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Upwards Of 1,000 US Troops Could Deploy for Syrian Rebel Training

The U.S. effort to recruit and train "moderate" Syrian opposition group fighters to combat ISIS could involve the deployment of upwards of 1,000 U.S. troops to training sites in the Middle East, the Pentagon said Friday.

The initial Pentagon announcement on Thursday said that "Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar have agreed to host training sites and we anticipate the program to train and equip the moderate  Syrian opposition will take approximately 400 U.S. trainers."

However, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said Friday that the number of U.S. troops deployed "could approach 1,000, might even exceed it. I can't rule it out."

Kirby said that special operations troops would mainly handle the training and would be backed up by conventional support and force protection troops.

The force protection troops were a precaution against the possibility that the recruits coming from Syria could pose an "insider threat."

"There's going to be a significant vetting program in place to make sure that we're dealing with individuals and units that are trustworthy," Kirby said. "We've learned the hard way [in Afghanistan]."

Last August, Army Maj. Gen. Harold Greene was killed in an insider attack in Kabul by a gunman wearing an Afghan army uniform. He was the highest-ranking U.S. officer to be killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. In 2012, 53 U.S. and coalition troops were killed in 38 insider attacks in Afghanistan.

"There are significant risks if you get it wrong" in training Syrian opposition fighters, Kirby said. "The Syrian opposition wants this as badly as we do."

Kirby said no orders have yet been cut for the troops deploying to the Middle East for the training program but he expected troops to start flowing within 4-6 weeks. Actual recruiting also has yet to be done, but Kirby said that "training could begin as early as this spring."

Kirby left unclear whether the new recruiting and training program would build off a separate program reportedly run by the CIA with the Syrian opposition and possibly include some of the recruits from the CIA effort. Kirby said he could not comment on what "other agencies" may have done.

The Syrian recruiting program is being led by Army Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata from the U.S. Central Command as head of Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Syria.

Earlier this week, Nagata and Daniel Rubinestein, the U.S. special envoy for Syria, met in Turkey with what was described as "a broad spectrum of Syrian opposition and civil society leaders."

"These meetings provided an important opportunity to introduce and discuss the U.S. train and equip program with members of the moderate political and armed opposition and to gain a better understanding of conditions on the ground in Syria," CentCom said in a statement.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com