By David Enders | McClatchy Newspapers
AMMAN, Jordan — Weeks before the Obama administration and other Western nations recognized a new Syrian opposition coalition as “the legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, Syrian rebels were receiving training in the use of light and heavy weapons with the backing of the Jordanian, British and U.S. governments, participants in the training have told McClatchy.
The training took place as far back as October and involved hundreds of rebels, the participants said. In one case, the rebel participant said men he believed were American intelligence officers observed what was taking place. Another said he believed British officers were helping to organize the training. The training itself was handled by Jordanian military officers, the rebels said.
“We hoped there would be more training on larger weapons,” said Kamal al Zoubani, a fighter from the southern Syrian city of Daraa, which often is referred to as the birthplace of the uprising against President Bashar Assad, which began nearly 22 months ago. “But we were allowed to take light weapons back to Syria with us.”
By November, another rebel said, the training had expanded to anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
American officials, citing concerns that they didn’t know the political leanings of anti-Assad groups, have said repeatedly that they aren’t providing weapons to the rebels, leaving that to countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
But there’s been little discussion of what role the United States might be playing in training rebel fighters, whose offensives against loyalist Assad forces have been gaining traction in recent months.
This week, the Obama administration recognized the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces as the likely successor to the Assad regime and urged countries to funnel aid through it for the rebels. In tandem with that decision, the administration labeled a key rebel group, the Nusra Front, whose fighters have been at the front lines of many recent rebel victories, an offshoot of al Qaida in Iraq in hopes that Qatar and Saudi Arabia would stop assisting it.
Zoubani said the rebel military council in Daraa, a group associated with the secular Free Syrian Army, had selected him to receive the training and that at least three groups of 50 to 60 fighters were trained at a military base in southern Jordan in October. He said he didn’t know why he’d been chosen as opposed to other rebels, only that leaders from the military council had contacted him and told him he’d receive the training.
He said uniformed Jordanian military officers were present at the training, as well as people he believed to be American intelligence officers.
The second fighter, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because he was uncertain whether he was authorized to reveal details, said the training had progressed by November to include anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons and that the office of Sheikh Mouaz al Khatib, the Syrian cleric who heads the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, had selected fighters for the training. Khatib assumed his position Nov. 11, when the group was formed during meetings in Doha, Qatar.
The fighter said that more than 60 others had trained with him in an eight-day course at a military base near Amman. He said uniformed British and Jordanian military officers were present.
“They trained us to use LAU and Cobra anti-tank rockets and Stinger (anti-aircraft) missiles,” the fighter said.
The fighter said rebels also were trained to use anti-aircraft guns, which have been employed in past months to bring down Syrian government aircraft. The rebels have managed to buy and capture increasing numbers of anti-aircraft guns and have captured anti-aircraft missiles from Syrian government stocks. In November, video posted to YouTube appeared to confirm the first successful use of anti-aircraft rockets against government aircraft. Rebels claimed that the weapons used in that incident came from captured stocks.
Jordan, which has become home to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees since the conflict began, has taken pains to appear neutral.
On Wednesday, Jordanian officials seemed to be supportive of the anti-Assad rebellion as they helped dozens of Syrians living in a refugee camp here to sneak back into Syria. Still, rebels said the Jordanian government, which maintains tight control of its border, continued to prevent heavy weapons from being smuggled into Syria.
The revelations of training in Jordan come as the rebels have made a series of military advances against the Assad regime and signs point to an increasingly beleaguered government. U.S. intelligence officials claimed this week that the Syrian military had fired SCUD missiles for the first time in the conflict, a development that may signal that the military is running low on more traditional weaponry
Also, a Russian Foreign Ministry official acknowledged that a rebel victory is possible. The country has been a staunch supporter of Assad.
Enders is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidjenders