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 currently 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 currently 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.
Jordanian officials also have said that those Marines had no connection to the exercises currently being run by the U.S. and Jordanian militaries, though they were brought into the country under the guise of being part of the “Eager Lion” exercises. 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, though the gesture was often called “too little too late.”
Like the Jordanian official, the various officials, rebel leaders and others who spoke to McClatchy did not want to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Syrian rebels, said one European official, had repeatedly traveled to Jordan to try and 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.
“All we heard for months was that Eager Lion had nothing to do with regional events and that the Patriots had nothing to do with Syria,” said one Jordanian journalist, who said that had been banned from writing about the Patriots by his editors. “But you would have to be very naive to accept that as truth, and now we see that the U.S. has conveniently left behind systems that would help Jordan and the rebels.”
Eager Lion, which is touted as the largest multilateral exercise in the region, has been celebrated by U.S. officials as an example of the close relationship between the U.S. and Jordan.
“This exercise provides us with the opportunity to develop relationships and capabilities,” said Army Maj. Gen. Robert Catalanotti, the U.S. Central Command director of exercises and training. “We have a very strong relationship with Jordan that we are very proud of.”
He stressed that the decision to send the Patriots to Jordan as part of the exercises was made more than a year ago, and that the decision over whether or not they would remain in Jordan would be handled by Washington.
U.S. military officials in Jordan worked hard last week to stress to the media that the entire Eager Lion exercise had nothing to do with regional events. In a press conference held by Catalanotti and his Jordanian counterpart, Maj. Gen. Awni Edwan, both were forced to repeatedly distance the exercises from events in Syria. In private briefings officials told reporters – often without being asked – that the “exercise is about multilateral cooperation, not about specific regional threats.”
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.