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U.S. Didn't Shut Down Anti-Assad Arms Program To Please Russia: U.S. General

Free Syrian Army fighters fire an antiaircraft weapon in a rebel-held area of Aleppo last year.
Free Syrian Army fighters fire an antiaircraft weapon in a rebel-held area of Aleppo last year.

A top U.S. general confirmed on July 21 that the CIA is shutting down its program to equip and train rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army, but denied it is doing so to please Russia.

It was a "tough, tough decision" but "absolutely not a sop to the Russians," General Tony Thomas, who is head of U.S. special operations in Syria, said at a national security forum in Aspen, Colorado.

"It was, I think, based on an assessment of the nature of the program, what we're trying to accomplish, the viability of it going forward."

He said some critics of the CIA program had concluded that the rebels had no chance of removing Russian ally Assad from power.

The program began in 2013 as an effort by then-President Barack Obama to overthrow Assad, but produced little success. Thousands of anti-Assad fighters were trained and armed.

The CIA has declined to officially comment on the decision to drop the program, which was originally reported by The Washington Post.

The Post said President Donald Trump made the decision nearly a month ago after a meeting with CIA Director Mike Pompeo and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.

The Post said Trump was aiming to find ways to work with Russia in Syria, where Moscow supports Assad's government.

The newspaper quoted one current U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, as saying that it was a "momentous decision" and that "Putin won in Syria."

Trump has said the main U.S. focus in Syria should be on eliminating the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, rather than opposing the Assad regime. He has previously suggested he might end support for the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army group.

U.S. officials said this week that some of the anti-Assad forces could be absorbed into groups fighting IS that the United States continues to train and supply with arms.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters
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