A US warning that it would use its air power to defend Pentagon-trained rebels against Syrian troops was met with scepticism by officials in Damascus today.
The US-backed Division 30 was also left reeling when the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al-Nusra front captured at least five of its members in overnight raids, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Yesterday, the US administration said it was prepared to take “additional steps” to defend the US-trained forces, warning Bashar al-Assad’s regime “not to interfere”.
A US-led coalition has provided air support for Kurdish and rebel militia fighting IS since September 2014, but has not struck regime positions.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Assad’s regime could be targeted if it attacked the new US-backed forces.
The United States, Earnest said, was “committed to using military force where necessary to protect the coalition-trained and equipped Syrian opposition fighters.”
There was no official reaction from the Syrian government today, but a political figure close to the regime told AFP that the US had “relayed a message to Damascus not to worry about these statements”.
“It’s about hitting Al-Nusra hard, not the Syrian army,” he said.
Dubbed the “New Syrian Force” by Washington, the 54-strong rebel unit entered northern Syria in mid-July as part of US efforts to counter the powerful Islamic State jihadist group.
The force includes fighters from Division 30, based in Syria’s northern province of Aleppo.
Despite Al-Nusra’s fierce hostility to the rival jihadists of IS, the unit soon came under attack from the Al-Qaeda loyalists.
Today, the jihadists raided a camp for internally displaced people in Qah, capturing another five Division 30 men.
The Observatory chief said Al-Nusra was “hunting down” US-backed rebels in both Idlib province, where Qah is located, and in neighbouring Aleppo province.
The raids came less than a week after Al-Nusra seized eight Division 30 rebels in Aleppo province, the Observatory said, in a report that drew a denial from the Pentagon.
Two days later, Al-Nusra launched an assault on Division 30’s Aleppo headquarters and were only repulsed with the help of US air strikes.
Yesterday, Washington said it was prepared to expand those strikes to the Syrian regime, should it attack any of the US-trained units.