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 given approval for the initiative and that there is still internal discussion about its merits and potential risks.
In a foreign policy speech today 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 on condition of anonymity.
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 U.S. already has covert support operations in place for the Syrian opposition, and it is not clear how the new program would work. The United States has spent $287 million so far in nonlethal aid on Syria’s civil war, now in its fourth year.