State Dept. 'frankly doesn't know' legal authority behind US airstrikes supporting Syrian rebels

The US has been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Syria for almost a year, and the latest decision to bomb Syrian government forces in order to “protect” US-trained “moderate rebels” does not require any additional legal justification, the State Department believes.

Since the US-backed rebel groups in Syria are operating in the “lawless area” of the country, they are under the pressure from “a lot of different forces,” US State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner told RT’s Gayane Chichakyan while trying to explain the legal basis for the change in US policy.

“I frankly don’t know what the legal authority is,” Toner said, adding that the situation in Syria remains “complex and fluid.”

He clarified that Washington did not authorize itself to “go after Assad government forces,” insisting that such bombings would take place only in the “hypothetical” case that the US-backed militants would come under fire from Syrian forces.

“We’ve been carrying out airstrikes in that region for many months now, almost a year – and the same – in defense of these groups, but also to help them gain territory back from ISIL,” the spokesman stated, referring to Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) by the administration’s standard acronym for the militants.

“Any type of effort to protect them from Syrian forces would be defensive in nature,” he claimed. "But I’m not going to talk about the legal framework for it.”

READ MORE: Taking sides in Syrian civil war? Obama authorizes airstrikes ‘to defend’ US-trained rebels

When pressed to admit that the latest announcement is a major change in US policy in Syria, Toner said he would “respectfully disagree.”

“There’s no change in the legal framework,” he said. “Our main goal is to take the fight against ISIL. Nothing’s changed in that regard.”

According to US officials the Pentagon was authorized by President Obama to protect Syrian rebels trained by Washington by bombing any force attacking them, including Syrian regular troops. However, neither the Pentagon nor the White House officially commented on the decision about the new broader rules of engagement. So far the US has been avoiding direct confrontation with the forces of President Bashar Assad.

READ MORE: ‘US air cover to Syrian rebels could be game-changer‘ 

Pentagon has been planning to have 3,000 fighters trained by the end of 2015, but according to WSJ finding “moderate” enough applicants without ties to hardline groups turned out to be a heavy task. Reportedly, fewer than 60 fighters so far have been trained. However, at least five of them were captured or killed in an Al-Nusra Front attack last week.

September will mark one year that the US-led coalition started bombing the positions of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Still, some commentators claim that the US anti-IS campaign in Syria as nothing more than a move to eventually allow the US military to oust President Assad through less direct means.