Last Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that it was ending the CIA program to train and equip Syria’s so-called moderate opposition fighters who seek to overthrow the sovereign government of Bashar al-Assad. Trump has long been an outspoken critic of the CIA program, and its cancellation is a rare instance of Trump’s keeping faith with his promise to pursue an “America first” national-security policy.
And yet the consensus reaction from the US foreign-policy establishment was that Trump sold out to the Russians, longtime backers of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. A Washington Post story framed the move as one “sought by Moscow” and quoted neocon think-tank fixture Charles Lister as saying, “We are falling into a Russian trap.”
For his part, former George W. Bush speechwriter turned Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson decried the change in US policy as “Trump’s breathtaking surrender to Russia,” while The Hill declared it a “major victory for Russia.” New York Times liberal hawk Nick Kristof tweeted that “Abandoning the rebels, especially as vacuum forms in IS areas, is a gift to Assad and Putin for which we negotiated nothing in return.”
These reactions, and many more besides, point to one of the problems with the current wave of anti-Russia opinion. It seems many commentators and lawmakers have begun to judge policy on the following basis: If Russia is against it, the United States should be for it, and vice versa. Yet this is an unsound basis on which to criticize the administration; and it is potentially quite dangerous. Perhaps it would be better to seek diplomatic solutions on issues where we differ (e.g., Russia’s violations of the INF treaty, US missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe, US and EU sanctions relating to Ukraine), and work together where we have interests in common (e.g., strengthening the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, fighting terrorism in the Middle East). Otherwise, we risk jeopardizing our own national-security interests simply to spite the Russians.
Another underlying assumption at play in most of the coverage of Trump’s decision to end the CIA program in Syria is that the program was working to the benefit of US national-security interests. But any fair reading of the record shows that this an arguable proposition, at the very least.
Writing in praise of the program’s alleged success, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius told readers that, according to “one knowledgeable official” he spoke to, CIA-funded opposition fighters, on which the agency spends an estimated $1 billion annually, “may have killed or wounded 100,000 Syrian soldiers and their allies over the past four years.”
If we are to believe Ignatius’s source, then the CIA program almost certainly (a) prolonged the war; (b) was an act of aggression by the United States on a country, Syria, that has never attacked it; and (c) strengthened the hand of Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliates, whom the Syrian army has been, with significant Russian assistance, in the process of defeating.
This, of course, is not to say the Assad government, in conjunction with the Russians, has not committed atrocities in the course of the fighting. But does it say anything to proponents of wider American intervention against Assad that, according to UN estimates, a half a million Syrians have already returned to government-controlled areas now only recently freed from rebel-captivity?
It is troubling that some pundits mourn the end of a program that, among other things, strengthened the position of radical Sunni jihadis intent on remaking the secular Syrian state into a Mediterranean outpost for Saudi Wahhabism. This was clear to Obama administration officials since at least February 2012, when Secretary of State Clinton’s top policy hand Jake Sullivan noted in an e-mail to the secretary that “AQ is on our side in Syria.”
Even members of the Syrian opposition, ostensibly the primary beneficiaries of the covert CIA program, knew that program was deeply problematic. According to a recent report in the Financial Times, an opposition figure was quoted as saying, “Frankly so much of the weapons and ammunition were going to [Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate] that it’s probably a good thing” the program was ending.
Given all this, why the rush to condemn Trump’s only smart decision since taking office as a sell-out to Russia?