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U.S.-trained Syrian rebels can call in airstrikes — they’re just not allowed

A rebel fighter gestures as he shoots his weapon during clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad on the frontline of Aleppo’s Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood May 23, 2015. (Reuters/Hosam Katan)

U.S.-trained Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State have the equipment and the training to call in airstrikes, but have yet to be authorized to do so, according to a U.S. official with knowledge of the program.

“We have real time communication, the ability to track friendly locations, everything,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly comment on the program.

The disclosure is the clearest indication to date that the U.S. military is at least preparing for a deeper and more direct involvement in the Syrian conflict than the Obama administration has so far been willing to approve. The question of how much support U.S.-trained rebels might receive once re-inserted into Syria has hovered over the Pentagon training program since it was announced last year.

The official said U.S. trained rebels are being given extensive instruction on how to summon airstrikes by U.S. or coalition aircraft. “The process is well rehearsed,” he said.

[Syrian rebels get their first U.S.-trained fighters]

If allowed, vetted-rebels would radio their coordinates and the enemy’s location to teams in the region set up to coordinate with U.S. and coalition aircraft. The targeting information would have to be corroborated through additional “backdrops” — a reference to other intelligence assets — before a strike could be approved. The official added that Kurdish fighters have used similar methods while fighting in the town of Kobane.

Army Maj. Roger Cabiness, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on whether rebels were being trained or equipped to request air support, but said the instruction covers “a range of combat basics, including casualty care, land navigation, marksmanship, communications, leadership, and the law of armed conflicts.”

A McClatchy report this month reported that the rebels will be able to call in airstrikes.

The U.S.-backed rebels, known by the Pentagon as the New Syrian Force, are being trained by the Army’s 5th Special Operations Group, a Green Beret detachment that was one of the first American units to enter Afghanistan in 2001.

Pentagon officials have said that rebels participating in the training program are being subjected to an extensive screening process that includes polygraph examinations. They are also required to sign a pledge that their priority will be to fight against the Islamic State terror group, rather than the forces of Syrian President Bashir al-Assad.

While the initial legislation for the $500 million training program broadly outlines that the U.S. can provide the U.S.-trained rebels “assistance,” there are also classified documents that explicitly state that the U.S. can provide direct close air support to them, according to the official.

But the White House has yet to make a decision about what additional support might be provided to the fighters who have been sent back into Syria, or about what the U.S. response would be if they came into conflict with forces loyal to Assad.

U.S. officials have not publicly explained the apparent reluctance to provide air support, but it may stem from concerns that the units are relatively untested in combat, or that units being reinserted to fight the Islamic State could seek to use coalition aircraft against Assad.

“The hesitancy to grant these guys air support show a lack of understanding by the White House of unconventional warfare,” said David Maxwell, a former Special Forces colonel and associate director of Georgetown University’s security studies program. “A train and equip program is insufficient to achieve our national goals…it’s too little, too late.”

When pressed during a Senate Armed Service Committee hearing about the United States’ duty to protect the Syrian forces it has trained, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter said, “I think we have some obligations to them once they are inserted in the field.”

Carter’s remarks, made earlier this month, did not specify what support the rebels would receive, only that the rebels knew they would receive it.

[U.S. program to train new Syrian force faces logistic, diplomatic headaches]

The first contingent of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels reentered the country from a base in Jordan  last week. While the Department of Defense would not comment on the rebels’ whereabouts, a spokeswoman said the fighters would be integrating with moderate forces already in the country.

“It is anticipated that new Syrian force personnel will coordinate with other moderate opposition forces to build trust between organizations that are countering ISIL,” Navy Cmdr. Elissa Smith, a Defense Department spokeswoman, wrote in an e-mail, using one of several abbreviations by which the Islamic State is known.

The program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, which began in May, has faced increased scrutiny after Carter revealed earlier this month that only 60 fighters had been trained. Initial plans called for a yearly quota of around 3,000-5,000 fighters with an overall goal of 15,000.

Though 7,000 applicants are currently being screened for the program, according to Carter, the number of trained fighters is still much smaller than the Pentagon had hoped for.

Moderate rebels  make up only a small element of forces currently fighting in the bloody Syrian civil war. On Tuesday, the Pentagon confirmed that the leader of the veteran al-Qaeda affiliate, the Khorasan group, had been killed. The leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, was targeted in a drone strike earlier in the month while traveling in a vehicle outside the town of Sarmada.