and the rebellion took on an overall more Islamist character. The problem was compounded by the sheer cunning of the Nusra Front — which sponsored a relief department and food convoys, winning over besieged locals even as it declared its ultimate intention to impose sharia law.
This was the insurgency into whose hands the Obama administration wanted to place Syria’s future. The impossibility of the Syrian project was only compounded by bureaucratic ineptitude, perhaps best revealed when the Pentagon’s counterpart program managed to train so few rebels that the price tag was calculated at $4 million for each fighter. The CIA’s initiative was assumed to be more effective, but even then plenty of red-tape-tangled muddling has been documented. In 2015, Congress considered slashing the program’s funding by up to 20 percent, and while specifics weren’t forthcoming, it must have taken some serious dysfunction to dull lawmakers’ generally gung-ho approach toward Syria.
But sideline all those objections for a moment. Zoom out on the map and think in terms of the greater Syrian war. The Assad regime today is in a stronger position than it was four years ago thanks to Russia’s intervention on its behalf. The rebellion has had its victories, some of them aided by American weapons, but overall the Obama administration’s train-and-arm efforts failed at their objective. So Trump canceled a government program that wasn’t working. What’s wrong with that? Especially when the alternative was to keep fueling a barbaric conflict with weapons that could one day be turned on us.
The Syrian civil war is a deeply intricate battlefield with numerous factions acting on myriad motivations. It is impossible to siphon it into a facile, cable news-ready, black-and-white narrative. Trump’s decision was about far more than capitulation to Russia — it was the right call for American interests, regardless of whether it aligns with Russian intentions. The Syrian civil war needs to be ended, not furthered by another round of fruitless arms shipments.
Matt Purple is a fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank launched in 2016 that advocates for foreign policy restraint, and the deputy editor of Rare Politics. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.