Why Has Trump Ordered the CIA Out of Syria? Is this good news for ISIS? Or Assad?

This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

We had some news from The Washington Post on July 19 that the Trump administration has ended a CIA-run program to arm, and perhaps train, elements of the Syrian opposition that had been in place since 2013.

But they are keeping in place a secondary program run by the Department of Defense called Train and Equip—that's largely focused on what the name implies—training and equipping elements of the Syrian opposition to fight ISIS.

This gives us a chance to talk about my latest report, Partner Operations in Syria: Lessons Learned and the Way Forward —and it talks about this Train and Equip program.

GettyImages-814913160
A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab fighters, on a street in eastern Raqqa on July 15, 2017, during an offensive by the SDF to retake the city from ISIS group fighters. The US-backed coalition has captured around 30 percent of Raqqa city since it entered the ISIS bastion in June after a months-long operation to capture territory in the surrounding province. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty

Just to make things a little more complicated, the Train and Equip program breaks down into two disparate elements—one west of the Euphrates River, where the US military has trained and equipped largely Arab majority forces with the goal of attacking ISIS positions, and efforts east of the river where the US has created a militia called the Syrian Democratic Forces, its primary component being the YPG, which is a Kurdish majority force that is now fighting in the streets of Raqqa to liberate that city from ISIS.

My report, at least the genesis of it, was to look at the challenges with the US operations west of the river and why that failed—because the program didn't do so well versus the tactical successes that the US has had with the SDF, beginning with the partnership that came about in October 2015, largely by accident, which was in response to the US bombing of ISIS positions around Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish town, that became the genesis of what built out into the current counter-ISIS strategy.

My report, based upon a series of interviews with US officials, members both in the military and on the outside, looked at the sort of bureaucratic complexities involved in this. And it comes up in this Washington Post report that there are two different elements there—one run by the CIA and one run by the Department of Defense—and if you're looking at the genesis of policy decision-making, these nitty gritty details are really important because they helped set the broader framework for how strategy is figured out and least implemented in Syria.

And so you have a US position, and US history, of using small numbers of boots on the ground in complicated environments, in this case Syria, backed by airpower to try and take as much territory as possible.

What makes the Syrian case so complicated is that the US is going after a symbiotic terror state nestled into a larger sort of rogue state which is led by the Bashar al Assad regime but the US not willing to carry out regime change against the Assad regime, but is trying to oust ISIS from territory it effectively governs.

And in doing so, it has made a military partnership with the SDF that's been tactically successful. That's because, as the report describes in great detail, within these partner operation efforts that the US undertakes, the special operations forces who are involved were able to graft onto YPG networks.

Because they were able to do that, they had a coherent command and control structure which allowed them to rapidly expand the amount of territory under SDF control. Whereas the efforts with the Train and Equip were problematic because the concept of operations, the goals, were always too ambitious, largely because we were trying to train up what was a force that didn't really exist, culled from individuals rather than larger groups, and their goals were largely incongruent with those of the United States.

The fundamental problem with this is not the defeat of ISIS but sometimes these intricacies and these tactics run afoul of larger foreign policy objectives—in this case the US relationship with Turkey.

Aaron Stein is Resident Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Read Aaron Stein's report: Partner Operations in Syria: Lessons Learned and the Way Forward .

Listen to Stein on this topic.

Why Has Trump Ordered the CIA Out of Syria? Is this good news for ISIS? Or Assad? | Opinion