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AP Photo/Virginie Nguyen Huang, File
The Free Syrian Army is one of the more moderate rebel groups.

The US is ditching its troubled plan to train Syrian rebels for something even less ambitious

By Hanna Kozlowska

Acknowledging its failure to produce any tangible results on the ground, the Obama administration has ended its $500 million program to train Syrian rebels to fight against Islamic State militants.

The Pentagon said it would focus on aiding existing rebel groups rather than training a new group to fight ISIL. An anonymous official told the New York Times that the US would halt training for rebels in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and instead install a smaller training operation in Turkey for opposition group leaders, where they would be instructed on how to call in airstrikes, for instance. Officials said US president Barack Obama approved of the shift in meetings last week.

Last month, Gen. Lloyd Austin III who is leading the US offensive against ISIL, said during a Senate committee hearing that the massive program yielded only “four or five” fighters, instead of the 5,400 it was intended to train this year, after the program was formally launched in December. The revelation sparked a wave of criticism, but some pointed out that the US–specifically, the CIA–is also conducting a moderately successful rebel-training program. (An arms depot of one of these CIA-trained groups was destroyed by Russian airstrikes this week).

What’s more, for Syria observers, the comments were less surprising considering how troubled the program was from the beginning, starting from its premise: that rebels will focus their attention on ISIL instead of the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

The administration faced increasing pressure from Congress after these revelations, as well as news that American-trained rebels surrendered some of their US-given arms to the Al Nusra front, an Al Qaeda affiliate.