- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 28, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - President Barack Obama said Wednesday the U.S. will increase assistance to the Syrian opposition, opening the way for the likely training and possibly equipping of moderate rebels fighting to oust leader Bashar Assad.

In a speech at the U.S. Military Academy, Obama framed the situation in Syria as a counterterrorism challenge and said it would be centerpiece of a new focus on battling violent extremism even as Assad’s removal is a priority.

“In helping those who fight for the right of all Syrians to choose their own future, we also push back against the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos,” Obama told the graduating cadets.

“I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator,” he said.

His remarks were immediately hailed by the Syrian Opposition Coalition, which said in a statement it “appreciates American support to the Syrian people in their struggle against the Assad regime.”

Administration officials said the proposed mission would be aligned with, but not necessarily part of a new $5 billion counterterrorism initiative that Obama announced in his speech.

The officials said they would seek congressional authorization for the program because it might require invoking the War Powers Act.

The Senate Armed Services Committee last week passed a bill that authorizes the Defense Department to provide training and equipment elements of the Syrian opposition that have been screened. It is unclear when the bill may be considered by the full Senate or the House.

Under the planned initiative, the U.S. would send a limited number of American troops to Jordan to be part of a regional training mission that would instruct carefully screened members of the Free Syrian Army on weapons handling and tactics, officials said.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss administration deliberations by name.

In addition to the counterterrorism aspect, the State Department, the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies, along with many in Congress who back the move, have concluded Assad will not budge without a change in the military situation in Syria.

The U.S. has covert support operations in place for the Syrian opposition and has spent $287 million so far in nonlethal aid on the civil war, now in its fourth year with a death toll surpassing 160,000, according to estimates.

Rebel commanders for three years have asked the U.S. for lethal assistance as they’ve seen gains wiped out one after another. The U.S. has been reluctant to move to that kind of aid for fear weapons could end up in the hands of extremist rebels who might then turn on neighboring Israel or against U.S. interests.

The proposed mission would be coordinated by the U.S. but involve many of the regional players active in assisting the rebels, including Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, the officials said.

Saudi cooperation is critical and has been a main topic of conversation in recent weeks between the U.S. and the kingdom, including Obama and Saudi King Abdullah, the officials said.

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