PARIS (AP) — Moderate Syrian rebels, once they are made battle-ready by a U.S.-led coalition, may be asked to help restore the border between Syria and Iraq that Islamic State group militants have effectively wiped out, the top American military official said Thursday.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey cautioned, however, that it may be a year before the Syrian rebel force that President Barack Obama calls a key element of his strategy for destroying the Islamic State group is ready for action.
"We think if we can restore the border, it goes a long way to beginning to put the kind of pressure on ISIL that will lead to its ultimate defeat," Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, using a common acronym for the group that U.S. intelligence officials estimate has up to 31,000 fighters.
Speaking to a small group of reporters after meeting with his French counterpart, Dempsey said it will take three or four months to begin the $500 million training program, which gained final congressional approval Thursday as part of a major spending bill and went to Obama for his signature.
Top Democratic and Republican leaders supported Obama despite reservations that his strategy of arming moderate rebel groups could backfire or won't be enough to blunt the advance of Islamic State forces. Obama has pledged airstrikes as well but is adamant that he won't send U.S. ground troops to battle the Islamic extremists. Obama was briefed on the military's overall campaign plan for Syria and Iraq when he met in Tampa, Florida, on Wednesday with Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command. Dempsey said Obama has not yet approved the plan, which Dempsey said includes options for airstrikes in Syria and is integrated with a broader political and diplomatic effort to undermine the finances and recruiting power of the Islamic State.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama received a detailed and thorough briefing on plans that have been in the works for some time.
"He was pleased with their work. But their work is ongoing and continues," Earnest said.
Central Command announced on Thursday that one of its airstrikes near an Islamic State group training camp southeast of the Iraqi city of Mosul overnight Thursday destroyed what it described as a large Islamic State ground force, as well as two Islamic State-occupied buildings and an armed vehicle.
Dempsey said that before training can start, the U.S. and certain allies must screen potential candidates in Syria for competence and loyalty. Initially, they will be provided small arms and other light weaponry, Dempsey said, but that could graduate to more sophisticated weaponry — "once we know what's in their hearts."
Some members of Congress expressed concern that because the rebels' focus over three years of civil war has been to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, not fight the Islamic State group militants, they may be tempted to use the U.S.-led training for that objective, instead of the U.S. priority of defeating the militant army.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday that Saudi Arabia would host the training. Dempsey declined to specify a host country but said the training would be done in more than one country. The goal is to train at least 5,000 rebels within one year.
It also will take time to acquire through contractors the arms and equipment for training, he said. And once training is underway, it will be necessary to figure out how the rebels would be linked to a political entity inside Syria, Dempsey said, referring to this as the most difficult of the current unknowns.
"What Syrians or what group of Syrians does this force report to and is accountable to? Because what we don't want to do is build a force that is accountable to us. That's not a long-term solution," he said.
Dempsey provided new details about the intended design of the U.S.-trained rebel force. He said the intent is not to field small teams of guerrillas that would be turned loose in Syria. He said the focus would be on developing rebels capable of leading a substantial force.
"We've got to build a chain of command. This is not about building little 10- or 12-man squads to go and conduct guerrilla tactics or go defend their village. This is working them to a point where they have leaders who can maneuver a couple of hundred of these opposition groups at a time. That takes a little time," he said, adding that this is the kind of training the U.S. military is capable of performing. Dempsey himself is a former wartime head of training Iraqi security forces.
Asked whether the goal is to have the rebels capable of working in conjunction with U.S. air power in Syria, Dempsey said, "That's going to be an option that I'm going to develop. The president hasn't made a decision on that, but it is an option that I will prepare. Don't forget we're trying to build a coalition of capable partners that importantly should include — actually I would almost say must include — Arab partners, and there are some pretty capable Arab air forces in the region."
Dempsey said he would recommend to Obama that the rebel force be supported with air power.
"That doesn't predispose it to have to be our air power," he added.
Dempsey portrayed the Islamic State group as a threat to more than just Iraq and Syria. He said other Arab governments in the region are at risk. "I'd absolutely be concerned, as I think the Saudis are, that they would have aspirations for the eastern oil fields and maybe even challenge the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina," Dempsey said.
"I think that ISIL will certainly threaten Lebanon in the near term, probably Jordan in the midterm and then I think could very well threaten the kingdom of Saudi Arabia — at least the resources of the kingdom and the religious legitimacy of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia," he said.
Follow Robert Burns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/robertburnsAP