Obama Authorizes Airstrikes on Syrian Troops ~ from Real Syria Free Press
Obama authorizes airstrikes to defend US-trained ‘rebels’
The US president has reportedly authorized the Air Force to protect Syrian ‘rebels’ trained by Washington to fight against Islamic State by bombing any force attacking them, including Syrian regular troops.
The change was first reported by US officials speaking on condition of anonymity with the Wall Street Journal Sunday. The first airstrikes to protect American trainees in Syria have already taken place on Friday, July 31, when the US Air Force bombed unidentified militants who attacked the compound of the US-trained ‘rebels’.
So far the fighter jets of the anti-Islamic State (DAESH, IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) US-led coalition have been bombing jihadist targets in Syria’s north and the national air defense units were turning a blind eye to foreign military aircraft in their airspace.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama’s decision reportedly involves inflicting airstrikes against any force that attacks the ‘Syrian rebel armed force’ being trained by American instructors and armed on money from the US budget, with the officially-proclaimed aim of dealing with the advances of IDAESH-IS.
“For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them,” a senior military official told the Wall Street Journalon Sunday. “We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”
Neither the Pentagon nor the White House officially commented on the decision about the new broader rules of engagement, Reuters reports. So far the US has been avoiding direct confrontation with the forces of President Bashar Assad.
“We won’t get into the specifics of our rules of engagement, but have said all along that we would take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission,” said White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey, stressing that so far only US-trained forces have being provided with a wide range of support, including “defensive fires support to protect them.”
The Kremlin said that US airstrikes against Syrian troops would further destabilize the situation.
Moscow has “repeatedly underlined that help to the Syrian opposition, moreover financial and technical assistance, leads to further destabilization of the situation in the country,” Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov said, adding that IS terrorists may take advantage of this situation.
The US rebel training program launched in May implies military instruction of up to 5,400 fighters a year, Reuters reports. The program is reportedly so hard for the trainees that some candidates are being declared ineligible from the start.
According to WSJ, Pentagon has been planning to have 3,000 fighters trained by the end of 2015, but finding applicants without ties to hardline groups turned out to be a heavy task. Reportedly, so far fewer than 60 fighters have been trained.
There are now multiple groups taking part in the Syrian civil war, as Assad’s troops are fighting not only the rebels, but also other militant groups, such as Al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, the so-called Al-Nusra Front, and IS. The militant groups, in turn, are fighting not only Assad’s troops, but each other too.
“We recognize, though, that many of these groups now fight on multiple fronts, including against the Assad regime, (Islamic State) and other terrorists,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Commander Elissa Smith, stressing though that “first and foremost” the US focuses on combating IS.
However, as a result the US warplanes may end up bombing government troops under the command of a legitimate president, Assad, an act of aggression against a sovereign country that only the UN Security Council could authorize.
September will mark one year that the US-led coalition has been bombing positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Although already in November 2014 there were reports that the anti-IS campaign could be nothing else but a move to allow the US military to oust President Assad through less direct means.
In 2013, Damascus narrowly escaped a US-led invasion after Russia brokered an agreement for Syria to hand over its chemical weapons to the international community.
At the time, UK Prime Minister David Cameron lost a bid in the House of Commons to ally British forces with the US military, but now Royal Air Force is bombing positions of IS along with the Americans.
An airstrike of the anti-IS coalition on Assad troops might become a very dangerous precedent and cause a direct military conflict between Washington and Damascus, something that diplomats have manage to avoid since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.
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R E L A T E D :
Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2015
U.S. to Defend New Syria Force From Assad Regime
Military officials play down chances of direct confrontation with the Assad regime
by Adam Entous, Wall Street Journal, 3 August 2015
President Barack Obama has authorized using air power to defend a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is 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 monthslong 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.
Though the new rules allow Pentagon strikes to defend the U.S.-allied force against any regime attacks, U.S. military officials played down the chances of a direct confrontation, at least in the near term. The newly trained force has committed to fighting Islamic State, not the regime, and won’t be fielded in areas the regime controls. U.S. officials say they believe the regime won’t challenge the new force.
Alistair Baskey, a White House National Security Council spokesman, declined to comment on the specifics of the new rules of engagement. But he said the administration has made clear it will “take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission.” U.S. support to the Pentagon-trained force, he added, would include “defensive fires support to protect them.”
The decision comes as the U.S. and Turkey discussed joint operations to clear a zone along the Turkish-Syrian border of Islamic State militants. Turkish officials urged the U.S. to be more serious about defending allied ground forces there. 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 Islamic State 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 has struggled to recruit and vet rebels for the new train-and-equip program which it launched last year, in part because the U.S. is asking them to fight Islamic State instead of the Assad regime. Most rebels see the government as their main enemy. U.S. military officials say fewer than 60 rebels have completed the Pentagon training program and re-entered the fight so far, casting doubt on the effort.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has acknowledged the recruitment problems, but he has said the effort is essential to the administration’s strategy to turn the tide against Islamic State. Mr. Carter says U.S. air power alone won’t be sufficient, and that local Syrian forces are needed to take and hold territory as Islamic State is pushed back. Mr. Obama has ruled out committing U.S. ground forces to the fight.
A promise of defensive air support, U.S. officials said, could help persuade prospective recruits the Pentagon is serious about protecting them, including against the regime. But it also underlined the many challenges the new force will face entering a crowded battlefield where competing rebel groups are vying for dominance, and where aligning oneself with the U.S. has been more of a liability than an advantage.
Some U.S. lawmakers including Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, have sharply criticized the White House’s commitment to the train-and-equip program, saying more needs to be done to support rebels both in the fight against Islamic State and to isolate the Assad regime.
The Pentagon would only be authorized to conduct so-called offensive air operations in Syria in support of the newly trained force when it fights Islamic State, which is sometimes referred to as ISIS.
The Pentagon-backed force has been explicitly directed not to conduct offensive operations against the Assad regime, the officials said.
The Pentagon, however, would have more leeway to use air power in so-called defensive operations should the new force come under attack while operating in northern Syria.
While the new rules don’t explicitly name the Assad regime, officials said the guidelines will allow the Pentagon to defend the new force against any attackers, including the regime and the Nusra Front, Syria’s al Qaeda affiliate.
“For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them,” said a senior military official. “We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”
The Pentagon used air power for the first time on Friday to help defend its new force when the compound it was using in northern Syria came under attack from the Nusra Front.
The new rules, which the Pentagon recommended and which Mr. Obama approved, will apply only to forces trained and equipped by the Pentagon. Those forces are currently only in northern Syria, and officials made clear the new rules won’t apply to forces backed by the U.S. in southern Syria.
The new rules of engagement have been in the works for months, and the delay in reaching a decision reflected the Obama administration’s reluctance to spell out the conditions under which the U.S. might find itself in a fight with the Assad regime.
The U.S. hasn’t yet used air power to help defend the new force against the regime, and military officials made clear they hoped that day would never come because of the risk it could lead to a direct conflict between the U.S. and the Assad government, which is backed by Russia and Iran.
U.S. officials said they had no information to suggest that the Assad regime had any plans to attack the Pentagon-trained force, though U.S. intelligence in Syria is spotty and the Pentagon was caught off guard last week by Nusra’s assault on the force. Pentagon officials on Sunday declined to comment on where the force was currently located, citing concerns about their security.
Last year, the Nusra Front attacked rebel groups linked to a separate train-and-equip program run by the Central Intelligence Agency. The assault pushed the CIA-backed rebels out of northern Syria.
In response, the spy agency has shifted its support to rebel units in the south. In contrast to the Pentagon program, the CIA program has been focused on fighting the Assad regime.
Mr. Assad has been struggling to fend off advances by Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and can ill afford to open a new front with the Americans, officials said.
The Pentagon’s confidence in being able to avoid a standoff with the Assad regime over the new force stems in part from past experience. Officials said the regime, for example, hasn’t challenge U.S. air operations in Syria over the last year in support of Kurdish and other Arab forces battling Islamic State.
In the past, the U.S. has passed messages to the Assad regime warning its forces against interfering in the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State campaign. U.S. officials say those warnings have been heeded thus far. It is unclear if a message has been passed to the regime regarding U.S. air support to the Pentagon-trained force.
The Pentagon had hoped to train 3,000 fighters by year’s end, but the process of finding and vetting applicants who are committed to fighting Islamic State and who don’t have ties to other hard-line groups has been slow, officials say.
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