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Obama Considers Training Options For Syrian Rebels


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama has promised limited military action against Syria. He says missile strikes are not about regime change and there will be no boots on the ground. But even as the Congress debates the president's plans for action, the White House is looking at broader options.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports the president may call on the U.S. military to help build up the Syrian opposition.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Right now it's not the Pentagon but the CIA that's working with the Syrian rebels, mostly providing training in Jordan. But the president also promised weapons for the rebels back in June and they haven't arrived. So yesterday at a Senate hearing, Republican Bob Corker of Tennessee put this question to Secretary of State John Kerry.


BOWMAN: Classified session, meaning behind closed doors; that's because the CIA is handling the effort. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Senator Corker the U.S. military is on the sidelines.


BOWMAN: Now that could change. Sources tell NPR the White House is considering giving the military a role in the training of Syrian rebels in Jordan. And that is expected to go beyond the small-scale CIA training effort. That helps explain why Republican Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said over the weekend that President Obama assured them more will be done to help the Syrian rebels.

Here's Senator Graham after meeting at the White House.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: There seems to be emerging from this administration a pretty solid plan to upgrade the opposition, to get the regional players more involved. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, a lot of the Gulf Arab states have been helping quietly. Now is the time to get out front and be more overt.

BOWMAN: And sources say part of that overt help could come from soldiers from the Army's First Armored Division. Those troops are standing by in Jordan. They arrived in that country in the spring for a military exercise and have remained, awaiting a mission.

Helping the rebels could be that mission. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a recent letter to Congress that building up a moderate Syrian opposition would be more effective than mounting U.S. attacks. Yesterday, General Dempsey told senators much the same thing.


BOWMAN: American soldiers have recently trained forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. And General Dempsey hinted that such a mission for Syria could be on the agenda.


BOWMAN: The question is whether that would make a difference. Ohbai Shuhbandar works with the Syrian Support Group, a non-profit organization that helps funnel U.S. aid to the rebels.

OHBAI SHUHBANDAR: The reality is that while the training is welcome and the arming is welcome, it must be done at a decisive level in order to sufficiently empower the Free Syrian Army to make significant gains on the ground.

BOWMAN: And as for those CIA weapons promised to the Syrian rebels, he's been told their delivery is imminent.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.