US uses air power to sup­port be­lea­guered rebel al­lies in Syria


The United States on Mon­day said it has used air power in Syria in de­fense of al­lied rebel groups, sig­nal­ing deeper in­volve­ment in the coun­try’s bru­tal four-year civil war.

The Pen­tagon con­firmed that an air strike was car­ried out Fri­day in sup­port of the New Syria Force, a U.S.-al­lied group.

“We’ll take ac­tion to de­fend the New Syria Force that we’ve trained and equipped,” U.S. De­fense Depart­ment spokesman Cmdr. Bill Ur­ban told AFP.

He said “last Fri­day was the first one,” re­fer­ring to the air strike.

Ear­lier, a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said the United States had hit al-Qaida’s Syr­ian af­fil­i­ate the Al-Nusra Front in re­sponse to at­tack on U.S. trained rebels.

U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion said Mon­day it was pre­pared to take “ad­di­tional steps” to de­fend U.S.-trained and equipped forces, warn­ing Bashar al-As­sad’s regime “not to in­ter­fere.”

“The pres­i­dent ap­proved this re­cently upon the rec­om­men­da­tion of his se­nior mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers,” a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial told AFP.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said As­sad’s regime had not so far ham­pered U.S.-backed forces, but he nonethe­less raised the pos­si­bil­ity of strikes against it should the need arise.

The United States, Earnest said, was “com­mit­ted to us­ing mil­i­tary force where nec­es­sary to pro­tect the coali­tion-trained and equipped Syr­ian op­po­si­tion fight­ers.”

The de­ci­sion was taken un­der a 2001 rule au­tho­riz­ing the use of mil­i­tary force against terror groups, which crit­ics say has al­ready been stretched too far.

Of­fi­cials ar­gue that au­thor­ity in­cludes the abil­ity to pro­vide “de­fen­sive fire sup­port.”

The United States has trained and equipped a num­ber of fight­ers — screened and de­ter­mined to be “mod­er­ate” — to op­er­ate against the ji­hadist Is­lamic State or­ga­ni­za­tion.

But U.S.-backed forces have yet to play a ma­jor role in turn­ing the war and its fledg­ling lo­cal ground force has al­ready suf­fered a se­ries of re­ver­sals.

A 54-strong unit in­serted into the rebels’ Di­vi­sion 30 has come un­der with­er­ing at­tack from the Al- Nusra Front, with sev­eral mem­bers re­port­edly killed or cap­tured.

Micah Zenko of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions said the “truly sig­nif­i­cant de­ci­sion” could po­ten­tially ex­tend well be­yond that small force.

U.S. forces are “in­ter­spersed among large co­her­ent units of sev­eral hun­dred fight­ers,” he said, ex­plain­ing that: “You can’t give air cover just to in­di­vid­ual rebels.”

Tur­key Co­op­er­a­tion

The United States re­cently agreed with Tur­key to cre­ate what has been termed an “Is­lamic State-free zone” in north­ern Syria.

De­tails of the zone “re­main to be worked out,” ac­cord­ing to a se­nior ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial, who asked not to be named.

It would, how­ever, en­tail Tur­key, NATO’S only mainly Mus­lim mem­ber, sup­port­ing U.S. “part- ners on the ground” al­ready fight­ing the ji­hadists.

Ankara has also granted the United States per­mis­sion to use one of its bases to carry out air raids against the group.

Washington has long pushed for the use of the In­cir­lik base due to its lo­ca­tion rel­a­tively close to Syria just out­side the Turk­ish city of Adana, but Tur­key had hes­i­tated for months.

Mon­day’s an­nounce­ment comes as diplo­matic ef­forts to halt the car­nage in Syria re­sume.

An es­ti­mated 140,000 peo­ple have died in the con­flict, which be­gan as an upris­ing against the As­sad regime but has mor­phed into a mul­ti­pronged re­li­gious and eth­nic civil war.

A U.N. en­voy re­cently pre­sented his plan to re­sus­ci­tate failed talks and for­eign min­is­ters from the United States, Rus­sia and Saudi Ara­bia held talks in Qatar on Mon­day.

The trio agreed to the “need for a mean­ing­ful po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion” ac­cord­ing to State Depart­ment spokesman Mark Toner.

But Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov later con­demned Washington’s move to­ward a more ro­bust in­volve­ment in Syria.

“We be­lieve it’s coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to an­nounce pub­licly that some U.S.-trained armed groups... will be un­der the pro­tec­tion of the coali­tion’s air forces,” Lavrov said.

Sep­a­rately on Mon­day, the U.S. Trea­sury Depart­ment im­posed sanc­tions on seven en­ti­ties and four in­di­vid­u­als its says are pro­vid­ing energy prod­ucts to As­sad’s regime, and named seven ves­sels as blocked prop­erty.

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