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U.S. Might Pause Plans To Ramp Up Syrian Rebel Training


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Syria is placing conditions on any diplomatic deal to turn over its chemical weapons. In an interview today, President Bashar al-Assad said his country would only agree to the plan if the United States renounces the threat of force, and stops arming Syria's opposition. The United States is not likely to agree to those conditions. In fact, earlier today, there were reports that weapons provided by the CIA are finally reaching Syrian rebels.

We're joined now by NPR's Tom Bowman with more on the Obama administration's plans to arm and train the opposition. And, Tom, there've been conflicting reports about whether arms from the U.S. have actually gotten into Syria, have they?

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, I'm told small numbers of these weapons have started to get in through a covert program run by the CIA. And basically, Robert, we're talking assault weapons, machine guns, also some anti-tank weapons.

Now, this has all been - it's actually started. It was proposed in June and approved by the president. But for legal and policy reasons, they want make sure, for example, that, Robert, the arms got to moderate rebel groups and did not fall into the hands of more radical elements. One government official who follows this tells me that just in the last week or two, these weapons have been getting into Syria.

SIEGEL: This morning, the head of the Free Syrian Army told MORNING EDITION that his group had not gotten the weapons from the U.S. Is he mistaken?

BOWMAN: Well, he is according to the officials we talked with. I think this may be a case where, you know, given the turmoil over there, not all rebel commanders have the latest information. And also, there are many different rebel groups and it may be that he hasn't been in touch with all the groups allied with him.

And again, Robert, we're talking about small numbers of weapons at this point, assault rifles and the like. You know, it's not like we're talking about tanks or aircraft or it would be obvious that they have arrived.

SIEGEL: But you're saying some anti-tank weapons, as well, you mentioned.

BOWMAN: Right, we're hearing that some anti-tank weapons have arrived. There are conflicting reports on that as well. But the Saudis apparently have been providing anti-tank weapons to the Syrian rebels.

SIEGEL: Well, all told, I mean, how significant is this U.S. aid, the military aid for the rebels?

BOWMAN: Well, you know, frankly, it's not that significant. The rebels already are getting weapons from other countries, you know, Saudi Arabia, of course. And these weapons are not - even the anti-tank weapons are not likely to change the situation on the ground. The rebels know that. Assad knows that. But a more important issue for the rebels is will they get more training from the U.S. And that's being worked at the Pentagon.

Planners are coming up with options that would send in U.S. soldiers or Green Berets to Jordan, to beef up this covert training that's being done now by the CIA. And apparently other countries, Turkey, for example, they're talking about taking part in this training as well. And what this would mean is you'd be moving from small-scale training done by the CIA, to industrial-size training if the Pentagon takes the lead.

SIEGEL: But you say this isn't the planning stage, this training idea. Will the Obama administration go ahead and act on the plan?

BOWMAN: Well, we're not sure yet. Now, the main focus, of course, right now is a diplomatic effort with the Russians to dismantle Assad's chemical weapons. And one person told me that that seems to have taken the oxygen out of the room for any other ideas. And the question is whether beefing up support for the opposition would make negotiation more difficult, and push the Syrian government and the Russians away from the table.

SIEGEL: OK. That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Bowman is a NPR National Desk reporter covering the Pentagon.
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
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