Citing Syrian opposition figures, Reuters reported Monday that Free Syrian Army (FSA) envoys have been urging U.S. officials in Washington to resume the suspended CIA program to arm and assist them, especially if the U.S. genuinely wants to confront Iran’s expanding influence in the country.
According to Mustafa Sejari, a senior official within the FSA, envoys described to members of Congress and officials from the White House the “damaging impact” of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision last year to end the program to arm and train certain rebel groups in Syria.
“We endorse President Trump’s statements about the need to confront Iranian hegemony in the region. It is time to turn words into action. Until now on the ground it’s the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance,” Sejari allegedly told Reuters by telephone from Washington.
“With every U.S. statement about the need to confront Iran’s influence, Iran has been expanding in Syria while moderate forces that are backed by Washington see aid being dried up and are weakened,” Sejari said.
He also added that Syrian rebels had “asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support.”
According to Sejari, the delegation also reportedly hoping for sessions with officials from the Defense Department and State Department.
When reports emerged that Donald Trump had ended to the CIA program, it was reportedly the first time the U.S. had openly acknowledged the ‘secret’ program existed, though the Washington Post acknowledged the “secret” program in 2015 and explained that at its peak, the program was receiving $1 billion a year (one-fifteenth of the CIA’s overall budget).
This $1 billion a year was just the tip of the iceberg, however, as the New York Times reported that while the CIA provided most of the direct training, the U.S. has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia to provide weapons and large sums of money. In other words, $1 billion a year is barely enough for Washington’s aims in the country, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States were providing even more funding for anti-Assad rebels in Syria
Even if the program was aimed primarily at the FSA, Reuters reported as far back as 2012 that the FSA and its associates were heavily dominated by Islamic extremists. In 2015, the Tony Blair Foundation released a study that concluded the majority of the rebels in Syria shared ISIS’ core tenets and that distinguishing between the groups was pointless because they all worked together on the ground with common objectives.
Sejari’s main concern, according to Reuters’ report, appears to be the Sunni-Shia divide, which Iran’s growing influence also brings further into the spotlight.
“In all our talks with U.S. officials there was common ground, and on top of the matters discussed was the war on terrorism, (and) expelling Hezbollah and Iranian militias from Syria,” Sejari also said.
Another anonymous delegation member also reportedly warned U.S. officials that if left unchecked, Iran will build a corridor linking its capital to Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut in Lebanon, often termed the “Shi’ite Crescent.”
While it is unclear if the Trump administration will grant the FSA’s requests, the Trump administration is currently in the process of building a 30,000-strong Kurdish-dominated opposition force in Syria to protect the territory held mainly by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Given the force will operate along the Euphrates River to cut off Syrian government forces and Iranian-backed militias, it appears Washington has plans of its owns to confront Iran by creating a buffer force that will dismantle Iran’s planned Shia-dominated bridge.