Pentagon proposes training moderate Syrian rebels

Photo courtesy of CNN

Washington (CNN) -- The Pentagon has "put a proposal on the table" for U.S. military forces to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces for the first time, two Obama administration officials told CNN.

If approved, it would dramatically increase the role of the U.S. military in Syria's civil war and would for the first time put American troops in direct contact with opposition forces.

The idea has been under consideration since the August 21 chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, which the United States says was carried out by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

There are few specifics on troops or other aspects of the military proposal, but both officials said the effort envisions training taking place in a country near Syria.

"We have any number of options under development that could expand our support to the moderate opposition, but no decision has been taken at this point," Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said when asked by reporters on Wednesday about the proposal.

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Until now, any training and equipping of Syrian opposition forces has fallen under the purview of the CIA and has not directly been acknowledged by the United States government.

The Obama administration has acknowledged providing logistical, humanitarian and some military assistance to rebels fighting al-Assad's forces in a civil war now in its third year.

The training proposal was first floated in the days after the August attack as a means to step up U.S. support for the opposition.

The proposal envisions U.S. troops training certain rebels on small arms, command and control and military tactics, according to one of the officials.

Weapons however would not be directly supplied by the United States because legal authority does not exist for the Pentagon to arm the rebels.

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President Barack Obama, who blames al-Assad's regime for the attack and threatened a limited military strike as punishment, has vowed not to put "boots on the ground" inside Syria.

The training idea, however, has run into trouble in recent days as the United States has focused on diplomatic efforts to turn Syria's chemical weapons over to international control, sidelining at least for now Obama's push for congressional support to take military action.

Both administration officials said the timing might be too sensitive now to engage in such an initiative.

Dempsey initially hinted at the plan during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing earlier this month.

"The path to the resolution of the Syrian conflict is through a developed capable moderate opposition, and we know how to do that," he said.

Dempsey noted the focus on dealing with chemical weapons.

"I think that subsequent to that, we would probably return to have a discussion about what we might do with the moderate opposition in a more overt way," he said.

Both administration officials declined to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the information.