U.S. has secretly provided arms training to Syria rebels since 2012
By David S. Cloud and Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times, June 21, 2013
WASHINGTON—CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons since late last year, months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming them, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.
The covert U.S. training at bases in Jordan and Turkey, along with Obama’s decision this month to supply arms and ammunition to the rebels, has raised hope among the beleaguered Syrian opposition that Washington ultimately will provide heavier weapons as well.
The training has involved fighters from the Free Syrian Army, a loose confederation of rebel groups that the Obama administration has promised to back with expanded military assistance, said a U.S. official, who discussed the effort anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose details.
The number of rebels given U.S. instruction in Jordan and Turkey could not be determined, but in Jordan, the training involves 20 to 45 insurgents at a time, a rebel commander said.
U.S. special operations teams selected the trainees over the last year when the U.S. military set up regional supply lines to provide the rebels with nonlethal assistance, including uniforms, radios and medical aid.
The two-week courses include training with Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons, according to a rebel commander in the Syrian province of Dara who helps oversee weapons acquisitions and who asked that his name not be used because the program is secret.
The training began in November at a new American base in the desert in southwestern Jordan, he said. So far, about 100 rebels from Dara have attended four courses, and rebels from Damascus, the Syrian capital, have attended three, he said.
The rebels were promised enough armor-piercing anti-tank weapons and other arms to gain a military advantage over Assad’s better-equipped army and security forces, the Dara commander said. But arms shipments from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, provided with assent from the Americans, took months to arrive and included less than the rebels had expected.
U.S. officials said the Obama administration and its allies might supply anti-tank weapons to help the rebels destroy armored vehicles used by Assad’s forces. They are less likely to provide portable antiaircraft missiles, which the rebels say they need to fight back against Assad’s helicopters and warplanes. U.S. officials fear those missiles would fall into the hands of the largest of the Islamist militias in the rebel coalition, Al Nusra Front, which the U.S. regards as an Al Qaeda ally.
Asked Friday about the CIA training, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the U.S. had increased its aid to the rebels in the Free Syrian Army, but he refused to provide details.