Russia’s launch of airstrikes in Syria is prompting discussions within the Pentagon about whether the U.S. should use military force to protect U.S.-trained and equipped Syrian rebels if they come under fire by the Russians. U.S. officials said Thursday that senior military leaders and defense officials are working through the thorny legal and foreign policy issues and are weighing the risks of using force in response to a Russian attack. Defense Secretary Ash Carter declined to discuss the problem when asked about it this week. But U.S. officials acknowledged that this is one of the questions being asked as they debate the broader dilemma of how the administration should respond to what White House press secretary Josh Earnest described as Russia’s “indiscriminate military operations against the Syrian opposition.”

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss ongoing deliberations publicly. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia are escalating over Russian airstrikes that apparently are serving to strengthen Syrian President Bashar Assad by targeting rebels — perhaps including some aligned with the U.S. — rather than hitting Islamic State fighters it promised to attack. CONTINUE