Middle East
3:46 am
Wed September 4, 2013

Obama Considers Training Options For Syrian Rebels

Originally published on Wed September 4, 2013 5:42 am

Transcript

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President Obama has promised limited military action against Syria. He says missile strikes are not about regime change and there will be no boots on the ground. But even as the Congress debates the president's plans for action, the White House is looking at broader options.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports the president may call on the U.S. military to help build up the Syrian opposition.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Right now it's not the Pentagon but the CIA that's working with the Syrian rebels, mostly providing training in Jordan. But the president also promised weapons for the rebels back in June and they haven't arrived. So yesterday at a Senate hearing, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee put this question to Secretary of State John Kerry.

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SENATOR BOB CORKER: Why have we been so slow, so inept in so many ways at helping build capacity of this opposition that we have said publicly that we support?

SECRETARY JOHN KERRY: I think, Senator, we need to have that discussion tomorrow in classified session. We can talk about some components of that.

BOWMAN: Classified session, meaning behind closed doors; that's because the CIA is handling the effort. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Senator Corker the U.S. military is on the sidelines.

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SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: We, Department of Defense, have not been directly involved in this. This is, as you know, a covert action.

BOWMAN: Now that could change. Sources tell NPR the White House is considering giving the military a role in the training of Syrian rebels in Jordan. And that is expected to go beyond the small-scale CIA training effort. That helps explain why Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said over the weekend that President Obama assured them more will be done to help the Syrian rebels.

Here's Senator Graham after meeting at the White House.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: There seems to be emerging from this administration a pretty solid plan to upgrade the opposition, to get the regional players more involved. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, a lot of the Gulf Arab states have been helping quietly. Now is the time to get out front and be more overt.

BOWMAN: And sources say part of that overt help could come from soldiers from the Army's First Armored Division. Those troops are standing by in Jordan. They arrived in that country in the spring for a military exercise and have remained, awaiting a mission.

Helping the rebels could be that mission. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent letter to Congress that building up a moderate Syrian opposition would be more effective than mounting U.S. attacks. Yesterday, General Dempsey told senators much the same thing.

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GENERAL MARTIN DEMPSEY: The path to the resolution of the Syrian conflict is through a developed, capable, moderate opposition. And we know how to do that.

BOWMAN: American soldiers have recently trained forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. And General Dempsey hinted that such a mission for Syria could be on the agenda.

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DEMPSEY: We're very focused on the response to the chemical weapons. I think that subsequent to that we would probably return to have a discussion about what we might do with the moderate opposition in a more overt way.

BOWMAN: The question is whether that would make a difference. Ohbai Shuhbandar works with the Syrian Support Group, a non-profit organization that helps funnel U.S. aid to the rebels.

OHBAI SHUHBANDAR: The reality is that while the training is welcome and the arming is welcome, it must be done at a decisive level in order to sufficiently empower the Free Syrian Army to make significant gains on the ground.

BOWMAN: And as for those CIA weapons promised to the Syrian rebels, he's been told their delivery is imminent.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.