The White House has expanded its bombing campaign in Syria to help defend a small Pentagon-backed force against other armed insurgent groups or government security forces, officials said Monday.
The decision by President Obama increases the risk that the U.S. military ultimately may attack forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad, pulling the U.S. more deeply into the country’s four-year-old civil war.
Until now, the U.S.-led air campaign that began last August has targeted only Islamic State positions, facilities and convoys. Obama has urged Assad to step down, but has sought to keep the U.S. military out of the civil war.
The policy shift came to light after the first group of several dozen U.S.-vetted and trained fighters were drawn into a firefight Friday by the Nusra Front, a militant group linked to al Qaida, in northern Syria.
American warplanes soon swept in to help defend the fighters, the first time U.S. aircraft had directly supported them in a battle.
Pentagon officials indicated additional airstrikes are likely as the American-trained force looks for ways to combat the Islamic State, the militant group that controls much of Syria and Iraq.
“We won’t get into the specifics of our rules of engagement, but have said all along that we would take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission,” said Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Pentagon spokeswoman. “We demonstrated our resolve in this respect on Friday.”
White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said the newly trained Syrian force was “being provided with a wide range” of support. He called the airstrikes another measure “to protect them.”
The administration’s $500 million effort to train and arm an opposition force in Syria has been plagued with problems and delays.
Under the program, which was announced in June 2014, the Pentagon initially planned to graduate 5,400 fighters within a year. They have trained fewer than 60 so far.
The four countries where the training takes place – Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – sharply disagree with Washington on what the proxy force should do. They want it to focus first on ousting Assad; the White House wants the fighters to target Islamic State.