US nears decision on training Syrian rebels

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US nears decision on training Syrian rebels
In this Thursday, June 5, 2014 photo, Zeinat Akhras and her brother Ayman pose inside a Greek Orthodox church in Homs, Syria. Akhras, a 65-year-old pharmacist, still bears the effects of more than two years trapped in her home, surrounded by rebel fighters, for nearly two years during the government’s siege on the ancient quarters of the central Syrian city of Homs. She’s still a wispy 83 pounds (38 kilos), even after gaining eight points (four kilos) since the blockade ended in early May with the fall of the rebels in the city. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
In this Thursday, June 5, 2014 photo, Zeinat Akhras and her brother Ayman walk to from home to a church in Homs, Syria. Over the course of the 700-day blockade, Zeinat's world shrunk to her living room and her kitchen. She survived reading books, eating plants _ and refusing to look in the mirror, because seeing her withered state might break her spirit. (AP Photo/Dusan Vranic)
FILE - This file photo released on Thursday Nov. 29, 2012 by the anti-government activist group Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens walking in a destroyed street that was attacked by Syrian forces warplanes, at Abu al-Hol street in Homs province, Syria. Syria's government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire on Friday, May 2, 2014 in the battleground city of Homs to allow hundreds of fighters holed up in its old quarters to evacuate, a deal that will bring the country's third-largest city under control of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad. (AP Photo/Homs City Union of The Syrian Revolution, File)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Flames rise from damaged cars at the site where two car bombs exploded at a commercial street inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect, in Homs province, central Syria, Wednesday April 9, 2014. Two car bombs exploded Wednesday in a government-held district of Syria's battleground city of Homs, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100, state media said. (AP Photo/SANA)
This photograph made on a military-led media tour shows damage inside the Um al-Zinar church in the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a government-led media tour, Syrian civilians return to Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a military-led media tour, Syrian civilians return to their neighborhood in the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photo made on a military-led media tour, pro-government troops patrol the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014. For more than a year, these neighborhoods were rebel bastions blockaded by President Bashar Assad’s troops and pounded by his artillery and air force. But under a deal struck this week, the government assumed control of the Old City, while in return some 2,000 opposition fighters were granted safe passage to opposition areas north of Homs.(AP Photo)
This photograph made on a military-led media tour shows a resident of the old city of Homs, Syria carrying a photograph and a religious figurine after retrieving them on Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a government-led media tour, Syrian civilians fill a city square as they return to Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble Friday from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
In this photograph made on a government-led media tour, Syrian civilians return to Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
This photo provided by the anti-government activist group Aleppo Media Center (AMC), which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, shows Syrian citizens forming the word Homs in Arabic with their bodies, in the Salaheddine district in Aleppo, Syria, Friday, May 9, 2014. Bulldozers cleared rubble Friday from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city of Homs after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. The red placard with Arabic that reads,"no more words after Homs." (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center AMC)
This photograph made on a military-led media tour shows damage inside the Um al-Zinar church in the old city of Homs, Syria on Friday, May 9, 2014, where bulldozers cleared rubble from the streets of battle-scarred districts in the central Syrian city after government troops entered the last rebel-held neighborhoods as part of an agreement that also granted opposition fighters safe exit from the city. (AP Photo)
This image made from amateur video posted by Shaam News Network (SNN), an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows an explosion that destroyed the Carlton Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. The rebel-claimed bombing Thursday in the northern Syrian city leveled the once luxurious hotel near the ancient Citadel that government troops used as a military base, causing multiple casualties, activists and militants said.(AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
This image made from amateur video posted by Shaam News Network (SNN), an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, shows an explosion that destroyed the Carlton Hotel in Aleppo, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. The rebel-claimed bombing Thursday in the northern Syrian city leveled the once luxurious hotel near the ancient Citadel that government troops used as a military base, causing multiple casualties, activists and militants said.(AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
Syrian government forces look at damages in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Syrian President Bashar Assad's government in the north prepared to regain control of the central city of Homs following last week's cease-fire agreement after a fierce, two-year battle with the rebels trying to oust him. Rebels were completing their withdrawal from Homs on Thursday, a day after hundreds of fighters evacuated from the city under the cease-fire deal. (AP Photo)
A mosque is pictured through shattered glass in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014, as rebel fighters withdrew from the city centre in line with a negotiated withdrawal deal with the government after having held out under tight siege for nearly two years. At least 80 percent of rebel fighters have already pulled out of the battleground central Syrian city and the rest will leave later in the day, the provincial governor told AFP. AFP PHOTO/YOUSSEF KARWASHAN (Photo credit should read YOUSSEF KARWASHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
A Syrian government solider looks at damaged buildings in Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. (AP Photo)
Syrian government forces walk on a damaged street in Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. (AP Photo)
Syrian government forces look at damages as they walk on a street in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. For Assad, it is a powerful victory ahead of presidential elections. For the rebels, the dramatic exit after two years of enduring grueling assaults and siege captures their sense of abandonment amid world reluctance to help shift the balance of power on the ground. (AP Photo)
Syrian government officials walk on a road, back dropped, by damaged buildings from fighting with Free Syrian Army fighters in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Syrian President Bashar Assad's government in the north prepared to regain control of the central city of Homs following last week's cease-fire agreement after a fierce, two-year battle with the rebels trying to oust him. (AP Photo)
Syrian government forces inspect damages in Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Carrying their rifles and small bags of belongings, hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. (AP Photo)
Two Syrian national flags hang on a pole as government officials inspect damages in the old city of Homs, Syria, Thursday, May 8, 2014. Hundreds of exhausted Syrian rebels withdrew Wednesday from their last remaining strongholds in the heart of Homs, surrendering to President Bashar Assad a bloodstained city that was once the center of the revolt against him. For Assad, it is a powerful victory ahead of presidential elections. For the rebels, the dramatic exit after two years of enduring grueling assaults and siege captures their sense of abandonment amid world reluctance to help shift the balance of power on the ground. (AP Photo)
Debris lie on a street near the Faical souk in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Debris lie on a street in the Christian neighborhood of Hamidieh in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 8: At least 50 soldiers of Assad regime forces were killed in an attack staged by Islamic Front forces to the Carlton Hotel, used as a headquarters by the regime forces, near Citadel of Aleppo, Syria on May 8, 2014. (Photo by Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 8: At least 50 soldiers of Assad regime forces were killed in an attack staged by Islamic Front forces to the Carlton Hotel, used as a headquarters by the regime forces, near Citadel of Aleppo, Syria on May 8, 2014. (Photo by Mustafa Sultan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Debris lie on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows heavily damaged buildings in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows heavily damaged buildings and debris lying on the ground in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, provincial governor Talal al-Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Governor of Homs province Talal al-Barazi stands next to Syrian national flags flying over a square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, Barazi said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Debris lie on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. A last group of Syrian rebels is poised to leave the Old City of Homs, completing a negotiated pullout from the heart of the city, the provincial governor said. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken on May 8, 2014 shows debris lying on the ground following an explosion at luxury hotel turned army base in the historic heart of Aleppo which rebel fighters reportedly blew up after tunneling under the front line that divides the northern city. State television gave no word on any casualties from the attack that levelled the famed Carlton Citadel Hotel just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were dead and wounded among government troops occupying the building. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces sift through the rubble on May 8, 2014 following an explosion at luxury hotel turned army base in the historic heart of Aleppo which rebel fighters reportedly blew up after tunneling under the front line that divides the northern city. State television gave no word on any casualties from the attack that levelled the famed Carlton Citadel Hotel just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were dead and wounded among government troops occupying the building. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces sift through the rubble on May 8, 2014 following an explosion at luxury hotel turned army base in the historic heart of Aleppo which rebel fighters reportedly blew up after tunneling under the front line that divides the northern city. State television gave no word on any casualties from the attack that levelled the famed Carlton Citadel Hotel just across the road from the city's UNESCO-listed Citadel. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said there were dead and wounded among government troops occupying the building. AFP PHOTO / STR (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows a heavily damaged building in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces play football on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after they regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian government forces gather on a street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 following a negotiated withdrawal of rebel fighters from the city centre where the opposition had held out under tight siege for nearly two years is the first in more than three years of conflict. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted street in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view shows abandoned buildings on a deserted square in the old city of Homs on May 8, 2014 after Syrian government forces regained control of rebel-controlled areas. The last rebels were poised to leave the centre of the battleground Syrian city of Homs today, handing a symbolic victory to President Bashar al-Assad ahead of a controversial election. AFP PHOTO / RIM HADDAD (Photo credit should read RIM HADDAD/AFP/Getty Images)
ALEPPO, SYRIA - MAY 8: At least 50 Assad forces killed in a bomb attack by members of Islamic Front in target of Carlton Citadel Hotel Aleppo, headquarters Assad forces near the Citadel of Aleppo in Aleppo, second big city of Syria on May 8, 2014. (Photo by Salih Mahmud Leyla/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
In this Feb. 13, 2014 image made from amateur video posted by Shaam News Network (SNN), an anti-Bashar Assad activist group, which has been verified and is consistent with other AP reporting, revolutionary goalkeeper Abdelbasit Sarout chants slogans during a demonstration in Homs, Syria. He began as a local hero on the soccer field, playing for the most popular team of his home city Homs and rising toward national stardom across Syria. But when the uprising against President Bashar Assad began, Sarout left all of it to lead peaceful protests, rallying thousands to demand Assad leave power. More than three years later, the former goalkeeper - now an armed fighter - has become a charismatic icon of the Syria’s rebellion. (AP Photo/Shaam News Network via AP video)
In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian residents carry a wounded woman from the site where two car bombs exploded at a commercial street inhabited mostly by members of President Bashar Assad's minority Alawite sect, in Homs province, central Syria, Wednesday April 9, 2014. Two car bombs exploded Wednesday in a government-held district of Syria's battleground city of Homs, killing at least 25 people and wounding more than 100, state media said. (AP Photo/SANA)
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By MATTHEW LEE and LOLITA C. BALDOR

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama may soon sign off on a project to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, in an open move that would significantly boost U.S. support to forces who have been asking for three years for military help in their quest to oust President Bashar Assad, administration officials said Tuesday.

The step would send a limited number of American troops to Jordan to be part of a regional training mission that would instruct carefully vetted members of the Free Syrian Army on tactics, including counterterrorism operations, the officials said. They said Obama has not yet given approval for the initiative, and that there is still internal discussion about its merits and potential risks.

In a foreign policy speech on Wednesday to the U.S. Military Academy, Obama is expected to frame Syria as a counterterrorism challenge and indicate that he will expand assistance to the opposition, according to the officials. However, he is not likely to announce the specific program, which is still being finalized, the officials said.

Syrian Rebels Get U.S. Anti-Tank Missiles

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss administration deliberations.

The State Department, Pentagon, intelligence community, along with many in Congress who back the move, have concluded that Assad will not budge without a change in the military situation on the ground, according to the officials. At the same time, there are growing fears about the threat posed by al-Qaida-linked and inspired extremists fighting in Syria, the officials said.

The Senate Armed Services Committee last week passed a defense bill that authorizes the Defense Department to provide training and equipment to vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.

The US already has covert support operations in place for the Syrian opposition, and it is not yet clear how the new program would work. The United States has spent $287 million so far in non-lethal aid on the four-year-old civil war.

Rebel commanders have been asking the U.S. for lethal assistance as they've seen gains wiped out one after another, but the U.S. has been reluctant to move to that kind of aid for fear weapons could end up in the hands of extremist rebels who might then turn on neighboring Israel or against U.S. interests.

The State Department on Tuesday declined to comment on the proposed train and equip program, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. Spokeswoman Jen Psaki, however, told reporters that an array of options to support moderate Assad foes remains under consideration. She also highlighted the terrorism threat.

"We have been clear that we see Syria as a counterterrorism challenge, and therefore certainly we factor that in, in options we consider," she said. "The current policy approach continues to be strengthening the moderate opposition, which offers an alternative to the brutal Assad regime and the more extremist elements within the opposition."

The proposed mission would be coordinated by the U.S. but involve many of the regional players that are already active in assisting the rebels, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the officials said. Saudi cooperation is critical and has been a main topic of conversation between Washington and Riyadh, including Obama and Saudi King Abdullah, in recent weeks, the officials said.

The expected announcement also follows intense high-level discussions between the United States and Jordan, which over the weekend expelled the Syrian ambassador as part of what is planned to be an escalation in the effort to isolate Assad, who is running for re-election in a June election that the U.S. and its allies have condemned as a farce.

Jordan's King Abdullah II was in Washington last week and met with Secretary of State John Kerry. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a stop in Jordan earlier this this month during a Middle East trip.

The U.S. currently has roughly 1,500 military troops in Jordan, in addition to the approximately 6,000 that recently arrived there for a limited time to participate in the annual Eager Lion exercise. Eager Lion 2014 includes American Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine troops, as well as ships and aircraft. The exercise started this past weekend.

Last year, after Eager Lion 2013 finished, the U.S. left a detachment of F-16 fighter jets and a Patriot missile battery there and about 1,000 forces associated with the aircraft and missile system. There also is a staff of about 400 U.S. military in Jordan and there were troops there to assist the Jordanians with chemical weapons training.

Small teams of U.S. special operations forces have also rotated in and out of the country conducting exercises with Jordanian and Iraqi commandos. The last session was in April and another is scheduled for June.

___

AP White House Correspondent Julie Pace contributed to this report.

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