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AMMAN, Jordan — The U.S. military began laying the groundwork to arm and support Syrian rebels more than a week ago, using a military exercise now being held in Jordan as a cover for bringing in personnel and equipment.

Despite official statements by the Obama administration that a decision to arm the rebels was made June 13, preparations were seen by McClatchy on the ground days earlier. In addition to the 300 U.S. Marines that Jordanian officials said were stationed along Jordan’s northern border with Syria, meetings were held between Syrian rebels and U.S. officials more than 10 days ago to establish what type of weapons the White House is willing to provide.

Jordanian officials also have said that those Marines had no connection to the exercises now being run by the U.S. and Jordanian militaries, though they were brought into the country under the guise of being part of the “Eager Lion” exercises.

Regional analysts and officials have said that while those exercises are touted as a “multilateral relationship-building” measure, on the ground they are widely seen as the U.S. “flexing its muscles” and laying the groundwork for future maneuvers.

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“The U.S. has been preparing this for some time. So it is very clear to us, here on the ground in Jordan, that the Obama decision to arm the rebels was made weeks ago rather than days ago,” a Jordanian diplomatic official told McClatchy in an off-the-record briefing.

Other diplomats, also interviewed in Jordan, said that there was widespread consensus that the U.S. was preparing to arm the rebels, though the gesture was often called “too little too late.”

Like the Jordanian official, the various officials, rebel leaders and others who spoke did not want to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Syrian rebels, said one European official, had repeatedly traveled to Jordan to try to plead their case with the diplomatic community and had pressed the need for a no-fly zone and heavy weapons. The official added that there was “very little appetite” left to arm the rebels at this stage, especially given what he called the “increasing presence of radical Islamist groups in Syria.”

“The assessments being made are that at this stage, the arming of the rebels only ensures one thing — that the fighting will drag on for years to come,” said the European official.

Syrian rebels, meanwhile, have said it is still unclear if the U.S. will provide what they call “a high-enough impact weapon.”

“They made it clear that the sophisticated weaponry, the sort of items we have been requesting for more than a year, is off the table. We are thankful for what they are giving us, but our arsenal will remain very limited compared to what the Syrian army is using against us,” said one Syrian rebel leader in Amman.

He said that shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles were under discussion, as were command-and-control systems, but that anti-aircraft weapons were clearly “off the table.”

A possible U.S.-led no-fly-zone near Jordan’s border with Syria has also been under discussion, though officials in Jordan insist no final decision has been made. The Patriot anti-aircraft missile system the U.S. military brought to Jordan as part of the Eager Lion exercise already has been approved to stay once the exercises are completed.

The system, which has a range of 62 miles, would easily enforce a limited no-fly zone along Jordan’s border if it were left behind.

Poll: Public opposes U.S. arming rebels

Americans oppose supplying military aid to Syrian rebels but are not paying much attention to the situation in Syria, according to new national polls.

In a Gallup poll released Monday, 54 percent of respondents said they disapproved of the Obama administration’s decision to “supply direct military aid to Syrian rebels fighting against the government in Syria,” while 37 percent said they approved.

Approval was higher among those following the situation closely, with 44 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving of President Obama’s decision. But the poll found that only 48 percent of the public is following the situation very or somewhat closely.

Among those not following it closely, 31 percent approved and 57 percent disapproved of the decision.

The Gallup poll was conducted June 15-16 among 1,015 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

The New York Times

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