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 Ann AyotteThe Hill's Morning Report: Koch Network re-evaluating midterm strategy amid frustrations with GOP Audit finds US Defense Department wasted hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars US sends A-10 squadron to Afghanistan for first time in three years MORE (R-N.H.). 

"Clearly the train and equip is too little, too late," said Sen. Angus KingAngus Stanley KingOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by PCMA — Trump hits federally funded clinics with new abortion restrictions Dem senators ask drug companies to list prices in ads Overnight Health Care: Trump unveils plan to lower drug prices | Dem questions drug company's payment to Trump attorney | House panel unveils opioid proposals MORE (I-Maine), who caucuses with Democrats. Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoConservative justices signal willingness to uphold travel ban Former Sen. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii dies at 93 Dems to top DOJ officials: Publicly promise not to interfere in Mueller's probe MORE (D-Hawaii) questioned whether the Pentagon would relax its criteria for rebels participating in the program to boost recruit numbers. 

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsDOJ, Trump reach deal on expanded Russia review Sally Yates: Trump has taken his ‘assault on the rule of law to a new level’ Stopping Robert Mueller to protect us all 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.