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By Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube

American military drones armed with Hellfire missiles began flying out of Incirlik Air Base in Turkey on Monday to provide combat air support for Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the U.S., the Pentagon said.

The drones will provide “defensive fire support” for the rebels against attacks by al Qaeda-affiliated, Syrian-based Nusra Front militants, spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said. The drones will also protect against potential attacks from the Syrian military.

Davis stressed that drone strikes would be “defensive, not offensive,” and that the U.S. an “obligation, willingness and capacity” to defend those Syrian rebels trained and equipped by the U.S. military. He said it did not signal mission creep that could result in military confrontation with Syria.

“We are not at war with the Assad regime,” Davis said.

On Friday, manned American warplanes launched airstrikes against 50 militants believed to be from al Nusra who had launched an attack against an unknown number of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels. The assault force retreated, and there were no casualties reported among the rebels.

So far the U.S. has trained only 54 Syrian rebels, far short of the 5,400 the U.S. hopes to have trained and equipped by the end of this year.