Pentagon to 'refocus' Syria rebel training programme
The Pentagon-run programme to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State extremists is being overhauled, US officials said Friday.
Speaking at a news conference in London, Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said he had been dissatisfied with the effort, which suffered disastrous blows in its early days.
|The work we've done with the Kurds in northern Syria is an example of an effective approach
- Ashton Carter
The $500 million training programme has been beset by a series of embarrassing setbacks.
The first group of trainees largely disbanded soon after they were sent into combat; some were captured or killed, while others fled.
A second class yielded only a small number of new fighters, drawing criticism from US lawmakers who condemned the programme as a joke and a failure.
"We have devised a number of different approaches... going forward," Carter said.
He called it a "more strategic approach" than what the US has been doing from the beginning.
"We have been looking for now several weeks at ways to improve that programme," Carter said. "I wasn't satisfied with the early efforts in that regard."
A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later said the programme was being "refocused to enhance its effectiveness".
The official said some training and embedding of rebels would continue to take place.
Carter said that the work the US has done with the Kurds is a good example of an effective approach with a capable, motivated ground combat force. He did not provide more details.
"The work we've done with the Kurds in northern Syria is an example of an effective approach," Carter said. "That's exactly the kind of example that we would like to pursue with other groups in other parts of Syria going forward."
US officials have said the new effort would focus more on embedding recruits with established Kurdish and Arab units, rather than sending them directly into front-line combat.
Last week, a commander of one of the US-trained rebel units turned over a half-dozen US vehicles to extremist militants.
Instead of fighting IS in small units, the US-trained rebels would be attached to larger existing Kurdish and Arab forces.
They would be equipped with US communications gear and trained to provide intelligence and to designate IS targets for airstrikes in coordination with US troops outside of Syria, the officials said.
Officials have also said the new plan also scales back the number of rebels the US expects to train from the initial 5,400 per year to a much smaller total. It also would streamline the vetting process designed to weed out terrorist infiltrators.