The Obama administration is considering charging the Pentagon with arming and training moderate Syrian rebels, US officials said. The Pentagon would be taking over from CIA which has held that role so far. The move is said to potentially significantly affect US efforts to up support for the non-radical Syrian opposition.
The idea of giving the Pentagon the role has reportedly gained momentum in Washington as some have felt that the CIA program has been too slow and has had little impact, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
The program was authorized in June by US President Barack Obama after the administration became convinced that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in earlier clashes and it became clear that the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah was a full-fledged player on the Assad team in the 2 1/2-year civil war that has raged in Syria.
This comes as Congress is set to debate military intervention in Syria following the reported August 21 chemical attack near Damascus which killed 1,429 people, according to US figures. A Senate panel on Wednesday approved a resolution authorizing Obama to use force in Syria, as long as any operation doesn’t exceed 90 days and involves no American troops on the ground.
US officials, including Obama, have said that they do not necessarily want to tip the balance against Assad and that the goal of any intervention would not involve toppling the regime.
But the US has voiced its concerns that any support on its part could benefit the radical elements among the Syrian rebels, including the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and others.
US officials told the Journal that if the Pentagon led the arms and training program, special-operations teams would move faster to support moderate rebels, boasting a history of training both commando units and conventional forces.
At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, administration officials were questioned about the low-impact, slow-moving CIA process of vetting and training rebels, and its delayed weapons distributions program.
“It was June of this year the president made a decision to support lethal assistance to the opposition,” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, with Secretary of State John Kerry noting the opposition was “about to receive” additional support, adding, “there are things that haven’t gotten there yet.”
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said the US would likely reexamine its support for the moderate rebels following any US response to the alleged chemical weapons attack.
“We are very focused on the chemical weapons; subsequent to that we would return to what we might do to the moderate opposition in a more overt way,” he was quoted by the Journal as saying.
Officials in Congress have said that the administration will have to seek congressional approval to have the Pentagon take over the program.