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- 07/09/17--18:34: _Trump throws cold w...
- 07/10/17--05:28: _Russia to push for ...
- 07/11/17--06:37: _Syrian watch group ...
- 07/11/17--07:04: _US military savagel...
- 07/11/17--08:03: _The US military has...
- 07/11/17--12:19: _US allies caught on...
- 07/11/17--14:34: _Secret details of t...
- 07/12/17--12:16: _US troops are insid...
- 07/12/17--15:29: _US Army vet and for...
- 07/13/17--12:33: _Russia wants more o...
- 07/13/17--19:08: _Top counter-ISIS of...
- 07/15/17--11:22: _France's Emmanuel M...
- 07/17/17--04:18: _EU sanctions Syrian...
- 07/17/17--07:57: _Former Israeli secu...
- 07/17/17--10:48: _Turkey has agreed t...
- 07/17/17--11:53: _A brief anecdote su...
- 07/17/17--17:08: _Even after ISIS col...
- 07/19/17--08:28: _Here’s what would h...
- 07/19/17--12:13: _Turkey appears to h...
- 07/19/17--12:55: _'Putin won in Syria...
- 07/10/17--05:28: Russia to push for more cooperation with the US in Syria
- 07/11/17--06:37: Syrian watch group confirms death of Islamic State's main leader
- 07/11/17--12:19: US allies caught on film torturing prisoners in Syria
- 07/13/17--12:33: Russia wants more of its allies to join the fight in Syria
- 07/17/17--04:18: EU sanctions Syrian scientists implicated in chemical attack
President Donald Trump suggested on Sunday that he will not pursue a joint cybersecurity task force with Russia, throwing cold water on speculation that sprung from comments he made on Twitter earlier in the day.
"The fact that President Putin and I discussed a Cyber Security unit doesn't mean I think it can happen. It can't-but a ceasefire can,& did!" Trump said in a tweet Sunday evening.
The tweet seemed to be an attempt to quell criticism of Trump's highly publicized meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
After the meeting, conflicting reports emerged over how strongly Trump pressed Putin about Russian interference in the US election and whether Trump accepted Putin's denials of involvement. Trump then raised eyebrows by revealing on Twitter earlier Sunday that they had discussed forming an "impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded and safe."
The admission alarmed some politicians, who said it seemed to show Trump trusted Putin's word over that of senior US intelligence officials. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida quipped that "partnering with Putin on a 'Cyber Security Unit' is akin to partnering with Assad on a 'Chemical Weapons Unit,'" referring to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
During their meeting, Trump and Putin also brokered an open-ended cease-fire in southern Syria, earning some praise. However, experts have said that the cease-fire is virtually unenforceable and that no cease-fire during the six-year-old Syrian war has lasted longer than six months.
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia will build on the success of a local ceasefire in south-west Syria and seek further opportunities to cooperate with the United States in resolving the Syrian conflict, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday.
Lavrov, speaking at a news conference, said: "We will try, on this basis, to take further steps forward."
He said Russia had durable contacts with U.S. officials over the conflict in Syria, and was hoping to broker cease-fires in other parts of the country.
(Reporting by Christian Lowe; Editing by Denis Pinchuk)
CAIRO (Reuters) - The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters on Tuesday that it had "confirmed information" that Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed.
Russia's defense ministry said it may have killed Baghdadi when one of its air strikes hit a gathering of Islamic State commanders on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, but Washington said it could not corroborate the death and Western and Iraqi officials have been skeptical.
Reuters could not independently verify Baghdadi's death.
Baghdadi's death, which has been frequently reported since he declared a caliphate from a mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2014, is one of the biggest blows yet to the jihadist group, which is trying to defend shrinking territory in Syria and Iraq.
(Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Ahmed Aboulenein; Editing by Eric Knecht)
US military representatives trolled ISIS savagely on Tuesday after the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the group's leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had been confirmed dead.
When asked to confirm whether the ISIS leader had died, a military representative told CBS News' Cami McCormick: "We strongly advise ISIS to implement a strong line of succession. It will be needed."
The latest wave of reports of Baghdadi's death come as ISIS's territory in Iraq and Syria shrinks and the group's remaining militants run out of places to hide.
On Sunday, the Iraqi government said the city of Mosul, where ISIS in 2014 declared its "caliphate," or territory, had been liberated.
The US has since 2014 led a coalition of 67 nations in training and equipping ground forces to fight ISIS and providing air support for those troops, but according to all official estimates, ISIS's days of controlling territory in Iraq and Syria are numbered.
US Marines have been on the ground in Syria since March, when a detachment from an amphibious task force arrived in the country, where they joined US special-operations forces to support US partner forces.
The Marine units deployed to Syria included elements of an artillery battery that can fire 155-millimeter shells from M777 Howitzers.
The military has already released footage and photos of Marines in Syria firing their howitzers in support of local coalition partners during their advance on Raqqa, ISIS' self-declared capital in northwest Syria.
"The Marines have been conducting 24-hour all-weather fire support for the Coalition’s local partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces," the Defense Department said at the time that footage was released.
During the first week of July, the US military released the first footage of Marine artillery units striking an ISIS target on May 14, destroying what the Defense Department called an ISIS artillery position in support of Syrian Democratic Forces.
The M777 howitzer has a range of 15 to 25 miles, and the artillery units in Syria have moved at least once to support the ongoing fight against ISIS there, Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller told Military.com in April.
"The fight evolves, so they're moving to where they can best provide support based on the capability of the weapons system,"Neller said. "The commanders there understand the capability, and they'll reposition them as required in order to provide the fire support and other effects they need to do to make the campaign successful, ultimately."
US forces in Syria are aiding local partner forces in what Defense Secretary James Mattis has called an "annihilation campaign," seeking to surround and destroy ISIS fighters — foreign fighters in particular — "so we don’t simply transplant this problem from one location to another,"Mattis told reporters in May.
Mattis "asked me and the military chain-of-command to make a conscious effort not to allow ISIS fighters to just flee from one location to another," Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Defense News in June.
"Our commanders on the ground have tried to meet that goal of annihilating the enemy in order to mitigate the risk of these terrorists showing up someplace else."
Fighting to retake Raqqa has already begun, and over 2,000 ISIS militants are thought to remain there.
US special-operations forces are already working with Arab and Kurdish partners to vet and train a force to secure the city during and after the effort to oust ISIS. Questions remain about how Raqqa and the surrounding area will be secured, as well as about how territory wrested from ISIS around Syria will be divided among the various factions operating in the country.
The US-led coalition and its partner forces have already come into conflict with Syrian pro-regime forces, which are backed by Iran and Russia. Southeast Syria near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders has been a flashpoint for these confrontations, though a local ceasefire has recently gone into effect there.
A video recently surfaced showing US-backed forces torturing captives near the Syrian city of Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital that was recently invaded by coalition forces.
The video shows men in YPG uniforms kicking and stomping prisoners. One YPG fighter holds a knife as he repeatedly bounces up and down on a stool on the back of one detainee. He then smashes an object over his head.
"Tell me where are the [ISIS] fighters," one YPG soldier says in Arabic, according to The Daily Beast. "Tell me."
"I swear I don't know," the detainee answered. "If you kill me, I will not be able to tell you because I don't know."
The Daily Beast said that the video was shot west of Raqqa in late May, citing Turkish media. Turkey sees the Kurdish-led YPG as a terrorist group and extension of the PKK, which has waged an insurgency against Ankara for decades.
Kurdish authorities in northern Syria have confirmed the incident, according to The Daily Beast.
The Kurdish governmental body, or self-administration, in the Cizere Canton denounced the incident, saying it would prosecute the two YPG fighters, according to ARA News.
“Since they have broken laws and international criteria, they will be held accountable for their irresponsible, individual acts," the self-administration said.
Operation Inherent Resolve didn't immediately respond to request for comment.
Inherent Resolve spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told The Daily Beast that, "the Coalition does not condone any violation of the laws of armed conflict and works hard in training to ensure partnered forces are aware of and understand the requirements of a professional fighting force to abide with these laws."
Numerous reports also began emerging in late 2016 that US-backed forces in Mosul were executing ISIS fighters and mutilating their dead bodies.
A confidential U.S.-Russian cease-fire agreement for southwest Syria that went into effect Sunday calls for barring Iranian-backed foreign fighters from a strategic stretch of Syrian territory near the borders of Israel and Jordan, according to three diplomatic sources.
President Trump hailed it as an important agreement that would serve to save lives. But few details of the accord have been made public.
Pentagon officials — who would have responsibility for monitoring the agreement — appeared to be in the dark about the pact’s fine print.
The pact is aimed at addressing demands by Israel and Jordan — the latter is a party to the agreement — that Iranian forces and their proxies, including Hezbollah, not be permitted near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which separates Syria from Israel, or along the Jordanian border.
But former U.S. diplomats and observers question whether the agreement is truly enforceable, expressing doubts that Russia could act as a reliable guarantor for a ceasefire involving the Syrian regime, Iran and its proxies.
“The question is, ‘Who is going to enforce that?’ Is Russia going to take on the responsibility for telling Iran what to do?” said Gerald Feierstein, a veteran U.S. diplomat who retired last year, noting that a peace deal without Iranian buy-in is untenable. “Iranians are much closer to Assad’s position on the way forward in Syria than the Russians are.”
And they have far more leverage. “It’s the Iranians and their proxies who are doing a bulk of the fighting inside Syria,” he told Foreign Policy.
With Iran in the driver’s seat, veteran U.S. diplomats expressed doubts the Kremlin could deliver on its promises. “The key to the survival of the Assad regime is Iran, not Russia,” said Fred Hof, former State Department special advisor for transition in Syria now at the Atlantic Council. “Are the Russians trying to rush this [agreement] through without a firm understanding with the regime, and without clear understanding of what the ‘or else’ is?”
Since May, the Russians have failed to persuade Iranian-backed militia groups or the Syrian regime to respect a “deconfliction zone” that American commanders had declared near a U.S. outpost in southeastern Syria. Although U.S. officers informed their Russian counterparts about the zone around al Tanf, Iranian-backed militia and Syrian fighter jets ignored the warning and moved toward U.S. special operations forces and their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies. As a result, U.S. aircraft shot down a Syrian fighter jet, an Iranian-made drone and struck Iranian-backed militia in the area.
Given the track record so far, “why should we believe that it will be different under this ceasefire?” one congressional staffer asked.
An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Bahram Qasemi, reacted coolly to the pact, saying it contained some “ambiguities” and that “no agreement would be successful without taking the realities on the ground into account.”
“Iran is seeking Syria’s sovereignty and security so a ceasefire cannot be limited to a certain location,” Qasemi was quoted saying in Tasnim news agency.
Not everyone was so pessimistic. Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said southwestern Syria’s relative calm — and Washington’s continued influence among U.S.-trained opposition factions fighting President Bashar al-Assad — make it a natural proving ground for U.S. and Russian cooperation.
If successful, such cooperation could be employed in other parts of the country. “I think it’s worth a try,” Tabler said. “If we’re going to test something this is a good place to test it.”
The pact — detailed in a Memorandum of Principle For De-Escalation in Southern Syria– established a ceasefire between Syrian government forces and armed opposition groups that came into force on Sunday. It calls for transforming southern Syria below Quneitra and As Suwayda into an exclusion zone for fighters of “non-Syrian origin,” including Iranian troops, their proxies and fighters linked to the extremist groups Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, which have a limited presence in the area.
“This could be designed mainly to reassure the Israelis that these elements would not be operating in proximity to the Golan Heights,” said Hof.
The accord calls for maintaining existing governance and security arrangements in opposition-held areas in southwestern Syria, a provision aimed at dissuading Syrian government forces from retaking territory in the area. But some observers said the arrangement could also help turn a de-facto partition of southern Syria into a permanent one. “This entrenches Syria’s partition further,” said one diplomatic observer.
The accord also calls for the unimpeded access for humanitarian aid workers, and for the creation of conditions for the return of refugees from southwestern Syria. Jordan has received more than 650,000 registered Syrian refugees since the conflict began more than six years ago.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced Monday the establishment of a monitoring center in Jordan, but State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert declined to confirm any specifics. “Mr. Lavrov likes to talk a lot,” she said.
A State Department official told FP that the U.S. and Russia are still trying to work out the details of the pact, “including how to monitor the ceasefire, the rules that would govern the southwest deescalation area, and the presence of monitors.”
“We are looking at various options for monitoring arrangement in which information can be exchanged and violations resolved,” the official said.
When asked if she was optimistic about the ceasefire holding, Nauert demurred. “Perhaps optimism is too strong a word. But I think it is promising in certain sense we have been able to get the ceasefire underway,” she said.
The White House did not respond to queries about the ceasefire deal.
The agreement — finalized following President Donald Trump’s recent meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin — calls for more coordination among the former Cold War superpowers in the fight against terrorists in Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested that the pact may serve as a model for further cooperation in northern Syria, and provides “our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.”
It also marked a recognition by Moscow that a separate effort to negotiate a ceasefire in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Iran and Turkey was foundering. On May 4, the three powers signed an agreement to establish four so-called “de-escalation zones” through Syria. But they have been unable to agree on whose forces would monitor those ceasefires.
“Not necessarily a brilliant deal for the Russians,” said one diplomatic source. “I suspect that after the humiliating failure of Astana, Putin needed a ‘success’ to announce and divert attention from Astana failure.”
The ceasefire would be overseen by officials from the U.S., Russia and Jordan at a monitoring cell in Amman, Jordan. Israel is not a formal party to the pact but has been actively involved behind the scenes in the discussions leading up to the agreement.
Hof said the provision for a joint monitoring center resembles a plan put forward by former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to coordinate efforts to confront extremists in northwest Syria. “CENTCOM was very, very, very skeptical about that when it was first proposed,” Hof said. “They feared being hoodwinked by the Russians into some kind of attack on an urban area that would produce massive civilian casualties.”
In fact, it appears that the military was not consulted this time around. On Monday, Buzzfeed reported that top Pentagon officials were not involved in the planning or briefed on their role in the arrangement.
A military officer confirmed to FP that the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command have very little information about the proposed ceasefire, and “we’re getting to that level of understanding this week.”
American aircraft rarely operate in southwest Syria but “we’ll certainly respect the ceasefire,” the officer said, adding that the U.S. military hasn’t decided if it would fly combat air patrols to enforce any agreement.
The more likely situation would see a “remote” monitoring agreement, where U.S. military personnel would sit together with Russian officers at the proposed facility in Amman, the officer said, though “we have to figure out exactly what it means, and we have to figure out what the terms of reference are between the Russians and us, and if the Syrians are even a party to it.”
U.S. troops won’t be working directly with Iranians or Syrians, however.
“Our operating assumption is if the Iranians and Syrians will want to be informed, the Russians are going to be the intermediary on all things,” the officer said.
“The United States remains committed to defeating ISIS, helping to end the conflict in Syria, reducing suffering, and enabling people to return to their homes,” Trump’s National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster said last Friday. “This agreement is an important step toward these common goals.”
But questions lingered about its workability.
The region is occupied by several armed opposition groups backed by the U.S., Turkey, Jordan and Persian Gulf states, and also includes small pockets of forces loyal to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The U.S. exercises little influence over such extremist groups, making them potential spoilers.
On July 9, Trump tweeted that the Syrian ceasefire seems to be holding. For Moscow, the pact placed President Putin in the role of peacemaker, even as Russia continued to provide air support for Syrian offensive operations.
“This is a sop for Russia,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar at the University of Oklahoma. “The Americans can’t police this situation.”
Washington (AFP) - US military advisors are operating inside the city of Raqa, the Islamic State group's last major bastion in Syria, a US official said Wednesday.
The troops, many of them special operations forces, are working in an "advise, assist and accompany" role to support local fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces as they battle IS, said Colonel Ryan Dillon, a military spokesman.
The troops are not in a direct combat role but are calling in air strikes and are working closer to the fight than did US forces supporting the Iraqi military in Mosul.
"They are much more exposed to enemy contact than those in Iraq," Dillon said.
He said the numbers of US forces in Raqa were "not hundreds."
The operation to capture Raqa began in November and on June 6 the SDF entered the city.
With help from the US-led coalition, the SDF this month breeched an ancient wall by Raqa's Old City, where diehard jihadists are making a last stand.
Dillon said the coalition had seen IS increasingly using commercial drones that have been rigged with explosives. The jihadists employed a similar tactic in Mosul.
"Over the course over the last week or two, it has increased as we've continued to push in closer inside of Raqa city center," he said.
The US military is secretive about exactly how big its footprint is in Syria, but has previously said about 500 special operations fighters are there to train and assist the SDF, an Arab-Kurdish alliance.
Additionally, Marines are operating an artillery battery to help in the Raqa offensive.
Two Americans were killed last week while fighting with US-backed Kurdish YPG units near Raqqa, ISIS' de facto capital in Syria.
Nicholas Alan Warden, 29, was killed July 5, and Robert Grodt, 28, was killed on July 6 in the same battle, the YPG said in press release on Tuesday. A British volunteer, Luke Rutter, 22, was also killed on July 5.
Little is known about how they died, but one YPG fighter said the three Westerners were with a small group returning from an operation when someone stepped on a mine and then the group started taking fire.
Warden and Rutter were badly wounded and brought back to the hospital, while Grodt supposedly died in the field, the YPG fighter said.
"The day before I had seen [Warden, Grodt, and Rutter] together," the YPG fighter said. "Their faces were beaming; they were finally heading to the frontlines, a moment they had been waiting for, for a long time."
In a YPG video posted on Tuesday, Warden said he was from New York and "joined the YPG to fight ISIS because of the terrorist attacks they were doing in Orlando, in San Bernadino, in Nice, in Paris."
His father, Mark Warden, told The Buffalo News that his son had served in the US Army for nearly five years, completing two tours in Afghanistan, and had also been in the French Foreign Legion for five years, helping fight Boko Haram in Chad.
His dad said he started talking about joining the Army after September 11.
"Ever since that, he was like: 'Dad, I'm going in the military, I'm fighting these people," his dad said. "He's been battling since he was 18 years old, as soon as he was able to," despite having a medical condition that made him "prone to dizzy spells."
"He was just one of those guys that seemed fearless all the time,"Steve Tylka, who served with Warden in the US Army, told The Buffalo News.
"He was incredibly social," Tylka also said. "If you were in his circle of friends, it was close. He was always there. His sense of humor is probably what people know him for the most. He was always cutting up. He always had wisecracks and could turn anything into a joke."
In another video YPG posted on Tuesday, Grodt said that he was from California and joined to "help the Kurdish people in their struggle for autonomy in Syria and elsewhere. Also to do my best to fight [ISIS] and help create a more secure world."
Grodt was reportedly a former Occupy Wall Street activist, who became well known after helping a female activist who had been pepper-sprayed, The Guardian reported. They became friends after that and eventually had a child together. “Nothing strengthens a relationship like a chemical agent,” he reportedly said.
"To my daughter, I'm sorry that I'm not there ... just know that I love you all," Grodt said in the YPG video.
In another video, posted below, Grodt said he had been in Syria for five months and had started paying attention to the Kurdish struggle when a journalist "said that it was the one good thing that came from the Iraq War, that it gave the Kurds a chance."
"It's not just important for the Kurds," he said. "It's important for the Middle East to have something like this to take hold and work."
"He was there helping oppressed people, his lifelong passion," Elizabeth Clark, a relative of Grodt, wrote on Facebook. "I will always remember Rob for his commitment to his ideals."
In a third YPG video posted on Tuesday, Luke Rutter said that he was born in Liverpool and that he joined because, "the YPG stand for the best opportunities of peace that this region might have."
He said that he lied to people he cared for about going to Syria: "I said I was going somewhere else. I didn't. I apologize massively for that. Apart from that, I don't regret my decision, and I hope you can respect that."
A Kurdish activist told Rutter's mom about his death, The Guardian reported. "She was obviously very upset," the Kurdish activist said. "She said she didn’t know he was even in Syria. She has asked for privacy to grieve for her son."
Warden is survived by an 18-month-old daughter in France, The Buffalo News said. Grodt is survived by his 5-year-old daughter and partner, Kaylee Dedrick, The Washington Post reported.
About a dozen American volunteers have died fighting in Syria, including Warden and Grodt, according to The Post. It's not known how many more Americans volunteers are currently there.
Russia is pushing its allies to join the fight in Syria in hopes of broadening its influence in the Middle East, Uran Botobekov wrote in a Jamestown Foundation report.
The chairman of the Russian State Duma Defense Committee, Col. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, said in late June that Moscow was in talks with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan about deploying their forces to Syria to help monitor the conflict, Botobekov said.
Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan are both part of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-led military alliance of former Soviet satellites that also includes Armenia, Belarus, and Tajikistan.
"Shamanov’s statement seems to indicate that Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to expand the number of allied governments active in Syria that would support Moscow’s military actions there," Botobekov writes.
After the Astana talks in early May — in which Russia, Turkey, and Iran set up de-escalation zones in Syria supposedly to try to reduce the fighting — Tehran and Ankara agreed to allow more countries in as observers, and a Turkish envoy admitted that Moscow had proposed sending troops from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan to Syria.
But Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan do not seem so intent on sending troops to Syria, according to Botobekov.
Both have said, among other things, that the UN would need to pass a resolution first. Botobekov also said that Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan do not want to upset their Sunni Muslim citizens, since Syrian President Bashar Assad is Shiite and Syrian opposition forces are Sunni.
Ultimately, Botobekov writes, Moscow's desire to bring more allies into the fight is a "PR campaign directed primarily at the West" and that "President Putin wants to announce to the world that Russia is still an international force to be reckoned with."
Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst with Stratfor, had a slightly different take, however, saying in a written statement that "Russia is keen to share the burden with other countries, as it doesn't want to find itself taking over the bulk of what would undoubtedly be a vey dangerous mission ... Due to [Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan's] strong relationship with Turkey, they would be acceptable to Ankara."
Turkey expects the two other guarantor nations to discuss the possible use of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan troops at their next round of Astana talks in late July.
Read the full Jamestown Foundation article here.
US allies in the Middle East want President Trump to continue "engagement with Russia," according to a top counter-Islamic State official at the State Department.
"Engagement with Russia on Syria is something that nearly all of our partners here in the region have encouraged, including our friends here in Iraq," Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy who has been leading the counter-ISIS effort since 2015, told reporters in Iraq. "So that engagement, of course, will continue."
Trump's desire for rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin has proven controversial for months, due to the parallel issue of the 2016 cyberattacks against the Democratic party and Trump's hesitance to acknowledge Russia's culpability. But McGurk said it has already paid dividends in the counter-ISIS fight.
"We have also worked out very important what we call de-confliction arrangements with the Russian Federation, which is helping to enable and speed up the overall campaign against ISIS, and that is going fairly well," McGurk said. "I think you saw in the news yesterday, particularly after the very important meeting between President Trump and President Putin in Hamburg, that we concluded, together with our close partner Jordan, an arrangement for a cease-fire in Southwest Syria. This is the first step in a process for a more durable arrangement in Southwest Syria that we are looking to end the war in that very important part of the country."
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson unveiled a plan for cooperation in the days leading up to the Trump-Putin meeting. Syria policy represented one of the most significant issues on the agenda, in addition to the question of whether Trump would rebuke Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.
"With the liberation of Raqqa now underway, ISIS has been badly wounded, and it could be on the brink of complete defeat in Syria if all parties focus on this objective," Tillerson said.
Some US leaders, as well as allies such as Israel, worry that cooperation with Russia against the immediate threat of terrorism will allow Putin to achieve longer-term policy successes in Syria and the Middle East.
Israeli officials reportedly asked Tillerson's team not to allow the Russians to police the security of a southern Syria safe zone, due to an apparent concern that Russian would allow Iranian forces to amass near the borders of Israel.
And yet, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said after the Trump-Putin meeting that "the security around these de-escalation zones will be maintained with the use of Russian military in coordination with the US and Jordan."
Russia's looming importance to the end-stage of the Syria conflict highlights an American concern that the former Cold War rival has achieved "a significant advantage for a country that didn't have anything to do, had no role whatsoever in the Middle East two years ago, three years ago," as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., put it in December.
With one shrewd move, French President Emmanuel Macron has displaced German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the leader of the European Union — or at least as the EU's face, voice, and ear to its vital trans-Atlantic partner, President Donald Trump.
Macron has clearly learned, and put his own spin on, the lesson that all world leaders have noted in their dealings with Trump: To get something from this new American leader — whether it's friendship, weapons, concessions, or whatever — you just regard him with respect, slap his back a time or two, in short, treat him the way all too few do in his homeland: as a world leader in his own right.
So, after showing his fangs and a death-grip handshake in his first meeting with Trump at a NATO summit in Brussels in May, Macron invited him to the Bastille Day celebration, to be held Friday. And Trump accepted, in part because the event, he learned, was a gigantic military parade. (Trump loves military parades and in fact wanted one for his inaugural festivities, but the Pentagon turned down the request.)
At their joint press conference, following a working session on Thursday, Macron welcomed Trump as a peer and partner and said their time together had left him "extremely pleased."
Not long ago, Trump dissed Paris, telling a conference of conservatives that a friend of his named Jim, "a very, very substantial guy," had warned him to stay away from the City of Lights because it had allowed in too many radical Islamists. "I don't go there anymore," this mysterious Jim said. "Paris is no longer Paris." (Around the same time, Trump said that Brussels, for the same reason, had turned into a "hellhole.")
At Thursday's news conference, asked about this insult by one of the attending French reporters, Trump shifted gears and described Paris as a "beautiful" city, adding, "It's going to be just fine, because you've got a great president … a tough president … I'm coming back."
Trump also said, "The friendship between our two nations — and ourselves, I might add — are unbreakable." When he said "and ourselves," Trump reached out to touch Macron's shoulder, a gesture that drew Macron's smile but not his reciprocation.
When a reporter asked Macron if he saw their relationship in the same way, the French president defined it in more Cartesian terms. "I never want to comment on who we are," he replied, "but I can tell you," the meal that he and Trump were about to share "will be a dinner between friends because we are the leaders of two countries" with a history of friendship.
Macron may have been amused when, during his opening statement, Trump said, "France is our oldest ally," then — in an apparent departure from text — looked up and said, "A lot of people don't know that." Of course, everyone who knows the slightest thing about the American Revolution — or who has ever heard the soundtrack of Hamilton— knows that.
When Trump says a lot of people don't know something, it usually means that, until he read it in the speech before him, he didn't know it.
The two presidents expressed agreement on most of what they discussed, as the United States and France do have similar interests on many issues, not least counterterrorism. On Syria, Macron said that he no longer requires President Bashar al-Assad's departure as "a prerequisite" for a peace deal or a political settlement.
Trump has taken this position too; in fact, in his final months as President Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry also said, though more grousingly, that Assad could stay in power a while longer, if just to maintain stability.
In the one bit of possible news, Trump said that the cease-fire in southwest Syria, which he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had struck at the G-20 summit, might soon be followed by a cease-fire in another, more violent part of the country, though he did not elaborate. Meanwhile, he boasted, the southwest cease-fire had held now for five days, which he depicted as a long time.
Finally, perhaps without realizing it, Trump threw his son Donald Trump Jr. under a few more wheels of the bus. Asked about the meeting that his son had with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign, he said, as he'd told one reporter earlier, "Most people would have taken that meeting," then added, "It's called oppo research," which is common in politics.
Oppo research is indeed common, but as my colleague Dahlia Lithwick recently wrote, it is a crime under federal statutes "for a foreign national, directly or indirectly, to make a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value" to a candidate in an American election.
Oppo research, as Trump would be the first to acknowledge, is a thing of value.
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union imposed sanctions on 16 Syrian scientists and military officials on Monday for their suspected involvement in a chemical attack in northern Syria in April which killed scores of civilians.
Western intelligence agencies accuse the government of Bashar al-Assad of carrying out the attack, arguing that rebels in the area would not have had the capabilities. The international chemical weapons watchdog said in June the nerve agent sarin was used.
Syrian officials have repeatedly denied using banned toxins.
The measures, agreed upon by EU foreign ministers at a meeting in Brussels, target eight Syrian scientists and eight top military officials.
Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said they showed Europe's resolve "in dealing with those who are responsible for chemical weapons attacks."
This takes the number of people placed under EU sanctions related to the Syrian conflict to 255, the Council of EU governments in a statement. Existing EU sanctions are also in place on 67 companies linked to Assad's government.
Washington issued sanctions in the same month of the attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, placing restrictions on hundreds of employees and scientists at a Syrian government agency believed to have developed chemical weapons
Syria joined a chemicals weapons convention in 2013 under a Russian-U.S. agreement, averting military intervention under then-U.S. President Barack Obama.
While the European Union has no military role in the conflict, it is the biggest aid donor and has said it will not help rebuild Syria until a peace process involving a transition away from Assad's government is underway.
But the 28-member bloc's position on Syria is in flux after France's new President Emmanuel Macron broke with the previous French government position by saying he saw no legitimate successor to Assad and no longer considered his departure a precondition to resolving the war.
Israel may need to take military action to prevent Iran or Hezbollah from setting up permanent bases in Syria, former National Security Council head Yaakov Amidror said on Monday.
Amidror’s comments come a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told journalists in Paris that Israel was opposed to the Syrian cease-fire brokered recently by the US and Syria because it perpetuates Iran’s military presence in the the country.
If Israel's interests are not taken into account by those determining what the future arrangements will be in Syria – the Americans, Russians or others – “that might lead the IDF to intervene and destroy every attempt to build [permanent Iranian] infrastructure in Syria,” he said.
Amidror, a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies who has remained in contact with Netanyahu, made his comments during a press conference with journalists organized by The Israel Project.
“We will not let the Iranians and Hezbollah be the forces that will win the very brutal war in Syria” and then move their focus onto Israel, he said. Up until now Israel has been very careful to say out of the war in Syria, saying it will only intervene – and indeed only has intervened – to protect the red lines Netanyahu established: that game-changing weaponry is not transferred to Hezbollah via Syria, that Hezbollah and Iranian troops are not on the border with Israel, and that the Iranians do not establish permanent bases in Syria.
Amidror said that the cease fire plan was made without taking into sufficient consideration Israel’s need to defend itself.
“At the end of the day it is our responsibility, not the responsibility of the Americans, or the Russians, to guarantee ourselves, and we will take all the measures that are needed for that,” he said.
Explaining how the Americans and Russians -- with which Israel has good ties and a dialogue -- agreed to a deal that could allow for a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, Amidror said that the Russian strategic goal in the cease-fire was to ensure that Assad's regime remains, and the the American strategic goal was to destroy Islamic State.
Israel, he said, needs to “take care of its strategic goal,” which he defined as “keeping Iran and Syria from building launching pads in Syria.”
Amidror said that that while Israel obviously wants to see the killing in Syria end, “the price can't be having Iran and Hezbollah on our borders.”
He said that Israel has both diplomatic and military options to keep this from happening, and said “both options should be used.”
Amidror attributed Iran's current success in the region to the Iranian nuclear deal signed two years ago. Iran, he said, is implementing a strategy that for the first time in modern history places them on the cusp of establishing a land corridor from Tehran, through Baghdad to Damascus and the Mediterranean.
“The ability of the Iranians to do what they are doing now in Syria and Iraq, and be involved in both Syria and Iraq, and their relations with Hezbollah, it is all built on the legitimacy they gained from this [nuclear] agreement,” he said.
Amidror said that it is very much in the Iranian interests to abide by the agreement, since in the meantime they are changing the contours of the entire Middle East. After the period of the agreement ends they can then dash to the nuclear finish line, with their strategic situation in the region considerably improved, as well as their ability to withstand any new wave of sanctions.
“The agreement is the source of all the problems,” he said. “It is even more dangerous than we imagined when signed.”
Turkey reached an agreement with Russia to purchase the latter's most sophisticated missile-defense system, the S-400, a senior Turkish military official told Bloomberg last week.
Under the $2.5 billion agreement Ankara would receive two batteries of the antiaircraft missile from Moscow within the coming year and then produce two more batteries in Turkey.
At the beginning of June, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow was ready to deliver the missile system, and a Russian military-industry official said an agreement on technical details had been reached in mid-June.
Turkey stepped up efforts to acquire its own missile-defense system after the US, Germany, and the Netherlands — all NATO members — decided at the end of 2015 not to renew their Patriot-missile deployments in southern Turkey. Spanish and Italian missile batteries remain in the country, but those systems are linked to the NATO air-defense system.
The deal has not been finalized and could still fall through, as has happened before — under pressure from the US, Turkey scrapped plans to buy missiles from a Chinese state-run company that had been sanctioned for allegedly selling missiles to Iran. (Ankara has also sought out alternative missile systems from the US and France.)
But the agreement has deepened concern that Turkey is drifting away from its longstanding alliance in NATO, which it joined during the security bloc's first enlargement in 1952.
The S-400 deal "is a clear sign that Turkey is disappointed in the US and Europe," Konstantin Makienko, an analyst at Moscow-based think tank the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told Bloomberg. "But until the advance is paid and the assembly begins, we can’t be sure of anything."
"The problem is, how do you interoperate in the NATO system with Russians? They'll never interoperate," US Defense Secretary James Mattis told reporters on Friday. "We'll have to see — does it go through? Do they actually employ it? Do they employ it only in one area? All that kind of stuff. But you know, we'll have to take a look at it."
The S-400 system can detect and target manned and unmanned aircraft and missiles and hit targets up to 250 miles away. But it is not compatible with NATO systems, nor would it be subject to the same NATO limits on deployment, meaning that Ankara could set it up in places like the Armenian border or Aegean coast.
A Turkish official also told Bloomberg that the S-400s delivered to the country would not have friend-or-foe identification systems, making them deployable against any target.
While Russia is unlikely to supply Turkey with its most up-to-date missile system, the deal would give Ankara a leg up on its goal to build defense-industry capacity — which may stem in part from Western reticence to exchange advanced technology with Turkey.
The licensing agreement allowing Turkey to produce S-400 batteries domestically would save it some of the billions needed to create a new industry, Makienko told Bloomberg.
"Either way, this is in line with Turkey's massive weapons modernization drive that saw the emergence of new land, air and sea-based systems for domestic use and export," Center for Naval Analyses researcher Sam Bendett told The National Interest.
Turkey has also discussed a missile-system purchase with a Italian-French joint venture, and agreements with Russia may be a means to gain leverage in those negotiations.
The deal may also serve political purposes.
Turkey's relationship with other NATO members has been strained, in part because of the ongoing war in neighboring Syria — sentiment that appears to have intensified after the attempted coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in July 2016.
Turkish officials were reportedly disappointed in NATO countries' response to the coup, and Erdogan's crackdown in the months since has been criticized by members of the security bloc. Ties with Germany are especially strained, and Berlin is currently redeploying its troops and equipment from a base in southern Turkey to positions elsewhere.
It may also be Turkey's way of spurning the EU, the political and economic bloc that has in the past recognized Ankara as a candidate for membership. Foundering accession talks were scrapped by the EU in late 2016, amid Erdogan's post-coup-attempt crackdown.
On Sunday, Erdogan accused the EU of "messing us about," citing the bloc's broken promises over issues like visa deals and Syrian migrants. "We will sort things out for ourselves," he said. "There's no other option."
Turkish officials have said more than once that dealings with Russia shouldn't be seen as a search for an alternative to either the EU or NATO. But observers in Russia described it as a significant development
The S-400 system would "close Turkish skies," to Western aircraft in particular, Makienko, the Moscow-based analyst, told Russian news site Vzglyad, according to Russian state-owned outlet Sputnik. "If the Turks really purchase Russia's missile defense systems, it will be a tectonic shift, a game-changer in the arms market," he said.
Buried at the bottom of a story on South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham's plan to save healthcare, The Washingtonian reported a short anecdote from Graham that perfectly encapsulates the difference between former president Barack Obama's military leadership and Donald Trump's.
Early one morning, Secretary of Defense James Mattis called Trump to ask about a troop deployment in ISIS-held Syria, according to Graham.
“We’re asking permission to send 50 of our soldiers into a village outside Raqqa,” Graham quoted Mattis as having said.
“Why are you calling me?” replied Trump, “I don’t know where this village is at.”
Graham said Mattis answered that, “Well, that’s what we’ve done for the last 8 years.”
Graham said that Trump then asked who wanted to send troops to that village, and Mattis replied that a major who was first in his class at West Point had made the request.
“’Why do you think I know more about that than he does?’” Trump replied, according to Graham. “And then he hung up,” said Graham.
For former Obama administration defense officials, this story highlights a stark contrast. Obama famously micromanaged the Pentagon, insisting on a very granular level of detail for even relatively minor military decisions.
“You know, the president is quoted as having said at one point to his staff, ‘I can do every one of your jobs better than you can,’” said former secretary of defense Robert Gates, who served under eight presidents, told MSNBC's "Morning Joe" in 2016.
After three years of violence, Islamic State has encountered a major defeat that could mean that its end is near. On July 10 2017, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi, after a successful nine-month military offensive to “liberate” the northern city of Mosul, declared“total victory” over IS in Iraq.
He categorically said: “I announce from here the end and the failure and the collapse of the terrorist state of falsehood and terrorism which the terrorist Daesh announced from Mosul”, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS or ISIL.
Almost exactly three years ago, on June 29 2014, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the group’s self-styled caliph, proclaimed a cross-border caliphate stretching over vast swathes of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria.
Today, the Iraqi half of that territory has been almost totally eliminated (the northwestern Iraqi city of Tel Afar, close to the Syrian border, being an exception) while the Syrian half, based in the city of Raqqa, is facing imminent collapse under powerful US-backed Kurdish-led military offensives.
It’s a major turning point.
In the summer of 2014, an ISIL blitzkrieg swiftly defeated Iraqi defence forces across northwestern Iraq, capturing some 40% of Iraqi territories.
Prior to this rapid conquest, ISIL fighters had captured the Syrian province of Raqqa in January 2014, taking advantage of the bloody civil war let loose by pro-democracy movements.
But the territorial conquests could not be sustained for long.
After a string of crushing military defeats throughout 2015 and early 2016 at the hands of Iraqi and Syrian armed forces, ISIL lost 65% of its Iraqi territories and 45% of captured ground in Syria.
When Raqqa falls – sooner or later – to Kurdish-led forces, it could mean the complete destruction of the caliphate.
What went wrong with ISIL?
Al-Baghdadi, whose fate is currently unknown, declared his caliphate to realise a series of “impossible” objectives– including restoring Islamic power under a single authority, eliminating US and Western influence on Muslim lands and laying a claim to global leadership – and called upon all Sunni Muslims from Europe to East Asia to unite under his new flag.
These were the same objectives that the now-deceased al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden boastfully proclaimed in the early 1990s.
They were also unrealistic goals given the policy choices and capabilities of ISIL. In his first official speech on June 29 2014, Al-Baghdadi presented a world divided into two mutually opposed camps: Islam, and the camp of disbelief and hypocrisy.
He put pro-caliphate Sunni Muslims in the camp of Islam while the camp of disbelief was the abode of Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians and almost everybody else. This set the new caliphate on a collision course with the rest of the world.
ISIL militants, like their Wahhabi counterparts in the Gulf, also declared Shias to be non-Muslims and viewed the sheikhs, kings and emirs of the Gulf region as American surrogates, ringing alarm bells in Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The spectre of the threat they posed soon forced Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US to close ranks to militarily deter and contain ISIL together, despite their differences.
Lack of followers
The spate of atrocities committed by ISIL fighters against the Yazidi community in Syria, who practice a non-Islamic faith, led the United Nations to accuse ISIL of perpetrating genocidal crimes.
This senseless use of violence against non-Muslims alienated most Sunni Muslims, so ISIL was never able to develop much popular support.
Less than 8% of Sunni Muslims in the top 20 Muslim-majority countries across the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia supported the ISIL caliphate.
In early December 2015, to ISIL’s despair, thousands of Muslim clerics from across the globe declared the caliphate a terrorist organisation and branded its supporters non-Muslims.
ISIL’s military defeats, loss of territories and control over resources represented further serious blows.
Two years later, after territorial losses in Iraq and Syria meant fewer people and businesses to tax, that revenue was more than halved to US$870 million. Its control over oil fields – a lucrative source of money – also shrank from 2014 to 2016.
ISIL’s challenges and legacies
ISIL might be on its way to becoming history, but it will certainly leave its mark.
Just as its emergence posed a twofold challenge (territorial as well as ideological) to the Middle East and the West, ISIL’s demise is also leaving behind the legacies of sectarian violence and killing, inter-ethnic malice and seemingly unmanageable rivalries involving regional and extra-regional powers.
Rightly or wrongly, many commentators saw the declaration of the cross-border ISIL caliphate as a possible death blow to the post-first world war political arrangements in the region.
Present-day national borders in the Middle East are the outcome of a secretly negotiated agreement between Britain and France from May 1916, known as the Sykes–Picot Agreement.
It divided the Ottoman Arab territories of the Levant, Jordan, Iraq and Palestine between Britain and France.
Half a dozen Arab states were created: Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Israel, originally created as a “homeland” for the Jewish people in 1917, declared itself a state in 1948.
The caliphate partially challenged British- and French-imposed national boundaries by systematically dismantling the Iraq-Syria border, redrawing the map.
It also expressed its resolve to eradicate colonial legacies in the region by extending the boundaries of the caliphate.
This attempt to rewrite the history of the Middle East may keep destabilising the region for years to come.
Ideologically, ISIL has challenged the West’s eurocentric claims to universalism, in which Western values of democracy, human rights and freedom are promoted as universal values that are applicable to all societies, regardless of cultural and racial differences.
Though criticised by many people from within the West, eurocentrism is alive in the hearts and minds of many Western people. The 2003 US invasion to remodel Iraqi society on American lines is just one example.
ISIL rejects Western dominance over the Middle East and has sought to promote the alternative Islamic claim to universalism based on the commandments of the holy Koran.
The Koran instructs all humans to engage in universal morality by creating and upholding a moral order based on the values of justice, equality, truthfulness, fairness and honesty. This applies to all humans, regardless of their ethnic, cultural and racial differences.
Claiming a universal moral order that negates Western values could not but pit ISIL against the West. Future Islamic radical groups, if they emerge, are likely to carry on the ideological battle.
They may well do so in less violent ways. The Koran does not sanction brutal and inhumane methods to fulfil its commandments.
The mess after ISIL
The possible end of ISIL could still mean a more unstable Middle East, at least in the short term.
Currently, most Iraqi factions have morphed into a common front against ISIL, hiding the mistrust and rancor that persists between Shia and Sunni Iraqis, among diverse militia groups, and between Arab and Kurdish Iraqis.
If ISIL disappears, this tentative, temporary alliance may simply fall apart, unleashing more violence on the war-ravaged nation.
Syrian society is likewise polarised; along divisions between the foreign-backed pro and anti-government groups and between the rebel groups themselves. These tensions will outlive ISIS.
The elimination of ISIL will reaffirm the region’s post-first world war political and territorial status quo but don’t expect it to bring peace to the Middle East.
North Korea shocked the world in the early morning hours of July 4 by launching a ballistic missile that could reach the US mainland — but North Korea has long had the ability to make and detonate nuclear devices.
But North Korea does not sell, export, or use such nuclear devices on anyone because if they did, the consequences would be phenomenal.
“North Korea sells all kinds of weapons” to African countries, Cuba, and its Asian neighbors, according to Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical consulting firm.
"The most dangerous aspects of that trade has been with Syria and Iran in terms of missiles and nuclear reactors they helped the Syrians build before the Israelis knocked that out with an airstrike,” said Lamrani. “The most frightening is the potential sale of nuclear warheads."
With some of the harshest sanctions on earth imposed on North Korea, it’s easy to imagine the nation attempting to raise money through illegal arms sales to the US’s enemies, which could even include non-state actors like al Qaeda or ISIS.
While procuring the materials and manufacturing a nuclear weapon would represent an incredible technical and logistical hardships for a non-state actor, a single compact warhead could be in the range of capabilities for a non-state actor like Hezbollah, said Lamrani.
Furthermore, the US’s enemies would see a huge strategic benefit from having or demonstrating a nuclear capability, but with that benefit would come a burden.
If US intelligence caught wind of any plot to arm a terror group, it would make every possible effort to rip that weapon from the group’s hands before they could use it. News of a nuclear-armed terror group would fast-track a global response and steamroll whatever actor took on such a bold stance.
And not only would the terror group catch hell, North Korea would too.
"North Korea understands if they do give nuclear weapons, it could backfire on them," said Lamrani. "If a warhead explodes, through nuclear forensics and isotope analysts, you can definitely trace it back to North Korea."
At that point, North Korea would go from being an adversarial state that developed nuclear weapons as a means of regime security to a state that has enabled and abetted nuclear terrorism or proliferation.
This would change the calculus of how the world deals with North Korea, and make a direct attack much more likely.
Right now, North Korea has achieved regime security with long-range nuclear arms. If they sold those arms to someone else, they would effectively risk it all.
The Pentagon has voiced concerns to Turkey after the NATO ally's state news agency disclosed the locations of 10 US military posts in northern Syria, an official said Wednesday.
The Anadolu Agency (AA) on Monday published a report detailing the military facilities' whereabouts and, in some instances, the number of special operations forces working there.
AA said the bases — two airfields and eight military outposts — are being used to support the Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).
Despite being NATO allies, the United States and Turkey have a tense relationship over the current US-led effort to defeat the Islamic State group in northern Syria.
America is relying heavily on YPG and other Kurdish elements to conduct the fighting on the ground, and has shipped weapons to the Kurds in a move that infuriated Turkey because it views the YPG as a "terrorist group."
Pentagon spokesman Major Adrian Rankine-Galloway said the release of "sensitive military information" exposes coalition forces to unnecessary risk and had the potential to disrupt anti-IS operations.
"While we cannot independently verify the sources that contributed to this story, we would be very concerned if officials from a NATO ally would purposefully endanger our forces by releasing sensitive information," he said.
"We have conveyed these concerns to the government of Turkey."
Citing security reasons, the Pentagon refused to confirm whether the base locations released by AA were accurate.
AA said one post in Ayn Issah town in northern Raqa governorate housed around 200 US soldiers and 75 French special forces troops.
Rankine-Galloway urged all factions to remain focused on the fight against IS.
President Donald Trump will end the CIA program authorized by his predecessor in 2013 to arm Syrian rebel groups against forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
The decision comes just more than three months after Trump ordered the US Navy to launch dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airfield that Assad had used to carry out a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians.
But the termination of the often-troubled program reflects what is currently one of his biggest priorities: improving relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"This is a momentous decision," a current official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a covert program, told The Post. "Putin won in Syria."
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, known for his hawkish views toward Russia, tweeted that"if true – and I hope it’s not – it would be a complete capitulation to Assad, Russia, and Iran."
He continued: "If true, big loss for: 1) Syrians who have been relentlessly attacked by Assad 2) Our Arab partners 3) US standing in the Middle East."
The Pentagon is still backing Syrian rebels fighting ISIS. But Trump decided to end the CIA program more than a month ago after consulting with national security adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, US officials told The Post. The decision was made ahead of Trump's meeting with Putin at the G-20 summit in Germany on July 7, where they spoke for more than two hours. They spoke again for nearly an hour at a private dinner that evening.
Trump and Putin agreed during the meeting on a new ceasefire plan for Syria, which has entered its sixth year of civil war. But the ceasefire was not predicated on the US ending the CIA program, officials said.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Ned Price, a former CIA officer who served as senior director of the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, declined to comment on any purportedly covert intelligence programs. But he said the Post report "raises serious questions about what the administration may have furtively given away in return" for the "limited and fragile ceasefire" achieved with Putin in southern Syria.
"It also fits a broader pattern," Price said. 'The White House appears content to kowtow to Moscow on any number of fronts — including in Syria, where, with each passing day, this administration appears to harbor fewer objections to the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad, a murderous dictator who continues to slaughter his own people."
The Kremlin condemned what it called US "aggression against a foreign state" after Trump ordered the cruise missile strikes, saying they broke international law. Russia then redirected a ship armed with cruise missiles to the eastern Mediterranean and vowed to bolster its air defenses at Syrian air bases.
"Washington's step will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties," Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Putin, said at the time.
Even amid Russia's threats, military and national-security experts broadly agreed that the strikes were a good move. But they also said the attack was largely symbolic — a focused strike on a narrow target — and wouldn't complicate the Assad regime's ability to carry out large-scale massacres in the future.
It is unclear whether the CIA program complicated that ability in any way, and some say any hope that it would work ended when Russia intervened on behalf of Assad in September 2015. But ending the program will make the "moderate resistance more and more vulnerable," Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told The Post.
It could also make Russia's work defending the Assad regime much easier. The Daily Beast reported last year that a CIA-backed anti-Assad militia had killed at least one senior Russian military official, raising questions about whether the US was becoming mired in another proxy war.
Fred Hof, the director of the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center and former special adviser for transition in Syria, said that while the CIA program was "never sufficient," it was "not entirely useless," either. And its termination raises questions about what the US will get from Russia in return for such a big concession.
"It was never sufficient, and it was a bad substitute for American seriousness in getting Assad to do what Obama told him to do: step aside," Hof said. "Still, the program was not entirely useless. This is why the Russians want it ended. If indeed it's ending, then the operational question is what does the United States get from Moscow for ending it?
"If, for example, Russia has agreed to ground the Assad air force permanently and itself refrain from targeting civilian neighborhoods, that would be something of value," Hof added. "But if this aid is being terminated in the hope of stimulating good will and good behavior from the Kremlin, it's a sure loser."