WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama yesterday asked Congress for the first time to approve direct U.S. military training for Syrian rebels, but he remains deeply ambivalent about intervening in a deadly conflict that has spilled over into neighboring Iraq, U.S. officials said.
Obama asked for $500 million to “train and equip” opposition fighters in Syria who will be vetted by the U.S. to ensure they have no ties to militant Islamists who now control wide swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.
But two senior U.S. officials said that the program will not begin until basic questions are resolved, such as whether the Pentagon has legal authority to train Syrian rebels, what types of weapons and other assistance they would receive and who would get the training. Those decisions could take months, the officials said.
“All that is yet to be worked out, assuming Congress passes it,” said one of the officials, who asked not to be identified while discussing internal deliberations.
The request for funds was a “place holder,” meant to signal to lawmakers that the administration is considering stepped-up involvement at a time of growing concern in the region and in Congress that the U.S. is staying on the sidelines while instability is spreading, the second official said.
If approved, the expenditure would be part of a regional stabilization initiative for which the administration is seeking $1.5 billion, and which would involve collaboration with Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
The CIA already has been providing small-scale training to small numbers of Syrian rebels, but even if the training goes ahead, the Pentagon plan does not envision converting moderate rebel groups into a fighting force that is capable of winning back territory lost to the government of President Bashar Assad and to militant groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.