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Frida Ghitis: Trump's recent decision to pull a US training program from Syrian rebels may have an awkward parallel to Obama's decision in the region

The difference is that Trump's actions will leave the world more unstable, she writes

Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN) —  

President Donald Trump has just given Russia what he might call a “beautiful” gift. According to the Washington Post, Trump has decided to dismantle a US program that was arming and training some of the rebels fighting the Syrian dictator, President Bashar al-Assad. When asked about the report, the White House and the CIA declined to comment.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The decision grants Vladimir Putin one of his long-sought changes to US policy in the Middle East, and it does it in exchange – as far as we can tell – for nothing at all.

The end of the US-backed push against Assad is not only a gift to Russia and to the Syrian president – it is also a point on the scoreboard for his ambitious allies, the Iranian regime and its Lebanese catspaw, Hezbollah.

The change is not transformative on the battlefield – the rebels were not about to overthrow the Russia- and Iran-backed Assad – but it is loaded with important symbolism and geopolitical implications.

To be sure, the program, a small operation run by the CIA, was far from a resounding success. It suffered since its earliest days in 2013 from the wavering in Washington, the turbulence of the Syrian civil war and, quite possibly, from President Barack Obama’s reluctance to antagonize Tehran when his priority was to negotiate a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.

With his confusing Syria policy, Trump has created an awkward parallel to his predecessor’s: Obama may have refrained from taking more forceful action in Syria partly in an effort to improve relations with Iran and now Trump may be stepping back from Syria to improve relations with Russia.

Iran aside, Obama was never convinced that the United States should play much of a role in Syria. He waited far too long to take a stand. By then, the moderate rebels started to fade, extremists grew stronger, and it became increasingly difficult to find trustworthy partners among the rebels. Obama’s hesitation is one of the reasons why a pro-democracy uprising in Syria degenerated into a brutal civil war. Moderate Syrians struggling for democracy were left to twist in the wind while extremists on both sides received muscular backing, funding and weaponry from abroad. By the time the US acted, it was too late.

Consequently, Assad (and Iran) wanted the world to see only two choices in Syria, ignoring that democratic reform could be an option. The way he described it, it was him or the terrorists. Ironically, it was the Iran-funded terrorist group Hezbollah that came to his rescue, and then Russia jumped in with both feet as Obama watched. Now Trump is ceding political ground to Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.

The Trump administration’s policy is thoroughly nebulous, particularly regarding Assad. It’s unclear whether Washington is prepared to let Assad stay. But the latest decision appears to bring an end to American support for those seeking to topple him.

The US, let’s be clear, is deeply involved in Syria. It backs the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which are led by Syrian Kurds along with Arab tribes, but they are fighting against ISIS, not Assad.

US allies are making headway against ISIS, turning this into a crucial time for Syria’s future – and the worst possible moment to make unrequited concessions. Once ISIS is defeated, the powers on the ground will decide the country’s future. The US is making room for Russia and Iran to play a larger role in that pivotal process for the entire Middle East.

By folding this tent, the United States is not only diminishing its regional influence, it is also showing itself to be an unreliable partner. It is a move that will not go unnoticed in the region by America’s existing or prospective partners. The rebels say they have been betrayed by Washington.

In fairness, the training program was not about to lead to Assad’s toppling, but it is remarkable that Trump gave Putin something for nothing. From the beginning, many viewed the Obama administration training program only as a bargaining chip, to cash in when the time to settle Syria’s future arrived, perhaps to help secure a more pluralistic Syria. Now President “Art of the Deal” appears to have given it away with nothing to show for it.

In late June, we heard reports that Trump had asked his aides for ideas of possible concessions he could offer to Putin ahead of their planned G20 meeting in Hamburg. It was never clear what Trump expected to get in return. Trump has been open about wanting to improve relations with Russia, but closer ties would be concession enough. Putin did not need an incentive to accept.

The ceasefire agreement in southern Syria is a welcome respite from the fighting, but it allows Iran and Hezbollah to grow roots in the places they hold, just as the US appears to be stepping back from the post-ISIS phase of the conflict and giving away its own bargaining chips.

This is all happening as Iran’s allied militia, Hezbollah, is building up its weapons arsenals in Lebanon, just next door to Syria.

In an effort to develop better relations with Moscow, Trump risks turning a blind eye to Iran’s growing influence in Syria and Lebanon. That is something that will raise the alarm of Washington allies in the region, from Saudi Arabia to Israel. It is the kind of geopolitical blunder that leaves the United States weaker and the world more unstable.

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It’s no wonder the US Senate has tried to prevent Trump from making more moves favorable to Russia. In mid-June, the Senate voted 98 to 2 to require congressional approval before Trump can dismantle any of the sanctions the US imposed on Russia after it annexed a slice of Ukraine. But shuttering the training program in Syria is one way Trump was able to help Russia even without easing sanctions. As for the Senate bill approved by almost every member, Republican and Democrat, it remains stalled in the House, where Trump loyalists are trying to water it down.

Meanwhile, those who rule in Moscow, Tehran and Damascus, can only celebrate their good fortune as they unwrap their beautiful gift from Washington.