Assad raises prospect of clashes with U.S. forces in Syria

Syria's President Bashar al Assad attends an interview with a Greek newspaper in Damascus, Syria in this handout released May 10, 2018. SANA/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad raised the possibility of conflict with U.S. forces in Syria if they do not withdraw from the country soon.

In an interview with Russia’s RT international broadcaster, Assad said he would negotiate with fighters backed on the ground by Washington, but would reclaim territory they control by force if necessary, whether or not American troops supported them.

Assad also responded sharply to U.S. President Donald Trump’s description of him as an animal, saying “what you say is what you are”.

Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, appears militarily unassailable in the war that has killed an estimated half a million people, uprooted around 6 million people in the country, and driven another 5 million abroad as refugees.

Around 2,000 U.S. special forces troops are believed to be on the ground in Syria, where they have aided a group called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is led by the YPG, a Kurdish militia.

The U.S.-backed group holds the largest area of Syrian territory outside government control, but has tried to avoid direct clashes with the government during the multi-sided war.

Assad said the government had “started now opening doors for negotiations” with the SDF.

“This is the first option. If not, we’re going to resort to … liberating those areas by force. We don’t have any other options, with the Americans or without the Americans,” he said in a text of the interview published by Syria’s state news agency.

“The Americans should leave, somehow they’re going to leave,” he said, adding that Washington should learn the lesson of its war in Iraq, which lasted longer and was much costlier than anticipated.

“They came to Iraq with no legal basis, and look what happened to them. They have to learn the lesson. Iraq is no exception, and Syria is no exception. People will not accept foreigners in this region anymore,” he said.

Trump said in April he wanted to withdraw American troops from Syria relatively soon, but also voiced a desire to leave a “strong and lasting footprint”.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on April 30 the United States and its allies would not want to pull troops out of Syria before diplomats win the peace.

Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the SDF, said in response to Assad’s comments that a military solution “is not a solution that can lead to any result”, and would “lead to more losses and destruction and difficulties for the Syrian people”.

The SDF wants a “democratic system based on diversity, equality, freedom and justice” for all the country’s ethnic and religious groups, he added in a voice message to Reuters.


Trump called Assad an “animal” after a suspected poison gas attack on a rebel-held town near Damascus in April. Medical aid organizations said the attack killed dozens of people.

The attack triggered U.S., French and British missile strikes against what they called chemical weapons targets, the first coordinated Western strikes against Assad’s government of the war. But the Western retaliation had no impact on the wider conflict, in which Assad’s forces continued their advances.

In his interview, Assad reiterated the government’s denial of blame for the chemical attack. Asked if he had a nickname for Trump similar to the “animal” comment, Assad replied: “This is not my language, so I cannot use similar language. This is his language. It represents him, and I think there is a well-known principle, that what you say is what you are.”

Assad also sought in his interview to minimize the extent of Iran’s presence in Syria. Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Tehran’s influence in Syria, said it destroyed dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria in May, after Iranian forces in Syria fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time.

Assad said Iran’s presence in Syria was limited to officers assisting the army. Apparently referring to the May 10 attack by Israel, Assad said: “We had tens of Syrian martyrs and wounded soldiers, not a single Iranian” casualty.”

Asked if there was anything Syria could do to stop Israeli air strikes, he said the only option was to improve air defenses, “and we are doing that”. Syria’s air defenses were much stronger than before, thanks to Russia, he added.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Syrian opposition calls on Trump and EU to put pressure on Russia and Iran

Nasr Hariri, chief negotiator for Syria's main opposition, poses for a photograph in central London, Britain January 16, 2018.

By Guy Faulconbridge

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and European Union leaders should increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Russia and Iran to return to talks to end Syria’s civil war, Syria’s chief opposition negotiator said on Monday.

Nasr Hariri said that unless the West forced Assad and his big power allies to seek peace then Syrian civilians would continue to be killed.

“I would like to ask all those countries that promised they would support the Syrian people and their aspirations for democracy and peace: why didn’t they fulfil their promises?” Hariri, speaking in English, told Reuters in London.

The chief negotiator for Syria’s main opposition grouping, Hariri called for Trump and EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May to get tougher with Assad.

All diplomatic initiatives have so far failed to yield progress in ending the war, which is now entering its eighth year having killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes.

The map of Syria’s conflict has been decisively redrawn in favor of Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies during the past two years. They have recaptured major population centres in western Syria from rebels seeking to overthrow him and pushed back Islamic State in the east.

In the face of the collapse of rebel-held territory, most Western countries have quietly softened their positions that Assad must leave power as part of any peace deal. But the opposition entered the last formal talks last month without softening its demand Assad go, prompting the government to declare the talks pointless.

Nevertheless, Hariri suggested Western powers still had enough influence to push the government to negotiate.

“It is time for President Trump, Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister May to say: ‘Stop’,” the former cardiologist said.

“It is time for Trump, Merkel and May to increase pressure and bring the international community together to get a genuine and just political situation in Syria.”

Hariri represents the Saudi-backed umbrella group of Syrian opposition groups which are opposed to Assad and supported by the West. He said the next round of the so-called “Geneva talks” on the fate of Syria would take place in late January, probably around Jan. 24-26 in Vienna.

A spokesman for Hariri said the opposition would attend those talks.


Hariri said discussions in Washington, including with White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster, had been positive and that the Trump administration understood the situation.

“Iran and Russia are trying to deprioritise the transition,” he said. “We need the international community’s help to put pressure on the regime and their backers, Russia and Iran.

“The Americans want to test the Russians and the regime in the next round of talks. They want to move the Geneva process forward,” Hariri said.

When asked about U.S. plans to help support a 30,000-strong force dominated by the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), he said it could lead to Syria’s partition.

“What are the benefits of establishing such an army?” he asked. “It will open the door wide for a future struggle in the region. It could open the door to the future partition of Syria.”

Assad has responded to the plan by vowing to drive U.S. troops from Syria. Turkey has called the force a terrorist army and vowed to crush it. Iran said on Tuesday creation of the SDF force would “fan the flames of war”, echoing the vehement response of Syria, Turkey and Russia.

Hariri said it was very unlikely that the Syrian opposition would attend a meeting on Syria organized by Russia in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. The opposition had received no invitation so far, and no final decision on attendance had been made.

“We have not been invited yet,” he said. “The general mood is not to go to Sochi. My personal view is that in its current shape, it is unacceptable to attend Sochi.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Michael Holden and Peter Graff)

Syrian government negotiator quits Geneva talks, says may not return

Syrian government negotiator quits Geneva talks, says may not return

By Stephanie Nebehay and Lisa Barrington

GENEVA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s government delegation quit U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva on Friday and said it would not return next week unless the opposition withdrew a statement demanding President Bashar al-Assad play no role in any interim post-war government.

“For us (this) round is over, as a government delegation. He as mediator can announce his own opinion,” government chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari said after a morning of talks, referring to U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura.

“As long as the other side sticks to the language of Riyadh 2 … there will be no progress,” Ja’afari said.

He was referring to a position adopted by Syrian opposition delegates at a meeting in Riyadh last week, in which they stuck to their demand that Assad be excluded from any transitional government.

Ja’afari went further in a televised interview with al-Mayadeen TV: “We cannot engage in serious discussion in Geneva while the Riyadh statement is not withdrawn.”

De Mistura put a brave face on the impasse, saying in a statement that he had asked the delegations to engage in “talks next week” and give their reactions to 12 political principles.

Previously there had been some speculation the opposition could soften its stance ahead of this week’s Geneva negotiations, in response to government advances on the battlefield.

The Syrian civil war, now in its seventh year, has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven 11 million from their homes. So far all previous rounds of peace talks have failed to make progress, faltering over the opposition’s demand Assad leave power and his refusal to go.

Pressed whether the government delegation would return to Geneva next week, Ja’afari replied: “Damascus will decide.”

Ja’afari said the statement insisting Assad leave power that was adopted by the opposition in Riyadh ahead of this week’s peace talks was a “mine” on the road to Geneva, and the opposition had purposefully undermined the negotiations.

“The language with which the statement was drafted was seen by us, the Syrian government, as well as by too many capitals, as a step back rather than progress forward, because it imposed a kind of precondition,” he said.

“The language is provocative, irresponsible,” he said.

The opposition, which held brief talks later with U.N. officials, rejected the charge that it was seeking to undermine the talks, and said it sought a “political solution”.

“We have come to this round with no preconditions,” opposition spokesman Yahya al-Aridi told reporters.

“Now, not coming back is a precondition in itself. It’s an expression or a reflection of a responsibility toward people who have been suffering for seven years now,” Aridi said.

Nasr Hariri, the opposition delegation chief, said earlier on Friday that his side had come to Geneva for serious, direct negotiations with Assad’s government. So far, government and opposition delegations have not negotiated face-to-face in any Syrian peace talks but have been kept in separate rooms.

“We call on the international community to put pressure on the regime to engage with this process,” Hariri said in a statement.

De Mistura said on Thursday the talks would run until Dec. 15, but the government delegation might return to Damascus to “refresh and consult” before a resumption probably on Tuesday.

(Additional reporting by Issam Abdallah, Tom Miles and Cecile Mantovani in Geneva; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syrian government delegation to arrive in Geneva for peace talks on Wednesday

Syrian government delegation to arrive in Geneva for peace talks on Wednesday

BEIRUT/GENEVA (Reuters) – A Syrian government delegation will arrive in Geneva on Wednesday, a day later than expected, to attend peace talks being held there this week, Syrian state news agency SANA said.

The delegation had delayed its planned departure for the talks, which begin on Tuesday, because of the opposition’s insistence that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has received assurances that the Syrian government delegation will attend the talks, U.N. spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci told a Geneva news briefing.

“At least we know that they are coming,” she said, declining to give details on who transmitted the message from Damascus.

A delegation from the newly-unified Syrian opposition, which arrived in the Swiss city on Monday, is due to hold a first meeting with de Mistura later on Tuesday, she said.

Earlier, the pro-Damascus Syrian newspaper al-Watan reported that the Syrian government delegation to an eighth round of peace talks in Geneva this week has not yet left Damascus.

It had reported on Monday that the delay was because of the opposition’s insistence that Assad step down, which he has refused to do.

Nasr Hariri, head of the opposition delegation, told a Geneva news conference on Monday night that he is aiming for Assad’s removal as a result of negotiations.

The government delegation will be headed by Syria’s U.N. ambassador and chief negotiator Bashar al-Ja’afari, SANA said.

A breakthrough in the talks is seen as unlikely as Assad and his allies push for total military victory in Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year, and his opponents stick by their demand he leave power.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington in Beirut and Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Syrian opposition rejects Russia-sponsored peace initiative

Mohammad Alloush (C), the head of the Syrian opposition delegation, attends Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan

BEIRUT/AMMAN/ANKARA (Reuters) – The Syrian opposition has rejected a new, Russian-sponsored initiative to reach a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, and Turkey protested against the invitation of the Syrian Kurdish side as Moscow’s peacemaking bid hit early complications on Wednesday.

Having intervened decisively in the Syrian war in 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Russia now hopes to build on the collapse of Islamic State to launch a new political process towards ending the six-year-long conflict.

Damascus has said it is ready to attend the Nov. 18 Sochi congress which is set to focus on a new constitution, saying the time is right thanks to Syrian army gains and the “terrorists’ obliteration”.

But officials in the anti-Assad opposition rejected the meeting and insisted any peace talks be held under U.N. sponsorship in Geneva, where peace talks have failed to make any progress towards ending the conflict since it erupted in 2011.

The congress amounted to a meeting “between the regime and the regime”, said Mohammad Alloush, a member of the opposition High Negotiations Committee and a senior official with the Jaish al-Islam rebel group.

The HNC was surprised it had been mentioned in a list of groups invited to the congress and would “issue a statement with other parties setting out the general position rejecting this conference”, Alloush told Reuters.

The Turkey-based Syrian National Coalition (SNC) political opposition group said the congress was an attempt to circumvent “the international desire for political transition” in Syria.

“The Coalition will not participate in any negotiations with the regime outside Geneva or without U.N. sponsorship,” SNC spokesman Ahmad Ramadan told Reuters.

A Russian negotiator said on Tuesday that Syrian groups who choose to boycott the congress risked being sidelined as the political process moves ahead.

Russia has invited 33 Syrian groups and political parties to what it calls a “Syrian Congress on National Dialogue”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin first mentioned the idea of the congress last month, saying that he believed Moscow and the Syrian government would soon finally defeat militants in Syria.

Helped by Russia’s air force and an array of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, Assad has defeated many of the Syrian rebels who were fighting to topple him, leaving him militarily unassailable and the rebels confined to enclaves of the west.

Damascus and its allies have also recovered swathes of central and eastern Syria from Islamic State in recent months, while a separate campaign by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) has driven IS from other areas of the country.

The separate campaigns are now converging on Islamic State’s last strongholds in Deir al-Zor province at the Iraqi border.

Russia’s decision to invite the Kurdish groups which dominate the SDF to Sochi triggered Turkish irritation on Wednesday. Ankara, which views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as a national security threat, said it was unacceptable that the Kurdish YPG militia had been invited.

Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Turkish and Russian officials had discussed the issue and that he had held meetings of his own to “solve the problem on the spot.”

Turkey views the YPG and its political affiliate, the PYD, as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.


(Reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Lisa Barrington in Beirut, and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Larry King and Raissa Kasolowsky)


Aleppo district shows Assad’s delicate dance with Kurds

A woman walks on debris of damaged buildings in Aleppo's Sheikh Maqsoud neighbourhood, Syria July 15, 2017. Picture taken July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Angus McDowall

ALEPPO, Syria (Reuters) – Kurdish fighters wearing the blue eagle insignia of the Asayish security force stopped the taxi entering the Sheikh Maqsoud district in Aleppo, checking papers and searching for contraband.

When they waved it on into the Kurdish-controlled district, it stayed inside the city while leaving, in effect, the Syrian Arab Republic of President Bashar al-Assad.

Inside Sheikh Maqsoud, Kurdish banners flutter from the rooftops and Assad’s image is replaced by that of a Kurdish leader.

“We won’t give up Sheikh Maqsoud unless they kill us all,” said Souad Hassan, a senior Kurdish politician.

That the government tolerates Kurdish rule in the enclave, generally allowing movement in and out, shows its willingness to accept, for now, a Kurdish movement whose vision for Syria directly rivals its own, but which is not an immediate enemy.

But friction between Sheikh Maqsoud – population 40,000 – and the government points to potential future problems.

It is an uneasy relationship, complicated by a web of international alliances and enmities, that will grow more important as both sides seize more ground from Islamic State.

Assad’s government trumpeted the defeat of rebels in Aleppo as his greatest victory of the war so far, the return of state control to a city that was once the country’s biggest.

But he has made no move to regain Sheikh Maqsoud, which sits on a hilltop surrounded by areas held by the army.

There is no military presence around the district except a Syrian army checkpoint on the road in. Many government workers and students inside Sheikh Maqsoud commute daily into the city.

Still, Asayish leaders there complained to Reuters that government checkpoints hinder the movement of goods and services into Sheikh Maqsoud.


In an upstairs room of the local “Democratic Community Academy”, 15 men and women, note pads and pens on their laps, attended a lecture on the YPG’s leftist, federalist ideology.

A woman rose to speak and the man and woman giving the course nodded approvingly before correcting a point of doctrine.

A wall-sized photograph of Abdullah Ocalan, founder of the PKK in Turkey, and political lodestar of the YPG and the main Syrian Kurdish political party, the PYD, dominated the room.

Graffiti in Sheikh Maqsoud included several references to the PKK and to “Apo”, as Ocalan is known. Street posters of martyrs included not just those killed with the YPG in Syria, but some who had died fighting for the PKK in Turkey.

Those ties to the PKK alarm Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, whose intervention in Syria is based partly on stopping a Kurdish mini-state emerging along the border.

They have also complicated the YPG’s relationship with the United States, which backs it as the spearhead of its fight against Islamic State in Syria, but which regards the PKK as a terrorist organization.

The Kurds have forsworn independence from Syria. Instead they want a decentralized state in which communities elect local councils, led by both men and women, with representation from all ethnic and religious groups.

Critics say the governing structures they have set up under this model in northern Syria are less democratic than they appear, and are dominated by officials committed to the PKK.

Still, their vision is at odds with Assad’s Syrian state, which is highly centralized and emphasizes the country’s Arab roots.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem has suggested that an “accommodation” could be reached with the Kurds, and Assad has indicated he accepts their bearing arms for now.

But Assad has also vowed to take back “every inch” of the country and described Kurdish governing bodies as “temporary structures”.


One reason for Assad’s tolerance of the YPG is clear: its enmity with rebel groups that are his own main foe.

The Kurds’ front against the rebels helped Assad when his forces retook east Aleppo last year. Their fight against Islamic State has also deprived the jihadists of resources they might have used against the Syrian government.

The Syrian government has also benefited from Turkish anxiety about the YPG’s links to the PKK. Ankara’s involvement in Syria, where it was a main supporter of rebels, is now focused on containing Kurdish influence.

The Kurds have allowed government enclaves to persist near Hasaka and Qamishli, two cities they control in northeast Syria, but they have also clashed with the army there.

Reuters visited Sheikh Maqsoud with a Syrian government official and was escorted by a truck of Asayish soldiers.

Mohammed Ali, the head of the Asayish in Sheikh Maqsoud, was very critical of the Syrian government, saying it often obstructed passage between Sheikh Maqsoud and other areas, blocking humanitarian supplies.

“This is wrong behavior by the Syrian government. It looks at Sheikh Maqsoud as if it is a military area, not a civilian one,” he said.

Reuters did not see any of the Kurdish YPG militia fighters in Sheikh Maqsoud, only the armed security service the Asayish, although YPG flags were flying.


There are only two primary schools and no high schools in Sheikh Maqsoud, Ali said. Older children and people in the district with jobs in other parts of Aleppo must commute into government territory.

However, he said the checkpoint was only open from 8am-5pm in summer and until 3pm in winter. Reuters saw some traffic cross later than this.

All supplies including food, medicine and diesel for electricity generators – needed to power pumps to raise water from wells – come from outside.

Produce in Sheikh Maqsoud street stalls was all purchased from the central Aleppo fruit and vegetable market each morning, the barrow men said – but charged 50 lira ($0.10) per kilo by the checkpoint soldiers.

Sheikh Maqsoud is about 17km (10 miles) from the nearest Kurdish-run territory in Syria – Afrin. Civilians are able to pass without much difficulty, but Kurdish fighters are not. Young men risk forcible conscription at army checkpoints.

The checkpoints sometimes refused shipments attempting to enter Sheikh Maqsoud without warning and seemingly without reason, Ali said, noting a recent diesel shipment denied entry.

Heavy trucks and construction machinery, such as bulldozers, required to lift the rubble in badly damaged areas were also forbidden entrance, he added.


In the main ward of Sheikh Maqsoud’s only clinic, a former school, a motionless soldier and an old man lay on two of the four chipped metal beds.

A plastic cupboard against one wall was untidily piled with old medical equipment and supplies. A half-full plastic bin bag lay open in a corner with discarded surgical gloves inside.

The hospital cannot perform surgery under anesthetic and usually just provides first aid before moving patients to private hospitals in government-held Aleppo.

This apparent dependence on links to government areas is reflected in other Kurdish areas in Syria, where their other borders, with Turkey and Iraq, are hostile.

There was no sign in Sheikh Maqsoud of the ties between the YPG and the U.S. But Reuters saw a Russian armored vehicle slowly driving down one road.

Moscow is Assad’s biggest ally in the war but the presence of Russian forces in the Kurdish Afrin region has also helped avert possible Turkish attacks there, Kurds believe.

Still, Kurdish leaders in Sheikh Maqsoud say they see no reason to accept rule by Damascus unless their people want it.

“Around 30-40 percent of Syrian land is under our control and the will of the people is what is strongest,” said Mohammed Haj Mustafa, head of the PYD in Sheikh Maqsoud.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

Parents of kidnapped U.S. journalist Tice renew plea for release

Debra Tice, the mother of American journalist Austin Tice, holds his picture with her husband Marc Tice during a news conference in Beirut, Lebanon July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The parents of a U.S. journalist kidnapped in Syria nearly five years ago issued a new plea for his release on Thursday.

Austin Tice, a freelance reporter and former U.S. Marine from Houston, Texas, was kidnapped in August 2012 aged 31 while reporting in Damascus on the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The identity of his captors is not known, and there has been no claim of responsibility for his abduction. The family believe he is alive and still being held captive.

“We are willing to engage with any government, any group, any individual who can help us in this effort to secure Austin’s safe release,” his father Marc Tice said at a news conference in Beirut.

“When any journalist is silenced, we’re all blindfolded.”

His mother Debra Tice added: “Five years is a very long time for any parent to be missing their child … we desperately want him to come home.”

Nothing has been heard publicly about Tice since a video posted online weeks after he disappeared showed him in the custody of armed men.

U.S. officials and Tice’s parents do not think he is held by Islamic State, which typically announces its Western captives in propaganda videos and executed two U.S. journalists in 2014.

The Assad government says it does not know his whereabouts.

(Reporting by John Davison, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

Trump ends CIA arms support for anti-Assad Syria rebels: U.S. officials

A Free Syrian Army fighter carries weapons as he walks past damaged buildings in a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria July 9, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

By John Walcott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration has decided to halt the CIA’s covert program to equip and train certain rebel groups fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, two U.S. officials said, a move sought by Assad ally Russia.

The U.S. decision, said one of the officials, is part of an effort by the administration to improve relations with Russia, which along with Iranian-supported groups has largely succeeded in preserving Assad’s government in the six-year-civil war.

The CIA program began in 2013 as part of efforts by the administration of then-President Barack Obama to overthrow Assad, but produced little success, said the officials, both of whom are familiar with the program and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Washington Post was first to report the program’s suspension on Wednesday. White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders declined to comment on the topic at the White House briefing.

The CIA also declined to comment.

The decision was made with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and CIA Director Mike Pompeo after they consulted with lower ranking officials and before Trump’s July 7 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Germany. It was not part of U.S.-Russian negotiations on a ceasefire in southwestern Syria, the two officials said.

One of the officials said the United States was not making a major concession, given Assad’s grip on power, although not on all of Syria, “but it’s a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia.”

Trump is under intense scrutiny by Congress and a special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and whether Trump’s campaign had ties to the activity. Russia has denied U.S. intelligence agencies’ allegations of Moscow meddling, and Trump has denied collusion between his campaign and Russians.

A downside of the CIA program, one of the officials said, is that some armed and trained rebels defected to Islamic State and other radical groups, and some members of the previous administration favored abandoning the program.

Before assuming office in January, Trump suggested he could end support for Free Syrian Army groups and give priority to the fight against Islamic State.

A separate effort by the U.S. military effort to train, arm and support other Syrian rebel groups with air strikes and other actions will continue, the officials said.

However, aside from air strikes after the Syrian military launched a chemical weapons attack, the Trump administration has not increased military support from the limits set by the Obama administration.

(Reporting by John Walcott; additional reporting by Ayesha Rascoe; Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Grant McCool)

Russia sees growing acceptance of Assad as key to Syria talks

FILE PHOTO - Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview in Damascus, in this handout photograph distributed by Syria's national news agency SANA on September 26, 2013. SANA/Handout via Reuters/File Photo

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N.-led Syria talks have a chance of making progress because demands for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad have receded, Russia’s ambassador in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, told reporters on Saturday.

The seventh round of talks, which ended on Friday, had produced positive results, especially a “correction” in the approach of the main opposition delegation, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, he said.

“The essence of this correction is that during this round the opposition never once demanded the immediate resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the legitimate Syrian government.”

The HNC and its backers in Western and Gulf capitals had realized that peace needed to come first, and then political reforms could be negotiated, he said.

“Assad must go” was long the mantra of the HNC and its international backers, a call flatly rejected by Russia, which is widely seen as holding the balance of power in Syria because of its military involvement and alliance with Assad.

But over the past year the opposition suffered military defeats at the hands of forces loyal to Assad, and neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor French President Emmanuel Macron is calling for his immediate ouster.

Assad’s negotiators at the U.N. talks have avoided discussion of any kind of political transition, preferring to focus on the fight against terrorism.

They have not yet had to negotiate directly with the opposition because there is no unified delegation to meet them, since the HNC and two other groups, known as the Cairo and Moscow platforms, all claim to represent the opposition.

In the seven rounds so far, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura has met each side separately, a laboriously choreographed negotiation that has succeeded only in deciding what to discuss: a new constitution, reformed governance, fresh elections and fighting terrorism.

The three opposition delegations’ leaders have been meeting to try to find common ground, raising hopes of direct talks at the next round in September.

Borodavkin said the success of such a unified delegation would depend on its willingness to compromise with Assad’s team.

“If they will be ready to make deals with the government delegation, that is one thing. If they again slide into… ultimatums and preconditions that are not realistic, then this will not fly. This will lead the negotiations, be it direct or indirect, into a deadlock.”

He also called for wider opposition representation, citing the Kurds as a striking example, since they were Syrian citizens with their own political and military influence.

But he said it was up to de Mistura to decide how and when to incorporate them in the peace process.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Ros Russell)

Global inquiry aims to report on Syria sarin attack by October

A civil defence member breathes through an oxygen mask, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – An international inquiry aims to report by October on who was to blame for a deadly sarin gas attack in Syria in April, the head of the probe said on Thursday, as he appealed for countries to back off and stop telling investigators how to do their work.

While Edmond Mulet, head of the joint United Nations and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry, did not name any countries, diplomats said Russia regularly pressured the investigators.

“We do receive, unfortunately, direct and indirect messages all the time, from many sides, telling us how to do our work,” Mulet told reporters after briefing the U.N. Security Council.

“Some of those messages are very clearly saying if we don’t do our work according to them … they will not accept the conclusions,” he said. “I appeal to all … let us perform our work in an impartial, independent and professional manner,” he said, adding the results would be presented in October.

Syrian-ally Russia has publicly questioned the work of the inquiry, which was created by the Security Council in 2015, and said the findings cannot be used to take U.N. action and that the Syrian government should investigate the accusations.

The inquiry has so far blamed Syrian government forces for three chlorine gas attacks in 2014 and 2015 and Islamic State militants used mustard gas in 2015. In response to those findings Western powers tried to impose U.N. sanctions on Syria in February but this effort was blocked by Russia and China.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons.

Investigators are currently looking at two cases – the exposure of two Syrian women to sulfur mustard in an apparent attack in Um Hosh, Aleppo last September and a deadly April 4 sarin attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun that prompted the United States to launch missile strikes on a Syrian air base.

In both cases an OPCW fact finding mission has already determined that chemical weapons were used. Western governments have blamed the Syrian government for the Khan Sheikhoun attack, which killed dozens of people. Syria has denied any involvement.

Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 under a deal brokered by Russia and the United States.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Frances Kerry)