President Obama, as part of an address at the U.S. Military Academy outlining a broad shift in U.S. foreign policy, is expected to indicate Wednesday that he will expand assistance to Syrian rebels.
Administration officials told The Associated Press that Obama and his team are weighing sending a limited number of U.S. troops to Jordan as part of a mission to train and equip certain moderate members of the Free Syrian Army. The president is expected to reference the Syria plans, without making any specific announcement, in his address at West Point in New York.
The address is part of an overall effort to recast U.S. foreign policy, as an endeavor aimed at building international consensus and avoiding unilateral overreach. The speech comes one day after Obama announced his plan for gradually drawing down the U.S. force in Afghanistan after the war formally ends later this year.
If Obama signs off on the Syria program, it would mark a significant boost in U.S. support to the rebels, who have repeatedly asked the U.S. for military help in their four-year-long war against the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Administration officials said there is still internal discussion at the White House about the merits and potential risks of the program, which would involved instructing carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism operations.
However, the State Department, Pentagon and U.S. intelligence community, along with many in Congress who back the move, have concluded Assad will not budge without a change in the military situation on the ground, according to the officials. At the same time, there are growing fears about the threat posed by Al Qaeda-linked and -inspired extremists fighting in Syria, the officials said.
The Senate Armed Services Committee last week passed a defense bill that authorizes the Defense Department to provide training and equipment to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.
The U.S. already has covert support operations in place for the Syrian opposition, and it is not yet clear how the new program would work. The United States has spent $287 million so far in nonlethal aid on the civil war, now in its fourth year.
Rebel commanders for three years have been asking the U.S. for lethal assistance as they’ve seen gains wiped out one after another, but the U.S. has been reluctant to move to that kind of aid for fear weapons could end up in the hands of extremist rebels who might then turn on neighboring Israel or against U.S. interests.
The State Department on Tuesday declined to comment on the proposed train-and-equip program. Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, however, told reporters that an array of options to support moderate Assad foes remained under consideration. She also highlighted the terrorism threat.
“We have been clear that we see Syria as a counterterrorism challenge, and therefore certainly we factor that in, in options we consider,” she said. “The current policy approach continues to be strengthening the moderate opposition, which offers an alternative to the brutal Assad regime and the more extremist elements within the opposition.”
The proposed mission would be coordinated by the U.S. but involve many of the regional players that are already active in assisting the rebels, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the officials said. Saudi cooperation is critical and has been a main topic of conversation between Washington and Riyadh, including Obama and Saudi King Abdullah, in recent weeks, the officials said.
The expected announcement also follows intense, high-level discussions between the United States and Jordan, which over the weekend expelled the Syrian ambassador as part of what is planned to be an escalation in the effort to isolate Assad, who is running for re-election in a June vote that the U.S. and its allies have condemned as a farce.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II was in Washington last week and met with Secretary of State John Kerry. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a stop in Jordan earlier this month during a Middle East trip.
The U.S. currently has roughly 1,500 military troops in Jordan, in addition to the approximately 6,000 that recently arrived there for a limited time to participate in the annual Eager Lion military exercise. Eager Lion 2014 includes members of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, as well as U.S. ships and aircraft. The exercise started this past weekend.
Last year, after Eager Lion 2013 finished, the U.S. left a detachment of F-16 fighter jets and a Patriot missile battery there and about 1,000 personnel associated with the aircraft and the missile system. There also is a staff of about 400 U.S. military in Jordan and there were troops there to assist the Jordanians with chemical weapons training.
Small teams of U.S. special operations forces also have rotated in and out of the country conducting exercises with Jordanian and Iraqi commandos. The last session was in April and another is scheduled for June.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.