Revamped U.S. Program for Training Syrians to Fight ISIS On the Ground has Trained Less Than 100 So Far

A group the United States calls the Syrian Democratic Forces gather at a firing range during a visit by U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, to northern Syria. (Robert Burns/AP)
A group the United States calls the Syrian Democratic Forces gather at a firing range during a visit by U.S. Gen. Joseph Votel, head of Central Command, to northern Syria. (Robert Burns/AP)

U.S. military officials are considering ways to ramp up training of Syrian fighters against the Islamic State as the Pentagon moves cautiously forward with a revamped program to create an effective local ground force.

Several U.S. officials, speaking to reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing military efforts, described the steps the Pentagon has taken since late last year, when the Obama administration abandoned an earlier Syria training plan. After repeated setbacks to that program, which aimed to create an army of Syrian fighters from scratch, officials settled on a different approach, one that would train only small numbers of leaders or other key personnel from local units who could act as a liaison with U.S. and allied forces attacking the Islamic State from the air.

Since the original program was revised, U.S. military personnel have trained fewer than 100 additional fighters, mostly outside of Syria, officials said. Those trained are specialized fighters whom military officials describe as “spotters” rather than ordinary infantry troops.

“What we’re looking at now is taking out key enabler personnel from certain units, training them and then reinserting them so they can provide information to the coalition to enable us to then target ISIL,” one official said. ISIL is another term for the Islamic State.

The output of the revamped program is only a modest addition to that of the initial plan that, after months of work and millions of dollars, only trained about 200 fighters before it was ended. But officials said the relatively small numbers in the current program is not a reflection of renewed difficulties, but of a more targeted approach that is designed to assist existing units fighting the Islamic State.

“The primary thrust of our counter-ISIL approach in Syria is to partner with and equip these forces that have succeeded in taking away 20 percent of [territory previously held by militants], primarily in northern Syria,” another official said.

Officials pointed to the advances that Kurdish and Arab forces, backed by American air power and, more recently, guidance from U.S. Special Operations troops on the ground, have made in northern Syria in recent months. This week, allied Syrian forces battled militants in Manbij, a key transit town near the Turkish border whose capture has been a U.S. priority.

The Obama administration says local forces have picked up momentum against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. Just this week, Iraqi commanders announced their recapture of Fallujah, which was the first city in Iraq to fall to the Islamic State.

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SOURCE: Missy Ryan 
The Washington Post