General: Only 'four or five' US-trained rebels in Syria

General: Only 'four or five' US-trained rebels in Syria
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The Pentagon admitted Wednesday that only "four or five" Syrian rebels trained by the United States are actually in Syria.

The number was revealed by Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, under grilling by senators at an Armed Services Committee hearing. 

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Republicans and Democrats blasted the results of the program, which was meant to field a force of 5,400 by December to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). 

"Let's not kid ourselves. That's a joke," said Sen. Kelly AyotteKelly AyotteOPINION: Democracy will send ISIS to the same grave as communism Kelly Ayotte joins defense contractor's board of directors Week ahead: Comey firing dominates Washington MORE (R-N.H.). 

"Clearly the train and equip is too little, too late," said Sen. Angus KingAngus KingElection hacking fears turn heat on Homeland Security Zinke hits Dems for delaying Interior nominees Angus King: I’m sure Flynn will 'appear before the committee one way or another' MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats. Sen. Mazie HironoMazie HironoSenate Dems step up protests ahead of ObamaCare repeal vote Senate Dem: Gorsuch, Thomas and Alito like 'horsemen of the apocalypse' Dems push for more action on power grid cybersecurity MORE (D-Hawaii) questioned whether the Pentagon would relax its criteria for rebels participating in the program to boost recruit numbers. 

Sen. Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsOvernight Regulation: Trump pick would swing labor board to GOP | House panel advances bill to slow ozone regs | Funding bill puts restrictions on financial regulators Overnight Tech: Trump targets Amazon | DHS opts for tougher screening instead of laptop ban | Dem wants FBI to probe net neutrality comments | Google fine shocks tech DOJ hosts Pride party honoring transgender student from bathroom case MORE (R-Ala.) was blunt. 

"We have to acknowledge it's a total failure," he said. "It's way past time to react to that failure." 

The Pentagon deployed the first class of 54 rebels into Syria in July. Some had traveled to Turkey to visit family during Ramadan, but were unable to come back.

Those remaining in Syria faced severe losses after al Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra Front kidnapped two leaders and several fighters, and the next day, attacked their headquarters, killing one and kidnapping more. 

The Obama administration announced the training program last year, as a way to create a ground force to take on ISIS without having to deploy U.S. forces to push out the terrorist group in Syria, where it has no government partner or forces. 

“The administration knew on the front end this would be a difficult task," White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Wednesday. “It’s proven to be even more difficult than we thought.”

Congress in September granted the Pentagon the authority to undertake the program. Congress appropriated $500 million for the program in 2015. The Pentagon has requested $600 million for the program in 2016. The administration's goal is to train 15,000 rebels in three years. 

Christine Wormuth, under secretary of Defense for Policy, said "clearly" the target of 5,400 by December would not be reached.  

She said the Pentagon was currently training between 100 and 120 more rebels. The Pentagon last week said there were three classes now in training.

--Jordan Fabian contributed to this report, which was updated at 1:35 p.m.