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Obama authorizes airstrikes in Syria, raises risk of direct conflict with Assad

In a move to increase pressure on the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, US President Barack Obama has authorized using airstrikes to defend US-trained militants if they come under attack by the government forces or other groups.

The new rules that the Pentagon recommended and Obama approved will apply only to military forces trained and equipped by the United States, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said the Obama administration has made clear it will “take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission.”

According to the report, the Pentagon would only conduct “offensive air operations” in Syria in support of the newly trained militants when they fight the ISIL terrorist group.

Last month, the US military announced that it would send its first batch of trained militants into Syria in the next several weeks to fight ISIL.

On Friday, the Pentagon used airstrikes for the first time to help defend its new force when the compound it was using in northern Syria came under attack.

The Journal cited US military officials as saying that the Pentagon-trained force has been explicitly directed not to conduct offensive operations against the military forces of the Syrian government.

“For offensive operations, it’s ISIS [ISIL] 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 official said on condition of anonymity.

The US has not yet used air power against the government forces to defend its newly-trained force in Syria. The officials said “that day would never come” because it would ignite a direct conflict between Washington and Damascus.

They said they are confident to avoid a standoff with the government of Assad because it has not challenged US air operations in Syria over the last year.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had said earlier that the administration planned to train 3,000 by the end of the year.

Analysts, however, say many of the US-trained militants could eventually find themselves on the side of the ISIL Takfiris against a common enemy on the ground — the Syrian government forces.

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US plan to topple al-Assad ‘at new stage’

Former CIA contractor Steven Kelley says the Pentagon is entering a “new stage” by threatening to use air power in Syria​ if US-backed forces in the country come under attack.

President Barack Obama ordered the military to use airstrikes against those who attack the US-backed forces in Syria.

White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said the Obama administration has made clear it will “take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission.”

He added that the support would include “defensive fires support to protect them.”

“President Obama’s recent authorization of using air power to support this, defend this new US-backed force fighting in Syria seems to be a new pathetic escalation,” Kelley told Press TV on Monday.

“This is a very negative advance in this entire episode,” he said.

“I think it’s still pathetic and shows that the American efforts to topple Assad seem to be reaching a new stage.”

The analyst also criticized the United States for intervention in Syria’s internal affairs.

“The people that they are recruiting have no interest in fighting against ISIS (ISIL). They’re strictly there to fight against Assad,” Kelley said.

Syria has been gripped by deadly unrest since March 2011. The United States and its regional allies — especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — are supporting the militants operating inside the country.

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R E L A T E D :

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wall-street-journal-3-august-2015-3Wall 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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