Overnight Defense: Pentagon only training 60 Syrian rebels

THE TOPLINE. The Pentagon is only training 60 Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Tuesday.

Carter revealed the number during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and acknowledged it was a disappointing figure.

"I expect those numbers to increase but I wanted to tell the truth," he told senators.

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The low numbers drew criticism from members of the Senate panel and could add to the growing skepticism of the program, which is a central part of the administration's strategy to defeat the terrorist group in Syria without having to send in U.S. ground forces.

Defense officials say they hope to train 3,000 by the end of the year and 5,400 by next May, but lawmakers noted that timeline is looking increasingly unlikely.

"The math doesn't work," said Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamRomney blasts Trump's Stone commutation: 'Historic corruption' Lincoln Project offers list of GOP senators who 'protect' Trump in new ad The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump backs another T stimulus, urges governors to reopen schools MORE (R-S.C.), a senior member of the committee and 2016 presidential candidate.

Carter said that there were 7,000 volunteers waiting to be vetted and that he hoped that the numbers would increase. The main factor keeping the number of trainees down is the "rigorous" vetting of the volunteers, he said.

Carter said volunteers must not be affiliated with ISIS or any other extremist group and must not have committed atrocities. The U.S. also must be certain that the recruits will not attack their U.S. trainers, and that they will be willing to go after ISIS instead of Assad regime forces, whom rebel groups are also fighting.

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMcCain's reset: US-Vietnam relations going strong after 25 years Senate outlook slides for GOP Juan Williams: Time for boldness from Biden MORE (R-Ariz.), who has championed supporting the rebels in their four-year insurgency against Syrian President Bashar Assad, blasted the low numbers.

He also criticized the Pentagon for making rebels promise not to target Assad's forces.

MCCAIN RIPS CARTER OVER ISIS STRATEGY. McCain went straight for the jugular in questioning Defense Secretary Ash Carter at a Tuesday Senate hearing on the Obama administration's strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

McCain criticized President Obama's comments at the Pentagon on Monday citing recent progress against ISIS as delusional, and he ripped Carter over the Pentagon's slowness in training Syrian rebels.

McCain disparaged the Pentagon for failing to provide military support to the few Syrian rebels it is training after Carter said officials would decide how to provide support once they are in the field.

"Well, that's of small comfort to those people you're recruiting now, that that decision will be made later on," McCain said pointedly.

Carter, who revealed earlier that only 60 rebels were being trained so far, said the rebels "know that we will provide support to them," but added, "we have not told them that yet."

McCain, who has championed support for the Syrian rebels, replied with disbelief: "You have not told them that. So you're recruiting people and not telling them that they're going to defend them because you haven't made the decision yet, and yet you want to train them quickly and send them in."

McCain also tore into Carter over the president's threat to veto the National Defense Authorization Act and the administration's unwillingness to provide arms to rebels in Ukraine.

The tone was somewhat surprising, given that McCain was a strong supporter of Carter during his nomination process and often speaks highly of him. McCain even suggested last month that Carter could be retained by the next administration in 2016. The two strode into the hearing room together, smiling.

WH NOT WORRIED ABOUT IRAN DEADLINE. The White House downplayed worries that a delay in the Iran nuclear negotiations could result in Congress scuttling a deal.

“We welcome additional scrutiny of the deal, if one is reached,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters on Tuesday

Administration officials previously claimed the real deadline for an agreement is July 9, because if a deal is not submitted to Congress by then, lawmakers would get 60 days instead of 30 to review the deal

But Earnest said the longer review period won’t matter because of the month-long August congressional recess.

“It’s not as if Congress is going to spend those entire 60 days studying the agreement.”

He said representatives from Iran and Western powers are close to resolving many sticking points.

“These talks at least for now are worth continuing,” said Earnest. “We’re focused on the quality of a potential deal.”

REPORT: ARMY PLANS TO CUT RANKS BY 40,000. The Army plans to cut 40,000 soldiers from its ranks over the next two years, according to reports.

The troop cuts were long expected as part of the post-war drawdown and due to defense budget cuts, and the affected bases will be announced this week, according to CNN.

An additional 17,000 Army civilian employees would be laid off as well.

Army documents obtained by USA Today said the cuts could affect brigades at Fort Benning, Ga., and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, which could be downsized from about 4,000 soldiers to 1,050.

The Army first announced in 2013 that it would reduce its force to 450,000 by the end of 2017, and could go even lower — to 420,000 if sequestration remains in place.

Sequestration is due to cut $500 billion from the Pentagon's budget over 10 years, doubling already-planned cuts under the 2011 Budget Control Act.

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