They arrived in Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, the favored vehicle of Islamist fighters in the Middle East and South Asia. But these men, the first graduates in the faltering U.S. train-and-equip program, were traveling into Syria to fight against an extremist insurgency, the Islamic State.
The U.S. military calls them the “New Syrian force” and disclosed that they are to coordinate with rebel forces already on the ground who have a different objective – to fight the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The goal, a spokesman said, is to expand the effectiveness of all moderate forces.
Turkish news media said 54 fighters crossed in Sunday in a convoy of 30 vehicles, commanded by an ethnic Turkman colonel who’d defected from the Syrian army. McClatchy obtained photos from an anti-regime activist in Syria that showed the trucks were Toyota Hiluxes.
The U.S. military would not confirm details. “For the operational security of the New Syrian Force trainees, we will not discuss their whereabouts,” Maj. Curtis J. Kellogg, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, told McClatchy by email.
He added: “However, it is anticipated that New Syrian Force personnel will coordinate with other moderate opposition forces to build trust between organizations that are countering ISIL and apply the skills they have learned through the train-and-equip program to increase the combat effectiveness of all forces they operate with.”
ISIL is an alternative name for the Islamic State.
The deployment of the new force was anticipated by an apparent increase in U.S. bombing of Islamic State forces north of Aleppo, expanding on a new front that the U.S. opened in mid-June. So far in July, 18 airstrikes have targeted the area, up from 11 U.S. aircraft carried out in the last half of June.
The “New Syrian Force” will be able to call in U.S. airstrikes, as the Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG, a militia that has captured dozens of villages from the Islamic State in recent weeks. A U.S. government official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss details of the program said the force on the ground will communicate with a U.S. military officer who’ll pass requests for air support to coalition commanders.
How the United States will protect the “New Syrian Force” from attack by Syrian government aircraft hasn’t been decided, however.
“The U.S. is committed to the success of the personnel we will train,” Cmdr. Elissa Smith, Pentagon spokeswoman, said. “We are still considering the full complement of support we might provide to the forces.”
Defense Secretary Ash Carter took a verbal beating over this point during a hearing last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Pressed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, to say whether the U.S. would defend the fighters from barrel-bombs dropped by Syrian aircraft, Carter said the decision would be made when the fighters were introduced in the field.
“I think we have some obligations to them once they are inserted in the field,” he said. “They know that we will provide support to them.” But “exactly what kind of support” he could not say. “We have not told them yet,” he said.
That exchange took place on Thursday, just before the newly trained fighters arrived in Syria.
The second element that remained unclear was how the trainees, who reportedly had to sign a document swearing they would fight only the Islamic State, will collaborate with other rebel forces whose foremost goal is ousting Assad.
The “New Syrian Force” is the first contingent of a $500 million program Congress approved last year to train and equip 15,000 fighters.
James Rosen in Washington and special correspondents Zakaria Zakaria in Istanbul and Duygu Guvenc in Ankara contributed.
Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc