The Central Intelligence Agency has begun moving weapons to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses and plans to start arming small groups of vetted Syrian rebels within a month, diplomats and U.S. officials said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The efforts come after officials disclosed earlier this month that President Barack Obama had authorized a covert CIA program under which the U.S., Saudi Arabia and key allies would provide both light arms and some heavier weapons to moderate rebel fighters loyal to Gen. Salim Idris, the top Syrian rebel commander backed by the West.
According to new details of the American initiative, as described by the diplomats and U.S. officials to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. plans to provide training, small arms, ammunition, and possibly certain types of antitank missiles.
Saudi Arabia and other countries plan to provide antiaircraft weapons on a small scale to ensure their use is closely monitored, according to the officials.
The buildup will be gradual, officials acknowledge. U.S. and Saudi officials believe it will take months of arming and training before there are enough moderate fighters on the battlefield to make a meaningful difference on the ground against President Bashar Al-Assad's forces and their Hizbullah allies.
Obama's decision within the last month amounted to an about-face on arming the rebels and reflects growing U.S. fears that Assad, bolstered by Iranian and Hizbullah fighters and armed by Russia, will prevail in the conflict.
The president's decision follows urgent appeals by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and other allies for the administration to take a more hands-on role, reported the Wall Street Journal.
The effort is designed to strengthen moderate rebel forces, giving them more clout than Islamist fighters, and eventually to shift the momentum of the war in the rebels' favor after months of gains by resurgent Syrian regime forces bolstered by an influx of Hizbullah terrorists, officials said.
U.S. intelligence agencies now think that there are 2,500 to 4,000 Hizbullah terrorists in Syria, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The U.S. government confirmed two weeks ago that the Syrian army used chemical weapons against rebel forces on multiple occasions, thus violating the “red line” set by Obama, adding that America will increase the “scope and scale” of its assistance to rebels in Syria in response.
Rebels have already said they had received Russian-made “Konkurs” anti-tank missiles supplied by Saudi Arabia.
Some U.S. officials believe that the CIA is being overly cautious in selecting which rebel fighters to train and arm, according to the Wall Street Journal. The agency has been taking pains to make sure any fighters it trains or arms don't join pro-Al Qaeda groups. But some officials believe the CIA should be more aggressive in order to speed the pace of its training program.
The rebels include radical, jihadist groups such as the Al-Nusra Front, which has pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, a fact which has made the West more cautious when it comes to providing arms to rebels.
The first small groups of U.S.-armed rebels could enter Syria in late July or early August after an initial two weeks of vetting rebels and training in how to use the weapons, officials said.
The CIA, in advance of Obama's decision to provide American arms, had already begun to store weapons in warehouses in secret locations, diplomats said. Those stocks, according to the officials, encompass Soviet-era weapons, including ammunition for Kalashnikov rifles and armor-piercing antitank missiles.