- 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.
Only about “four or five” U.S.-trained Syrian rebels remain on the battlefield to take on the Islamic State after the Defense Department spent over $41 million to train and equip a small group of about 60 earlier this year, a senior military official said Wednesday.
After months of training by U.S. Special Forces at bases in Turkey, the so-called New Syrian Army fighters were sent back into Syria in July, said Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of the U.S. Central Command. Within days, they had been almost completely wiped out after being attacked by al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front forces, who captured, killed, or scattered most of the U.S.-backed forces.
The $500 million train and equip program was sold to Congress in late 2014 and aimed to produce about 5,400 Syrian fighters by the end of this year. On Wednesday, Austin and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth both conceded those numbers will not be met.
Under repeated questioning about the current size of the program, Wormuth said there are “between 100 and 120” additional fighters being trained in Turkey.
The Senate panel was not pleased.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, that’s a joke,” said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) in her response to the number of Syrians still in the fight.
“So we’re counting on our fingers and toes, where we envisioned 5,400 by the end of this year,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.).
“This is just a total failure,” lamented Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
The train and equip program may be about to undergo some big changes, however. The White House and the Pentagon are preparing to meet in the coming days to discuss a range of options for overhauling the program, Foreign Policy reported exclusively on Tuesday. The idea is to attach small numbers of trained fighters to larger established forces in northern Syria, where they will act as a link to U.S. warplanes overhead.
But there is no time frame attached to the effort to revamp the program, which is was originally funded by Congress through supplemental wartime budgets in December.
Photo Credit: Ahmet Sik/Getty Images