Since at least 2012, the United States has been supporting armed groups trying to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Assad. It has always been a difficult alliance because many of the rebel groups have ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The program has principally been run by the CIA.
In 2013, President Barack Obama waived a provision of the Arms Export Control Act that prevented arming terrorist organizations in order to arm Syrian rebels. Nonetheless, the weapons fell into Al Qaeda’s hands, first by accident, then on purpose after some marketing.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump repeatedly bashed the program and said, “We have no idea who these people are.” He suggested the government was arming people who may see the U.S. as an enemy.
A recent pause in the program has many rebels worried that the CIA has gotten new orders from President Trump. According to Reuters, the program has been frozen since January after one rebel faction known as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) came under attack by the more dominant Al Qaeda-linked group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as the Al Nusra Front).
The FSA has repeatedly proved to be a (seemingly unwilling) source of new weapons for Al Qaeda. Previous U.S. weapons given to FSA quickly fell into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked rebels when FSA fighters abandoned them on the battlefield.
Beyond the FSA’s forced donations to Al Qaeda’s war chest are its new conscious alliances. The FSA has now aligned with a rival Islamist rebel group backed by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, known as Ahrar al-Sham. Though not Al Qaeda or ISIS-linked, al-Sham is also a Sunni jihadist militant group promoting a Salafist ideology.
It may be this new alliance that is giving the CIA and the Trump Administration second thoughts about funneling more arms to the FSA. Then again, the Trump Administration’s overall plan for Syria is unclear. The Department of Defense is reportedly considering group forces in what would be a considerable escalation of U.S. involvement.
The primary focus of U.S. efforts in the region is the battle with ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq. A battle is raging against ISIS in the Iraqi city of Mosul just as U.S. and Kurdish forces are reportedly preparing for a major offensive for the Syrian city of Raqqa—ISIS’ claimed capital.
President Trump has continually said he will “obliterate ISIS” and claims the Pentagon will complete a plan to do so this month.
Senator John McCain recently traveled to the Kurdish-controlled town of Kobani located on the Syrian-Turkish border. McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the trip was to assist with planning the offensive against ISIS.
Senator McCain has long promoted the Al Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria and previously called for direct U.S. intervention in Syria to overthrow the Assad government. His antagonism with President Trump stems from core disagreements about the role of the U.S. in the world—McCain thinks the U.S. should dominated the world and that all people want to live under American values.
While the U.S. may no longer be pursuing “regime change” in Syria, there are no signs that President Trump has an exit strategy from U.S. involvement in the region.