Two leading European publications -– Germany’s Der Spiegel and the British Guardian –- reported in recent days that U.S. personnel are training some Syrians in the neighboring country.
Citing Jordanian security sources, organizers and participants in the program, the reports said the focus was on training non-radical elements – senior army officers who had defected, according to Friday’s Guardian account.
Sunday’s report in the German news magazine also tied the program to an effort to counter radical Islamists in the opposition, and said the aim was to build up units comprising a total of around 10,000 fighters.
A Mideast analyst warned Monday that the policy runs risks.
“It has been suggested that these are only Syrian army defectors who are thus likely not to be from radical Islamist groups including the [Muslim] Brotherhood,” Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center in Israel, said in an analysis.
“But is that selectivity certain? Finding out who is receiving this military training – which they are sure to use for other purposes in future – should be a priority in the national debate and in questions from Congress.”
Der Spiegel said the training, which focused on anti-tank weapons, had been going on in Jordan for three months; the Guardian report said it had been taking place “since last year,” and that British and French instructors were also involved in a U.S.-led program.
During a press briefing Monday State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in reply to a question on the claims, “I have nothing for you on that.”
A reporter then said Der Spiegel was a reputable publication and asked Nuland whether she was “rejecting” the report, but she simply repeated her answer.
“So you’re not rejecting it; it could be happening?” she was asked.
“You may parse that however you want,” Nuland said. “I have nothing for you on it.”
While visiting Qatar last Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry also sidestepped questions about U.S. training of Syrian rebels – without denying that it is taking place.
Asked directly during a Fox News interview who was carrying out “offsite training for some forces in that conflict,” Kerry replied, “Well, that’s not important who’s doing training. What’s important is there are a lot of countries doing training. The answer is – ”
“Including the U.S.?” interjected interviewer James Rosen.
“There are a lot of countries doing training,” Kerry repeated.
For the past year, concerns have grown that weapon transfers to Syrian rebels – mostly from Qatar and Saudi Arabia – were mostly ending up in the hands of radical Salafi groups.
A recent U.N.-commissioned report on the conflict said the “increasing intervention of external sponsors has also led to radicalization among the anti-government armed groups, and the proportion of fighters with Salafi inclinations has augmented including local and foreign extremists.”
Officially, the Obama administration’s policy has been to support the anti-Assad opposition coalition – a civilian grouping – although Kerry at the end of February announced in Rome that the U.S. would, for the first time, also direct non-lethal aid to the opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA).
A subsequent State Department factsheet said the U.S. would start providing food rations and medical kits to the FSA’s supreme military council.
It also said that some of the approximately $115 million in non-lethal support would help the opposition “to extend the rule of law and enhance stability inside liberated areas of Syria.”
The Guardian report said the aim of the program in Jordan would be to send the trained rebels back into Syria “to create a safe area for refugees on the Syrian side of the border, to prevent chaos and to provide a counterweight to al-Qaeda-linked extremists who have become a powerful force in the north.”
‘The moderate, legitimate opposition’
In a House of Commons statement last Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague referred for the first time to the “training” of Syrian rebels.
He said that an exemption to a European Union arms embargo on Syria, which Britain recently secured, would allow “all forms of technical assistance to the Syrian National Coalition where it is intended for the protection of civilians.”
“Such technical assistance can include assistance, advice and training on how to maintain security in areas no longer controlled by the regime; on co-ordination between civilian and military councils; on how to protect civilians and minimize the risks to them; and on how to maintain security during a transition,” Hague told lawmakers. “We will now provide such assistance, advice and training.”
He added that Britain would also “fund training to help armed groups understand their responsibilities and obligations under international law and international human rights standards.”
In Saudi Arabia last Monday, Kerry said there was “no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands.” But he added, “there is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them.”
Rubin questioned Kerry’s use of the term “the moderate, legitimate opposition.”
“Kerry did not refer to moderates in the Syrian opposition coalition but implied that the coalition itself is moderate,” he said. “That’s not true. The armed opposition is largely led by the Brotherhood and Salafists; the political arm of the opposition is largely led by the Brotherhood.”
“[T]he Obama administration does not know whether the weapons and training will be used in massive human rights’ violations and ethnic massacres of civilian Alawites and Christians,” Rubin said.
“Remember that if such things happen they were predictable and predicted.”