AMMAN, Jordan – Weeks before the Obama administration and other Western nations recognized a new Syrian opposition coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, Syrian rebels were receiving training in the use of light and heavy weapons with the backing of the Jordanian, British and U.S. governments, participants in the training said.
The training took place in Jordan as far back as October and involved hundreds of rebels, the participants said. In one case, a rebel participant said men he believed were U.S. intelligence officers observed what was taking place. Another said he believed British officers were helping to organize the training. The training itself was handled by Jordanian military officers, the rebels said.
“We hoped there would be more training on larger weapons,” said Kamal al-Zoubani, a fighter from the southern Syrian city of Daraa, which often is referred to as the birthplace of the uprising against President Bashar Assadthat began nearly 22 months ago. “But we were allowed to take light weapons back to Syria with us.”
By November, another rebel said, the training had expanded to anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
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U.S. officials, citing concerns that they didn’t know the political leanings of anti-Assad groups, have said repeatedly that they aren’t providing weapons to the rebels, leaving that to countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But there’s been little discussion of what role the United States might be playing in training rebel fighters, whose offensives against loyalist Assad forces have been gaining traction in recent months.
In other Syria developments Friday:
- U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta signed an official deployment order to send 400 U.S. military personnel and two Patriot air-defense batteries to Turkey as its cross-border tensions intensify with Syria, where government forces have increasingly resorted to aerial attacks, including use of ballistic missiles, to fight a spreading insurgency. The U.S. batteries will be part of a broader push to strengthen Turkey’s defenses, which will include the deployment of four other Patriot batteries — two from Germany and two from the Netherlands. Each battery contains multiple rounds of guided missiles that can intercept and destroy other missiles and hostile aircraft flying at high speeds. All six Patriot units deployed in Turkey will be under NATO’s command and are scheduled to be operational by the end of January, according to officials in Washington.
- Anti-government activists inside Syria reported fresh violence, including an unconfirmed rebel claim to have downed a government warplane attacking insurgent positions near the international airport in Damascus, the capital.
- In Moscow, the Russian Foreign Ministry sought to distance itself from comments a day earlier by its Middle East envoy that the Syrian rebels may defeat Assad, a longstanding Kremlin ally and arms client. A ministry spokesman, Alexander Lukashevich, said Russia remained committed to a political solution in Syria. “We have never changed our position and will not change it,” Lukashevich said. He rejected a comment made by a U.S. State Department spokesman Thursday that Russia had “woken up” and changed its position as dynamics shifted on the battlefield, saying “we have never been asleep.”
This week, the Obama administration recognized the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces as the likely successor to the Assad government and urged countries to funnel aid through it for the rebels. In tandem with that decision, the administration labeled a key rebel group — al-Nusra Front, also known as Jabhat Al-Nusra, whose fighters have been at the front lines of many recent rebel victories — an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. hopes Qatar and Saudi Arabia will stop assisting it.
Al-Zoubani said the rebel military council in Daraa, a group associated with the secular Free Syrian Army, had selected him to receive the training and that at least three groups of 50 to 60 fighters were trained at a military base in southern Jordan in October. He said he didn’t know why he’d been chosen.
He said uniformed Jordanian military officers were present at the training, as well as people he believed to be American intelligence officers.
The second fighter, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the training had progressed by November to include anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and that the office of Sheikh Mouaz al-Khatib, the Syrian cleric who heads the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, had selected fighters for the training. Al-Khatib assumed his position Nov. 11, when the group was formed during meetings in Doha, Qatar.
The fighter said more than 60 others had trained with him in an eight-day course at a military base near Amman. He said uniformed British and Jordanian military officers were present.
The fighter said rebels also were trained to use anti-aircraft guns, which have been employed in past months to bring down Syrian government aircraft. The rebels have managed to buy and capture increasing numbers of anti-aircraft guns and have captured anti-aircraft missiles from Syrian government stocks. In November, video posted to YouTube appeared to confirm the first successful use of anti-aircraft rockets against government aircraft. Rebels claimed that the weapons used in that incident came from captured stocks.
Jordan, which has become home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees since the conflict began, has taken pains to appear neutral.
Jordanian officials seemed to be supportive of the anti-Assad rebellion this week as they helped dozens of Syrians living in a refugee camp to sneak back into Syria. Still, rebels said the Jordanian government, which maintains tight control of its border, continued to prevent heavy weapons from being smuggled into Syria.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.