President Trump's reported suspension of a covert CIA program to fund, arm, and train Syrian rebels is seen as signaling the end of US efforts to pressure Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the battlefield.
But the cutting of US ties – and likely those of US allies who also provided the rebels material support – also calls into question the fate of thousands of armed fighters who have grown reliant on US support and direction.
The move, which some commentators have characterized as appeasing Russia, Mr. Assad’s most powerful backer, has left thousands of mainstream rebels struggling to navigate a battlefield suddenly tipped against them, without a patron, without guidance – and for some – without a cause.
Among the options for the rebels, looking to evolve to survive: join the US-led battle against the so-called Islamic State, or, for the fervently anti-Assad fighters, even join the ranks of jihadist and Islamist groups, which have retained their shadowy funding and supply lines.
Abu Mohammed al Darrawi, the nom de guerre of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) intelligence official who has spent the past four years shuttling between southern Syria and Jordan to negotiate for arms and support, says many “emotional” fighters and commanders will begin considering outreach by Al Qaeda and other well-funded Islamist militias.
“We lost our brothers, our sisters, our children; we went through hell just to end this regime and see an end to Assad,” Darrawi said.
“If Al Qaeda, if Ahrar al Sham, if the devil himself is fighting Assad and will help us in this fight, we will side with them.”
When the CIA launched the covert training and arming program, known as Timber Sycamore, in early 2013, it was designed to pressure Assad on the battlefield while regulating the flow of arms and cash that had already been pouring in from Gulf countries and from Turkey.
The CIA, along with the US allies, vetted and trained thousands of rebels from the FSA and affiliated militias at bases within Turkey to the north and Jordan to the south.
Every operation, every battlefield movement, was micromanaged from Military Operations Centers (MOCs), in Jordan and Turkey that featured US, French, British, Saudi, and Emirati intelligence and military officials.
The US and its allies provided the rebels with light arms, including heavy machine guns, mortars, sniper rifles, and vehicles. But, due to Washington’s concerns, they did not provide them with the anti-aircraft weapons they needed to counter regime airstrikes and turn the tide on the battlefield.
The Trump administration’s suspension of Timber Sycamore followed months of scaling down the program and was seen by many as an inevitable divorce. Mr. Trump referred this week on Twitter to his “ending massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments” to the rebels.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE, staunch supporters of the rebels, will be unable or unwilling to go against their ally Washington and continue arming or financing the fighters, say Arab security sources close to the MOC in Amman.
Jordan will no longer offer a land corridor to provide weapons to the south, Turkey is pressuring moderate rebels in the north to fight a proxy war with Kurdish groups, while Qatar, a major backer of Islamist rebels, will also be unwilling to throw its support behind the FSA.
The mood in the northern Jordanian town of Irbid, 12 miles from the Syrian border, where commanders of the FSA’s Southern Front have lived and operated, is one of weariness as they consider their options.
“We have 54 factions in the south alone without support, without arms, and without salaries,” says Abdul Hadi Sari, a former Syrian air force general who has been an adviser to FSA’s Southern Front and a military analyst based in Jordan.
“When the US says stop, they all stop.”
Fighting against, with jihadists
According to rebel commanders close to the MOC in Amman, rebels have been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to continue salaries to fighters in order to prevent them from breaking ranks and joining jihadist groups. There have been 50 reported defections already this month.
The end of the CIA program meanwhile may also boost efforts to build a fighting force to oust ISIS from Syria, analysts and rebels say, the only way mainstream rebels can secure US support or that of its allies.
According to Syrian rebel commanders close to operations, the US has been redirecting vetted rebels to bases established near Tanf in the triangle between south-eastern Syria, western Iraq, and northern Jordan to train and take up the fight against ISIS in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour.
“The CIA program was aimed at Assad, while the Department of Defense’s program was aimed at ISIS,” Faysal Itani, a Syria expert and senior fellow at the Rafiq Hairiri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council, says via email.
“Ending the former will, if anything, pressure fighters to join the latter in order to get paid and receive US protection.”
As the CIA program was winding down over the past three months, 200 vetted Syrian rebels traveled to Tanf to join the US-formed Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra (Revolutionary Commandos Army) for training, according to Syrian rebel commanders. Hundreds more are said to be considering the offer, but travel from southwest and northwest Syria to the southeast is a dangerous proposition given that swathes of territory are held by pro-regime Shiite militias or ISIS.
“Entering at-Tanf for many would be a suicide mission,” says Mr. Sari, the former air force general. “But if you are starving and worn down by four years of war, many may take that risk.”
One proposal allegedly backed by both Russia and the US, which came as part of Russia-US-Jordan tripartite talks in Amman that reached a cease-fire in south Syria, is the transformation of the Free Syrian Army and moderate rebels from a militia to a “police force.”
Under the proposal, which according to those close to the ongoing tripartite talks has gained the support of Jordan, the rebels would change their mission from overthrowing Assad to keeping the peace in recently-announced truce zones in southern Syria and east of Damascus.
As part of the switch, as envisioned by the West, rebels would receive police training within southern Syria and salaries to both police and prevent extremist groups from filling the vacuum. Should it prove successful, the model would be replicated in central and northern Syria, with the presence of a non-regime police force facilitating the return of Syrian refugees from Jordan and Turkey, according to those close to the talks.
Syrian rebel commanders are divided on the initiative; some say they would rather fight to the “last bullet” than abandon their cause.
“Many would rather die as martyrs than live as policemen,” says Abu Kamal, the nom de guerre of a FSA rebel commander in the Damascus countryside, whose fighters came to a standstill due to funding cuts last month, ahead of the Trump decision.
But, while the mission would be a far cry from overthrowing a regime that has committed atrocities, rebels say many fighters, worn down from broken promises and an increasingly sectarian fight, may be ready to accept the offer.
“When we went out and protested for freedom, we did not know that we would be facing jihadists, the world’s Shiite militias, Russia, a civil war, and a sectarian war,” Sari says.
“Right now, if you offer us security and peace on our homeland, many will take it.”