U.S. officials announced Sunday that the Pentagon will defend American-trained Syrian rebels against attacks from the Syrian Armed Forces – the military forces controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Damascus.
The decision is being interpreted as a departure from a limited strategy that sought for the U.S. to retain a minimal footprint in the ongoing civil war. The Syrian rebels were trained by Washington to fight the Islamic State terror group, but ultimately remain a mortal enemy of the Assad regime, due to their opposition to his rule.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the U.S. will continue to support rebels with offensive strikes against jihadi militant groups such as the Islamic State. The new strategy, however, will include “defensive” support to protect rebels.
In commenting on the report, White House National Security Council spokesman Alistair Baskey said that the U.S. took “the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission.”
Overall, the United States has been largely unsuccessful in recruiting and training rebel fighters who are willing to remain independent of both the Islamic State and the Assad regime. Just 60 individuals, out of a year-end goal of 3,000, have finished the training program thus far, according to reports.
An unnamed senior military official told The Wall Street Journal, “For offensive operations, it’s ISIS only. But if attacked, we’ll defend them against anyone who’s attacking them. We’re not looking to engage the regime, but we’ve made a commitment to help defend these people.”
The new “defensive” air power strategy was reportedly first implemented on Friday, when U.S.-backed rebels came under fire from al-Nusra Front, a group closely affiliated with al-Qaeda.