May 28, 2014
WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House soon may sign off on a project to train and equip moderate Syrian rebel forces, according to Obama administration officials. The move would significantly boost U.S. support for rebels seeking military help to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
President Barack Obama is considering sending a limited number of American troops to Jordan to be part of a regional training mission that would instruct carefully screened members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism operations, the officials said.
They said Pres. Obama has not given final approval and there still were internal discussion about the merits and potential risks.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss administration deliberations by name.
In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy on Wednesday, Obama was expected to frame the situation in Syria as a counterterrorism challenge and indicate he will expand assistance to the opposition, although he was not expected to announce the new program, the officials said.
"We look at the Syrian conflict as part of a broader counterterrorism challenge," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One to the speech. "And that is why we're going to continue increasing our support to the moderate opposition to offer the best alternative to both the murderous Assad dictatorship and the extremists who have exploited the crisis in Syria for their own malign purposes."
He declined to offer further details ahead of Obama's remarks. "We have a range of options that we will continue discussing within the administration and with Congress," Carney said.
The State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies, along with many in Congress who back the move, have concluded Assad will not budge without a change in the military situation on the ground, according to the officials.
At the same time, there are growing fears about the threat from al-Qaida-linked and -inspired extremists fighting in Syria, the officials said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee last week passed a defense bill that authorizes the Defense Department to provide training and equipment elements of the Syrian opposition that have been screened.
The U.S. has covert support operations in place for the Syrian opposition, and it is not yet clear how the new program would work. The United States has spent $287 million so far in nonlethal aid on the civil war, now in its fourth year.
Rebel commanders for three years have asked the U.S. for lethal assistance as they've seen gains wiped out one after another. The U.S. has been reluctant to move to that kind of aid for fear weapons could end up in the hands of extremist rebels who might then turn on neighboring Israel or against U.S. interests.
The proposed mission would be coordinated by the U.S. but involve many of the regional players active in assisting the rebels, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the officials said.