President Barack Obama may announce today that the U.S. Army will start to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, heeding a three-year call from the Syrian opposition for more help against Bashar al-Assad, despite fears that such a program could ultimately put the U.S. at risk.
Yesterday, a senior White House official told the Wall Street Journal that the president is poised to make a statement about counterterrorism in Syria during a commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy today, explaining that:
The president will make clear his intention to expand our support to the moderate Syrian operation and increase our support to Syria's neighbors, who are dealing with the terrorist threats emanating from the situation Assad has created in Syria.
The plan would be for a limited number of American troops to train carefully selected members of the Free Syrian Army in counterterrorism operations in Jordan. A number of other countries, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and, naturally, Jordan, could participate in the program. And, per the Wall Street Journal, the mission could expand some training already being done in a covert CIA operation, which has fallen short of rebel expectations:
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.
Last week, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved a measure to allow the military to provide training and equipment to vetted rebels. However, according to the Associated Press, the move is still being discussed among senior officials and Obama might not divulge details of the plan at the event.
When asked by the AP about the program, State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki offered a guarded statement, saying:
We have been clear that we see Syria as a counterterrorism challenge, and therefore certainly we factor that in, in options we consider... 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.
According to the official, members of the administration have concluded that Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who has been accused of war crimes, will continue on his stubborn path of resistance against the opposition unless the situation changes on the ground. But officials fear that any training, or arms, given to Syrian rebels — even the most moderate ones – could make its way back to al-Qaeda militants who would use the tactics against the America. Terrorist groups like, the al-Nusra Front have attacked both Assad's forces and the rebels, making it difficult to even sort out who the U.S. should be supporting.
Secretary of State John Kerry also revealed on Wednesday that Obama is also planning to announce a $5 billion "terrorism partnership fund" that will help other nations fight back against terrorism, as well.
More than 150,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, since it broke out more than three years ago.