Will The U.S. Arm Syrian Rebels?

There was some anticipation this week that President Obama might endorse stronger measures to give training to Syria's rebels. The president told NPR the rebels might be better able to use U.S. aid.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There was some anticipation this week that President Obama might endorse stronger measures to give aid and training to Syria's rebels. He appeared instead to stop short of that. But when we sat down for an interview this week at West Point, New York, the president did tell NPR the rebels might be better able to use U.S. aid.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, I wouldn't say that conditions are better. In many ways the conditions are worse, but the capacity of some of the opposition is better than it was before.

INSKEEP: So let's gather the best information we have on what the U.S. is doing for the rebels or intends to do. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in our studios. Tom, Good morning. And NPR's Deborah Amos is in Gaziantep, Turkey, on the border with Syria. Deb, welcome to you.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And let's start with Deborah Amos in Turkey. She's been covering this story for years now. Do the rebels have greater capacity to use U.S. aid than a couple of years ago when the U.S. was also considering stronger aid to them but declined?

AMOS: Western analysts, the most recent report, describes the battlefield as a near total stalemate. What that means is the rebels are continuing to hold their own against the regime, while at the same time they are battling Al-Qaeda and have moved them out of a Northwest province, out of most of Aleppo. So they are fighting two wars at the same time.

Now, I have spoken to rebels who say this symbolic - these symbolic weapons that are coming in from U.S. made antitank weapons are helping some not a lot. They also talk about training. Some of them have gone - the CIA does the selection. They are taking off to training. Mostly this is about vetting. So it's an eight-hour interview process sometimes longer, to decide who goes to the second level and that training gets very serious. That is when you get trained on the antitank weapons. They're still being hammered by the regime's air force. That is still a problem for them but they're more organized than they've been and they have had victories on the battlefield.

INSKEEP: OK, so you've given us some important information here. You've reminded us that there is some training going on. It's believed to be conducted by the CIA, and some weaponry going to the rebels. But you described that weaponry as symbolic, and let's turn to Tom Bowman. How widespread, how large scale is the U.S. aid to the rebels right now Tom?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Deb mentioned the anti-tank weapons. The administration has allowed roughly 50 of them to go to the rebels. And now the president at West Point talked about ramping up support for these moderate rebels, but he gave no specifics and neither did an administration official talking with reporters later. They're still clearly in the talking stage now.

But we're told there is a possibility that the U.S. military could take part in this training, now being done by the CIA.. But the administration say they want Congress to approve the military training, if that's the case you're probably looking at well into the fall before Congress signs off on this, if they do at all.

INSKEEP: So if Congress were to sign off, how would things change then?

BOWMAN: Well, if that did happen you're looking at larger numbers of trained Syrian rebels, some would call an industrial size training but it's still an open question whether the rebels would get what they want in terms of weapons. They say they desperately need anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down Syrian helicopters carrying these barrel bombs. But so far the administration has been reluctant to provide these kinds of weapons, they're afraid they're going to fall into the wrong hands.

INSKEEP: Deborah Amos, I want to ask you about the way that President Obama characterize the rebels in our interview. He described them as ordinary people, off the street, coming from lots of walks of life and having to learn how to become cohesive military units and that was just taking a lot longer than a lot of people might hope. Is there any sign that the more moderate rebels, as the U.S. would describe them anyway, that they've become more cohesive fighting units, that they're gaining strength?

AMOS: There are, according to experts who watch this very closely, four noteworthy moderate Islamists groups. It is also true that there are defective soldiers, specialists among these rebels. Yes, there are dentists, but there are people who do know what they are doing on a battlefield. And those people tended to go to the more moderate battalions on the field. There is more organization than there's been before. There are operation rooms both inside and outside Syria. There is coordination between international intelligence services and the rebels, both in Turkey and in Oman, and that has grown. It appears that the training all of this is leading to organizing this, quote, "moderate force." I don't know what the CIA asked them but they decided that these people are moderates.

INSKEEP: OK, and let me get Tom Bowman here. Tom, the president spoke about Syria and a counter-terrorism fund and that makes me wonder if U.S. Objectives have changed a little bit in Syria. Are they less worried about changing the regime and more worried about extremist groups that grow up around the rebels?

BOWMAN: They're much more worried about extremist groups. This is becoming more and more about terrorism. U.S. military and intelligence officials are worried about growing number of Al-Qaida fighters and their affiliates. They now say they're estimated at about 26,000. And when Syrian rebel leader met with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, just last week that was a big issue.

INSKEEP: OK, Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That NPR's Tom Bowman and NPR's Deborah Amos. She is in Gaziantep, Turkey. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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