By David S. Cloud and Raja Abdulrahim, Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON — CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft 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, have raised hopes among the beleaguered opposition that Washington ultimately will provide heavier weapons as well. So far, the rebels say they lack the weapons they need to regain the offensive in Syria’s bitter civil war.
The tightly constrained U.S. effort reflects Obama’s continuing doubts about getting drawn into a conflict that already has killed more than 100,000 people and the administration’s fears that Islamic militants now leading the war against President Bashar Assad could gain control of advanced U.S. weaponry.
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 both countries since the program began 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 anti-tank rifles, anti-tank missiles, as well as 23-millimeter anti-aircraft weapons, according to a rebel commander in the Syrian province of Dara who helps oversee weapons acquisitions and who asked his name not be used because the program is secret.
The training began last November at a new American base in the desert in southwest Jordan, he said. So far, about 100 rebels from Dara have attended four courses, while rebels from Damascus have attended three courses, he said.
“Those from the CIA, we would sit and talk with them during breaks from training and afterward, they would try to get information on the situation inside” Syria, 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, said the Dara commander.
Since last year, the weapons sent through the Dara military council have included four or five Russian-made heavy Concourse anti-tank missiles, 18 14.5-millimeter guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks and 30 82-millimeter recoilless rifles. The weapons are all Soviet or Russian models but manufactured in other countries, he said.
“I’m telling you, this amount of weapons, once they are spread across the province [of Dara] is considered nothing,” the rebel commander said. “We need more than this to tip the balance or for there to even be a balance of power.”
U.S. officials said the Obama administration and its allies may supply anti-tank weapons to help the rebels destroy armored vehicles used by Assad forces. They are less likely to provide portable anti-aircraft missiles, which the rebels say they need to eliminate Assad’s warplanes. U.S. officials fear those missiles would fall into the hands of the Al Nusra front, the largest of the Islamist militias in the rebel coalition, which the U.S. regards as an Al Qaeda ally.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry is heading to Qatar on Saturday and will talk with other governments backing the rebels. A senior State Department official told reporters Friday that the talks would include discussions about coordinating deliveries of military aid.
CIA and White House officials declined to comment on the secret training programs. Other U.S. officials confirmed the training, but disputed some of the specific details provided by rebel commanders.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Bittar, who defected as a fighter pilot from Assad’s air force last year and is now head of intelligence for the Free Syrian Army, said training for the last month or so has taken place in Jordan.
The training, conducted by American, Jordanian and French operatives, involves rockets and anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry, he said.
Between 80 and 100 rebels from all over Syria have gone through the courses in the last month, he said, but training is continuing. Graduates are sent back across the border to rejoin the battle.
Bittar complained that sufficient weapons had yet to arrive for the rebel forces and said the Americans have not yet told them when they can expect to receive additional arms.
“Just promises, just promises,” he said.
Cloud reported from Washington and Abdulrahim reported from Los Angeles.