Pentagon wants to try again with Syrian rebel program

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The U.S. military has requested permission from the administration to restart a halted program to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels, the top commander in the Middle East said Tuesday. 

“I’ve asked for permission to restart the effort by using a different approach,” Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command (Centcom), told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing.  

{mosads}The $500 million-a-year program meant to train a moderate force to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was effectively canceled in October after fielding only 150 rebels at a cost of $384 million — far from its goal of 3,000 by December.

Part of the reason for the cost was the difficulty in finding rebels who would only fight ISIS, and not the Assad regime, which is backed by Russian and Iranian forces. 

Austin said the new effort would focus on smaller numbers of people that the Pentagon could train on specific skills. 

“And as we reintroduce those people back into the fight, they will be able to enable the larger groups that they’re a part of,” he said. “The training would be shorter. But again, I think they would be able to greatly enable the forces once they’re reintroduced.” 

Since the program was first postponed, the U.S. military has begun working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — an amalgam of Syrian forces in the country’s northern region. 

Army Gen. Joseph Votel, who is nominated to become the next Centcom commander, said the force consists of 80 percent Kurds. 

U.S. cooperation with a Kurdish militia group known as the YPG in Syria has angered NATO ally Turkey and alarmed lawmakers. Austin said the YPG has cooperated with Russian forces in Syria, albeit “infrequently.” The YPG has also attacked rebels trained by the CIA.

However, the Kurdish group remains one of the most effective ground forces the U.S. has to partner with in Syria, lacking better alternatives. 

It’s not clear whether the train-and-equip program would seek to expand on cooperation with Kurdish forces or other Syrian elements of the SDF. Last week, Army Col. Christopher Garver said the SDF consisted of Arabs, Syrians, Christians and others. 

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, expressed support for restarting the program in order to field a force to hold Raqqa — ISIS’s stronghold in Syria. 

“The reality, though, and you may check or dispute this, is that in order to hold ground there once we capture it, we need indigenous forces. Both — not just Kurds, but Arabs, Syrians,” he said. 

Austin said the new program would take account of lessons learned from the previous failed effort. 

“We were being effective, but we were slow in getting started, in generating the numbers that we needed to generate,” he said.  

“Part of that was because we were taking — trying to take large numbers of people out of the fight and keep them out for training for long periods of time. We’ve adjusted our approach,” he said. 

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