President Barack Obama has authorized the use of air power to defend U.S.-trained Syrian rebels if they come under attack from terrorist groups or the Assad regime, deepening the U.S. role against Islamic State forces in Syria.
The broader U.S. rules of engagement, approved July 31, came after rebels fighting Islamic State were attacked by the al-Nusrah Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot, in northern Syria, a U.S. defense official said. The U.S. provided close air support to protect the rebels and quash the attack, he said.
While airstrikes remain limited to Islamic State targets for offensive operations, they can now be used to defend U.S. allies on the ground in Syria, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations.
The official discounted the risk of a U.S. confrontation with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, should he choose to attack any American-trained forces on the ground. The U.S.-trained rebels, who number about 60, have pledged to fight only Islamic State, not the Assad government, and Assad must focus on other threats to his regime, the official said.
Alistair Baskey, a National Security Council spokesman, said U.S.-trained rebels “are being provided with a wide range of coalition support” that includes defensive strikes.
While declining to discuss the specific rules of engagement, Baskey said the administration has “said all along that we would take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission.”
Obama’s move was first reported Sunday by the Wall Street Journal.
The new rules follow an agreement reached in July with Turkey that allows U.S. forces to use Turkey’s Incirlik airbase to launch airstrikes in Syria. Turkey has sought U.S. assurances that it would protect allied ground forces, although the defense official said the new rules had no connection to the Incirlik accord.
Republicans in Congress, led by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have pushed the administration for months to assure Syrian rebels that the U.S. would come to their defense if needed in the fight against Islamic State.
The Pentagon had planned from the beginning to provide such defense, but took time to work out the details because of the slow start to the rebel training program, the official said.
The U.S. had hoped to train 3,000 Syrian rebels by the end of this year, Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy for the coalition against Islamic State, said in May. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told Congress in July that only 60 had been trained so far.
“This number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee on July 7, attributing the delay to U.S. screening standards for the Syrian fighters.
Obama, who has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops into combat in Syria or Iraq, is counting on defeating Islamic State fighters through local forces on the ground, bolstered by U.S. and allied airstrikes. The U.S. and allies have conducted more than 5,000 airstrikes over the past year in Iraq and Syria against Islamic State, a radical Sunni group that declared a self-styled caliphate, or religious state.