NPR reports that sources within the United States government are expecting the American military to increase aid shipments to Syrian rebels in the form of weapons and Jordanian training camps. The report follows news that President Bashar al-Assad’s government will convene presidential elections in June.
Plans to further help “moderate” Syrian rebels regain the upper hand that has slowly slipped away recently in that nation’s civil war allegedly begin with training camps run by the CIA. The secret training program run out of Jordan, dubbed “train the trainers,” seeks to help untrained anti-Assad forces learn battlefield tactics and the use of sophisticated weapons that may land in their hands.
The sources also tell NPR that this attempt to aid the rebels is a counter-effort against al-Qaeda, which has gained significant ground among the Syrian opposition. This is the result of radical Islamists flocking to Syria to help fight Assad, hundreds of whom are believed to come from the United Kingdom and other Western European countries and Australia. NPR estimates, based on word from “the intelligence community,” that there are “as many as 26,000 extremists” fighting on the ground in Syria.
The United States is also contemplating sending TOW missiles, useful in combating large tanks and larger military ground vehicles. Americans are concerned that these weapons will fall into the wrong hands, however. Fighters contacted by NPR say they are being “encouraged to post videos on YouTube to prove they are using the missiles for the intended purpose.” They state, also, that they are being commanded to return missile casings to “a foreign intelligence agency.”
While shipments of TOW missiles appear more likely, the Obama administration is reportedly also considering supplementing the Syrian opposition with surface-to-air missiles useful in taking down military aircraft. These shipments are significantly less likely because these missiles could also be used to take down civilian or commercial aircraft, a risk still considered too large to take, despite the weighty advantage that the Syrian Air Force gives to Assad in fighting insurgents on the ground.
Senior-level officials tell NPR that “possible U.S. airstrikes against select military targets in Syria” are also under consideration. The United States previously did not play such a direct role in fighting Assad after negotiations with Russia resulted in Assad’s claiming he would dispose of his chemical weapons arsenal. However, NPR suggests that sources express increasing frustration with Russia’s insistence on providing weapons to Assad without encouraging the president to negotiate a way out of the civil war.
The international community was alarmed earlier this week by the announcement that the Syrian government would attempt to hold presidential elections in June. The Syrian opposition immediately responded that they would not participate, calling the election a “farce,” while others in the international community noted that the percentage of Syrians exiled out of the country would render any results of a vote that excluded them non-representative of the Syrian people. While he has not announced officially, most expect President Assad to run for reelection and win.