Washington: Syrian opposition forces being trained to fight Islamic State militants will need support from the U.S.-led coalition when they return home, but the Obama administration has yet to decide what protection to offer, a top US commander said on Thursday.
Army General Lloyd Austin, the head of US Central Command, told a Senate hearing the Syrian opposition force being trained by the coalition would need help with logistics, air strikes and intelligence but said the administration had not agreed on a policy about providing protection once the troops returned home.
His remarks prompted Senator John McCain, a Republican who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, to slam the administration for launching the training effort before it had worked through how it would support the forces once they returned to Syria.
"General, that`s immoral. It`s not only unworkable, it`s immoral," McCain said.
"I do not know how you recruit young people to fight and ... we don`t have a policy yet whether we`re going to protect them or not," he said.
The United States and coalition partners have begun vetting members of the Syrian opposition and plan to offer military training in as many as four countries across the region. The training is expected to begin this spring, building to about 5,000 troops a year for three years.
Syria is currently in the middle of a civil war between forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and rebel factions opposed to his rule. A power vacuum in areas of the country enabled Islamic State militants to expand their power and overrun parts of Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
Austin said he intended to seek support for the Syrian opposition troops once they returned to their homeland.
"My best military advice as we go forward is that as we introduce the forces that we`ve trained and equipped, then we should provide them support," he said. "We should not only look to provide them fires (air strikes), we should provide them logistics, we should provide them intel (intelligence) support."
He acknowledged the Syrian opposition could be targeted by Assad`s forces, which have targeted rebels with improvised barrel bombs.
"My recommendation would be that we protect them no matter who`s attacking them," Austin said.
Pressed on whether provisions were in place do that, Austin said, "We currently don`t have that policy decision." He added he was "very hopeful" about being able to tell them they would receive US support.
"I`m very hopeful, too," McCain replied, "but hope really doesn`t stop barrel bombing."