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Opinion U.S. general says ending the CIA’s Syria program was ‘not a sop’ to Russia

U.S. Special Operations Command Commander Gen. Raymond Thomas testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on May 2. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

ASPEN, Colo. — Special Operations Command chief Gen. Raymond “Tony” Thomas defended the Trump administration’s decision to end the CIA program to arm Syrian rebels in public remarks here at the Aspen Security Forum on Friday, arguing that the program had problems and ending it was not a gift to Russia.

Some audience members were surprised that Thomas spoke publicly about the still-classified program, considering that CIA Director Mike Pompeo and White House counterterrorism adviser Tom Bossert refused to do so in separate sessions here in Aspen on Thursday.

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But when Fox News correspondent Catherine Herridge asked Thomas if the ending of the program, first reported by The Washington Post this week, was a gift to Russia, he insisted that was not why the decision was made.

“Absolutely not, at least from what I know about that program and the decision to end it, absolutely not a sop to the Russians,” Thomas said. “It was, I think, based on an assessment of the nature of the program and what we are trying to accomplish and the viability of it going forward. And a tough, tough decision.”

Thomas acknowledged that his organization was not directly involved with the program but said that the organization that was in charge had struggled to implement it.

“That’s not necessarily an organization that I have been affiliated with,” Thomas said, seeming to refer to the CIA. “But a sister organization, a parallel activity, that had a tough, some would argue impossible mission, based on the approach that we took.”

After the session, I asked Gen. Thomas if he realized that he had become the first senior U.S. official during the Trump administration to acknowledge the classified CIA program to arm the Syrian rebels on the record. Thomas claimed that he was just operating off of open source information.

“I didn’t acknowledge anything,” Thomas said. “She asked me about the closure, which was put out in the press two days ago. … But my assessment is that it wasn’t to give the Russians anything. I think the program was just having challenges.”