Jordan fears Syrian backlash over CIA plan

Syrian rebels standing next to a tank that was captured from the Syrian government forces at the al-Dahman checkpoint, in southern Idlib, northern Syria. Picture: AP
Syrian rebels standing next to a tank that was captured from the Syrian government forces at the al-Dahman checkpoint, in southern Idlib, northern Syria. Picture: AP
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JORDAN, where the Central Intelligence Agency has been covertly training Syrian rebels for more than a year, is reluctant to host an expanded programme in what is likely to be a significant step back for Barack Obama.

In June, the US president proposed a $500 million (£300m) initiative to train and arm moderate rebels fighting the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and al-Qaeda-linked groups. It could signal a larger challenge in finding suitable nations willing to host the training at a time of heightened tensions across much of the Middle East.

While US intelligence has not made a formal request to the Jordanian government, the country was widely considered a leading choice to host the training due to its close security relationship with Washington, proximity to Syria and pool of more than 600,000 Syrian refugees.

US analysts believe that Jordan, led by Abdullah II, who was raised in the UK, educated at Oxford and served in the British Army, fears retaliation from Syria if its territory is used for CIA training.

“Jordan told the US, ‘no boots on the ground’,” said one intelligence figure, though it is thought America will try to convince Jordan to participate in the programme.

While there are other potential sites where the training could take place, including Turkey and Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, no agreements have been struck, US officials said. Turkey and the Saudis also have sensitivities about the presence of large numbers of US troops. “There’s been no decision on location, at all. Or even ...what the character of the programme itself would look like, if we get the money” from Congress, said another US official.

Jordan already hosts a small and ostensibly covert effort by the CIA to equip and train small groups of Assad’s opponents. But it faces increasing threats to its stability from the Syrian civil war and rise of extremist groups such as the Islamic State (Isis). The US has already increased its military presence in Jordan to around 1,300 soldiers. It has also stationed Patriot surface-to-air missiles there.

Abdullah met with US vice-president Joe Biden in Washington on Thursday for talks that included Syria. If approved by Congress, the $500m fund to arm and train rebels will not be available until 1 October at the earliest, or possibly months later depending on potential delays in the US Senate and House of Representatives. This would give the CIA time to persuade Jordan to accept.

Other important details, including how “moderate” rebels would be vetted to weed out those with records of human rights abuses or ties to extremist groups, have yet to be finalised. US law requires the State Department to screen foreign military members and units being trained with American funds.

Unlike states to the east and west, Jordan has no oil and few natural resources, and although the economy has grown, it is heavily dependent on aid from countries including the US. Its reputation as one of the region’s safest countries was dealt a blow in 2005 when at least 60 were killed in suicide bomb attacks on hotels in Amman.