- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London.
The strategy of President Barack Obama’s administration for combating the Islamic State depends on training a large force of moderate Syrian rebels capable of defeating the militants on the ground. At least for now, the Islamic State can breathe easy: After months of work and millions of dollars spent, U.S. officials say they’ve only managed to bring in a grand total of 60 such fighters for training.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter surprised many lawmakers during a Senate hearing Tuesday when he shared the stunningly small figure, in part because defense officials had previously said that 90 fighters had passed through a rigorous vetting process and were being trained by American troops at a facility in Jordan. In his remarks Tuesday, Carter didn’t address the discrepancy.
“That’s an awfully small number,” Carter admitted, explaining that the 7,000 Syrian recruits who have volunteered for the training program still have to be put through a screening and vetting process to ensure that they don’t pose a threat to their U.S. trainers and that they’re on board with the plan to fight the Islamic State, as opposed to the regime in Damascus.
There’s a similar discrepancy in Iraq, where 3,500 American troops are on the ground training about 2,600 Iraqis. The effort in Iraq is spread among a handful of training sites, where some Sunni militia fighters are being integrated into the training effort, as well.
In Syria, the focus on fighting the Islamic State instead of Bashar al-Assad’s regime has caused rifts within the Syrian opposition, who are eager for American advice and military equipment but desperately want to punch back against Assad’s forces.
The Obama administration had initially talked of training as many as 5,400 fighters a year, but problems in spiriting the recruits out of Syria to training sites in Turkey and Jordan — and to really give their backgrounds a scrub — has significantly slowed that push.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) blasted the effort on Tuesday, noting that Washington has earmarked $500 million for the Syrian program. “Our means and our current level of effort are not aligned with our ends,” he said. “That suggests we are not winning, and when you are not winning in war, you are losing.”
Carter met with Obama at the Pentagon on Monday, after which the president pledged to “do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria,” though he failed to offer details about how to increase the number of Syrians in the training pipeline. The secretary is scheduled to meet with Obama again on Tuesday afternoon at the White House after his Capitol Hill testimony.
Photo credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images