The U.S. has trained only 60 rebels to fight Islamic State in Syria, falling far behind its goal of building a capable local ground force, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
“This number is much smaller than we hoped for at this point,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing Tuesday, attributing the delay to U.S. screening standards for the Syrian fighters.
President Barack Obama, who has ruled out sending U.S. ground troops into combat in Syria or Iraq, is counting on defeating Islamic State extremists through local forces on the ground, bolstered by U.S. and allied airstrikes.
But the slow pace of rebel training in Syria, as outlined by Pentagon officials Tuesday, underscored the years-long effort required for such a strategy, which is unlikely to be completed before Obama leaves office in January 2017.
“There is no responsible ground force in either Iraq or Syria that is both willing and able to take territory away from ISIL and hold it, and none of our current training efforts of moderate Syrian Sunni tribes or Iraqi security forces are as yet capable of producing such a ground force,” said Senator John McCain of Arizona, the committee’s Republican chairman, using an acronym for Islamic State.
Obama acknowledged the training’s shortcomings after a meeting he held with his military commanders Monday at the Pentagon.
“This aspect of our strategy was moving too slowly,” Obama told reporters. “I made it clear to my team that we will do more to train and equip the moderate opposition in Syria.”
McCain said Obama’s comments “reveal a disturbing degree of self-delusion,” ignoring the need for U.S. or allied troops on the ground to locate targets for airstrikes.
The U.S. had hoped to train 3,000 Syrian rebels by the end of this year, Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy for the coalition against Islamic State, said in May.
“It’s going to take some time, obviously, to get the numbers up where they can really have an effect,” Carter said.
In Iraq, too, training has been slow because of difficulties in finding enough recruits, Carter said.
The U.S. has about 3,550 troops at six locations around Iraq to help train and advise Iraqi forces. With a lack of recruits, the U.S. has trained about 8,800 Iraqi army and Kurdish Peshmerga forces as of June 30, along with about 2,000 counterterrorism personnel, he said.
“I’ve told Iraqi leaders that while the United States is open to supporting Iraq more than we already are, we must see a greater commitment from all parts of the Iraqi government,” Carter said.
While the U.S. and partner nations have conducted more than 5,000 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria over the past year, Islamic State forces have achieved successes, including seizing Ramadi in western Iraq in May despite being outnumbered by Iraqi forces.
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a Republican presidential candidate, said the U.S. will have trouble finding recruits in Syria unless they’re allowed to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in addition to Islamic State in the country’s complex civil war.
“Nobody in the United States will tell them we’re willing to take on Assad militarily,” Graham said of the moderate rebels.
Carter said the U.S. priority remains defeating Islamic State, while calling for Assad to step down.
“You don’t know what’s on the other side of a simple toppling of Assad,” Carter said, in urging a political solution for Syria. “We know what happens when these countries disintegrate.”