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, U.S. 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 Syrian army members, officials said in interviews. 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 United States is providing only nonlethal aid at this point. Others such as Britain and France are involved, they said, although it is 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 that the United States 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."
It is unclear what effect the training has had in the conflict, which has become a quagmire with Mr. 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 with whom the United States is involved 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 that 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.
The New York Times reported Monday that the CIA helped Arab governments and Turkey sharply increase their military aid to Syria's opposition in recent months, with secret airlifts or arms and equipment. It cited traffic data, officials in several countries and rebel commanders, and said the airlift began on a small scale a year ago, but has expanded steadily to more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari planes landing in Turkish and Jordanian airports.