Pentagon scraps Syrian rebel train-and-equip program

Pentagon scraps Syrian rebel train-and-equip program
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The Obama administration is "adapting" the Pentagon's $500 million program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said during a conference call on Friday that the U.S.-led coalition has "made progress in degrading ISIL in both Iraq and Syria. 
 
But, he added, "clearly we have had significant challenges associated with our training and equip program." 
 
Instead of recruiting and vetting moderate Syrian rebels and sending them to training programs in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Pentagon will set up a smaller training center in Turkey, where leaders of opposition groups would be taught skills such as calling in airstrikes.
 
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"Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is now directing the Department of Defense to provide equipment packages and weapons to a select group of vetted leaders and their units so that over time they can make a concerted push into territory still controlled by ISIL," said Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook in a statement, using another acronym for ISIS. 
 
"We will monitor the progress these groups make and provide them with air support as they take the fight to ISIL. This focus on equipping and enabling will allow us to reinforce the progress already made in countering ISIL in Syria," he said. 
 
Administration officials said during the call that the leaders of "capable indigenous forces on the ground" would be subjected to "very rigorous" vetting, and given equipment to then distribute to their fighting forces. 
 
"We will be looking for other groups on the ground," said Christine Wormuth, deputy under secretary of defense for policy. "That's really the heart of it...We want to help them be more effective going forward." 
 
"Today's announcement represents an ongoing process where we aim to learn from what works in our strategy and aim to make corrections where we see things that are not working," Rhodes added. 
 
However, administration officials characterized the decision to cancel the Pentagon's previous train and equip program as more of a shift to a different program, or an "operational pause," and left its future open. 
 
"We are going to pause that for now...but there may be an opportunity in the future where the situation on the ground is more fruitful," Wormuth said. 
 
"It's not halting the program, it's just adapting it," said Brett McGurk, the White House's deputy envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition. 

The cancelation of the train-and-equip program comes after the administration had paused the program last month, following a string of bad news and the failure to build a viable ground force to take on ISIS.  

Last month, the Pentagon admitted that a second class of about 70 rebels had handed over a quarter of their U.S.-provided equipment to al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front. 

The first class of 54 rebels had disintegrated in July, after being attacked by the al-Nusra Front upon reentering Syria from their training sites. At least one rebel was killed in the attack.

Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, sent shockwaves through Washington after admitting that only "four or five" of that first class remained as fighters. 

The Pentagon program, which was budgeted at $500 million in 2015 and $600 million in 2016, was originally envisioned to create a force of 5,000 by the end of the year and 15,000 at the end of three years. 

House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithOvernight Defense: Trump cancels presser, cuts short NATO trip | Viral video catches leaders appearing to gossip about Trump | Dem witnesses say Trump committed impeachable offenses | Trump reportedly mulling more troops in Middle East House leaders: Trump administration asking South Korea to pay more for US troops 'a needless wedge' Congress braces for chaotic December MORE (D-Wash.), who was a supporter of the program, the decision "clearly" meant a failure of the train and equip program.

"The previous program did not succeed. There is no question about that," he said Friday morning at the Military Reporters and Editors conference, "It was worth trying. It was worth trying to find moderate alternatives. But they just don't exist in sufficient numbers to be efficient and effective." 

In recent days, members of Congress had called on the administration to clarify its Syria strategy as Russia began airstrikes in the country to shore up the regime of President Bashar Assad. 

Rep. Rob WittmanRobert (Rob) Joseph WittmanThe Suburban Caucus: Solutions for America's suburbs Overnight Defense: Top general briefs GOP senators on Syria plan | Senators 'encouraged' by briefing | Pence huddles with Republican allies on Syria | Trump nominee sidesteps questions on arms treaties Virginia Port: Gateway to the economic growth MORE (R-Va.), chairman of the House Armed Services military readiness subcommittee, said Russia's entrance changes the "whole playing field." He said what the U.S. should do is to work with regional partners Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan to stop ISIS or the Syrian regime from spreading their influence. 

"You can pick strategic areas ... Where can we preserve some integrity [and] stop the spread of ISIL, Russian and Iranian influence?" said Wittman. 

"It is the president’s responsibility to develop and execute a strategy that will actually achieve his stated goal of degrading and destroying ISIL," said Sen. Deb FischerDebra (Deb) Strobel FischerSenate approves stopgap bill to prevent shutdown Eleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Female lawmakers make bipartisan push for more women in politics at All In Together gala MORE (R-Neb.). 

"As a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I stand ready to provide needed oversight for any plan moving forward," she said.

This story was updated at 12:01 p.m.