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, has raised hopes among the beleaguered opposition that the U.S. ultimately will provide heavier weapons. So far, the rebels say they lack the weapons they need to regain the offensive in Syria’s civil war.
The constrained U.S. effort reflects Obama’s continuing doubts about getting drawn into a conflict that has killed at least 90,000 people and the administration’s fears that Islamic militants 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 the Obama administration has promised to back with expanded military assistance, said a U.S. official, who discussed the effort on condition of anonymity.
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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 in the past 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 mm anti-tank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23 mm 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.
The training began last November at a new U.S. base in the desert in southwest Jordan, he said. 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.
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.
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 mm guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks and 30 82 mm 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’s 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-Qaida ally.
Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Qatar on Saturday and will talk with other governments backing the rebels.
CIA and White House officials declined to comment on the secret-training programs. Other U.S. officials confirmed the training, but disputed some details.