U.S. set stage for arming Syrian rebels week ago

AMMAN, Jordan — The U.S. military began laying the groundwork to arm and support Syrian rebels more than a week ago, using a military exercise being held in Jordan as a cover for bringing in personnel and equipment.

Despite official statements by the Obama administration that a decision to arm the rebels was made on June 13, preparations were seen by McClatchy on the ground days earlier. In addition to the 300 U.S. Marines that Jordanian officials said were stationed along Jordan's northern border with Syria, meetings were held between Syrian rebels and U.S. officials more than 10 days ago to establish what type of weapons the White House is willing to provide.

U.S., Russia split on Syria; Europe remains cautious

The Associated Press

ENNISKILLEN, Northern Ireland — Deep differences over Syria's fierce civil war clouded a summit of world leaders Monday, with Russian President Vladimir Putin defiantly rejecting calls from the U.S., Britain and France to halt his political and military support for Syrian leader Bashar Assad's regime.

But there were also fissures among the three Western nations, despite their shared belief that Assad must leave power. Britain and France appear unwilling — at least for now — to join President Barack Obama in arming the Syrian rebels.

Obama and Putin did little to hide their differing views on the matter while speaking to reporters following a one-on-one meeting on the sidelines of the summit Monday evening. The two-hour meeting marked the first time the leaders have met in-person since last year.

"We do have different perspectives on the problem," Obama said plainly of their divergent views on Syria.

The Russian leader, speaking through a translator, agreed, saying, "our opinions do not coincide."

But despite their seemingly intractable differences, Obama and Putin did express a shared desire to stop the violence in Syria and convene a political conference in Geneva, Switzerland, next month. But it's unclear who would participate in such a meeting or whether the rebels, given their weakened position, would have any leverage if they did.

Jordanian officials also have said that those Marines had no connection to the exercises now being run by the U.S. and Jordanian militaries. Regional analysts and officials have said that while those exercises are touted as a "multilateral relationship-building" measure, on the ground they are widely seen as the U.S. "flexing its muscles" and laying the groundwork for future maneuvers.

"The U.S. has been preparing this for some time. So it is very clear to us, here on the ground in Jordan, that the Obama decision to arm the rebels was made weeks ago rather than days ago," a Jordanian diplomatic official told McClatchy in an off-the-record briefing. Other diplomats, also interviewed in Jordan, said that there was widespread consensus that the U.S. was preparing to arm the rebels.

Like the Jordanian official, the various officials, rebel leaders and others who spoke to McClatchy did not want to be quoted by name.

Syrian rebels, said one European official, had traveled to Jordan to plead their case with the diplomatic community and had pressed the need for a no-fly zone and heavy weapons. The official added that there was "very little appetite" left to arm the rebels at this stage, especially given what he called the "increasing presence of radical Islamist groups in Syria."

"The assessments being made are that at this stage, the arming of the rebels only ensures one thing — that the fighting will drag on for years to come," said the European official.

Syrian rebels, meanwhile, have said that it is still unclear if the U.S. will provide what they call "a high-enough impact weapon."

"They made it clear that the sophisticated weaponry, the sort of items we have been requesting for more than a year, is off the table. We are thankful for what they are giving us, but our arsenal will remain very limited compared to what the Syrian army is using against us," said one Syrian rebel leader in Amman. He said that shoulder-launched anti-tank missiles were under discussion, as were command-and-control systems, but that anti-aircraft weapons were clearly "off the table."

A possible U.S.-led no-fly-zone near Jordan's border with Syria has also been under discussion, though officials in Jordan insist no final decision has been made.

The Patriot anti-aircraft missile system that the U.S. military brought to Jordan as part of the Eager Lion exercise already has been approved to stay in country once the exercises are completed. The system, which has a range of 62 miles, would easily enforce a limited no-fly zone along Jordan's border if it were left behind. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's announcement over the weekend that he had approved both the Patriot missile system and F-16s to remain in Jordan was seen by many as an indication that the Eager Lion exercise was an excuse to bring both into the country.

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