US not sure how it will support Syrian rebels in battle

US not sure how it will support Syrian rebels in battle

The U.S. military is training and equipping 5,000 Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but is not yet sure if and how it could protect them in battle, according to the Pentagon's top leaders. 

"We're under active discussion about whether and how to support them," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin Dempsey told senators Wednesday at a Foreign Relations Committee hearing. 

Dempsey said part of that active discussion includes what legal authority U.S. troops would have to protect the rebels. 

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"I don't believe that the legal aspect of that has been determined," said Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who testified alongside Dempsey. 

Right now, the U.S. is using a 2001 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against al Qaeda and "associated forces" for its current military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), because the group had its origins in al Qaeda in Iraq.  

However, some lawmakers say that using that authority for the war against ISIS is specious, as al Qaeda and ISIS have officially cut ties. 

The administration is seeking a new AUMF specifically against ISIS and its associated forces, but it would only allow U.S. forces to protect Iraqis in battle against ISIS — not Syrian rebels in battle, according to Dempsey.

Part of the reason is because the Syrian rebels are also expected to fight the Assad regime, and both the 2001 and the new AUMF would not authorize the use of force against Syrian government forces. 

Some lawmakers have long expressed concern about recruiting and training Syrian rebel fighters but not offering them protection on the battlefield as they are targeted by both ISIS and the regime. 

"We cannot recruit more if we're not able to protect them, and yet the AUMF that we have before us doesn't allow us to protect them," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), committee chairman, said Wednesday. 

Dempsey said administration officials knew a decision on whether to protect them would come, and that it was always his advice "to come to some conclusion to assure them that they would be protected." 

"Now the scope and scale that protection is the part of this that's being actively debated," Dempsey said. "The program won't succeed unless they believe themselves to have a reasonable chance of survival."

Carter agreed, adding, "It's important to them or will be important to them to know whether and in what manner they will be supported." 

Corker said the uncertainty "does show a degree of lack of commitment from the White House" on its plan to train and equip the Syrian rebels. 

Later, at a Pentagon press briefing, Carter used a stronger tone, saying there was "some obligation to support them after they're trained. We all understand that." 

Carter said they were working through what kinds of support and under what conditions, to include the possibility that "they could come into contact with forces of the Assad regime." 

But, he added, "We haven't decided yet in what manner and in what circumstances we would respond."