WASHINGTON — Only four or five Syrian individuals trained by the United States military to confront the Islamic State remain in the fight, the head of the United States Central Command told a Senate panel on Wednesday, a bleak acknowledgment that the Defense Department’s $500 million program to raise an army of Syrian fighters has gone nowhere.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the top American commander in the Middle East, also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States would not reach its goal of training 5,000 Syrian fighters anytime soon.
His comments came during a testy hearing in which a succession of senators from both parties criticized the American-led effort in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State, the Sunni militancy also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, questioned why the United States had not set up a no-fly zone over Syria to help protect civilians from bombardment by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, said that despite all the “good news” talk from American military officials about how well the war effort was going, “the practical realities aren’t being embraced.”
Graphic | How Syrians Are Dying Over four years of war has forced more than four million to flee the country, fueling a migrant crisis in the Middle East and Europe.
In May, the Defense Department began its training program for up to 5,400 fighters a year, in what White House officials described as a necessary component of President Obama’s strategy to use local troops on the ground against the Islamic State, combined with American air power.
Mr. Obama has been loath to send American ground troops into Iraq or Syria, and has insisted that ground combat against the Islamic State be handled by forces within the countries fighting to rid their territories of the group.
In Iraq, that strategy has had limited success. Iraqi security forces and Kurdish pesh merga fighters have retaken some territory that had been seized by the Islamic State, and the group has stalled in its expansion there. But in recent weeks the campaign to retake Ramadi has stalled, and efforts to take back Mosul and Falluja have taken a back seat.
In Syria, the effort to use local ground forces has yet to take off. General Austin told the Senate committee that many fighters in the first class of 54 graduates of the training program for Syrians were attacked in July by an offshoot of Al Qaeda, the Nusra Front, and either fled or were killed, leaving only a “small number” of rebels still in the fight.
He acknowledged that the program was behind schedule, and said that the military was reviewing it. Asked how many fighters were still in Syria, General Austin said that “it’s a small number.” He added, “We’re talking four or five.”
Defense officials said that only 100 to 120 Syrian fighters were in training right now.
“So we’re counting on our fingers and toes at this point when we had envisioned 5,400 by the end of the year,” Ms. McCaskill said.
The White House acknowledged that the program had not succeeded. “The administration knew on the front end that this would be a quite difficult task, and it’s proved to be even more difficult than we thought,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said on Wednesday.
Mr. Earnest tried to turn the tables on critics of the administration by noting that they had long argued in favor of American training of Syrian rebels.
“Many of our critics had proposed this specific option as the cure-all for all of the policy challenges we’re facing in Syria right now,” he said.
General Austin also told the committee that he could not comment on an internal Pentagon investigation into whether senior military officers manipulated the conclusions of reports on the war against the Islamic State, because the investigation was in progress. He said that “once the investigation is completed, based on the findings, you can be assured that I will take appropriate actions.”
Separately on Wednesday, France’s defense minister said that French forces would join the coalition of Western and Middle Eastern countries carrying out airstrikes on the Islamic State in Syria, with the first strikes likely to come in the next couple of weeks.
The airstrikes would represent an expansion of France’s military activity in the region, where it has already been involved in bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and began reconnaissance flights in Syria last week.
The Islamic State has control of much of the territory that extends from northern Syria across the Iraqi border to Mosul and south to within about 30 miles of Baghdad.
This entry passed through the Full-Text RSS service – if this is your content and you’re reading it on someone else’s site, please read the FAQ at fivefilters.org/content-only/faq.php#publishers.
(via NY Times)