The U.S. is Training Just 60 Rebels in Syria, Says Defense Secretary

July 7, 2015
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by Jason M. Breslow Digital Editor

Defense Secretary Ash Carter pauses as he testifies during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 7. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Last June, the White House made the goal of training thousands of rebels in Syria a central part of its strategy to fight ISIS. The Pentagon later said it would take 15,000 fighters, but it is currently training just 60, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told lawmakers on Tuesday.

The progress report, provided by Carter during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, comes 10 months after lawmakers in Congress approved the administration’s plan — a strategy designed to avoid having to send U.S. ground forces into the conflict.

Funding for the strategy — set at $500 million — was not approved until December, but it took an additional five months to set up training sites and to develop a training plan for opposition fighters.

The defense secretary said that approximately 7,000 fighters are waiting to be trained, but that the process has been slowed by “the very rigorous vetting and selection process we have.”

That vetting process, Carter explained, requires a counterintelligence screening for fighters to make sure that they aren’t a threat to their trainers, or that they haven’t had any history of committing atrocities. Still, he acknowledged, the number of rebels currently in training is “not impressive.”

“I expect that number to improve but you deserve to know the truth,” Carter told the Senate panel.

The slow pace of training would appear to leave future training targets in doubt. As FRONTLINE reported in Obama at War, just 90 rebels had taken part in the training as of the end of May. Officials had hoped to train 3,000 moderate fighters by the end of this year, and 5,400 by next May, according to a report in The Hill.

The full 15,000 were meant to be trained within three years, but as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told Carter on Tuesday, “The math doesn’t add up.”

Related Film: Obama at War

Inside the Obama administration’s struggle to deal with ISIS and the civil war in Syria.

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