WASHINGTON — The United States is training secular Syrian fighters in Jordan in a bid to bolster forces battling President Bashar Assad's regime and stem the influence of Islamist radicals among the country's persistently splintered opposition, American and foreign officials said.
The training has been conducted for several months now in an unspecified location, concentrating largely on Sunnis and tribal Bedouins who formerly served as members of the Syrian army, officials told The Associated Press. The forces aren't members of the leading rebel group, the Free Syrian Army, which Washington and others fear may be increasingly coming under the sway of extremist militia groups, including some linked to al-Qaida, they said.
The operation is being run by U.S. intelligence and is ongoing, officials said, but those in Washington stressed that the U.S. is providing only nonlethal aid at this point. Others such as Britain and France are involved, they said, though it's unclear whether any Western governments are providing materiel or other direct military support after two years of civil war that according to the United Nations already has killed more than 70,000 people.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly about the program.
Officially, the Obama administration has been vague on the subject of what type of military training it may be providing, while insisting that it is doing all it can — short of providing weapons to the rebels or engaging in its own military intervention — to hasten the demise of the Assad family's four-decade dictatorship.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday the U.S. has "provided some logistical nonlethal support that has also come in handy for the Syrian rebels who are, again, fighting a regime that is not hesitating to use the military might of that regime against its own people.
"That is something we're going to continue to work to bring to an end," he told reporters.
It's unclear what effect the training has had in the conflict, which has become a quagmire with Assad's regime unable to snuff out the rebellion and Syria's opposition incapable thus far of delivering any serious blow to the ruling government's grip on Damascus and control over much of the country.
Some of the Syrians the U.S. is involved with are, in turn, training other Syrians inside the border, officials said.
They declined to provide more information because they said that would go too deep into intelligence matters. Defense Department officials insisted the Pentagon isn't involved with any military training or arms provisions to the Syrian rebels, either directly or indirectly. The CIA declined to comment.