- 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 United States has suspended a critical piece of the troubled program to train and equip Syrian fighters to battle the Islamic State, putting the brakes on bringing the next batch of vetted recruits out of Syria for training.
A pool of potential Syrian fighters has already been vetted and approved by U.S. forces, but they will remain in Syria “as we re-evaluate our efforts,” Col. Steve Warren, the Baghdad-based spokesman for the effort told Foreign Policy. Despite this, the U.S. will “continue with other aspects of the program, including recruiting, training, and supporting deployed personnel,” There is no timeline as to when new fighters will enter the training program.
While there are currently two groups of fighters undergoing training by U.S. Special Forces in Turkey — and U.S. officials say plans to insert them into the fight remain on track — the future of the program after they graduate now appears to be in limbo after a series of humiliating setbacks.
The $500 million program set up by the Pentagon last year has come under intense scrutiny in Washington, as many of the first two groups of Syrians sent back into the fight have either been killed, handed over some of their equipment to the al Qaeda-backed al Nusra Front, or simply melted away.
Last week, only days after the latest group of 75 fighters entered the country, the Pentagon admitted that some of them handed over six U.S.-issued trucks along with weapons and ammunition to the jihadist group.
The first signs of trouble with the program came in July, after the first group of 54 Syrians to emerge from the training program were attacked by al Nusra almost immediately upon crossing the border into Syria. Earlier this month, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin angered members of the Senate Armed Services Committee when he was forced to admit that of those first 54 fighters, only “four or five” remained in the fight.
The program was originally billed as being capable of turning out 5,000 trained Syrians by the end of this year, a goal that officials now admit is all but unattainable.
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