U.S. Ramps Up Aid To Syrian Rebels

The U.S. is increasing both arms and training assistance to the Syrian rebels. Advocates of the program say they hope to change the situation on the ground, others doubt it will help much.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The CIA is ramping up a program to ship arms to rebels in Syria - more powerful weapons than in the past. The United States had resisted this step until now. We're learning about it from NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman who's in our studios once again. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What kind of weapons are we talking about here?

BOWMAN: Well, Steve, some of these weapons are antitank weapons. They're called TOWs. And I'm told this is the first of an increased effort to arm the so-called moderate rebels. Now, dozens of these TOWs have already made it to the field. And some of the rebels are even putting them up on YouTube videos. And what's significant here is this is just the beginning. I'm told there'll be more of these anti-armor weapons. They're also looking at providing small arms.

And there's also a debate at the White House about whether to provide shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, which could target helicopters used by the Syrian government - they're using to drop barrel in bombs against rebel enclaves.

INSKEEP: OK, I'm just thinking about the landscape in Syria. These could be big equalizers. The Syrian Army has a lot of tanks. They use them to guard the highways. You're saying that the rebels are now getting weapons that can target them. And, of course, the Syrians have the Air Force. They have air superiority. You're saying that there could be weapons, not yet, but there could be weapons that could target that. Is that right?

BOWMAN: That's right. But the fear of these missiles, these shoulder-fired missiles, is it could fall into the wrong hands. There are hundreds of different groups fighting over there. And the fear is that these missiles could fall into the hands of al-Qaida. They could be used across borders to shoot commercial airlines. And, of course, in Afghanistan back in the '70s, the U.S. provided some of these missiles to the Mujahedin fighters. And then they had to go track them down.

INSKEEP: Weren't there, like, hundreds of them that went missing years later? They were never found.

BOWMAN: Exactly, right. So that debate is going on in the White House about whether to provide the shoulder-fired missiles. But they may get around that by providing antiaircraft artillery guns, which could be effective against these helicopters. But they're bulky. They have to be dragged behind a truck and they're easier to find. So that's what may happen here. But the bottom-line is there ramping up a lot of arms to the rebels.

INSKEEP: Tom, you've just hinted at some of the concerns that have kept the Obama administration from arming the rebels more heavily until now. Why are they now deciding that they would go ahead and send over those weapons despite the concerns?

BOWMAN: Well, there are a few reasons. First of all, the Geneva talks earlier this year - that tried to reach a political deal just fell apart. Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, just wasn't willing to negotiate. And his ally and arms supplier, Russia, also wasn't being very helpful. And I'm told that Secretary of State John Kerry, in particular, has come to realize that you have to change the situation on the ground to put more pressure on Assad. And so they're increasing this lethal support.

But they still hope to reach a political deal. They're not sure if these rebels can ever be strong enough to overthrow the Assad regime.

INSKEEP: And just to be clear, the disarmament of Syria's chemical weapons, is that proceeding at the same time the United States is sending extra weapons to the rebels?

BOWMAN: It is. Most of the chemical weapons are already moving out of the country. They're moving to a Syrian port and they'll be destroyed by the U.S. So that is proceeding. And this - you're right, this is happening at the same time you're moving the chemicals out.

INSKEEP: Are there further options the administration is discussing?

BOWMAN: Well, they're looking at may be ramping up the training program in Jordan. The CIA is taking part in that now - they're doing a lot of training. They may have United States military take part in those training and increase it from boutique train, they're calling it...

INSKEEP: Oh, as it's done by the CIA.

BOWMAN: Right - to industrial sized training and training, so they've asked the Pentagon to come up with a couple of options. Either have U.S. military representatives go to Jordan and train the rebels on a larger in scale, or trains Jordanians who in turn would train the Syrian rebels. So that's something the Pentagon is being asked to do.

INSKEEP: Just about 10 or 15 seconds. Do officials tell you that they believe that these extra steps to arm the rebels can actually work?

BOWMAN: Well, what they hope to do is create the situation where you put more pressure on Assad to reach a political deal or leave the country. But some say it's too little too late.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks as always.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman, reporting to us this morning, that the United States is sending additional and heavier weapons to Syrian rebels than have been sent in the past. And we'll bring you more on that story as we learn it.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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