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U.S. Military Aircraft to Defend 'Moderate' Syrian Rebels

U.S. military aircraft will provide defensive air cover to "moderate" Syrian rebels, the Pentagon announced on Monday. My colleague, Richard Sisk, has the story on Military.com:

The small group of lightly equipped "moderate" Syrian rebels vetted and trained by the U.S. and now on the ground in northern Syria will be provided with limited defensive air cover, a Pentagon official said Monday.

Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, took pains to distinguish between offensive and defensive airstrikes in support of the 50-60 rebels who crossed into Syria from Turkey last month while denying that the U.S. was being caught up in "mission creep" in the many-sided Syrian civil war.

"Our offensive operations in Syria are limited to anti-ISIL," Davis said, using another acronym for ISIS, "but with regards to the new Syrian forces, they could potentially face a broader range of threats. For defensive purposes, we will help to defend them from other sources of threats."

The announcement came the same day the Pentagon issued a press release stating that U.S. military aircraft conducted more bombing raids into the war-torn country and in neighboring Iraq, where Islamic militants have taken over key areas. The release didn't specify the type of aircraft, only stating that "fighter, fighter-attack, bomber and remotely piloted aircraft" participated in the missions.

The F-22 Raptor made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and the F/A-18E/F are among the aircraft participating in the strikes. The MQ-9 Reaper drone has also reportedly been involved.

While the stealthy fighter jet made its combat debut last year in the skies above Syria, it has only flown a fraction of the coalition's overall sorties. According to a recent article by Lolita Baldor of The Associated Press:

"In the nearly 10 months the Raptor has been flying combat missions against Islamic State militants, the F-22 fighters have flown just 204 sorties. Of those, the Raptors launched airstrikes in about 60 locations, and dropped 270 bombs, as of July 9. In contrast, the U.S. and coalition aircraft have flown nearly 44,000 sorties since last August, including refueling and surveillance flights, and have conducted airstrikes in close to 7,900 locations."
Air Force officials played up the plane's ability to collect and share critical targeting information to other aircraft. Regardless of the Raptor's performance, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is happy U.S. personnel and equipment are now helping to defend Syrian rebels. He just wishes they were doing so in more parts of the country, not just in the north.

McCain held a hearing earlier this year during which defense hawks testified on the need for sending tens of thousands more U.S. troops to combat ISIS militants in Iraq, as well as such equipment as unmanned aerial vehicles, AH-64 Apache attack helicopters and C-130 Hercules transport planes.

His colleague on the defense panel, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina and GOP presidential hopeful, said he would increase the U.S. military presence in Iraq to about 10,000 troops if elected to the office. He also said he would deploy the same number of American troops to Syria.

"The strategy articulated by President Obama to degrade and destroy ISIL doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell of working," Graham said last month. "You have to look at Iraq and Syria as a single battlespace. If you do not, you're making a very big mistake. You will never bring stability to Iraq unless you deal with the Syrian safe havens. The capital of the caliphate is inside Syria, not Iraq."

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