Retired Marine Gen. John Allen said Wednesday that it could take years to train moderate Syrian rebel forces to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a linchpin of the president's strategy against the terrorist group.
"It is going to take a while. It could take years, actually," said Allen on CNN, in his first interview since being appointed by the president to build an international coalition in the fight against ISIS.
Congress last month approved the administration's proposal to train and arm 5,000 vetted Syrian forces, who are expected to be ready in eight to 12 months at the earliest. Officials have said the 5,000 figure is an initial number, over the course of one year.
The program passed by a large majority in the House and Senate, though some skeptics on both sides of the aisle doubt the plan will be enough to combat the estimated 31,000 ISIS fighters who have taken over large portions of Iraq and Syria. Some question whether the U.S. can ensure the arms do not fall into ISIS or other extremist elements' hands. Others doubt the trained rebels will go after ISIS, instead of going after the Assad regime first.
The U.S. and partner nations have been conducting airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, and have destroyed hundreds of ISIS targets, in order to give Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels time to train and go on the offensive against ISIS. Officials acknowledge that those forces have to be capable in order to defeat ISIS.
Allen said the process of starting the Syrian arms program was currently unfolding. So far, Saudi Arabia has agreed to host a training site for the Syrian rebels, and officials say that vetting has begun.
"The process of getting that unfolded is occurring right now, with the idea of locating training camps and beginning to accumulate the Syrian elements that will go into those training camps, ensuring that we¹ve got the right kind of combination of trainers who can provide the substance that they're going to need to be credible and capable fighters on the ground as time goes on," he said.