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Warily, Jordan Assists Rebels in Syrian War

When rebels want to return to Syria to fight, Jordan's intelligence services give them specific times to cross its border. When the rebels need weapons, they make their request at an "operations room" in Amman staffed by agents from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

During more than three years of civil war in Syria, this desert nation has come to the world's attention largely because it has struggled to shelter hundreds of thousands of refugees. But, quietly, Jordan has also provided a staging ground for rebels and their foreign backers on Syria's southern front. In the joint Arab-American operations room in Amman, the capital, for example, rebels say they have collected salaries as an incentive not to join better-funded extremist groups.

But this covert aid has been so limited, reflecting the Obama administration's reluctance to get drawn into another Middle Eastern conflict, that rebels say they have come to doubt that the United States still shares their goal of toppling President Bashar al-Assad.

In fact, many rebels say they believe that the Obama administration is giving just enough to keep the rebel cause alive, but not enough to actually help it win, as part of a dark strategy aimed at prolonging the war. They say that in some cases their backers even push them to avoid attacking strategic targets, part of what they see as that effort to keep the conflict burning.

"The aid that comes in now is only enough to keep us alive, and it covers only the lowest level of needs," said Brig. Gen. Asaad al-Zoabi, a Syrian fighter pilot who defected and now works in the operations room.

"They call it aid, but I don't consider it aid," he said. "I consider it buying time and giving people the illusion that there is aid when really there is not."

While much attention has been focused on Syria's northern front, where rebels move in freely from neighboring Turkey, the southern region has been far more controlled. And despite recent reports of an invigorated "southern front" of rebel forces, recent interviews with more than two dozen rebel commanders, fighters and Jordanian and foreign officials painted a picture of a largely stagnant southern battlefield, one that is heavily influenced by outside powers whose main goals are to limit the rise of extremists and preserve stability in Jordan.

Increasing the military threat against Mr. Assad is not part of the plan, rebels say.

Publicly, the United States is providing more than $260 million in "nonlethal support" to the Syrian opposition, including rebel groups it does not consider extremist. But the military aid is covert, and the countries involved have not disclosed what they provide.

None of this aid has significantly advanced the rebels' cause or helped achieve the American goal of a negotiated end to the war. To the contrary, peace talks have been suspended indefinitely and Mr. Assad is likely to remain president, perhaps for a long time to come.

But a White House spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, said on Thursday that "the notion that the United States wants fighting to be drawn out is flat wrong. We are committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition and seeking a way to end the bloodshed and the needless suffering of the Syrian people."

She added: "There is no military solution to this conflict. What is needed is a negotiated political transition."

The State Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment, and Jordan publicly denies helping any of Syria's warring parties.

But in the towns near Jordan's border with Syria where many rebels keep their families and take breaks from the war, the operations room, known as the Military Operations Command, is an open secret.

Rebel commanders say they travel to Amman to appeal to the officials there for arms and cash for their fighters.

"We go to them, we explain what we want to do, and they ask about the target and how many fighters we have," said Brig. Gen. Abdullah Qarayiza, who leads a rebel group in the Syrian town of Nawa. His arms requests had been rejected twice, he said.

But for each of the last two months, he said he had received $25,000 in cash to pay his men $50 each.

"What is $50 for a fighter who has a wife and kids?" he said. "He can barely buy cigarettes."

Rebels who have visited the operations headquarters say its decisions balance the interests of the main players: Saudi Arabia provides funding and pushes for greater rebel support; Jordan manages the border and urges caution; and the United States supervises, maintaining a veto on weapon shipments.

While the operations room has provided ammunition, rifles and antitank missiles, it refuses to provide the antiaircraft missiles that rebels say could stop the bombings of rebel towns that have killed thousands of civilians.

The center also coordinates a C.I.A. program to train rebel fighters that was authorized by President Obama in April of last year. It was supposed to provide 380 fighters a month with training, rifles, ammunition and antitank weapons so they could return to Syria and train their colleagues.

But officials and rebel leaders say the program is actually much smaller. General Zoabi said that there had been three sessions in the Jordanian desert with 15 to 30 fighters each, and that the training scarcely benefited fighters who already had extensive battlefield experience.

"It's as if you take someone who runs the 100-meter dash in 10 seconds and you tell him, 'I'm going to teach you to run it in 20,' " he said.

Other rebels estimated that a few hundred fighters had been trained, but even as the Obama administration considers expanding the program, Jordan imposes limits to try to keep the program secret.

"It has been essentially a check-the-box exercise that has not been large enough to make a difference on the ground or to prevent the exodus of Syrian men to jihadist groups that have food, money, ammunition and can take care of their people," said Frederic C. Hof, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

Rebels are of two minds about the support. They like the antitank missiles that have helped against Mr. Assad's armor, and they acknowledge that Jordan's border management has prevented the chaos seen in the north, where Turkey's lax border controls have helped create a free-for-all zone of jihadists backed by private funds.

In the south, the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's main affiliate in Syria, is not a leading power, and the radical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has almost no presence.

"The situation is good: Jordan controls the border and arms are not brought in randomly," said Bashar al-Zoabi, the head of the Yarmouk Division, a rebel group.

But he was frustrated that the rebels' supporters seemed more interested in conflict management than in a victory.

"We know that if you wanted to, you could topple Bashar al-Assad in 10 days," he said.

Jordan has approached the war cautiously, because its population is divided over the uprising and its leaders know they will remain next door to Syria regardless of who wins the war.

At times, Jordan has pressured the rebels to withdraw from strategic territory. Last year, rebels blocked the main highway between Amman and Damascus for more than a month, halting trade until Jordan intervened with rebel leaders to open the road, said General Zoabi of the Military Operations Command in Amman.

Now, cargo trucks ply the road daily and enter Jordan through a crossing still run by the Syrian government, which is surrounded by rebel forces who know that attacking the facility could jeopardize their own border access.

Some rebels played down the importance of the Military Operations Command, saying it had no role in rebel victories like the recent seizure of a prison. And General Zoabi acknowledged that its main job was to coordinate humanitarian aid and that its military support was minimal.

"If the revolutionaries need 100 percent, what they get is 10 percent," he said. Other supplies are captured or purchased inside Syria, he said, but that still leaves the rebels with only 50 percent of what they need.

Like many rebels, General Zoabi said he suspected that the limited aid sought to prolong the war as a way to weaken Syria so that it could not threaten Israel.

When asked why he continued to work for the Military Operations Command, he compared himself to a man dying of thirst who can see clean water in the distance but can reach only dirty water.

"Do I die, or do I drink from the water that isn't clean?" he said. "I am forced to drink dirty water, but it is better for me to live than to die."

[Source: By Ben Hubbard, The New York Times, 10Apr14]

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Syria War
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