Pentagon chief stuns lawmakers on Syria

Stunning lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Tuesday revealed that the Pentagon is only training 60 Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

While the program was designed to train thousands of fighters to take on the Islamic group, Carter said only a few dozen recruits have made it through the screening process.

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“This number is much smaller than we’d hoped for at this point, partly because of the vetting standards,” Carter said.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed shock at the sluggish start for the program, which Congress reluctantly approved last fall at the behest of the administration.

“I’ve got to tell you, after four years, Mr. Secretary, that’s not a very impressive number,” Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Carter.

The administration advocated for creating the training program as a way to battle ISIS in Syria, one of its territorial strongholds, without using U.S. ground troops.

While defense officials said they still hope to train 3,000 rebels by the end of the year and 5,400 by next May, lawmakers were incredulous that those targets could still be met.

“The math doesn’t work. This is never going to result in [Syrian President Bashar] Assad or ISIL being degraded or destroyed,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a senior member of the committee and a 2016 presidential candidate, using another name for ISIS. 

The Syrian recruits must meet several criteria in order to be trained by the United States, including taking a pledge to fight ISIS rather than the regime of Assad. The trainees must also agree to abide by the laws of war.

The requirement to not fight Assad is a particularly high hurdle; most of the Syrian rebels have been fighting the government in a long-running civil war.

The meager training figure gave new ammunition to critics who say the administration’s ISIS strategy is flailing.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a member of the committee, said his constituents were confused about the rebel-training program, which cost $500 million in 2015 and will cost $600 million next year. 

“They’re confused about in Syria, trying to spend the money to find people to train when you acknowledged that we only had 60 of them successful right now and the amount of effort we’re spending there,” he said.

“The only way I see ISIL to be degraded or destroyed is for a ground force, regional in nature, to go into Syria,” added Graham, who has advocated sending 20,000 U.S. troops into Iraq and Syria as well as the creation of a regional ground force. 

Carter defended the program as “essential.”

“We need a partner on the ground in Syria to ensure ISIL’s lasting defeat,” he said. 

Training and equipping local forces is an important component of the administration’s military campaign against ISIS.

The mission is especially important in Syria, where no government partner exists.

U.S. officials had originally hoped the training program could start around March and train about 5,000 fighters by the end of the year or early 2016, with the total reaching 15,000 over three years. 

Carter said 7,000 more
volunteers are waiting to be vetted, and that officials were “looking for ways” to streamline the process, refine the training curriculum and expand outreach to recruits. 

The recruitment problems aren’t isolated to Syria — U.S. forces are having similar problems in Iraq, albeit on a lesser scale.

Carter said there are about 3,550 U.S. troops at six training locations around Iraq, but their training work has also been slowed by a lack of recruits.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said he was “deeply disappointed” by the administration’s strategy against ISIS and urged the president to allow U.S. troops to embed with Iraqi forces.

“I think delusion is a word that’s too accurate,” he said. “And at some point, the president’s going to have to change his mind, it seems to me. He cannot just function based on a campaign promise, when reality is different.”