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'Washington Post': Trump Ends U.S. Aid To Syrian Anti-Government Forces

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Trump has decided to end a covert program to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against the government of Bashar al-Assad. That's according to a new report from The Washington Post. And for more, we're joined by Post reporter Adam Entous. Welcome to the program.

ADAM ENTOUS: Great to be here. Thank you.

SIEGEL: First tell us more about this program that's coming to an end. It began under the Obama administration in 2013. Not everyone agreed it was effective.

ENTOUS: Right. So it started off very small. And it grew gradually. There were phases where the fighters seemed to be doing OK, and there were phases when Nusra group, you know, one of the more radical groups, attacked them and set them back. They seemed to be coming back relatively strong in early 2015. And then the Russians intervened in Syria in a big way, and that basically marked a turning point in the conflict. And the CIA-backed rebels at that point were on the run.

SIEGEL: This is coming a few months after President Trump authorized retaliatory airstrikes against the Syrian Air Base. What will happen to the Syrians whose aid is being cut off right now?

ENTOUS: We don't really know. I mean they do receive support from other countries in the region and in Europe. It's possible that those countries would step in. One of the reasons for creating the CIA program in the first place was so that the U.S. could have a veto power over what other countries may provide to the rebels, such as - you know, Obama did not want to - want the rebels to get MANPADS, anti-aircraft weapons. So he was able to say through the CIA that that was not permissible. If we're outside the program once this program is killed and these countries can decide for themselves what they want to give, we may not have as much leverage to prevent them from providing those weapons.

SIEGEL: In your article, you write that Russia has long desired for the U.S. to stop arming these rebels. Why?

ENTOUS: Assad is Russia's key ally in that part of the world. And you know, in many ways, what this program was was an attempt by the by the U.S. - the CIA covertly - not that different from what the - you know, in some ways than what the U.S. did in Afghanistan in the '80s to basically weaken Russia's key ally in order to try to force a transition to put pressure so Assad goes. And so for this program to be killed in many ways is exactly what Putin was hoping for.

SIEGEL: What do we know about the decision to kill it and when President Trump made that?

ENTOUS: We don't know exactly the date. We were told it was approximately three weeks ago that this was something that was brought to him with a recommendation by the CIA director, his national security adviser. He approved this decision. A few days later was the meeting with Putin in Germany which resulted in the announcement of a cease-fire in southwest Syria.

SIEGEL: I just want you to make one important distinction here, Adam. This is the CIA program to aid Syrian rebels. The Defense Department, the U.S. is still backing people in Syria, isn't it?

ENTOUS: Yes. So there are two separate efforts here or multiple efforts. The CIA program was fighting forces that are aligned with Assad, the president of Syria. The Pentagon was backing - or is backing and continues to do so - fighters, including Kurds, that are fighting Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. So that's the critical distinction. The Pentagon program is also not a secret program. It's not a covert program.

SIEGEL: Adam Entous of The Washington Post, thanks.

ENTOUS: Great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.