US will 'protect' Syrian rebels when time comes: envoy
WASHINGTON - Agence France-Presse
AFP PhotoThe United States will be ready to "protect" moderate Syrian rebels possibly with air power once they enter into combat, a top US official said March 2.
Retired US general John Allen, President Barack Obama's envoy to the international coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), insisted that once moderate Syrian rebels were vetted, trained and armed, they would not be abandoned on the battlefield.
"It is clearly part of our plan, that not only we will train them, and we will equip them with the latest weapons systems, but we will also protect them when the time comes," Allen said at an event organized by the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.
Asked if the Syrian rebels would be asked to fight without air cover or a no-fly zone, Allen said "all of those things are under consideration."
"So it's important that you not believe that we would not support these fighters," he said.
He also said the coalition was "pleasantly surprised at the numbers" of Syrians ready to sign up for the fight against the ISIL group.
Apart from screening and training the moderate rebel force, the coalition would be "successfully protecting that force so that it does have operational capability," he said.
"It's certainly something that we are constantly watching."
Washington has clashed with other coalition members about its approach to Syria, preferring to focus for the moment on battling the ISIL group, while putting off any potential confrontation with the regime in Damascus.
Some foreign governments and US lawmakers have urged the Obama administration to take more decisive action against President Bashar al-Assad's regime and to carry out air strikes in support of rebels fighting both Damascus and the ISIL jihadists.
The US military said last week that initial training of a moderate Syrian opposition force will likely start in four to six weeks in Turkey.
Training will also take place in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
About 1,500 Syrians have been identified to take part and of those, about 100 had been screened, officials said.
The goal is train about 5,000 fighters in 2015 for a total of roughly 15,000 over three years.