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Trump to end CIA program to arm and train anti-Assad militants

A Syrian rebel fighter fires a weapon in Ain Tarma, in the eastern Ghouta area, a rebel stronghold east of the capital Damascus, on July 17, 2017.

The Trump administration has decided to end the CIA’s years-long covert program to arm and train what they call Syrian moderate opposition, militants fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Quoting two unnamed US officials, The Washington Post reported the suspension of the program on Wednesday, while the CIA declined to comment on the topic. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders also declined to comment at the White House briefing.

The CIA program began in 2013 as part of the efforts by the Obama administration to overthrow Assad but produced no tangible results. Another downside of the program is that some armed and trained rebels defected to Daesh and other radical groups.

According to the officials, the shuttering of the program shows Trump’s attempts to bolster closer relations with Russia. “It’s a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia," one of the officials said.

The decision to scrap the CIA program was made about a month ago, after an Oval Office meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and before Trump's July 7 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany, according to the officials. They also said that it was not part of US-Russian negotiations on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria.

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This is not the end of US involvement in Syria as Trump signed off in May on a plan to arm the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces -- a Kurdish rebel group -- using Department of Defense funds; and a separate effort by the US military to support other Syrian rebel groups with air strikes and other actions will continue, the officials said.

Pentagon chief spokeswoman Dana White said in a statement that “the president authorized the Department of Defense to equip Kurdish elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces as necessary to ensure a clear victory over ISIL in Raqqa, Syria.”

Since 2015, Russia has been conducting cruise missile strikes and aerial attacks against terrorist positions in Syria at a request from the Syrian government. The US has been leading dozens of its allies in a military mission purportedly aimed rooting out Daesh since 2014.

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