The $500 million US effort to train anti-ISIL rebels has yielded “four or five” fighters

Lloyd Austin.
Lloyd Austin.
Image: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
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This post has been updated.

The US military has reportedly spent $500 million to train a local rebel force to counter the Islamic State in Syria, with the Pentagon planning to recruit about 5,000 fighters. Now the top US commander in the Middle East says only “four or five” US- trained Syrian fighters are on the battlefield, casting significant doubt on the US counter-ISIL strategy.

At a hearing in Washington yesterday (Sept. 16), General Lloyd Austin, the head of US Central Command, talked about efforts in both Iraq and Syria (pdf). In Iraq, Austin said, “nearly 13,000 Iraqi soldiers have been trained… and more than 3,000 are currently undergoing training.” In addition: “We also are in the process of assisting with the training and equipping of Sunni tribal fighters. More than 3,100 fighters have successfully completed training; and, 750 additional fighters are scheduled to undergo training in the coming weeks.”

As for the Syrian fighters, however, Austin had only this to offer: “Although the program got off to a slow start, in large part due to the complex nature of the undertaking, we remain confident that it will pay dividends going forward.”

Senator Debra Fischer, a Republican, asked Austin how many active Syrian fighters the US could count right now, given that there were “only about 60 Syrian fighters that had been trained” in July and “we’ve heard reports about attacks on those individuals … Can you tell us what the total number of trained fighters remains?”

“It’s a small number,” Austin admitted. “We’re talking four or five.”

News reports say that many US-trained fighters have been killed or captured by al Nusra, an al Qaeda-linked group that has vowed to hunt down any US-trained Syrian forces.

Pentagon policy chief Christine Wormuth, who was grilled by the committee alongside Austin, said the US is in the process of training an additional 100-120 new Syrian fighters, but the recruiting process was slow because of security screenings. The senators on the committee were not impressed.

“Let’s be real… that’s a joke,” said Republican Kelly Ayotte.

“If we get to the end of the year with us bragging about the difference between a 100 and a 120, it’s time for a new plan,” said Democrat Claire McCaskill.

“We have to acknowledge this is a total failure,” said Republican Jeff Sessions.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified senator Kelly Ayotte as a Democrat. She is a Republican.