U.S. to Defend New Syria Force from Assad
President Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it’s attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups, raising the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
U.S. officials said the decision ended a months-long debate over the role the American military should play in supporting its few allies on the battlefield in Syria. Administration officials had been deeply concerned that defending the Pentagon-backed force could inadvertently open the first open conflict with the Assad government, which has denounced the U.S. program.
Other concerns included whether the U.S. actually had authority to defend the fledgling group of 60 fighters vetted by the Pentagon, reports the Washington Free Beacon. One official told the paper that American officials have been in contact with the Assad government “through various channels” with an understanding that the target was Isis, not Syrian forces.
The new force will not be fielded in areas the Assad government controls, which is now only 1/6 of Syria. The understanding between the two sides is that the Syrian government should not step into the conflict areas the U.S. is operating in.
When pressed during the an press conference call, Pentagon officials admitted they still did not have a definite answer to the legal authority America has in engaging with Assad government forces.
“We do not want to get ahead of the [Defense] Secretary in responding,” explained Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Joe Sowers, citing Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s uncertainty on the matter earlier on in July.
“The U.S. is committed to the success of the personnel we will train,” Sowers continued. “We are still considering the full complement of support we might provide to the [U.S.-trained] forces.”
The decision comes as the U.S. and Turkey discussed joint operations to clear a no-fly zone along the Turkish-Syrian border of ISIS militants. The U.S. and Turkey plan to send rebels they are training into the zone as well as into other areas in northern Syria where ISIS holds territory.
Officials said another impetus for the decision was the recent insertion of the first group of Pentagon-trained fighters into northern Syria, where last week they were ambushed by al Qaeda linked fighters. The Pentagon was caught off guard by the Nusra Front’s assault on the force.
The Pentagon has struggled to recruit and vet rebels for the new program which it launched last year, in part because the U.S. is asking them to fight ISIS instead of Assad. Most rebels see the government as their main enemy. U.S. military officials say fewer than 60 rebels have completed the training program and re-entered the fight; the Pentagon had hoped to train 3,000 by year’s end.