Defense

Pentagon: General in charge of Syria program not leaving

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The Pentagon said Wednesday the general in charge of the U.S. military’s program to train and equip Syrian rebels will not be leaving his job, contrary to reports.  

“Maj. Gen. Michael Nagata will continue to lead the U.S. Syria Train and Equip program and there is no effort underway to replace him. Any speculation to the contrary is inaccurate,” a statement by U.S. Central Command said. 

The statement came after a Bloomberg story on Wednesday said Nagata was leaving the position as the commander of Special Operations Command Central in May or June. 

{mosads}The story said there was a possibility that Nagata would stay in the mission by maintaining his secondary title as Syria director for the Combined Joint Inter Agency Task Force. 

Nagata is in charge of the $500 million train-and-equip program, which the White House announced last June. The reports of him leaving caused concern on the Hill. 

Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee John McCain (R-Ariz.) told Bloomberg on Tuesday, “We need to know why this change is taking place.”  

“Whoever is replacing him will take time to get up to speed on a process that has already been significantly delayed,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. When you have a job with that level of responsibility, there should not be a time frame.”

Bloomberg said Nagata was leaving as part of the normal rotation schedule of a senior officer. However, a U.S. defense official told The Hill, “A two-year thing is standard but not for this.” 

The program, to train 5,000 Syrian opposition rebels, was slated to begin in spring, but has faced delays in getting off the ground. The program is expected to last three years, and train 5,000 rebels per year. Officials estimate it will take about eight months to a year to fully train each batch. 

Nagata’s departure would have represented another delay.

However, lawmakers have other lingering doubts about the program, such as whether the rebels would go after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as intended, or go after Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces first. 

Pentagon officials have also not yet clarified the degree to which they would be protecting the rebels as they confront ISIS or Assad on the battlefield.

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