July 25, 2017 / 1:51 PM / 3 months ago

Syria says U.S. halting aid to rebels is step toward ending war

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria views a U.S. decision to halt CIA support to rebel groups fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad as a “start” toward ending the six-year conflict, a government minister told Reuters.

Syria's Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs Ali Haidar gestures as he speaks during an interview with Reuters in his office in Damascus, Syria, July 24, 2017. Picture taken July 24, 2017. REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

“All these steps are the start to solving the Syrian crisis, and without that there is no solution,” national reconciliation minister Ali Haidar said in an interview.

But speaking generally about the conflict, he said what was really needed was for foreign states to completely seal off borders across which arms and fighters have flowed throughout the war, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

“As long as there are areas left like open wounds, there will be no solution,” he said, without specifying which areas these were.

Haidar also said the government intended to reach more “reconciliation agreements” with insurgents in parts of Syria delineated as “de-escalation zones” under diplomatic efforts led by Russia.

His comments reflected the government’s satisfaction with U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision, announced by U.S. officials last week, to end the CIA program set up in 2013 to equip and train certain vetted rebels.

The move marks a further blow to the opposition and a boost for Assad, whose position already appeared militarily unassailable. But Haidar said it was more of a U.S. admission of failure than a genuine policy shift.

“All the American attempts to fund and arm and train groups it called moderate factions ... have failed.”

The program overseen by the CIA has funnelled aid to rebels in southern and northern Syria, with support from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Some of these states, notably Qatar and Turkey, are widely believed to have backed some rebels outside the CIA channel.

“DANGEROUS AND WASTEFUL”

Before assuming office in January, Trump suggested he could end support for Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and give priority to fighting Islamic State.

In a tweet on Tuesday, he called the CIA funding to anti-Assad Syrian rebels “massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments”. The tweet was reported by the Syrian state news agency and state-run TV.

Rebels have said the support always fell far short of what they needed to make a decisive difference in the war with Assad, who received more robust backing from his allies Russia and Iran.

Assad’s military advantage has helped the government suppress pockets of opposition in western Syria, through local deals in which rebels and civilians are given the choice of evacuating or accepting state rule.

Haidar said the government intends to reach more such agreements with rebels. Russia has been working to establish de-escalation zones in the major rebel strongholds of western Syria, notably Idlib province in the northwest and the eastern Ghouta area near Damascus.

Moscow and Washington have also brokered a separate ceasefire for southwestern Syria earlier this month.

“The Syrian government and allied countries are working on many details for the ... de-escalation zones to pave the way for real reconciliations,” Haidar said.

“We will not accept anything less than that.”

Damascus describes such deals as a “workable model” that brings the country closer to peace. But the opposition decries them as a tactic of forcibly displacing people who oppose Assad after years of bombardment and siege.

Haidar denied such allegations and said many people have returned to their hometowns after local deals ended the fighting there.

Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Tom Perry and Mark Trevelyan

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