A program to train and equip 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels will begin in March and will not be completed until a year later in 2016, a senior State Department official told lawmakers on Wednesday.
“The training we hope will start in March,” Brett McGurk, deputy special presidential envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) said at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
“There's no telling what ISIS can do in that year, and however many months it is,” said Rep. Ted PoeTed PoeA guide to the committees: House Lawmakers debate allowing cameras in courtrooms Hey Congress: Where’s the ban on ISIS? MORE (R-Texas), a member of the committee.
“I don't know anyone who seriously thinks that you can train effectively, even with successful vetting, 5,000 insurgents who are moderate and maybe secular, and they're going to be reintroduced to Syria, and turn the tide,” said Rep. Gerry Connelly (D-Va.).
Congress first approved the $500 million program in September as part of the president's strategy to degrade and defeat ISIS.
Since then, officials have secured permission from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to train the rebel forces on their soil, and are working on a plan to vet the rebels before training and arming them.
The discussion comes as Congress is poised to pass a 2015 defense policy bill that would extend that program for another two years.
Lawmakers also said the plan does nothing to address ramped-up air attacks by the Syrian regime against the rebel groups.
“What are we doing in Syria right now? People are dying right now, and the cavalry isn't showing up until 2016,” Poe said.
McGurk said training the Syria rebels would put pressure on Assad to step down, though he admitted they would not be able to remove him.
“We do not see a situation in which the rebels are able to remove him from power. It will have to be a negotiated, diplomatic process,” McGurk said.
Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) grilled McGurk on why the U.S. was not doing more to help the moderate rebels in their stronghold in Aleppo, and was instead focusing airstrikes on the Turkish border town of Kobani.
“They can't get the equipment that they need to fight back against ISIS,” he said. If Aleppo falls, the Syrian opposition among the middle class “will all but be destroyed.”
Lawmakers argued that time is of essence.
“Part of the insurgency has collapsed in Syria. It's actually losing ground catastrophically, almost to the point of extinction,” Connelly said.