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The Syria Chess Board: An Exercise In Strategic Carnage

As the U.S. moves to end its CIA-backed training program for Syrian rebels, debate rages over the potential effects on the war as well as Washington-Moscow ties.

U.S. President Donald Trump recently made headlines in the Middle East by reportedly opting to end the CIA’s covert program to “train-and-equip” Syrian rebels combatting the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The initiative, an Obama-era policy launched in 2013 to put pressure on Assad to leave office, has been plagued by inefficiencies and impediments. At the time, the program deeply divided the Obama administration as some argued for a more aggressive approach, including providing affirmative responses to rebel requests for heavy weaponry.

Now, the Trump administration has come under fire for the move, with some describing it as capitulating to Russia (although the top American general in Syria denied that Moscow was relevant to the decision-making process). “If these reports are true, the administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin,” affirmed U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, “[as] making any concession to Russia, absent a broader strategy for Syria, is irresponsible and short-sighted.”

Yet, the CIA-led effort has, by most accounts, been a monumental disappointment, as only dozens to hundreds of rebels trained abroad actually entered the war, with aid beneficiaries in Syria beset by constant infighting and battlefield setbacks. By contrast, the rebels that did make significant advances by the summer of 2015—to the point of threatening Assad in Damascus and in his eastern coastal stronghold, a situation which prompted Russian military intervention—were not CIA-supported, but, rather, an amalgamation of Sunni Islamists backed by regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar.

According to Dr. Jonathan Spyer, a Senior Fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center and expert on Syria, there may be more here than meets the eye. “The need now is to define what CIA backing for the rebels constitutes,” he explained to The Media Line. “In northern Syria, the program to arm Sunni Arab rebels is virtually defunct and was a well-publicized failure. Rebels were either defeated by Islamists or colluded with them.”

(At this point, given the chaotic nature of the Syrian conflict, Dr. Spyer marks a crucial distinction; namely, that the CIA effort in the north is separate from a U.S. Department of Defense [DOD] initiative in support of mainly Kurdish fighters presently engaged in an offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State. These rebels, widely viewed by the American defense establishment as the most cohesive, reliable and moderate in Syria, have been on the whole successful. So much so that the Pentagon is requesting an additional $500 million in the 2018 defense budget to continue funding them.)

The big unknown, then, which resides at the core of the current debate, is how broadly the term “CIA program” will be defined by the Trump administration, and whether cuts also will be made to military programs in southern Syria, particularly in the Quneitra and Daraa provinces (southwest) and in Al-Tanf and Zakas (southeast)—operations that previously fell under the jurisdiction of the DOD.

If Washington does cut back on supplying weapons to fighters in these areas, Dr. Spyer believes “the impact would be very significant, as the remaining non-jihadist groups there would be greatly weakened, which would allow the more extreme rebel factions to become stronger.” More importantly, he continued, in this eventuality, “the U.S. will have effectively handed over future control of southern Syria to Russia, and, of course, to Iran and to a lesser degree the Assad regime. It would be an acceptance that the rebellion will be defeated.”

The potential ramifications were summarized by U.S. General Raymond Thomas, the head of the Special Operations Command in Syria, who warned that American military disengagement could lead to decreased influence over the fate of the country, and perhaps even to the total expulsion of American forces from Syria in the event the Islamic State is defeated. “Here’s the conundrum,” Thomas proffered, “we are operating in the sovereign country of Syria. The Russians, their stalwarts, their backstoppers have already uninvited the Turks from Syria. We’re a bad day away from the Russians saying, ‘Why are you still in Syria, U.S.?’ If the Russians play that card, we could want to stay and have no ability to do it.”

It is a far cry from April, when Trump ordered 59 tomahawk missiles fired at a Syrian military base in response to the regime’s deployment of chemical weapons. The U.S. likewise has conducted tactical strikes on Assad’s assets, including the downing of a Syrian jet in June, all of which appeared to mark a turning point for Washington’s deeper engagement in the conflict. Since then, though, the White House has assumed a less assertive posture, aside from articulating as an explicit goal, to “eradicate” ISIS, whose operational headquarters in Raqqa has become all the more vital in the wake of the terror group’s defeat in Mosul, Iraq.

Speaking to The Media Line, Prof. Eytan Gilboa, a Senior Research Associate at Israel’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies and an expert on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, illuminated the inconsistencies in Trump’s Syria policy, beginning with the ceasefire agreement brokered by the U.S. administration and Russia. “The current truce in southern Syria was agreed to in return for an American commitment to end aid to rebels,” Gilboa said. This would, in practice, entail a downsizing of Washington’s military footprint in southern battlegrounds.

“Basically, the U.S. seems to be accepting a new order in Syria, which would mean, first, that Assad will remain in power, and, second, that legitimacy has been granted to the Iran axis, which will allow for the formation of a ‘Shiite Crescent’ [Iranian-controlled contiguous land bridges spanning Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and extending into the Mediterranean].”

While the desire to work with Russia, or at the very least reach a détente, makes sense to Dr. Gilboa, there are nevertheless “mixed messages which are not well understood by American allies in the Middle East. This is why Israel, for example, came out strongly against the ceasefire in Syria’s south—because it is a green light for a permanent Iranian presence in the country.

“The U.S. missed an opportunity to reduce Iran’s influence,” he expressed to The Media Line, “as Trump could have said to the Russians that in return for keeping Assad in power, Iran must go.”

Gilboa maintains that there is no reason for Iran to preserve a presence in Syria following the war other than to exploit the country with a view to achieving its over-arching expansionist ambitions. However, he does suggest one mechanism by which to reconcile the apparent contradiction. “Iran is not going to be totally free in Syria because the U.S. likely has an agreement with Russia to impose restraints on Tehran. This would be the only valid explanation for the confusion in Trump’s policy.”

However, it is a big “if.” Trusting Russia on such an important an issue, while the White House continues to formulate its Iran policy, which many believe will be the lynchpin of the Trump Middle East strategy, has repercussions: So long as Tehran is aligned with Assad in Syria, regional Sunni countries are expected to fill any void caused by Washington’s decision to stop arming rebels, especially in the south. Accordingly, the war—which has killed hundreds of thousands and left millions destitute—is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

Then, there is the so-called Shiite Crescent, which could enable Iran to transfer advanced weapons systems to Hizbullah in both Lebanon and Syria, where permanent Iranian military bases might be placed. Also at play is the nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump has set his sights on, and the probable negative impact across the globe should Washington choose to abrogate it.

The final concern, according to Gilboa, is timing. In an apparent warning to the new administration, he admonished that, “You cannot play the waiting game, because things can change so fast that it will be too late to reverse them.”