ASPEN — U.S. Special Operations Commander Tony Thomas confirmed Friday that the U.S. had ended its covert program aiding rebel groups fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, saying the decision was made after assessing the years-long operation’s capabilities and by no means an effort to curry favor with al-Assad’s chief backer, Moscow.
“At least from what I know about that program and the decision to end it, absolutely not a sop to the Russians,” Thomas said at the Aspen Security Forum. “It was I think based on assessment of the nature of the program, what we’re trying to accomplish, the viability going forward…tough, tough decision.”
It’s unclear whether Thomas intended to confirm either the existence or end to the program, which as a covert operation is not acknowledged publicly by U.S. officials. The comments appeared to take the CIA — which declined to comment — by surprise.
Thomas almost immediately tried to walk back his comments after leaving the stage, telling reporters he hadn’t confirmed anything and was only referring to “public reporting.”
Reports surfaced earlier this week that the Trump administration had decided to end the 2013 Obama-led program, in which the CIA armed and trained various rebel groups in Syria and the region who were fighting against Assad in the country’s years-long civil war. Its end had not been officially confirmed before Friday.
“It is so much more complex than even I can describe, that’s not necessarily an organization that I’ve been affiliated with but a sister, parallel activity that had a tough, and some would argue, impossible mission based on the approach we took,” Thomas said of the CIA and its program during his remarks.
The controversial Syria operation — which began after Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons against his own people — has seen mixed results, and has been criticized over the years for a swath of reasons. Officials say the program has helped rebel factions gain significant footholds and territory in Syria.
But critics claim the United States does not adequately vet the groups it arms and trains, potentially letting U.S. weapons into the hands of extremist groups in the region. Still others say the program doesn’t go far enough in helping to oust Assad, who has been accused of a range of wartime atrocities.
The U.S. is currently waging an air campaign with allies in Syria against the Islamic State extremist group, along with a Pentagon-run operation that is providing guns and training to Kurdish forces, also fighting against ISIS.
The Washington Post reported Trump had decided to end the program a month ago, which some officials suggested was an attempt to curry favor with the Kremlin, Assad’s most powerful and aggressive ally.