The rise in number of U.S. personnel in the past few weeks estimated at fewer than a dozen people has helped improve rebels’ political organizing skills as well as their military organization; officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
The intervention is part of a two-pronged effort by the Obama administration to bolster the rebels militarily without actually contributing weapons, as well as help them stave off internal power challenges by hardline Islamic militants who have flowed into the country from Iraq and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region.
Spokesmen for the Pentagon and White House declined to comment.
The diplomats and intelligence operatives from the CIA and other agencies stay outside Syria and meet with rebel leaders to help them organize their ranks. They also study who all comprise the ranks, how they are armed and whom they answer to, the officials say.
Information is also gathered from Syrian defectors and refugees as well as rebel troops, officials say.
“The model is to keep case officers away from conflict, and you collect through local forces,” former CIA officer Reuel Gerecht, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based policy group that focuses on terrorism, told AP.
The effort is concentrated on the Turkish border as the traffic between Syria and Turkey is the biggest.
The White House has resisted calls to engage militarily, instead limiting aid to non-lethal support like encrypted radios to enable the rebels to better communicate.
The death toll in Syria’s 18-month uprising has neared the 20,000 mark.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon criticized the Security Council on Wednesday for failing to take action to protect Syrians, who are now fleeing the country in record numbers.
“We have seen the immense human cost of failing to protect,” he said.