Pentagon defends plan to train Syrian rebels

Pentagon defends plan to train Syrian rebels

The Pentagon is committed to a program to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition rebels to take on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, despite its anemic results so far. 

The program, which was approved by Congress last September for $500 million in 2015, was intended to train 5,400 rebels a year for three years.  

However, since the program started in May, fewer than 100 are being trained at two sites in Turkey and Jordan, according to The Associated Press. 

ADVERTISEMENT

"Of course we always look to see how ... any program can be adapted. And at the end of the day, we need credible, moderate partners on the ground," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told reporters on Wednesday. 

"The only way to have a lasting defeat of ISIL is to have someone who can govern and secure territory once ISIL is defeated," added Defense Secretary Ash Carter, who also briefed reporters. 

"That has to be a local force on the ground. That's why the strategy calls for the United States to help train and equip and then help enable local ground forces," he said. 

The plan to train more than 15,000 rebels in Syria is a critical part of the White House's plan to take on the Islamic terrorist group in Syria without sending U.S. ground forces. 

Defense officials say they still hope to train about 3,000 by the year's end and 5,400 by next May. 

Pentagon officials last month said the problem has not been finding enough recruits. They say the problem is finding recruits who are not linked to ISIS or other extremist groups and who are willing to fight ISIS before the Syrian regime. 

Carter said that "only a fraction" of volunteers who are vetted are eligible for the program. 

"It results in quite a diminution in the numbers," he added. "It's difficult to get large numbers trained at the other end, although we do hope and expect that those numbers will increase." 

There have been about 6,000 volunteers for the program, officials said. Of those, about 4,000 are awaiting vetting. About 1,500 have been vetted and are awaiting training. The remaining 500 or so are either training or were ineligible. 

Getting rebels to and from training sites has also been difficult, they added.  

Dempsey said the U.S. would not take any shortcuts on vetting the rebels due to the risk that could pose to U.S. trainers, as well as to the objective of degrading and defeating ISIS. 

He also suggested that some trainees have returned home for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.  

"Sometimes there are seasonal factors that contribute to the willingness of young men in the Middle East to stay where they are, with a particular program," Dempsey said. 

"It's Ramadan; there's a lot of folks that are interested in being with their families during that period, and so we may see after Ramadan that some of the ones we lost may come back," he said.