(CNSNews.com) - Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced on Thursday that "combat training has begun for a company-sized group" of Syrians -- "about 90," he said.
"This program is critical and a complex part of our counter-ISIL efforts. We expect a second group to begin training in the next few weeks," Carter told reporters at the Pentagon.
He described the trainees as "highly-vetted individuals" who are being trained in a "secure location," which he would not disclose. "As you probably know, there are several locations, and we -- we're going to keep that to ourselves."
The Associated Press reported that Jordan is the first of four training sites to begin the instruction. The others are in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. Turkish officials have said that the U.S. training would start there this weekend.
Carter said he expects the trainees to start battling ISIS/ISIL inside Syria in a "few months," and he said "of course" the U.S. would protect those forces.
"Now, remember, their mission is to fight ISIL. So, that's the combat we expect them to get involved in, and we do expect to support them in that regard. If they are contested by regime forces, we -- again, we would have some responsibility to help them. We have not decided yet in detail how we would exercise that responsibility, but we have acknowledged that we have that responsibility."
Carter said the U.S. will protect the Syrian forces with air support and ISR -- intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
And he said the U.S. will provide the newly trained Syrian troops with "small arms," but no anti-aircraft weapons. "There's a limit to the kind of sophistication of arms that troops trained in this way will be provided with."
In response to criticism from the Syrian opposition leaders that the training program is too small to be effective, Carter said it will "need to prove itself" over time. "We hope this to be an ever-expanding program once it proves itself, which I think it will."
The U.S. is training the Syrians to be "boots on the ground" in the fight against Islamic State terrorists, but what if they get into a fight with forces loyal to Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, a reporter asked Carter.
"OK. Now let me be very clear," Carter said. "In the case of the train-and-equip forces, they are being trained and equipped to fight ISIL. That is the purpose, and that is the basis upon which they're being vetted and trained. The question was raised earlier about what happened if -- and they are not being asked by us, and it's not part of our program to have them engage the forces, Assad's forces.
"So the question arises, if Assad's forces undertake to engage them, would we have some responsibility towards them? And as I indicated, we would. But they're not being fielded for that purpose. They're being fielded for the purpose of engaging ISIL. That'll be their principal mission, and that's one of the bases on which they would join our program in the first place."
Carter admitted, "We have not determined yet all of the rules of engagement under...those circumstances, but I think we have acknowledged that we have some responsibility towards, to support them."
According to Carter, many of the trainees are motivated by the fact that Islamic State terrorist have "taken over and mistreated the places from which they came, and so their commitment is something that we have a very good idea of, as part of the vetting process.
The Syrian troops "do receive some compensation" in addition to training and equipment. And Carter said an "explicit part" of their training is "how to conduct themselves in a way that is consistent with international law. That's an explicit part of our training, and it's also, by the way, an explicit part of our vetting.And of course, any continued support for them would be strongly conditioned upon their continued good conduct in that regard."
Outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey told reporters that finding moderate Syrian opposition men to train remains a "fundamental challenge," as does finding the moderate political leaders "to which the military force that we're building can be responsive."
The Associated Press reported that more than 3,750 Syrian fighters have volunteered for the training, and about 400 have completed the pre-screening.