Air Force chief: US must decide how to protect Syrian rebels

Air Force chief: US must decide how to protect Syrian rebels

The United States needs to decide how it's going to protect Syrian rebels it is training before they head back into battle, Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh III said Tuesday.

"We’ve done a lot of support in the past for forces from the air, we do a lot of support from the ground and the policy decisions are going to have to be finalized before these guys go back and do their work," Welsh said on Fox News' "Shepard Smith Reporting."  

Defense Secretary Ash Carter said last week that the U.S. had some responsibility to protect the rebels they are training before they head into combat against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

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He also acknowledged that the rebels could also face Syrian regime forces, and that the U.S. would have some responsibility to provide protection against them, too. 

Carter said it has not yet been worked out how the U.S. would support the rebels, but that it could include U.S. military air support. He said the rebels could be ready in "a few months." 

U.S. forces began training 90 moderate Syrian rebels last week, as part of a three-year plan to build a 15,000-strong force to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria on the ground. 

Pentagon officials said the 90 rebels are only the first tranche and that a second group will start training soon. Altogether, they say about 400 ready to be trained, and 3,700 have volunteered. 

The Obama administration has ruled out putting U.S. troops in ground combat in Iraq and Syria, and has led an international military coalition against ISIS consisting of airstrikes and trainers for Iraq and Syrian forces. 

It has also been wary of targeting regime forces, which could bring them into a separate war with Syria, which has more sophisticated air defense systems than ISIS. 

Welsh acknowledged those concerns. 

“Day to day, the only concern is the safety and the welfare of the airman who are doing this work. It’s a dangerous situation, they’re doing very difficult work in a pretty unforgiving environment, even though they’re in the air it’s not a friendly airspace to be operating in," he said. 

A Jordanian pilot that was part of the coalition crashed in Syria in December and was captured by ISIS. Video later showed him being burned in a cage. 

On Tuesday, the Navy announced an F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jet had crashed shortly after taking off from the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier in the Persian Gulf. Both crew ejected and were recovered. 

The incident is the U.S.'s third aircraft incident since the beginning of the U.S. military effort against ISIS.

Marine Cpl. Jordan L. Spears, 21, was lost at sea on Oct. 1 while conducting flight operations in the Persian Gulf, and Air Force Capt. William H. Dubois, 30, died on Dec. 1 when his F-16 fighter jet crashed "near a coalition base" in the Middle East.