Pentagon: Why US has trained only 60 Syrian rebels to fight ISIS

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says that vetting is 'rigorous,' but senators question why the Pentagon has yet to assure rebels that the US will come to their aid if they are attacked by Syria's president.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where he faced questions about President Obama's strategy to defeat Islamic State militants.

During a big appearance this week before lawmakers, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter dropped what was widely described as a bombshell – specifically, that only 60 Syrian rebels had been trained so far under the US plan to recruit them to fight against the Islamic State in their home country.

In reality, the recruitment and training of these so-called “moderate rebel” forces was always expected to be a slow process. Earlier this year, Pentagon officials had predicted that perhaps they could train 200 to 300 at a time, and eventually 5,000 a year, quickly adding even back then that this was an optimistic assessment.

Still, Secretary Carter knew he would take heat for the low figure. “I said the number 60, and I can look out at your faces and you have the same reaction I do – which is that that’s an awfully small number,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday.

Carter added that the number is “much smaller” than the Pentagon had hoped to train by this time. “Why is that number so small?” he added, rhetorically. 

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and chairman of the committee, shared his own theory, which involves the idea that rebels are scared the US will not come to their aid if they are attacked by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“Will we tell them that we will defend them against Bashar Assad’s barrel bombing?” Senator McCain asked Carter, who responded that he thinks “we have an obligation to help them when we equip them.”

McCain wanted to know if the US had told the rebels that it would protect them if they come under attack. 

“We have not told them that yet,” Carter conceded. 

“So you’re recruiting people and not telling them that you’re going to defend them because you haven’t made the decision yet, and yet you want to train them?”

But it is less a matter that the rebels don’t believe America has their back against Mr. Assad. The greater challenge is that the vetting process is rigorous, Carter said.

There is counterintelligence screening. “We make sure that they, for example, aren’t going to pose a green-on-blue threat to their trainers,” he said. This is Pentagon parlance for surprise attacks against US forces by the local troops that they are supposed to be training. There were a spate of these killings in Afghanistan a couple of years ago that caused an uproar among lawmakers who demanded to know what, precisely, the Pentagon was doing to prevent these attacks. Better vetting was one of the solutions lawmakers proposed.

The other goal of the vetting process is to make sure the rebels who will be receiving US aid and arms “don’t have any history of atrocities.” And, finally, that “they’re willing to engage in the campaign in a way that’s compliant with the law of armed conflict.” In other words, that they have not committed atrocities in the past and that they aren’t likely to do so in the future, either. 

That’s why the small number, “which is not impressive,” Carter concluded. The US general in charge of the training effort has told his higher-ups at the Pentagon that he has 7,000 more moderate fighters in the pipeline. 

That said, he conceded, “It’s going to take some time, obviously, to get the numbers up to the point where they can really have an effect.” 

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