The US Senate has approved legislation allowing the military to train and arm moderate rebels battling Islamic State (IS) militants in Syria, as France launches airstrikes on the group in Iraq.
Congress approved the $500 million plan on Thursday, enabling the US to provide support for rebels fighting the Sunni extremists. Speaking at the White House after the vote, President Barack Obama said support from both Democrat and Republican factions showed that Americans were united in the fight against IS.
"As Americans, we do not give in to fear. And when you harm our citizens, when you threaten the United States, when you threaten our allies - it doesn't divide us, it unites us," he said.
The US has set a target of training at least 5,000 rebels within a year. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that Saudi Arabia would host the training, the Associated Press said, while Martin Dempsey — America's top military officer — declined to specify a location but said that more than one country would be involved.
Dempsey, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned that it could be as long as a year before rebels are ready to fight. This is partly because the US, along with some of its allies, will vet potential recipients for ability and allegiances, AP reported. He added that the type of weaponry provided would move from small arms and light weapons to heavier ordnance as the rebels prove themselves.
The US would aim to create a large, cohesive military force, as opposed to small groups of militants, Dempsey added: "We've got to build a chain of command. This is not about building little 10- or 12-man squads to go and conduct guerrilla tactics or go defend their village. This is working them to a point where they have leaders who can maneuver a couple of hundred of these opposition groups at a time." Rebels, he said, could work in partnership with US airpower or one of the airforce of an allied Arab country.
Meanwhile, France said on Friday that its aircraft had hit IS targets in Iraq for the first time. Dassault Rafale jets destroyed a logistics depot held by the group in the northeast of the country, French President Hollande's office said, adding that operations will continue in the coming days.
France is one of group of more than 20 countries that pledged to provide military assistance to Iraqi authorities to help combat IS after talks in Paris on Monday. However the agreement, which came after frantic efforts to cobble together a coalition, did not outline the role which would be played by each party.
The US has been conducting airstrikes on IS targets in Iraq since August, when IS made a push into territory controlled by the Western-backed Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and seemingly threatened the capital of Erbil. Obama said last week that he had authorized strikes in Syria too, although none have yet taken place. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that US strikes conducted without government permission would be an act of aggression.
IS first appeared in Syria around April 2013. Comprised mainly of foreign fighters, it initially appeared to be siding with rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. However it soon became clear that the militants' priorities were to take advantage of the power vacuum created by the civil war and seize territory then implement its extreme version of Islamic law. Now estimated by the US to be as many as 31,000 strong, It overran large swathes of northern Iraq in a shock offensive in June this year and subsequently declared a caliphate in the areas under its control. The group has since been blamed for a litany of war crimes and human right abuses.