US training fewer than 200 Syrian rebels

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The United States is currently training fewer than 200 Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Pentagon said Thursday. 

Ninety rebels began training last month, but so far none have completed training, said Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren

Pentagon officials acknowledge the program has gotten off to a slow start, but say they still hope to train up to 3,000 fighters by the end of the year, and 5,400 by next May. 

"We are more interested in training the right recruits, so we are focused more on quality than quantity at the moment," Pentagon spokeswoman Cmdr. Elissa Smith said.  

Warren said so far there have been about 6,000 volunteers for the training, and that about 4,000 of those are waiting to begin the vetting process. 

Of the remaining 2,000, more than 1,500 have completed pre-screening and are awaiting training, Warren said. Between "one and 200" are in training, and some did not make it through the vetting process, he said.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged on Wednesday that the current number was below capacity. 

"We have enough training sites and so forth for them; for now we don't have enough trainees to fill them," he told lawmakers at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. 

Congress approved $500 million in December for the program, which was expected to train about 5,000 rebels in about one year's time. 

However, training began later than expected, after getting permission from four different countries to stand up the training sites.

Carter said finding the right recruits has been difficult. 

To participate in the program, Syrians must not be aligned with ISIS or other similar groups, and be willing to target ISIS in line with U.S. goals, rather than targeting Syrian President Bashar Assad, he said.  

"It turns out to be very hard to identify people who meet both of those criteria," he said, adding that the U.S. general in charge of the program is "trying very hard" to identify such people. 

Warren said that another difficulty has been getting recruits out of Syria and to the four training sites. 

"Syria's a very complex, very dangerous place, multiple armed sides battling each other. The exfiltration process is also a significant challenge," he said. 

"This is a choke point, frankly," he added.  

Lawmakers on Wednesday questioned whether the program would work, with so few trainees, but Carter said there are no plans to scrap the plan, which is a key part of the administration's strategy to have local forces fight on the ground against ISIS, instead of U.S. combat troops. 

"Our train and equip mission in Syria has been challenging, but the requirement for capable and motivated counter-ISIL ground force there also means we must persist in our efforts," he said, using an alternate name for ISIS. 

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, who testified alongside Carter, agreed. 

"It's a little too soon to give up on it," he said. "We've got to partner with somebody." 

Carter and Dempsey said officials have still not yet decided how to support the rebels once they head into battle, but that decisions would be made soon.

Dempsey said the Pentagon is considering providing the rebels with command and control, logistics, intelligence and close air support. 

"No decisions made because we haven't reached a point where we are about to deploy them," he said. "Those decisions will be made here sometime within the next couple of months."