House chairman criticizes speed, size of Syrian rebel training

House chairman criticizes speed, size of Syrian rebel training
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is criticizing the Defense Department for the speed and size of its effort to train moderate Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
 
“I don’t think anybody’s pleased with the size or the pace or holds any illusions about how much difference this makes in the short-to-medium term,” Thornberry told reporters during a roundtable Tuesday.
 
But “because it’s been a significant issue in an important, chaotic place in the world, we’re going to continue to conduct a lot of oversight on how this goes,” he added.
 
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The Pentagon announced last week that after months of delays, it had finally started the to train and equip the rebels — a major component of President Obama’s strategy to defeat ISIS — starting with around 90 fighters.
 
The training effort was scheduled to begin as early as March, but was held up as the U.S. and regional allies subjected volunteers to a rigorous screening process.
 
The initiative, which was supposed to train 5,000 fighters per year, has only attracted about 3,700, with about 400 of them ready to be trained, according to defense officials.
 
Congress authorized the program for three years. The White House asked for $500 million to fund it this year, and the House’s fiscal 2016 defense policy bill would boost that to $600 million next year.
 
A handful of members have proposed amendments to the policy road map that would halt or funnel money away from the program, an approach Thornberry derided.
 
“I think there’s a lot of reason to be skeptical about some of the claims on this,” he said. But “to pull the plug completely and say no, we’re not going to do that, kind of leaves you in the position of having to answer the question of ‘OK, then what are you going to do?’ ”
 
He added that “in the bigger scheme of things, helping the Iraqis get back on their feet and recover their sovereign territory is the critical, next most important step.”
 
Thornberry stressed that panel members still have “a lot of questions” about the training effort, especially whether the rebels will fight ISIS as they agreed to, or chose only to combat Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces.
 
“I don’t think anybody is seeing this through rose-colored glasses,” he said, but he added that the committee isn't ready to say the training effort should be stopped.