Options for military aid
U.S. officials are expected to meet with Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, over the next two days to discuss details of military assistance that Washington will provide. The White House has not specified what the assistance may entail, and that may be deliberate, said Andrew J. Tabler of the Washington Institute of Near East Affairs.
“I think they are being tactically ambiguous, for their own reasons and to make Assad sweat,” he said.
Some rebel leaders expressed doubt that any meaningful support would actually arrive after months of statements from the U.S. government promising nonlethal aid that they say hasn’t materialized.
“We have honestly lost hope,” said Mosab Abu Qutada, a spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus. “We were promised a lot before, and they never kept their promises.”
U.S. officials have ruled out sending ground troops and on Friday played down the likelihood of a no-fly zone in Syria, calling it “difficult” and “dangerous.” But a military exercise currently under way in Jordan points to a growing level of preparedness by the United States and its allies for a wide range of options.
Around 5,000 U.S. troops are among 8,000 from 19 nations taking part in the Eager Lion exercise, which also includes F-16 and F-18 fighter jets and a battery of Patriot missiles that will remain behind in Jordan after the drill concludes next week.
A Jordanian government official dismissed as “premature” reports that there are plans for Jordan to serve as the base for a future Syrian no-fly zone. The kingdom currently has no plans to “be part of any international military action against Syria,” he said.
However, a Jordanian military official said that Amman and Washington drew up plans for such a zone in March and that the dispatch of the missiles and fighter jets represented a “first phase.”
“We already know what a no-fly zone over southern Syria will look like, how to enforce it and who we will work with on the ground,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. “All we are waiting for is the final decision.”
The conflict is also taking on increasingly sectarian overtones, with the growing entanglement of the Shiite Hezbollah movement inflaming Sunni anger across the region. Hours before the White House announcement that it would send unspecified “military assistance” to the rebels, a group of senior Sunni clerics meeting in Cairo called for “jihad” in Syria.
In a defiant speech delivered to supporters Friday night, Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah blamed the regime’s opponents for seeking to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, and said Hezbollah would not be deterred in its support for the regime.
“The world is coming to fight in Syria . . . with its money, with its media, and even with this lie that they will start to arm the opposition. The opposition has been armed a long while ago.”
He did not address directly reports that Hezbollah fighters have been deployed as far afield as the northern city of Aleppo and the southwestern city of Daraa, but he made it clear Hezbollah is prepared to fight “wherever needed.”
“We will be where we need to be. What we started to carry out, we will continue,” he said.
Taylor Luck in Amman and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.