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GOP senators pan Syrian rebel program

Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee derided the Obama administration’s effort to train Syrian rebels, predicting it would have no effect against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

“It’s very weak and will not have significant impact,” Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate is leaning to the Democrats, big time, with a wave Budowsky: Trump's COVID-19 death toll dominates election Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (R-Ariz.) told reporters following an hours long, closed-door briefing on the program.

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He also criticized Defense Department officials for telling potential recruits that they could only fight ISIS and not the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, calling it the "most ridiculous thing."

“This strategy makes Pickett’s Charge look well thought out,” Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamHillicon Valley: Threatening emails raise election concerns | Quibi folds after raising nearly B | Trump signs law making it a crime to hack voting systems Trump signs legislation making hacking voting systems a federal crime Jaime Harrison on Lindsey Graham postponing debate: 'He's on the verge of getting that one-way ticket back home' MORE (R-S.C.) told reporters. He called the training effort “militarily unsound” and “immoral.”

“We’re about to train people for certain death,” he said. “If I were Assad I’d take the first recruits we send and kill them in the cradle. This is the infancy — these are infants coming out of the Free Syrian Army. If they meet a certain fate, it’s going to be hard to recruit.”

President Obama proposed the train and equip effort last summer as a major pillar in the strategy to defeat ISIS. The plan is also intended to avert the need for a massive deployment of U.S. troops back to the Middle East.

The president has insisted he will not deploy U.S. troops into combat and that local security forces will do the fighting against ISIS.

The Pentagon last week said "several hundred" U.S. troops would soon receive orders to deploy begin training Syrian opposition groups with basic military skills.

Reportedly 400 trainers — a mix of special operations forces and conventional forces — will be involved in the effort with the goal of training roughly 5,000 rebels.

Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHarris walks fine line on Barrett as election nears The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Trump's erratic tweets upend stimulus talks; COVID-19 spreads in White House The Memo: Team Trump looks to Pence to steady ship in VP debate MORE (R-Ala.) said there are roughly 30,000 ISIS fighters in Syria alone and that projections for when trained rebels might have an impact on the ground there are “not particularly comforting.”

“It’s just going to be a long time in Syria before we can any effective opposition up,” he said.

Instead, the U.S. should be working with the Iraqi government, as well as Sunni and Kurdish leaders, to drive ISIS out of that country, according to Sessions.

He proposed deeper U.S. involvement in Iraq, including embedding soldiers with Iraqi security forces — something the administration has been reluctant to do.

“The idea that we can’t put an embedded soldier in with an Iraqi army that we trained makes no sense at all,” Sessions told reporters.

One of the panel's Democrats urged a wait-and-see approach.

"We’re just at the beginning stages of it and we still have a lot of work to do," Sen. Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenGOP coronavirus bill blocked as deal remains elusive Justice indicts two members of ISIS 'Beatles' cell ISIS militants expected to be sent to US for prosecution: report MORE (D-N.H.) said. "And we have a lot of questions for them to answer."

Graham suggested the flow of potential recruits would also be impacted by conditions on the ground, as Lebanon and Jordan consider closing their borders to Syrian refugees.

“Syria’s about to become beyond hell on earth,” he said.