Experts say the US President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the CIA programme that trains, arms and pays moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al Assad regime will weaken resistance and signals a new low in Turkey-US relations.

Thousands of FSA rebels were trained in a covert CIA programme in Turkey and Jordan.
Thousands of FSA rebels were trained in a covert CIA programme in Turkey and Jordan.

The US decision to abandon the CIA's programme that trains, arms and pays moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Bashar al Assad regime signals a "major concession" to Russia, analysts and officials of the opposition rebel groups warn.

"It's a major concession from the Americans to the Russians. It will have negative effects on the opposition side," Asaad Hanna, a former political officer with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), told TRT World.

"But it's unclear which aspect of the 'train and equip programme' will be halted."

The Washington Post was first to report the programme's suspension on Wednesday. Both the CIA and White House haven't commented on the decision.

The FSA – an amalgam of several moderate rebel groups – was formed in August 2011 by regime army deserters and soon, under the covert CIA programme launched in 2013 by the Obama administration, thousands of its fighters were trained and armed in two military operation centres, one located in Turkey – called the MOM or (Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi) and another in Jordan called Military Operation Centre (or MOC).

Hanna said it's still unclear if the US is stopping salaries to fighters.

"If that happens, some fighters may want to move to other groups or abandon fighting. Also, some other country may want to get involved and exploit the situation," he said, adding, "FSA must start thinking about other resources and realise who are its real friends."

Map showing which side controls what territory in Syria. (TRT World)
Map showing which side controls what territory in Syria. (TRT World)

Critical time

The US decision has come at a critical time in the Syrian conflict that has split the country into several zones since 2011, when the conflict erupted killing around 400,000 people, displacing millions and giving rise to a formidable terrorist group – Daesh.

Currently, the US-led coalition provides air support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling to oust Daesh from Raqqa, its de facto capital in Syria.

US sees in the SDF a ''reliable partner'' against Daesh while the YPG forms SDF's key component.

Turkey which backs FSA and seeks to contain the YPG group in Syria, considers the YPG an extension of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist group by Ankara, the US, and EU.

Turkey has repeatedly objected to the US supplying weapons to terror groups on the pretext of an operation to oust Daesh.

In the southeast, Syrian regime forces are backed by their Russian allies who are fighting Daesh in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor.

Daesh has targeted all sides in this conflict and has widened the conflict beyond the Syrian borders.

In March this year, Turkey ended an eight-month military operation called Euphrates Shield to clear the Turkey-Syria border from both Daesh and US-backed YPG.

US sees in the SDF a ''reliable partner'' against Daesh and the YPG forms its key component (Reuters Archive)
US sees in the SDF a ''reliable partner'' against Daesh and the YPG forms its key component (Reuters Archive)

Halting a defunct programme?

A Turkmen commander of FSA who took part in that operation said that the latest US move doesn't necessarily change anything "unless it cuts the support for the groups (within FSA) the US has been supporting separately."

"CIA backs some small groups within FSA, which are only fighting against Daesh, not Assad or YPG. We don't know the details yet but we believe they will keep supporting them," the rebel commander told TRT World, on condition of anonymity.

He said the CIA-funded "train and equip programme" has not been working for a year now "as it was not successful."

He said if the US really cuts its support to all moderate FSA rebels, "then it will mean that the only group the US trusts and works with in Syria is the YPG."

Turkish officials acknowledge in private that US support to the programme ended a year ago.

"The US says it's part of 'train and equip programme' but practically it's not," a senior Turkish diplomat told TRT World.

The diplomat, who wished to remain anonymous, said, "Water finds its path. Finally it (US) declared what it was actually doing."

The diplomat accused the US of switching alliances leading to the death of the "train and equip programme."

"It's a strategic mistake ...." the CNN quoted Bob Baer, a former CIA operative, as saying.

"It looks like, to me, that he (Donald Trump) just gave that as a gift to Vladimir Putin for no quid pro quo and that's not the way diplomacy works," he said.

NATO allies have dangerously diverged on Syria and follow separate policies (Reuters Archive)
NATO allies have dangerously diverged on Syria and follow separate policies (Reuters Archive)

New low in Turkey-US relations

The FSA which is now battling the YPG, Daesh and regime forces simultaneously, may find itself in tougher conditions even as the decision signals a new low in the US and Turkey relationship.

Both NATO allies have dangerously diverged on Syria and follow separate policies despite agreeing on several issues.

"Uncertainty and fluidity have engulfed the whole region. It's the worst situation even for political analysts," said TRT World's Editor-at-Large Ahmed al Burai. "Things are changing so fast that it has become impossible to predict them."

"Look at the Turkey and the US relationship for example. Both sides have moved towards an unequivocal divorce. They may say they're allies in this war but the ground realities offer a different look," he said.

He said the new moves are giving legitimacy to the Assad regime.

"We are learning about the arrival of Starbucks, KFC and other outlets in Damascus. The French president is against the deposing of regime leader al Assad. The rebels are being weakened. This means Syria is headed for a de facto soft-partitioning," al Burai added.

However, he said, the positive outcome for Turkey in the new US decision is that Ankara will have more room to move independently on the MOM.

"Turkey's leverage could increase."

Authors: Baba Umar I Ece Goksedef

Source: TRT World