WASHINGTON (AP) — After months of delays and vetting, the training of moderate Syrian rebels has started in Jordan as part of a broader effort to build a force capable of fighting Islamic State extremists, U.S. and Jordanian officials said Thursday.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged, however, that the administration has yet to decide exactly how and when the U.S. would support or go to the rescue of Syrian rebel troops if they are attacked by forces under the control of President Bashar Assad.
Carter said the U.S. is training the rebel troops to fight against Islamic State militants, and will support the rebels in that effort with surveillance or airstrikes. But he said that while the U.S. bears some general responsibility to protect the rebels, there have been no decisions yet on what the U.S. would be willing to do if the trained rebels return to Syria and get into a battle with regime troops.
Calling the training program a critical and complex part of the campaign to defeat the Islamic extremists, Carter said that the initial segment of the training program will involve about 90 Syrian rebel fighters.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, added that the Assad regime's momentum against the rebels has slowed, and any dramatic change of rule in the country could increase the humanitarian crisis there.
Fighting has intensified in several parts of Syria in recent weeks, as rebel advances have pushed out government forces from contested areas in the country's south and north. Government troops have been pushing back.
Jordan is the first of four training sites to begin the instruction. The others are in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Turkish officials have said that the training would start there this weekend.
More than 3,750 Syrian fighters have volunteered for the training, and about 400 have completed the prescreening. U.S. officials have previously said that each training class could have up to 300 participants.
Jordanian government spokesman Mohammed Momani told The Associated Press that the program to train the Syrians started "a few days ago.
"Jordan confirms that the war against terrorism is our war, and it's the war of the Muslims and Arabs, first and foremost, to protect our interests and the security of our countries, peoples and the future of our children, and to defend our tolerant religion," he said.
There are about 450 coalition forces involved in the training at the four sites, including about 350 Americans.
The U.S. has spent months vetting the fighters to try to make sure that any enemy combatants or extremists are weeded out. Pentagon officials have said it would be a very deliberative process that initially identified specific rebel groups and then moved to a lengthy vetting program that checks each fighter individually.
Asked about the danger to U.S. and coalition trainers, Carter told Pentagon reporters Thursday that, "First of all, these are highly vetted individuals. That's an important part of the program. Second, the training takes place in a secure location. And third, of course, our people who are participating in the training are very experienced in this kind of training, including in security procedures."
The rebel fighters, who come from several moderate groups in Syria, will get training on basic military equipment and skills, including firearms, communications and command and control abilities. And they will receive some compensation, but Carter said Thursday he was not sure how much that would be.
The U.S. military has been launching targeted airstrikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq since August, and expanded the campaign into Syria in September. The group has declared a self-styled Islamic state ruled by its strict religious views in territory it seized across much of Iraq and Syria, marked by a brutal campaign of mass murders, beheadings, torture and slavery.
Congress passed legislation authorizing the military to arm and train moderate Syrian rebels, providing $500 million for the U.S. to train about 5,000 fighters over the next year.
Associated Press writer Karin Laub in Jordan contributed to this report