Only handful of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels still fighting: US general

Only handful of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels still fighting: US general

Only handful of U.S.-trained Syrian rebels still fighting: US general

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 16: Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the ongoing U.S. military operations to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. AFP Photo

U.S.-trained Syrian rebels are still fighting in Syria, a top U.S. general told Congress on Sept.16, a stark admission of setbacks to a fledgling military program that critics have already pronounced a failure. 

The U.S. military began training in May for up to 5,400 fighters a year, in what was seen as a test of President Barack Obama’s strategy of having local partners combat Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants and keep U.S. troops off the front lines. 

But the program was troubled from the start, with some of the first class of less than 60 fighters coming under attack from al Qaeda’s Syria wing, Nusra Front, in their battlefield debut. Some were captured and killed while others scattered. 

U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that a review is underway that could result in scaling back and reenvisioning the program. 

U.S. General Lloyd Austin, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that at the current, slower-than-expected pace, the initial training targets were unrealistic. 

Asked how many fighters were still in Syria, Austin said: “It’s a small number. The ones that are in the fight ... we’re talking four or five.” 

Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine Wormuth told the committee that only 100 to 120 Syrian fighters were in training. 

Wormuth said the Pentagon was considering options that include scaling back the program’s goals to insert small numbers U.S.-trained rebels with larger units in northern Syria. That contrasts with previous goals of creating individual units. 

“We are looking at that option as well as others,” Wormuth told the committee. 

U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the option cited might significantly reduce the size of the program, creating an “enabling” force that could, for example, help call in U.S.-led coalition airstrikes.