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Under Fire, U.S. Suspends Part of Syrian Rebel Training Program

Under Fire, U.S. Suspends Part of Syrian Rebel Training Program

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.

 

Photo Credit: ZEIN AL-RIFAI/AFP/Getty Images