Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced Thursday that the U.S. is beginning to train a group of moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State in Syria and acknowledged U.S. assets would support those troops in battle against the terrorist group.
Mr. Carter told reporters that about 90 Syrians are in the first group to go through the training process and should be on the battlefield in “a few months.” He said he expected a second group to begin the training in a few weeks.
“We hope this to be an ever expanding program once it proves itself, which I think it will,” he told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon.
Volunteers for the program go through an extensive vetting process before beginning the training program: three weeks of training, one week off, followed by an additional three weeks of training.
Mr. Carter said that the U.S. would have a responsibility to protect Syrian forces if they got in trouble while fighting the Islamic State.
He said the U.S. would provide some type of intelligence or reconnaissance assistance, as well as possibly air support or medical evacuations depending on where they are located, though the full rules of engagement for any conflict have not yet been finalized.
“We definitely have acknowledged that we have an obligation to their safety as well as their effectiveness, and we would exercise that,” Mr. Carter said.
Mr. Carter also said that American assets would have “some responsibility” if Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces engage with U.S.-trained moderates, though if and how U.S. forces were to assist is still unclear. Mr. Carter emphasized that the fighters are being trained solely to combat the Islamic State, not Mr. Assad’s troops.
When asked about the possibility of those Syrians being trained attacking their U.S. teachers in a so called green-on-blue attack, Mr. Carter pointed to the thoroughness of the vetting program, as well as the security of the training location and the experience of the U.S. personnel running the training program.
Congress approved the program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels in December’s annual defense policy bill in an effort to combat the growing threat of the Islamic State.
Mr. Carter said Syrians would receive compensation and be armed with “small arms and small unit arms.”
Over the past six weeks, Syrian rebels have made significant gains in the north of the country in the two-year fight against the Assad regime, Foreign Policy reported.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said that the regime’s momentum had been slowed and that while a transfer of power to a new regime would increase instability in the region, it would not change the U.S. mission there to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIL.
“For us and our counter-ISIL strategy, it wouldn’t change the dynamic except that we still have the fundamental challenge of finding moderate Syrian opposition men to train to be a stabilizing influence over time,” Gen. Dempsey said. “So the challenge wouldn’t change for us, but it would certainly make the situation for Syria more complicated.”
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