Jordanian security officials said a previous timetable to complete training of about 3,000 Free Syrian Army officers by the end of June has been moved up to the end of this month in light of the border victories.
Creation of a buffer zone would aim to convert areas now in rebel hands into permanent havens for thousands of army defectors and displaced civilians in the area and allow easy access for humanitarian aid. More than 470,000 Syrian refugees have already crossed into Jordan — a number U.N. officials expect to pass the 1 million mark this year.
Officials from the United States and Jordan cautioned that implementation of the zones has not been set in motion and listed several stumbling blocks, including the ongoing refusal of the United States and other international backers to provide air cover to prevent Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s air force from attacking rebel outposts.
Two years after the start of the Syrian conflict, Western and Middle East governments are struggling to devise an effective strategy they can agree on, even as the war appears to be spinning beyond their ability to influence it, short of the direct intervention they have refused to contemplate.
But the officials cited growing concern that moderate rebel forces, who have fought effectively in the south and around Damascus, would be overtaken by extremist Islamic fighters who have become dominant in northern areas under rebel control.
“The last thing anyone wants to see is al-Qaeda gaining a foothold in southern Syria next to Israel. That is a doomsday scenario,” said a U.S. diplomat in Jordan who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
The Obama administration and regional governments fear the fighting may soon spill over into other countries.
“Buffer zones on the Syrian side of the border is the only way to keep the conflict away from Jordan,” said Mahmoud Irdaisat, head of the Amman-based Center for Strategic Studies at the King Abdullah II Defense Studies Academy.
The Obama administration, which sent a force of about 150 U.S. military personnel to Jordan last year, has repeatedly refused to comment on reports that the force is training Syrian fighters.
Options under discussion
Among the options under discussion, Free Syrian Army forces would attempt to establish a rebel zone in May in the sparsely populated southeastern desert where Syria borders Jordan and Iraq, an area that has seen little fighting throughout the conflict.
After an initial two-month pilot phase, the rebels would move farther to the west near the city of Daraa, which has been a flash point for violence and is home for tens of thousands of displaced Syrians.