“I do not want to mention my name,” says a 20-year-old FSA fighter, “because the camp we practiced in was highly classified.”
So classified, in fact, that the CIA – who are rumoured to be running the camp (but declined to comment for this article) – still won’t acknowledge it exists.
For nearly a year, rumours have swirled about a covert, US-run training camp for FSA fighters in the vast Jordanian desert. (Jordanian intelligence also did not respond to requests for comment on this article.) And, last week, it was reported that the Obama administration appears to be expanding "its covert programme of training and assistance for the Syrian opposition". However, despite all this speculation, little is known about how this supposed Jordanian camp works, who trains there and what tactics they learn.
However, I recently tracked down a fighter who said he'd completed the course and was willing to talk.
"Fighter A" is from Daraa, just a stone’s throw from the Jordanian border in southern Syria. He was at secondary school when the revolution twisted into civil war, and his plans to study law were set aside for a Kalashnikov, joining the FSA at just 18 years old.
One day last May, when Fighter A was 19, he was taken aside and given some good news. “I was selected by the brigade commander to go to training camp,” he says. “I was told we would be trained on heavy weapons and anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.” But he didn’t know exactly what to expect: “I had heard of military camps taking place, but I didn’t know where and when.”
The next morning, Fighter A and 39 other young men like him headed south into Jordan, their journey jointly choreographed by Daraa’s FSA military council and, allegedly, Jordanian intelligence. Mobile phones were confiscated, to be returned at the end of camp. No questions were asked. These men were going off the grid.
When the group finally arrived at a high-security military facility deep in the Jordanian desert, Fighter A found the last thing he expected: Americans.
“I was surprised when I saw foreign trainers,” he says. “The Americans who taught us wore military uniforms I did not recognise. We called them by their first names and they spoke English to us.”
And so began a 40-day programme of fitness, fighting tactics and weapons training, all – according to Fighter A – barked out by US military instructors with interpreters at their sides, translating every order into Arabic. Recruits exercised in the morning and at night, knocking out set after set of crunches and press-ups and going for long runs. “The exercises were tiring, but I became fitter,” says Fighter A.
He was also well fed. “They served us the best types of food at the camp – grilled meat, mansaf [a Jordanian lamb dish], Kentucky Fried Chicken, soup, rice, Mexican chicken and many other foods. Each person got American food or Arab food at their request.”
Accommodation was on site in pre-fabricated housing, and days were spent preparing for combat. “We were trained in urban warfare and street fighting: how to break into buildings as a team, how to blow up houses held by the enemy and how to free captives.”
Weapons instruction was at the heart of the programme. Recruits were trained on Kalashnikovs, light machine guns, mortars, anti-tank mines and SPG-9 unguided anti-tank missiles. This teaching beefed up Fighter A’s light and medium arms skills and introduced him to heavy weapons he hadn’t previously used. “Before the camp I used a Kalashnikov and light machine guns, and at the camp I was trained to shoot faster and more accurately. Mortars and anti-tank missiles like the SPG-9 were new to me.”
The much-anticipated anti-aircraft missiles known as "MANPADS" – which Barack Obama was reportedly planning to send to Syrian rebels – never materialised.
I asked Fighter A about a graduation ceremony – how had the recruits and their instructors marked the end of the programme?
“There was no graduation ceremony, but we did a graduation project at the end. It was a complete fighting project that included everything we had been trained on. For me, this was the best part of the camp.”
And then camp was over.
Fighter A and his fellow recruits were each given $500 and sent back to Syria. It took a day to reach Daraa, where phones were returned and lives re-connected. He went to see his family first, then reported to brigade headquarters for his next orders.
Since his American training, Fighter A has become a trainer himself, teaching the men in his brigade to shoot faster and more accurately, to fire mortars and lay into the enemy with anti-tank mines and missiles. He still fights with a Kalashnikov and a light machine gun, and his brigade has added mortars and 14.5’’ machine guns to its arsenal. Though he hasn’t received any more money or any weapons from the US or Jordan, “I benefitted a lot from the camp,” he says. “I gained a lot of new fighting skills.”
One thing he doesn’t keep up with is the exercise programme. The lack of food in Daraa leaves a 20-year-old man hungry on a good day, so Fighter A figures there’s no sense burning the extra energy if he can’t replace it.
In recent months Fighter A has met other rebels who have been through the same training camp. Experts suggest that this isn’t the only Jordan-based programme training moderate Syrians to fight the American way.
“There’s a dribble – a small trickle of fighters, maybe 150 soldiers a month,” says Joshua Landis, director of the Centre of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “But there's not enough of them to make a difference.”
Charles Lister, a Visiting Fellow with the Brookings Doha Centre – and an expert on FSA activity in southern Syria – agrees. “So far, because this training effort has been on such a small scale, it doesn't appear to have a qualitative impact on conflict dynamics inside the country.”
Beyond manpower, there’s also the issue of arms – the earthbound FSA is seriously outmatched by the Syrian Air Force. Rebels have been asking for anti-aircraft missiles for more than a year, and at the top of their wish list are shoulder-launched surface to air missiles – the "MANPADS" – that can shoot a plane out of the sky.
While Saudi is keen to provide these, Landis says, the US has so far refused to let it happen. “America has a very important national interest, which is to know who is getting what weapons.” As al-Qaeda digs into the infrastructure of rebel-controlled Syria, the threat for US interests becomes untenable: "America cannot let MANPADS into Syria because they will be used against Israeli planes someday," he says.
Lister sees America's refusal to step up training numbers and allow rebels more sophisticated weapons systems – namely, the anti-aircraft missiles Fighter A was waiting for – as an indication that it’s just not that committed to changing conflict dynamics.
Landis admits that the US is playing a “rather mischievous role” by supporting the rebels with one hand and restraining them with the other. “The result is that we’re prolonging the rebellion, but we’re also making sure it can’t win.”
Back in Daraa, Fighter A is under no illusions that the American training, American food and American dollars he enjoyed in Jordan are in any way indicative of an American desire to help the rebels win. “America is benefiting from the destruction and the killing in order to weaken both sides,” he says.
But he does think the training is helping the rebels make gains in Syria and, for now, this is enough. He believes in his cause, and he is patient. “I didn't know or expect revolutions [to be] filled with blood,” he says. “But I remember the saying: if you want to jump forwards, you have to take two steps backwards.”