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Obama seeks $500m to train Syria opposition

Action would expand direct US involvement

A woman and youths, one carrying a wounded baby, fled the site of a bomb attack in the city of Aleppo on Thursday.

ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images

A woman and youths, one carrying a wounded baby, fled the site of a bomb attack in the city of Aleppo on Thursday.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration asked Congress on Thursday to authorize $500 million in direct US military training and equipment for Syrian opposition fighters, a move that could significantly escalate US involvement in Syria’s civil war.

Money for the assistance, which would expand a CIA covert training program, is included in a $65.8 billion request for the Pentagon’s Overseas Contingency Operations, or OCO.

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The administration has said repeatedly in recent weeks that it was preparing additional assistance to vetted ‘‘moderate’’ opposition forces fighting both the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and extremists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, who have now spread their area of control across the Syrian border into Iraq.

If Congress approves the funding, it would mark the first direct US military participation in the Syrian conflict. The training would probably take place in neighboring Jordan, where the CIA is currently training Syrian opposition forces, and possibly in Turkey.

‘‘While we continue to believe that there is no military solution to this crisis and that the United States should not put American troops into combat in Syria, this request marks another step toward helping the Syrian people defend themselves against [Assad] regime attacks, push back against the growing number of extremists . . . who find safe-haven in the chaos, and take their future into their own hands by enhancing security and stability at local levels,’’ National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said in a statement.

The request does not specify the type of military equipment that would be included. Under the existing covert program, the administration has sent limited quantities of small arms and ammunition and has allowed others to send US-made antitank weapons.

But the administration has rebuffed opposition calls for sophisticated weapons, including portable antiaircraft missiles. Placing the training and equipment programs in the hands of the military, rather than the CIA, theoretically will make US aid to the Syrian opposition more transparent.

Although some lawmakers have warned President Obama to stay away from direct involvement in the Syria conflict, many have criticized the administration for dragging its feet on significant aid to the rebels and allowing the Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups to expand in the region.

A strong bipartisan majority of the Senate Armed Services Committee approved language similar to the OCO Syria request during its consideration of the overall Pentagon budget. In initial congressional response to the new request, that panel’s chairman, Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, and Representative Eliot L. Engel, Democrat of New York, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, voiced support.

Details of the OCO budget had been withheld from the administration’s overall fiscal 2015 defense budget request, being considered by Congress. The contingency funding also includes money to pay for other counterterrorism operations, increased military deployments in Eastern Europe and for ongoing US expenses in Afghanistan.

The speed with which the Islamic State forces have virtually eliminated the Syria-Iraq border and taken control of Iraqi cities and towns over the past two weeks has focused the administration’s attention on what now threatens to become a regional conflagration.

Within the OCO request, the Syria money is part of a $5 billion fund announced by Obama last month to help build a new counterterrorism infrastructure with partner countries ‘‘from South Asia to the Sahel.’’

Terrorism, Obama said, remains ‘‘the most direct threat to America at home and abroad,’’ but is no longer centered in an Al Qaeda leadership based in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Instead, he said, the threat has become decentralized, with ‘‘emerging threats’’ from Al Qaeda associates and newly formed groups across the Middle East and into Africa.

The Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund, he said, ‘‘will allow us to train, build capacity and facilitate partner countries on the front lines.’’

A fact sheet released by the White House on Thursday said that $2.5 billion of the new funding would cover the costs of training and operations by both US Special Operations and conventional forces in partner nations, as well as intelligence and surveillance.

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