WASHINGTON — The US has formally begun training "moderate opposition" forces in Syria, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced Thursday.
But while the training may be underway, there appears to be some questions about how the US will support the forces, particularly if they enter conflict with the military of embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Carter announced that training had begun for a "company size" group of opposition fighters, which he clarified to be about 90 "highly vetted" individuals. He added that a second group is expected to begin training "in the next few weeks."
Opposition fighters will receive some monetary compensation from the US for their decision to take part in the training.
"These trainees are recruited, they are vetted, and only then are they put into training," Carter noted. "So they have been in the program for quite a while. The training takes some time, then they would be inserted into operations. … We hope this to be an ever expanding program."
He also added that once the forces go operational, the US will have a responsibility to protect them. Asked specifically what kind of support the US would provide to the trained opposition, Carter said ISR and "potentially air support," but would not commit to medical evacuation.
The details become murkier, however, when the issue of potential conflict with Assad's forces is raised.
"If they are contested by regime forces, we would have some responsibility to help them," Carter said. "We have not decided yet in detail how we would exercise that responsibility but we have acknowledged we would have that responsibility."
Later in the briefing, Carter reiterated that there is "some responsibility" to support the opposition in a conflict with regime forces, but said "we have not determined yet all the rules of engagement under those circumstances."
Asked about reports that Assad's regime was losing ground against ISIS forces, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that Assad has had setbacks over the last week.
"I do think the regime's momentum has been slowed, and therefore you could certainly, from that, take that I do believe the situation is trending less favorably for the regime," Dempsey said. "If I were him I'd find the opportunity to look to the negotiating table."
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.