President Barack Obama is close to authorizing a mission led by the U.S. military to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the regime of Bashar al-Assad and al Qaeda-linked groups, a move that would expand Washington’s role in the conflict, The Wall Street Journal cited U.S. officials saying on Tuesday, May 27th.
A new military training program, if implemented, would supplement a small train-and-equip program led by the Central Intelligence Agency which Mr. Obama authorized a year ago.
U.S. officials said the new military program would represent a significant expansion of Washington’s public efforts. U.S. officials don’t discuss the CIA’s limited training program because it is covert.
The proposed military training mission has been the subject of a nearly yearlong Obama administration debate pitting top American diplomats seeking leverage to pressure Mr. Assad against Pentagon leaders wary of open-ended commitments that risk deepening U.S. involvement in another messy Middle Eastern conflict.
Defense officials said it was unclear when training, which would be undertaken by U.S. special-operations forces, would get under way, citing obstacles that include how the Pentagon will vet prospective rebels for the program.
Syrian opposition leaders say the program would be a step in the right direction but voiced skepticism that training alone could turn the tide. Opposition leaders say the U.S. also needs to give moderate fighters access to more powerful weapons, including antiaircraft missile launchers, so they can take out Mr. Assad’s helicopters and attack planes.
Defense officials said it also remains unclear which countries in the region would agree to host such a mission and what criteria would be used to screen rebels to prevent Islamists aligned with al Qaeda from taking part. “The devil’s in the details,” a senior U.S. military official said. “A lot of conditions have to be met.”
The move toward deeper U.S. involvement reflects a growing realization within the White House that more needs to be done to build up the capabilities of a proxy force inside Syria capable of challenging al Qaeda. Washington increasingly fears al Qaeda’s network of foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq will become capable of threatening U.S. allies in the region, including Jordan.
The move also comes in response to mounting pressure on the White House from Middle Eastern allies who say Mr. Obama’s reluctance to support moderate fighters has allowed al Qaeda-linked groups to now dominate the opposition.
Washington’s Gulf allies were particularly critical of Mr. Obama’s decision last year to call off planned airstrikes against Assad regime targets in exchange for a deal to remove his chemical arsenal. Nearly all of Mr. Assad’s declared stockpile of chemical weapons has been removed from the country, and a senior U.S. diplomat said the rest should be shipped out soon.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, and Secretary of State John Kerry have been the leading advocates within the administration of creating the military-led training program. They have argued that more U.S. support is needed to weaken Mr. Assad and his allies, and to challenge al Qaeda.
Many Pentagon officers voiced skepticism of the proposed training mission. In recent private meetings, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has questioned the feasibility of vetting a sufficient number of rebels to make a difference, according to officials.
The developments follow a visit to Washington earlier this month of Ahmed Jarba, the president of the Syrian opposition coalition. During his visit, Mr. Jarba appealed directly to the administration to create a military-led training program, saying his forces were ready to fight against al Qaeda.
The Western-backed Free Syrian Army has been fighting a two-front war, against Mr. Assad and his allies on one side, and against al Qaeda and its allies on the other, but commanders say they have received scant support from the U.S.
During his visit, Mr. Jarba met with Mr. Obama and top officials at the White House and the State Department. Mr. Jarba also requested a meeting with Mr. Hagel, but a senior defense official said the Pentagon chief’s schedule at the time was booked. “There was not a concerted effort not to meet with him,” the senior defense official said. “It was a scheduling thing.”
The White House has so far rebuffed appeals by opposition leaders that the U.S. or its allies in the region provide a small number of handpicked fighters with antiaircraft weapons.
Syrian opposition leaders have long complained about the size of the CIA’s covert arming-and-training program, which began last summer after months of delay, arguing that an overt U.S. military-led program could sharply increase the number of rebels in training.
Under a new arrangement still under discussion within the administration, the U.S. military would overtly conduct most of the training, and the CIA would take the lead in providing arms covertly.
Defense officials say legislation would be required to authorize the military to conduct a training program for the opposition. Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved such a measure, authorizing the Pentagon to provide equipment, training and supplies to aid vetted members of the Syrian opposition.
Administration lawyers have raised other legal concerns about the proposed military program, holding up its final approval, officials said.
Pentagon leaders had cautioned against proceeding with a military training program before the Syrian regime removes what remains of its chemical-weapons arsenal. While some defense and administration officials would prefer to provide the training overtly through the U.S. military in Jordan, where the CIA program is based, other officials have argued for keeping that program covert and having the military operate under CIA authority.
Officials say a covert program using U.S. military special-operations forces would have to be more limited in size than an overt program. Jordanian officials have privately told their American counterparts that they are worried a large overt training program on their territory could prompt the Assad regime or al Qaeda to retaliate against the Hashemite Kingdom.