President Barack Obama has authorized the use of airstrikes against targets inside Syria in order to defend Western-backed fighters now operating on the ground, according to administration officials who spoke with journalists off the record over the weekend and later confirmed by the Pentagon.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the new authorization was approved Friday in order to defend "a new U.S.-backed fighting force in Syria if it is attacked by Syrian government forces or other groups" and now raises "the risk of the American military coming into direct conflict with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad."
Citing a U.S. defense official, Bloomberg reports that Obama's authorization was quickly followed by airstrikes in Northern Syria against the al-Nusrah Front, an al-Qaeda offshoot, which was attacking U.S-backed fighters—thought to be a militia called "Division 30"—whose purported goal is to defeat Islamic State. The U.S. provided close air support to protect the rebels and quash the attack, the official said.
Alistair Baskey, a White House National Security Council spokesman, declined to comment to the WSJ on the specifics of the new rules of engagement. However, he did say the administration has made clear it will "take the steps necessary to ensure that these forces could successfully carry out their mission." U.S. support to the various militia forces trained by the Pentagon, he added, would include "defensive fire support to protect them."
The WSJ reports:
U.S. officials said the decision ended a monthslong debate over the role the American military should play in supporting its few allies on the battlefield in Syria. Administration officials had been deeply concerned that defending the Pentagon-backed force could inadvertently open the first open conflict with the Assad government, which has denounced the U.S. program.
Though the new rules allow Pentagon strikes to defend the U.S.-allied force against any regime attacks, U.S. military officials played down the chances of a direct confrontation, at least in the near term. The newly trained force has committed to fighting Islamic State, not the regime, and won’t be fielded in areas the regime controls. U.S. officials say they believe the regime won’t challenge the new force.
However, as Jason Ditz points out at Antiwar.com, the complexities of the various factions now on the ground in Syria—including the U.S.-trained forces like "Division 30"—make it impossible to predict how the expansion of U.S. airstrikes might impact the fighting or the prospects for a negotiated settlement. According to Ditz:
In the past week, reports have emerged of al-Qaeda’s Syrian faction, Jabhat al-Nusra, capturing a number of top members of the US-trained “Division 30,” also known as the "New Syrian Force." The group is now reported to have been routed outright from its headquarters in northern Syria, and had to flee into Kurdish territory.
Reports have varied on how many of the NSF fighters al-Qaeda has captured and killed, with early reports suggesting it could be as many as 18. That’s a lot, since the US only managed to train 54 of them in the long-term effort. More may have been killed in the recent fighting too.
Al-Qaeda is saying that’s going to be a continuing issue, as they have no intention of working with any US-backed groups, and will resist all "agents of America." Since the US began targeting them in airstrikes last year, al-Qaeda has gone after several rebel factions it has perceived as pro-US.
Though the US is said to be assuring the NSF of air support in any fights they get into with the Assad government, as well as envisioning them as a prominent part of their anti-ISIS strategy, it isn’t clear this force can even safely travel around Syria, let alone have any real impact in the ongoing civil war.
In 2013, President Obama threatened to bomb Syria but was rebuffed by broad anti-war sentiment in the U.S. and thwarted internationally when the UK Parliament voted against supporting or participating in such attacks.