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World

Syrian Rebels React To Trump Ending CIA Backing

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A bit of recent history now, the history of an ill-fated CIA effort to arm rebels in Syria. President Trump's administration says it is phasing out the program helping rebels who fight the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The story of that program's halting development reflects the larger story of U.S. involvement in Syria's civil war. NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports from Beirut.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Ahmed al-Saud commands the rebel Free Idlib Army. He says he gets help from the CIA program. But he met the news of its end with a jaded shrug.

AHMED AL-SAUD: (Through interpreter) I personally think this is Trump doing politics. This is my feeling about it.

SHERLOCK: He's already seen so many changes in U.S. policy on Syria. In 2011, President Obama called for regime change. But then, there was little direct help to the rebels until some three years later. Then, the CIA began to train and arm militias. They gave them anti-tank missiles. Videos appeared on YouTube of dozens of Syrian government tanks going up in flames.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISSILE LAUNCH)

OUBAI SHAHBANDAR: We saw with us as military, units en masse were fleeing, were retreating. It was chaos.

SHERLOCK: Oubai Shahbandar was an advocate for the rebels and previously a Defense Department analyst. Whether the insurgents could ever have won is debatable. But as Shahbandar sees it, the Obama administration became unnerved by their success.

SHAHBANDAR: So there was also a panic in Washington and in the Obama administration's, you know, senior officials, who did not have a plan for what would happen if the rebel forces routed the Assad regime's military and eventually won not only tactical battles but, potentially, the war itself.

SHERLOCK: Obama officials were determined to keep the U.S. from getting mired in another foreign war. Instead, the strategy was only to force the Assad regime to make some concessions. Thanassis Cambanis, a Middle East expert and fellow at The Century Foundation think tank, said the U.S. settled on arming the rebels just enough to waste the resources of the regime but not enough to defeat it.

THANASSIS CAMBANIS: Western support, and particularly American support, became simply about maintaining a war of attrition that would preoccupy the forces of the Syrian government and its allies.

SHERLOCK: Russia then intervened heavily on the regime's side with its own air force. The Obama administration decided it wasn't worth what it would take to match that firepower. So it told the rebels not to fight the Syrian government and to attack ISIS instead. For the Syrian opposition, this seemed a bitter betrayal. So much blood had been spilled. Waleed Fares (ph) took part in the protests that first spurred President Obama to call for an end to Assad's rule. Now he reflects on the losses to his country. He spoke from rebel held Idlib in north Syria, where he lives with his family.

WALEED FARES: Every day, I have a friend died. There is person from my family died. There is person from my neighbor died.

SHERLOCK: He still hopes Assad will one day be removed. But others have a new goal. At this point, many of the rebels are in independent militias run by warlords. They fight because that's their way of life. Sometimes, they fight each other for terrain or spoils of war. And there is still a major Pentagon program to support those who want to attack ISIS. Ahmed al-Saud, the Free Idlib Army commander, believes help will come, even if the CIA program ends.

AL-SAUD: (Through interpreter) I think so because there is al-Qaida, and there is ISIS. And there is no way the U.S. is taking itself out of this game.

SHERLOCK: So even if his goal is no longer to oust the regime, his war in Syria will continue. Ruth Sherlock, NPR News, Beirut.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUKE PHILLIP, PAUL BERNARD JEFFERIES & BIG A'S "MINARETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.