The US will "protect" the new Syrian rebel brigades it is training and arming to take on Islamic State militants and may provide air cover, a senior official said on Monday.
Retired General John Allen, envoy to the international coalition battling the Islamic State, insisted that support would continue even after the militias were vetted, drilled, and equipped. "It is clearly part of our plan, that not only we will train them, and we will equip them with the latest weapons systems, but we will also protect them when the time comes," Allen said, speaking at an event organized by Washington-based think thank the Atlantic Council.
He added that both air support and a no-fly zone were "under consideration."
The US aims to train around 5,000 fighters annually over a three-year period to combat the Islamic State. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have committed to hosting training camps. American officials said recently that the Turkish operation could be underway in four to six weeks and that so far 1,500 Syrians have been flagged as recruits.
Allen said the coalition was "pleasantly surprised" at the numbers of Syrian signing up to combat the Islamic State.
The CIA began a secret program to train and arm a small number of trusted Syrian rebels in 2013, but it does not appear to have had a measurable impact.
In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that the US would provide select Syrian rebels with machine gun-equipped pickup trucks and communications equipment to call in American airstrikes. Such air support played a critical role in repelling a concerted Islamic State offensive on the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Kobane.
Ankara and Washington are likely to have somewhat different goals in training the rebels, however. Syrian opposition groups are fighting a two-front war against both IS and the Syrian government. Turkey is a staunch opponent of President Bashar al-Assad and his ouster is seen as a priority there. The US, meanwhile, has said it would also like to see Assad removed from power, but dealing with the rise of the Islamic State is now a bigger concern.
Ankara has been reluctant to take part in the US-led alliance dedicated to eradicating the extremist group as a result, and has so far refused a frontline role despite land borders with both Iraq and Syria. Officials have seemed more open to the idea of participating in direct military action in recent months, although it would likely depends on the coalition's stance towards Assad.
The issue of what to do if, or perhaps inevitably when, the newly trained American trained rebels are attacked by Assad's air force is yet to be solved, however. There is no easy answer. If the US engages with Syrian aircraft it would be taking undeniable military action against the Syrian government and massive political fallout with major legal implications would follow. Washington could provide rebels with powerful anti-aircraft weaponry, but that may then risk them falling into the hands of the Islamic State or another extremist group.
The latter is a very real possibility. Allen's remarks come a few days after Washington's pre-existing favored Syrian rebel group announced its dissolution following a major defeat at the hands of the local al Qaeda affiliate.
Hazm Movement, or Harakat Hazm, a secular militia which had been supplied with advanced US weapons under the CIA program, including TOW anti-tank missiles, announced over the weekend that it would disband after Jabhat al Nusra captured its Aleppo province headquarters. Its members will now be absorbed by a newly formed rebel coalition called the Shamiyah Front, which includes more moderate factions alongside hardline Salafists.
Fighters with al Nusra later claimed on Twitter to have taken large supplies of weapons along with the Hazm base.
In November 2014, al Nusra pushed Hazm and the allied Syrian Revolutionaries Front out of Idlib province. At the time social media accounts linked with al Nusra also said that US weapons were among a large cache of arms and equipment seized by the militants.
US support may have made Hazm a target for al-Nusra. Washington lists the latter as a terror group and targeted it in airstrikes when they began in Syria in September, although has left it essentially unmolested since.
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