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The training is led by small teams of operatives from the CIA’s Special Activities Division, a paramilitary branch that relies heavily on contractors and former members of U.S. Special Operations forces. Officials said the instruction is rudimentary and typically spans four to six weeks.
"It’s basic infantry training," the former U.S. intelligence official said. "How to have some discipline hitting a target, how to reload a magazine, how to clear a room. They’re not marching. They’re learning basic infantry procedures."
Officials said the main CIA training effort does not involve instruction on high-powered weapons such as rockets and antitank munitions, which are being supplied by countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, although the agency is involved in tracking those arms flows and vetting recipients.
The pace of the CIA program amounts to a trickle into the ranks of opposition fighters, who total about 100,000. U.S. intelligence officials said that as many as 20,000 of those are considered "extremists" with militant Islamist agendas.
Those hard-line factions have drained momentum and support from moderate rebel groups. The most prominent Islamist groups, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra, include fighters who have extensive experience in the war in Iraq, have ties to al-Qaida and have carried out high-profile strikes against Assad’s government.
Former deputy CIA director Michael Morell said in a recent CBS interview that the most effective organizations on the battlefield in Syria are the Islamist factions. "And because they’re so good at fighting the Syrians, some of the moderate members of the opposition joined forces with them," he said.
Those defections have been compounded by mounting skepticism of U.S. commitment and intentions, officials said. Rebels’ requests for weapons were rebuffed until earlier this year, when Obama allowed the CIA to begin providing arms. But even then, officials said, the deliveries were delayed for months and restricted to light arms, which are already abundant in the conflict.
Rebels were also angered by the U.S. failure to launch missile strikes against Assad after he was accused of using chemical weapons to kill more than 1,000 people in August in an attack on the outskirts of Damascus. After initially threatening strikes, the Obama administration set those plans aside last month to pursue a potential deal with Russia in which Assad would surrender control of his chemical weapons stockpiles - and probably extend his hold on power.
Islamist factions have taken advantage, luring fighters away with offers of better pay, equipment and results. A spokesman for the ISIS said the group had added 2,000 Syrian recruits and 1,500 foreign fighters over the past two months.
"More and more Muslims in Syria and outside are realizing that we are the only true force able and willing to defend the Syrian people against this monstrous regime without any Western agenda," said the spokesman, Mohammed al-Libi.
Recruiting efforts by militias working with the CIA have sagged, officials said.
At the largest refugee camp in Jordan, where more than 100,000 Syrians take shelter, aid officials said dozens of military-age males leave every day by bus to return to Syria, presumably to fight. But the flows have diminished, and the mood among refugees has grown more pessimistic.
"Support to the rebellion is reducing," said an official who has worked at the Zaatari camp. "We’re seeing fewer people leaving and less ⅛recruiting⅜ activity." Among those who depart, officials said they have seen no evidence that any go elsewhere in Jordan for training before returning to Syria.
The Obama administration has explored the idea of using the U.S. military to expand the training program to what some officials have described as "industrial strength." But Defense Department officials said there has been no decision to do so and cited significant obstacles.
It is unclear whether Jordan would welcome such a large U.S. military footprint, which would mean converting a covert program into one officially acknowledged by the United States. There are also legal impediments, including a measure known as the Leahy Law, that would require a determination that no recipients of U.S. military assistance had committed human rights abuses.
For the CIA, the constraints in Syria mark a significant departure from the wide latitude the agency was accustomed to over the past decade in the conflict zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as in other countries patrolled by armed drones, including Pakistan and Yemen.
Mindful of the criticism and investigations that accompanied many of those operations, senior CIA officials have raised the concern that the limits imposed in Syria will do little to shield the agency from criticism if something goes wrong.
"What happens when some of the people we trained torture a prisoner?" said a former senior U.S. intelligence official familiar with agency operations in the Middle East. Even if the CIA can produce records to defend its training program, "we’re going to face congressional hearings," the former official said. "There is no win here."
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