WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama may soon sign off on a project to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, in an open move that would significantly boost U.S. support to forces who have been asking for three years for military help in their quest to oust President Bashar Assad, administration officials said Tuesday.
The step would send a limited number of American troops to Jordan to be part of a regional training mission that would instruct carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism operations, the officials said. They said Obama has not yet given approval for the initiative, and that there is still internal discussion about its merits and potential risks.
In a foreign policy speech on Wednesday to the U.S. Military Academy, Obama is expected to frame Syria as a counterterrorism challenge and indicate that he will expand assistance to the opposition, according to the officials. However, he is not likely to announce the specific program, which is still being finalized, the officials said.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss administration deliberations.
The State Department, Pentagon, intelligence community, along with many in Congress who back the move, have concluded that 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 posed by 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 to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.
The US already 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 non-lethal aid on the four-year-old civil war.
Rebel commanders have been asking the U.S. for lethal assistance as they’ve seen gains wiped out one after another, but 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 State Department on Tuesday declined to comment on the proposed train and equip program, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki, however, told reporters that an array of options to support moderate Assad foes remains under consideration. She also highlighted the terrorism threat.
“We have been clear that we see Syria as a counterterrorism challenge, and therefore certainly we factor that in, in options we consider,” she said. “The current policy approach continues to be strengthening the moderate opposition, which offers an alternative to the brutal Assad regime and the more extremist elements within the opposition.”
The proposed mission would be coordinated by the U.S. but involve many of the regional players that are already active in assisting the rebels, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the officials said. Saudi cooperation is critical and has been a main topic of conversation between Washington and Riyadh, including Obama and Saudi King Abdullah, in recent weeks, the officials said.
The expected announcement also follows intense high-level discussions between the United States and Jordan, which over the weekend expelled the Syrian ambassador as part of what is planned to be an escalation in the effort to isolate Assad, who is running for re-election in a June election that the U.S. and its allies have condemned as a farce.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II was in Washington last week and met with Secretary of State John Kerry. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a stop in Jordan earlier this this month during a Middle East trip.
The U.S. currently has roughly 1,500 military troops in Jordan, in addition to the approximately 6,000 that recently arrived there for a limited time to participate in the annual Eager Lion exercise. Eager Lion 2014 includes American Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine troops, as well as ships and aircraft. The exercise started this past weekend.
Last year, after Eager Lion 2013 finished, the U.S. left a detachment of F-16 fighter jets and a Patriot missile battery there and about 1,000 forces associated with the aircraft and missile system. There also is a staff of about 400 U.S. military in Jordan and there were troops there to assist the Jordanians with chemical weapons training.
Small teams of U.S. special operations forces have also rotated in and out of the country conducting exercises with Jordanian and Iraqi commandos. The last session was in April and another is scheduled for June.
AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.