(Reuters) - Free Syrian Army envoys have urged U.S. officials at talks in Washington to resume a suspended CIA program of military aid if it is serious about challenging growing Iranian influence in Syria, according to Syrian opposition figures.
Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in Syria's mainstream rebel group, said the envoys described to U.S. officials the damaging impact of President Donald Trump's decision last year to stop equipping and training certain rebel groups.
Trump's move was driven by a wish to focus on fighting Islamic State militants and to improve relations with Russia, as well as a lack of results from the CIA's support of the FSA, U.S. officials suggested.
"We endorse President Trump's statements about the need to confront Iranian hegemony in the region. It is time to turn words into action. Until now on the ground it's the Iranian militias that are expanding without serious resistance," Sejari told Reuters by telephone from Washington.
"With every U.S. statement about the need to confront Iran's influence, Iran has been expanding in Syria while moderate forces that are backed by Washington see aid being dried up and are weakened," Sejari said.
"We asked for the resumption of aid and explained the dangers of leaving moderate FSA forces without support."
Sejari said the delegation's meetings had included members of the U.S. Congress and officials from the White House, and they hoped for sessions with Defense Department and State Department officials as well.
IRANIAN PRESENCE IN FOCUS
The White House and Defense Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The FSA delegation, Sejari said, included recipients of the CIA-led program, which began in 2013 and funnelled, via Jordan and Turkey, weapons, cash and trainers to vetted FSA groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
Sejari said his delegation had briefed U.S. officials on Iran's "destructive" role in Syria, where Shi'ite Muslim militias led by Lebanon's Hezbollah have, along with Russian air power, have turned the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor.
The FSA also says that Iranian Shi'ite militia fighting in Syria have stoked wider sectarian conflict in which mainly Sunni Muslims have been driven out of former opposition strongholds.
"In all our talks with U.S. officials there was common ground, and on top of the matters discussed was the war on terrorism, (and) expelling Hezbollah and Iranian militias from Syria," Sejari said.
Another delegation member who requested anonymity told Reuters they told officials U.S. inaction in Syria would only allow Iran and its regional allies to recreate a land corridor linking Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut - often termed the "Shi'ite crescent" by Iran's regional enemies.
The Syrian opposition said the previous U.S. administration of President Barack Obama had given "Iran a free ride" in Syria.
FSA rebels have long complained that U.S. support has fallen well short of what they needed to make a decisive difference in the war against Assad's army and the Iran-backed militias helping it, including Lebanon's Hezbollah.
While cutting support to Syrian rebel groups that have fought Assad, the United States has deepened ties with a Kurdish-led militia alliance, the Syrian Democratic Forces, with which it partnered against Islamic State.
The SDF is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, and has mostly avoided conflict with the Syrian government while seeking to entrench Kurdish autonomy over regions of northern Syria.