Elite U.S. military forces have begun training Syrians to help combat the Islamic State, launching a controversial and long-delayed mission that threatens to pull the United States into that country’s civil war and erode relations with NATO ally Turkey.
Eight months after Congress approved $500 million for a program to ready a force inside Syria to combat the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday that training has begun for about 90 handpicked fighters. He declined to say where the training was taking place.
“We expect a second group to begin training in the next few weeks,” he said.
The plans for a force inside Syria to battle the Islamic State, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL, have been controversial since the United States expanded its bombing campaign against the terrorist group from Iraq to Syria. Supporters of rebels battling the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad initially saw it as a way for U.S. training to be given to the rebels.
But the administration balked at training the rebels and instead set about creating an independent force whose task would be exclusively countering the Islamic State, a path critics said would take months, if not years. Carter confirmed that Thursday when he said the new Syrian fighters would be deployed in “a few months.” He said the precise date “will be decided later by the commander of that training operation and by us” – top Defense Department leaders.
American warplanes likely would provide air cover and other support for U.S.-trained fighters who come under assault by Islamic State militants, Carter said. But he said it has not yet been decided how the United States would respond should the new Syrian fighters come under attack by Assad government forces.
“Now, remember, their mission is to fight ISIL. So that’s the combat we expect them to get involved in, and we do expect to support them in that regard,” Carter said.
He added later that if the newly trained Syrian force found itself in a battle with government forces, “we would have some responsibility to help them” – an assurance that could draw the United States into a civil war that has claimed more than 200,000 lives since 2011 and sent millions of refugees into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and other countries.
“We have not decided yet in detail how we would exercise that responsibility, but we have acknowledged that we have that responsibility,” he said.
U.S. warplanes have conducted more than 1,900 airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq since August and about 1,300 in Syria since September. Some of the Syria bombing has provoked controversy, with human rights groups claiming the strikes have killed innocent civilians, most recently April 30 when 64 allegedly died in the bombing of Bir Mahalli, a village 33 miles south of Kobani, a contested town near the Turkish border.
The uncertainty of how the United States would deal with confrontations with Syrian government troops lies at the heart of a dispute between Turkey, the only Muslim member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the United States.
Turkey has insisted that any training that takes place on its territory should be for the dual purpose of combating the Islamic State and toppling the Assad government. Carter declined to say where the training was taking place.
“As you probably know, there are several locations, and we’re going to keep that to ourselves,” Carter said.
In addition to Turkey, Jordan also is expected to host training. Its warplanes have joined the U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
Carter and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to provide details of the types of battle missions that will be assigned to the U.S.-trained fighters.
Carter, however, suggested that some of them will be sent to home villages and towns that have suffered at the hands of the Islamic State.
“Many are motivated by the fact that ISIL has taken over and mistreated the places from which they came, and so their commitment is something that we have a very good idea of as part of the vetting process,” he said.
Pressed on whether the Pentagon would consider providing anti-aircraft weapons and other sophisticated arms to the Syrians it trains, Carter responded: “In the main, the arms that they’re provided will be small arms and small-unit arms, and so forth.”
He added: “There’s a limit to the kind of sophistication of arms that troops trained in this way will be provided with.”
The Islamic State is not known to have aircraft, and such weapons would be of use primarily against the Syrian government.