The U.S. is providing more arms and training to the moderate rebels in Syria, under a growing secret program run by the CIA in Jordan. Sources tell NPR that secret program could be supplemented by a more public effort in the coming months involving American military trainers.
The change in strategy comes as the White House sees Syrian leader Bashar Assad growing in strength, and continuing to strike rebel strongholds.
Another factor: Russian leaders appear unwilling to help end the three-year-old civil war and are continuing to provide weapons to Assad. Finally, al-Qaida fighters and their allies are expanding in Syria, a development that some believe could threaten the U.S. homeland.
The ramped-up covert program is an attempt to further pressure the Assad regime and its allies to reach a political settlement, not necessarily to achieve a military victory by rebel forces.
Skeptics doubt the U.S. effort will help much, given the weakened state of the opposition and the inroads made by al-Qaida fighters. The moderate fighters being supported currently have relatively little influence on the ground.
Still, the U.S. plan calls for both small arms and more powerful weapons such as TOW missiles, which can penetrate tanks and other armored vehicles. Rebel forces were pictured last week with some of the first TOW missiles, and sources say that the effort will expand throughout the next year. It’s uncertain if the U.S. is sending the TOW missiles through Saudi Arabia, which is also supporting the rebels.
There is a debate within the White House whether to supply rebels with shoulder-fired missiles, which could target Syrian helicopters. There are fears those missiles could fall into the hands of al-Qaida, and produce a threat to commercial aircraft and allied warplanes in the region.
The White House has said little publicly about the new, expansive effort to help the moderate rebels.
“The United States is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan, when asked recently about the TOW missiles. “As we have consistently said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance.”
Training Program In Jordan
In addition to the arms transfers, a training program already in place in Jordan and run by the CIA will grow in the coming months. And that program, though still secret, could include the Pentagon’s special operations forces and contractors to train more rebels in combat skills.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is drawing up training plans of its own for White House consideration, and such an effort would lend a more direct and public American role in the Syrian civil war.
The Defense Department planning is twofold. One option calls for U.S. military trainers to take part in the training underway in Jordan. Another calls for the U.S. military to train the Jordanian military, who would in turn train the Syrian rebels. This is what the military calls the “train the trainers” model.
Also on the table are possible U.S. airstrikes against select military targets in Syria, a move favored by some high-level officials.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, already has told Congress that limited airstrikes might not achieve the desired result and could lead to civilian casualties. He has said the best approach for the U.S. would be to train Syrian rebels in Jordan.
“I think [training is] the most effective,” Dempsey told NPR earlier this year. “The one that would produce an outcome that would be sustainable over time would be one where we empower … that moderate group – assuming we can still find them in that mixture – to assist them in establishing security, overcoming the challenges they face.”
Sources briefed on the covert effort say that the intelligence community will continue to lead this “robust” program of increased arms and training. The White House will see how this effort develops before deciding on whether the Pentagon would play a more public role.
A Limited Test With TOW Missiles
This first covert shipment of TOW missiles is a test, said a member of the Syrian opposition briefed on the negotiations. The Harakat Hazm rebels, considered a moderate group, say they have received 50.
The next step will come when Ahmad Jarba, leader of the Syrian political opposition in exile, visits the White House early next month.
He is expected to request additional TOW missiles. And while the debate continues at the White House over shoulder-fired missiles, Jarba is expected to request anti-aircraft guns in the hopes of rebels being able to bring down Syrian government helicopters.
The guns are less portable, since they must be towed by a vehicle. But they’re more politically palatable than shoulder-fired missiles. One source tells NPR that some shoulder-fired missiles, the Russian-made SA-7, already are making their way to the Syrian battlefield from Libya.
Advocates of the enhanced American program say they hope to change the momentum on the ground, given that Syrian leader Assad has been pounding rebel enclaves, at times with “barrel bombs” dropped by helicopters.
Skeptics Say Impact Likely To Be Limited