U.S. Has Been Training Syrian Rebels For Months

While there’s been much attention paid to the President’s recent decision to send arms to the Syrian rebels in response to the confirmation of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, The Los Angeles Times reported late last week that American special forces have been training the rebels for months now:

The covert U.S. training at bases in Jordan and Turkey began months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.

“We have stepped up our assistance, but I cannot inventory for you all the elements of that assistance,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “We have provided and will continue to provide substantial assistance to the Syrian opposition, as well as the Supreme Military Council.”

The Supreme Military Council is the military arm of an umbrella group that represents more moderate rebel factions, including the Free Syrian Army.

The training and Obama’s decision this month to supply arms and ammunition to the rebels have raised hope among the beleaguered opposition that Washington ultimately will provide heavier weapons as well. So far, the rebels say they lack the weapons they need to regain the offensive in Syria’s bitter civil war.

The tightly constrained U.S. effort reflects Obama’s continuing doubts about getting drawn into a conflict that already has killed more than 100,000 people and the administration’s fear that Islamic militants now leading the war against 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 that the Obama administration has promised to back with expanded military assistance, said a U.S. official, who discussed the effort anonymously because he was not authorized to disclose details.

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 over the last 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-millimeter anti-tank rifles, anti-tank missiles, as well as 23-millimeter 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 because the program is secret.

The Administration has said that the arms that the U.S. would be supplying to the rebels would be limited to small arms, so its unclear where they’d be getting anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry. Of course, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been supplying these rebels for two years now so that’s as likely a source as any. In any event, I’m not so sure that we want to be giving people allied with radicals training in using weapons that may one day used in ways we would not like.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. stonetools says:

    In any event, I’m not so sure that we want to be giving people allied with radicals training in using weapons that may one day used in ways we would not like.

    I’m sure Obama agrees with you, which is why maybe we should take his word for it when he says this:

    Now, in terms of what my goals are. The goals are a stable non-sectarian
    representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people
    through political processes and peaceful processes. We’re not taking sides
    in a religious war between Shia and Sunni. Really what we’re trying to do
    is take sides against extremists of all sorts and in favor of people who
    are in favor of moderation, tolerance, representative government and over
    the long term stability and prosperity for the people of Syria.

    And so my goal — we’ve been supporting an opposition. We’ve been trying
    to help the opposition along with our international partners help the
    opposition become more cohesive. We’ve been assisting not only the
    political opposition but also the military opposition so that there is a
    counterweight that can potentially lead to political negotiations with the
    evidence of chemical weapons. What we’ve said is we’re going to ramp up
    that assistance. And my hope continues to be, however, that we resolve
    this through some sort of political transition.

    Read plainly, Obama is :
    1. Attempting to build up and arm moderate elements in the Syrian opposition.
    2. Doing this with the goal of seeking a political transition to a government where moderates lead.

    Now of course you think we should not be involved at all. But you have to admit what the USA is not doing is showering military aid indiscriminately on Sunni jihadists. Obama really has learned that lesson and is actively working to avoid that.

  2. Jenos Idanian #13 says:
  3. rudderpedals says:

    @Jenos Idanian #13: That’s an excellent link.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    I’d heard rumors of this. It makes sending arms less of a policy change and more of… what, policy creep? Slippery slope? Providing some training wasn’t getting the job done, so now we send weapons. If that doesn’t get the job done, why we’ll…