Donald Trump’s Presidential Directive to cut off CIA funding for Syria’s rebels, that was released on Wednesday, July 19, is not just a death warrant for the moderate Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, which the US trained and armed for four years. It spells the start of America’s withdrawal from military intervention in Syria and Iraq. To some degree, it also marks the end of America’s war on the Islamic State’s bastions.
Indeed, on Thursday, July 27, US-led coalition spokesman Army Col. Ryan Dillon informed Syrian allies that henceforth “the coalition would only support those forces committed to fighting ISIS.”
They were told to give up fighting the Assad regime. One rebel group reacted by walking out of the joint coalition base in Southern Syria.
Barack Obama invested in a group of moderate Syrian rebel militias as a tool for overthrowing the Assad regime. But now, Russia, which backs Bashar Assad, has demanded that the US discontinue this program as the price for Russian-US cooperation in moves for ending the six-year Syrian civil war.
Hence, the cutoff of CIA funding, just two weeks after the conversations Trump held with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg.
As to the US President’s motives, did he mean this as a calculated poke in the eye for the domestic intelligence community, which hassles him endlessly over ties with Russia, or was it a strategic decision? Did Trump decide that America had done its bit for the Islamic State’s defeat at Mosul and its loss of around 40 percent of Raqqa, and the Syrian and Iraqi armies could be left to finish the war on ISIS, aided by the pro-Iranian militias, including Hizballah, and Russian air support?
Trump certainly looked at the cost-versus-profit calculus. Withdrawal from the two war-torn countries at this juncture would save the US Treasury many billions of dollars, as well as the lives of many American troops. So why not leave the Russians to swim or sink on their own in the Syrian and Iraqi quagmires?
There are substantial connotations to this decision:
- It is too late to dislodge the Russians. Neither Obama nor Trump put up a fight against their massive military intervention in Syria as of September 2015. Neither did they develop plans to topple Assad as a means of ridding Syria of Moscow’s embrace. By now, the Russians are too deeply embedded there for any option other than accepting that they are there to stay.
- This means also accepting the survival of Bashar Assad’s presidency.
- Around a thousand assorted Syrian rebel militias are now left high and dry, with no party in the Middle East or outside offering funds or arms for them to continue to fight the Assad regime. Those rebels are stuck with hard choices – either lay down arms and retire from the battlefield, or join up with the Islamic State.
- The civil war may linger for years. But with the opposition movement bereft of support from the United States, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar, which sponsored parts of the opposition movement until recently, the Syrian government’s army can go forward and gobble up ever-larger slices of territory without facing resistance. Even a year ago, this scenario did not appear realistic to any serious intelligence organization in the West or the Middle East. But that is the situation today.
- The Iraqi army’s victory over ISIS in Mosul took nearly ten months of hard combat. It would have been impossible without the direct participation of US special operations units and air force in the fighting. However, the White House and military circles in Washington don’t see the United States gleaning any tangible strategic benefits from this victory. Just the reverse. Even kudos for the feat have been snatched up by a small segment of the Iraqi army, the 8,000 elite troops of the United Counter-Terrorism Service, which was created in the first place by America.
An even larger share of credit was claimed by the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) a pro-Iranian umbrella of Iraqi Shiite militias, which fought under the direct command of Al Qods Chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Even the Kurdish Peshmerga shared in the limelight of the Mosul victory. The last thing Washington wants is to share the platform with an Iraqi outfit that defers to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
- US strategists see now that the loss of Mosul and much of Raqqa has in no way diminished the Islamic State’s capabilities to wage a war of terror in the Middle East and other parts of the world. They don’t say this out loud, but both US and Middle East military and intelligence officials are aware that ISIS prepared for defeat in its Syrian and Iraqi bastions by regrouping into small, versatile terrorist cells armed and equipped for continuing their deadly operations for many years to come.
(This was first revealed by DEBKA Weekly 763 of July 14, in an article titled: Where Have 30,000 Jihadis Gone? Regrouping for Revised, Massive ISIS Terror).
- The scattering of the jihadists’ fighting strength after the caliphate’s collapse as a territorial entity renders the deployment of any large-scale US force redundant in both arenas. It makes more sense for Special operations troops, based beyond their horizon, to fly in and out for specific missions.
- Turkey has gone over to the Russian-Iranian axis, quitting its role as an American strategic asset. Washington is left with two military allies in the region, Israel and Jordan, both of which can carry their own defense without relying on large numbers of American troops to be present either in Syria or Iraq. The Trump administration is therefore ready to pack its military bags and head out of those two war zones without further ado. In the worst case scenario, both Jerusalem and Amman can call up American military assistance for delivery by air or by sea.
- DEBKA Weekly’s military sources have not witnessed US preparations for drawing down its troops in Syria or Iraq. But the expansion of their presence beyond the existing US bases – especially on the Syrian-Iraqi border and the Euphrates Valley – appears to be on hold. Washington appears to have given up on the prime objective of obstructing Iran’s path to a land bridge from Iraq to Syria.