Washington: The Pentagon is grappling with whether the US should use military force to protect US trained and equipped Syrian rebels now that they may be the targets of Russian airstrikes.
Senior US military leaders and defense officials are working through the thorny legal and foreign policy issues and are weighing the risks of using force in response to a Russian attack, US officials said yesterday.
Pentagon leaders have consistently said that the US must take steps to protect the American-trained rebels because it would be far more difficult to recruit fighters without those assurances. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told reporters in March that the US has an obligation to support them, “And we’re working through what kinds of support and under what conditions we would do so.”
US officials later made it clear that rebels trained by the US would receive air support in the event they are attacked by either Islamic State militants or Syrian government troops. Currently, that protection would apply only to about 80 US-trained Syrian rebels who are back in Syria fighting with their units.
The US policy so far is very specific. It doesn’t address a potential attack by Russian planes and does not include Syrian rebels who have not been through the US military training, even though they may be aligned with the US or IS.
Carter declined to discuss the problem when asked about it this week. But US officials acknowledged that this is one of the questions being asked as they debate the administration’s response to what White House press secretary Josh Earnest described as Russia’s “indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition.”
A key concern is the prospect of US getting drawn into a proxy war with Russia in the event that Russian warplanes hit moderate Syrian rebels who have been trained and equipped by the US military.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing deliberations publicly. Tensions between the US and Russia are escalating over Russian airstrikes that apparently are serving to strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad by targeting rebels perhaps including some aligned with the US rather than hitting Islamic State fighters it promised to attack.
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