U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that U.S. military troops have started combat training for Syrian fighters to battle the Islamic State (IS), the extremist group also known as ISIS.
Calling the training program a "critical and complex part" of the anti-IS campaign, Carter said the initial segment of the training involves nearly 90 Syrian fighters, and a second group would begin training in the coming weeks.
"They are being trained and equipped to fight ISIL," said Carter, adding that all trainees were "vetted individuals."
"That is the purpose, and that is the basis upon which they're being vetted and trained," Carter said, stressing that the purpose of the program was not "to have them engage" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
If Assad's forces undertake to engage the Syrian fighters being trained, Carter said, the U.S. troops "would have some responsibility towards them." However, he acknowledged that the Pentagon had not determined all of the rules of engagement under such circumstances.
Meanwhile, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin Dempsey said the training program would expand in a measured way, with the stability of the Syrian government as a factor in consideration.